The Wine-Dark Sea (1993) is the sixteenth volume in the Aubrey/Maturin series, and became Patrick O'Brian's first bestseller in the United States. Again the novel features the pair of Captain Aubrey and his sea-surgeon Stephen Maturin and their vessel of many years, the Surprise. The novel's title is the English translation of a line from Homer.
Maturin recognises Dutourd from earlier days in the high society salons of Paris, and takes pains to hide his identity from the Frenchman. Aubrey, meanwhile, finds that not only does Dutourd not know the basic courtesies of life at sea, but does not have a letter of marque permitting him to operate the Franklin as a privateer. The Franklin having taken several British ships as prizes, Dutourd's legal status is that of a pirate, liable to be hanged.
An American whaler is taken by the Surprise and the Franklin, and a British sailor on the whaler tells Aubrey of a French ship — the Alastor — turned a true pirate, unlike the Franklin, flying the black flag and demanding immediate surrender or death of its victims. The Franklin encounters the Alastor first and is outmatched, but the Surprise overcomes the pirates, with Aubrey receiving severe wounds to his eye from wadding and his thigh from a pike thrust.
The story now turns to Maturin's secret mission to Peru. He is put ashore to incite revolution against the Spanish colonial government and makes valuable contact among local military and government officials sympathetic to Peruvian independence. He is also aided by Aubrey's illegitimate son, Sam Panda, a prominent official in the Catholic Church and close to becoming a prelate. Stephen also meets Dr Geary from the Three Graces and is able to secure a passage home for Mr Martin who has been severely laid low by what he presumed was the Sydney pox, but in fact which turned out to be simply bad salt sores.
His task as an intelligence agent is suddenly made harder owing to Dutourd's escape and arrival in Callao (aided by the Surprise's Knipperdolling crewmembers). He raises a hue and cry, denouncing Maturin on the eve of the carefully engineered revolution, as an English spy. Aubrey, meanwhile, sails in a small boat with a few crewmen from the Franklin to San Lorenzo to warn Maturin of Dutourd's escape. After many days of hard sailing against the wind in appalling weather conditions, they finally reach the harbour and are taken on board the Surprise by Captain Pullings. Once he has recovered, he receives a welcome visit from his illegitimate son and Sam updates him on the local political situation.
Stephen, after a secret meeting with Gayongos, a wealthy merchant and revolutionary sympathiser, has departed on an ass into the mountains, to meet with the Vicar-General, Father O'Higgins, and to view the mountainous flora and fauna accompanied by Eduardo, his highly knowledgeable and amicable Peruvian Indian guide. The doctor sees numerous condors, flowering bromeliads, guanacos and vicuna. After leaving a Capuchin monastery, Eduardo receives a message that the revolution has failed due to Dutourd's premature exposure and Maturin has to flee for his life. Trekking over the Andes mountains, Maturin and Eduardo are caught in a viento blanco and Stephen has to amputate two of his own frostbitten toes with a chisel - but being the indefatigable naturalist that he is, he is able to collect a considerable number of plant and animal specimens.
Having eventually made his way from Lima to Arica, and then taken ship from Valparaiso, Aubrey eventually picks Maturin up in Chile. Stephen informs him of three American China ships sailing from Boston. The Surprise sails to intercept them off Cape Horn but, as she prepares to engage them, is herself fired upon by a thirty-eight gun US frigate. After avoiding an ice island, the Surprise is chased until her pursuer sails down a lane in the ice field that is a dead-end. The Surprise escapes but then loses her main mast and rudder after being struck by lightning. Jury-rigged, her crew spot a ship hull-down on the horizon and fear that it is the more powerful American frigate back in pursuit. However, the ship turns out to be the Berenice, a sixty-four-gun man-of-war commanded by Aubrey's old friend Heneage Dundas, accompanied by an American clipper. Dundas provisions them with spars, cordage, storage and a Pakenham substitute rudder (and the much-needed pepper that Maturin needs to preserve his specimens from the moth) and the Surprises are homeward bound.
"They're funny, they're exciting, they're informative. . . there are legions of us who gladly ship out time and time again under Captain Aubrey." —The New Yorker
"Addictively readable." —Chicago Tribune