At the beginning of October 1813, Phoebe, a thirty-six-gun frigate under the command of James Hillyar, arrived at the mouth of the Tumbes River, near the border of present-day Peru and Ecuador. Phoebe was a well-travelled ship: she had relayed Nelson's signals at Trafalgar, assisted with the invasion of Java, and, most recently, chased down three American privateers in the Atlantic. Her present mission was to find a much more dangerous foe, the thirty-six-gun American frigate Essex, currently preying on British whaling vessels in the Pacific. Three of Essex's sister ships had recently scored impressive victories over smaller British ships. In August 1812, Constitution had captured Guerriere; in October, United States captured Macedonian; and in December, Constitution recorded a second victory, this time over Java. Essex herself had got in on the action, capturing the sloop Alert in the first naval action of the war. A year later, as Phoebe approached the anchorage, the situation had shifted substantially back in Britain's favour: the blockade of the American coamst had successfully bottled up most of the larger American frigates. But Essex was still at large and certainly dangerous. Thousands of miles from the nearest British base, Hillyar needed to proceed with caution.
Phoebe had arrived at the Tumbes River anchorage on 3 October and was undergoing a much-needed refit. Her crew were employed re-setting the rigging and ferrying fresh water, meat and vegetables from shore to ship. By 9 October, the refit was nearly complete, and Captain Hillyar sent the ship's purser, John Surflen, ashore to settle the ship's accounts. Surflen had had a busy week: it was his job to account for all the ship's supplies. He filled his pockets with silver dollars from his chest and joined Lieutenant Jago and a few crewmen in the waiting boat. Neither Jago nor Surflen made it to shore. Even though Phoebe's officers and men had spent nearly a week learning how to deal with the tricky sandbar at the river's mouth, the boat capsized in the surf. Hillyar immediately sent boats to attempt a rescue, but Jago, Surflen, and able seaman Joseph Findley all drowned. Surflen was particularly unlucky: as Hillyar later explained to his widow, the weight of the silver dollars in his pockets dragged him under the water.