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Shelmerston is a small port located in South Devon,somewhere in the Torbay area. Jack Aubrey bases Surprise there after she has been sold to Stephen Maturin to be operated as a privateer. Shelmerston has good anchorage, probably in an estuary with a bar that can only be crossed safely at high tide. The residents are mainly smugglers and excellent seamen. There are also a high proportion who belong to unusual nonconformist sects such as the Sethians and Knipperdollings. Surprise's success as a privateer brings considerable wealth to the community.

Nikolai Tolstoy, O'Brian's wife's son and biographer, suggests that Shelmerston is based on the North Devon port of Appledore where Mary O'Brian's parents lived.

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