Monday, July 13, 2009

Chapter 8 : Storm at the End of the World

In spite of gloomy predictions, the fair weather held and they left Finistère behind. They traveled south through the Bay of Biscay without complications. The swells were immense. They had had the entire width of the Atlantic Ocean to build into mighty rhythmic heavings like the regular respiration of a giant's chest. The masts described corkscrews as the frigate mounted the waves. First, as the bow rose up on the swell, she tilted to the larboard. Anything loose rolled aft and then to port. As the wave passed under the midships, she righted herself, then her stern lifted and her bow plunged down the other side, her masts leaning to the starboard. Everything aft rolled forward. When the next wave came on she righted herself and began the climb again, repeating the cycle endlessly.

Perry and Forsythe were seasick again, Forsythe very much so. Thorton and Maynard were not. Perry found his sea legs pretty soon, but Forsythe continued to be miserable. As they sped on the wind shifted to the northeast and they ran free and fast before it. The motion became more violent as the winds were at cross purposes to the waves. Spume flew up and the foredeck was wet and slippery. Sometimes spray burst over the waist and speckled the weather deck with fat cold droplets. Dark clouds piled up in the north.

"Storm-breeders," Thorton told Maynard as they stood watch on the poop. "Go tell Captain Bishop." 

Maynard dreaded the captain but went below and delivered the message. 

Bishop came up. "In topgallants. Stow the flying jib and set the small jib. Stow the main and mizzen topgallant staysails. Take in the spritsail." He watched a while, then gave further orders. "Two reefs in the topsails and mizzen. In middle staysail and mizzen topmast staysail.

"Aye aye, sir." 

The orders were given and the men swarmed aloft to neatly bundle up the sails. The pressed men had learned that much at least. They'd feel the sting of the starter if they didn't. Satisfied, Bishop went below. The Ajax scudded along merrily and Thorton enjoyed the ride. Privately he thought it was early to be reducing sail. They had been making spanking good time and the seas were merely confused, not truly rough. To his mind at least. The landsmen were puking in the scuppers. 

Over the next half hour the corkscrew motion grew more violent, punctured at intervals with sudden slaps and shudders as the waves worked themselves into white horses that galloped across the seas. The jarring drops and sudden whooshes added to the motion. Thorton kept looking over his shoulder to watch the storm chasing them. He thought it might pass mostly north of them. As he watched, lightning started dropping from the clouds and he counted seconds to time it. 

"Three miles off. Go tell Bishop." So Maynard ran down again.

Bishop came up and gave more orders. "Goosewing the main and fore topsails. Take in the mizzen sail. Set the storm staysails. You'll be wanting your oilskin shortly, Mr. Thorton. Send the hands to dinner, then extinguish the galley fires." 

"Thank you, sir. Mr. Maynard! Pass the word, early dinner, then lights out. Men to don foul weather gear. Run life lines. Bring me my oilskin and sou'wester when you come back and be wearing yours." 

"Aye aye, sir. Thank you, sir." Maynard ran down.

"Call me if anything changes," Bishop said. He went below.

"Aye aye, sir." 

Things had been going more smoothly of late. Apparently the difficulties of the early days were the usual shaking down-the-new-hands and learning-the-ship kind of difficulties. Thorton was feeling better about his service and enjoying his Arabic lessons. Achmed was voluble in relating the tales of the corsairs and explaining the intricacies of Muslim politics, at least in the broad outline that was public knowledge. Thorton was convinced that Achmed would not be lavishing this education on him unless he thought it would be useful, and it would only be useful if they were to brave the Spanish coast and carry him all the way to Sallee. He was looking forward to it. He'd been to France, to Spain, the Azores, and the Antilles, and he'd been born in the Maryland colony, but he'd never been to Africa. 

The wind freshened and the first sting of rain hit his cheek. Maynard wasn't back. Ah well, he soon would be. The rain started down in torrents. He checked his watch, checked the sandglass, checked the binnacle. Only an hour more on his watch. Perry was after him. Poor Perry. He was going to get poured on. Thorton let his legs flex like springs as the angle and level of the deck constantly changed. Meanwhile the ship scudded along under just her mizzen and storm sails. 

MacDonald came up. He was wearing his oilskin. "Begging your pardon sir, but you remember that hole we got at Cherbourg? It opened again." 

Thorton swore. "Inform the captain. If you see Mr. Maynard, tell him to hurry up."

"Aye aye, sir." 

Maynard appeared a minute later, but Thorton was shivering and soaked to the skin as the sky opened. He donned his oilskin about one minute too late. He exchanged the tricorn for the sou'wester. "Thank you, and put my hat in my cabin!" He handed off the wet hat. Maynard ran down.

MacDonald returned. He was looking disgruntled. He went up to Thorton and knuckled his forehead. "I told 'im, sir, but he just barked at me to fix it. He was eating his dinner, sir."

"Well then, you'd better hop to it. The weather is getting worse. Run the pumps."

"Aye aye, sir."

The captain had told him to send word when anything changed, and it had changed. It was wrong of him to snap at MacDonald for delivering the message he had asked for. Thorton thought hard things about a captain that would sit for his dinner after being told there was a leak in his ship. It wasn't a very serious leak, but getting knocked about by the seas could cause the whole seam to split and then they'd be in serious trouble. Perry was going to have an interesting watch.

The wind moaned in the rigging and lightning cracked closer at hand. 

"A sail, a sail!"

The lookout couldn't be heard on the quarterdeck, but the call was carried from man to man. Thorton pulled out the glass and tried to spy what the lookout had seen, but could hardly make it out. Well, in this weather there wouldn't be speaking or battle.

"Where and what?" he called to the lookout.

"Fine on the starboard bow at extreme distance. Lateen sail, two masts."

"Mr. Maynard, go tell the captain."

"Aye aye, sir." 

Maynard was soon back. "He snarled that he would be up when he finished his dinner and to quit crying to him over every little thing, sir."

Thorton rolled his eyes. "Very well, Mr. Maynard. Stand by." He used the glass again. What vessel was it? He wasn't sure. "Mr. Maynard, go to Mr. Achmed and ask him what sort of two-masted lateen rigged vessel we might encounter in these waters." Thorton climbed to the top and had a look himself. Fixing the image in mind, he climbed down again.

Maynard came back with Achmed and a crockery mug full of a steaming brown beverage. That is to say, Achmed had the mug, plus an oiled robe with a hood over his turban and clothes. They met Thorton on the aft deck and took shelter by the windward stair.

Achmed looked out to try and see what the English saw. His eyes weren't as good. "Are her masts well-forward, or spaced evenly?"


"Are the masts stubby or tall?"

"She's longer on deck than her masts are tall."

"Striped sails or plain?"


"I think you've got a galley then. If it was a lateen barque her masts would be evenly spaced. If she were taller, she'd be a xebec. Could be Spanish, French, or corsair. The corsairs rarely run past Eel Buff these days and the French are still in port. I'll wager its Spanish." 

"Thank you, Mr. Achmed." 

Just then Captain Bishop came out of the coach. When he saw Thorton on the weather deck instead of the quarterdeck, he roared, "Mr. Thorton! Why aren't you at your post? This is an intolerable lapse of discipline and in the face of a gale, too! You'll be caned for this!"

"I was returning from the top, sir!"

Achmed had been a corsair before he had been a diplomat. He was a Sallee man still. Every nerve urged him to give chase. "A Spanish galley, captain!" he interjected.

"Nobody asked you, sirrah! Get to your cabin!" 

Achmed's eyes widened at the insult. He took a moment to master himself.

"Captain! Mr. Achmed is an expert on lateen craft, sir!" Thorton protested.

Bishop glared at Thorton. "That is no excuse for you to be skylarking when you are on watch!" 

Achmed was already slipping around the captain to turn into his cabin. This was not his ship, not his problem. Maynard was eavesdropping nearby. Achmed paused and handed his hot mug to Maynard. "Give this to Thorton when you can. He's going to need it." 

Maynard looked down wonderingly into the mug. "What is it, sir?"


Maynard had no idea what that was. The English empire ran on tea. "Aye aye, sir."

Achmed buried himself in his cabin before he had to witness the rest of Bishop's tantrum. Thorton stood woodenly as Bishop chewed him out. Barely a week since his last caning. He sighed silently. He made no response to Bishop's ranting. Finally Bishop turned to study the lateen sail that was slowly growing as it made way towards them. "Looks like a galley." He held the glass to his eye and studied it further. As he did, water poured across the deck from the pumps. 

"Who ordered the pumps!" Bishop whirled to face Thorton.

"I did, sir. I wanted to get ahead of the water," the lieutenant replied without expression.

"I didn't order pumps! I told you to notify me the moment anything changed! You are defiant, Mr. Thorton! Insubordinate! Subversive!"

Maynard was still holding the mug of coffee but it made him mad to see Bishop rail at Thorton like that. "You said you weren't to be disturbed for little things, sir!" His boyish voice cracked as it piped high and clear against the wind.

"Pumps are not a little thing, Mr. Maynard!"

Thorton was getting angry in spite of himself. "The pumps are no more important than the leak you wouldn't leave your dinner for. SIR!" 

Bishop was beside himself. "You are relieved, lieutenant! Go to your cabin and stay there. Send Mr. Perry!"

"Aye aye, sir. You have the conn, sir." Thorton went down the companionway.

He slammed the door as he entered the little cabin he shared with Perry. He announced, "I've been sent below for the crime of running the pumps because we've sprung a leak. Bishop is calling for you."

Perry jumped at the violent entrance. "By God's left ear. What is it now? I'm not due for an hour." He grumbled but opened his seachest to fetch out his oilskin.

"There's a galley out there too. Achmed knows what it is, but Bishop won't let him talk. I'm going to see if I can get any more information out of him. I'll pass word if I do."

"Don't let Bishop see you."

"Could you knock up Mr. Achmed and ask him to see me then?"

"Aye. I'll have a word with him myself."

A few minutes later Achmed presented himself at Thorton's door. He was smiling pleasantly. "How may I help you?" Belowdecks the noise of the gale was not so loud, but he still had to raise his voice to be heard over the creaking of the timbers and the rushing of the water past the hull.

"I was wondering, sir, if you could tell me how to tell the different kinds of galleys apart."

"If a Sallee rover or other corsair, they'll only have shrouds on one side. The Spanish and French have them on both. They can't sail as close to the wind as the rovers because of it. The Spanish build an arrumbada above their foredeck. That's a sort of platform or castle. The corsairs don't. The Spanish and French like a ducktail lazyboard, but the corsairs and the older Spanish galleys have a pintail. There are other details, but by the time you're close enough to see, they'll either be shooting at you or speaking to you."

"Thank you, sir."

"Glad to be of service." He remained in the wardroom to observe what Thorton did next.

Thorton went to the foot of the companionway and shouted up to the idlers taking shelter in the coach, "Pass the word for Mr. Maynard!" A minute later Midshipman Maynard stuck his head down the ladder. "Go tell tell Mr. Perry . . . ." Thorton repeated what he had just learned about lateen-rigged vessels.

Maynard repeated it and disappeared. Thorton returned to his own door and lingered there. "Didn't the Spanish mothball their galley fleet years ago?" he asked. 

Achmed replied, "So they did. But in times of war all available vessels are put into service. They make excellent amphibious assault craft, you know. I put my galley on many a ferenghi beach when I was a young man." 

Meanwhile Maynard got Perry's attention and relayed the message. Captain Bishop was busy screaming at the hands to reef all sail and pump harder.

Perry put the glass to his eye and studied. "Shrouds on both sides. Not a corsair then." He watched as the antennas were lowered. Turning to Captain Bishop he raised his voice to be heard over the wind, "The galley has sent down her yards, sir." 

For a shallow craft like a galley the great weight aloft of her antennas and sails was dangerous in foul weather. Then again, almost any kind of weather was dangerous for a galley. Basically they were very large canoes. The galley buried her bowsprit in a wave and it broke over her foredeck, flooding the arrumbada, and washing into the benches. She labored to right herself, water pouring from her scuppers, only to be pooped by a rising sea. Her lantern swung crazily. She carried no lights, not in this weather. Perry took a dim view of anything that didn't have the apple-cheeked bow of an English ship. The Ajax herself shipped more water than he wanted, although nothing like a galley.

England was at war with neither France or Spain. Bishop gave orders. "Make a signal: Ajax to galley, 'Query.'"

Certain signals were international in nature, such as those of identification and requests for aid. They watched and waited. 

After a bit the galley ran up a signal, "Help."

Caught far out from shore, the galley could not run into a safe shelter and must weather the storm or founder. In these heavy seas, she was foundering. Bishop was a cautious man and not inclined to show a stitch of canvas in this weather, but he couldn't very well let the galley go down without making a token effort at rescue.

"Give me the main top close-reefed, Mr. Perry."
Perry passed the word. Hands swarmed up the ratlines and pulled the earrings down on the main topsail. A single reef was let out. The Ajax increased her speed a trifle.

"Make a signal: Ajax to galley, 'Take station on my lee, two cables.'"

The galley continued closing. The sea boarded her again and again in spite of her slaves straining at the oars. Perry hazarded a suggestion, "I think we could make a little more sail, sir."

"I will not endanger my ship to save another!" Bishop snapped.

"Of course not, sir. But we're holding well. Maybe let out another reef, sir?"

"Don't tell me what to do, young man! I was at sea while you were still sucking your mother's pap!"

"Aye aye, sir." It sat ill with Perry to watch the galley struggle for her life when he had the power to save her. Or at least make a manful attempt. 

Bishop swept her with the glass again. "Spanish, I think. Her officers are in blue with red breeches."

The galley was being pushed to leeward. Being such a shallow vessel, the blowing winds pushed her across the surface of the water, like a skater on ice. The harder it blew, the more she slid, the oars not withstanding. Perry saw that she was being blown far to leeward, too far to be able to take up the two cables length distance on her own. The Ajax would have to come around.

Bishop saw it, too. "Prepare to wear ship!" 

All required hands took their places. She would have to make a U-turn to starboard to come up along side the galley. The galley was trying to turn her head into waves and the sea was pushing her backwards, towards the frigate. Perry saw how with her sails down, she was governed more by the motion of the waves than the wind, whereas the frigate, presenting so more surface to the wind, was governed more by the wind than the waves. The waves would push the galley towards them and the wind would blow them towards the galley. The galley captain had made use of that. He hoped Bishop saw it.

But he didn't. He made a wide U turn and came up on the galley's lee instead of the other way around. A scrap of Spanish invective came across the water to them, born by the wind, then snatched away. Bishop started cursing the damn Spanish for not doing as they were told. They were close enough that had the wind permitted, they could have shouted across to each other. The galley's lee rail was swamped and her marines were pumping like mad. The galleyslaves were doused to their waists and higher as she heeled. Meanwhile, with the vessel on the wrong side, the wind was blowing the Ajax to the west and the waves were pushing the galley to the east, widening the distance between them.

Bishop yelled at Perry, "Get Thorton up here. Tell him to tell the damn Spanish to hold their position, we'll come around again."

The word was passed and Thorton came running up. He shouted Spanish through the speaking trumpet but the wind carried his words away. The two vessels were drifting farther apart. The galley was backing oars to try and hold position. 

Perry said, "Let's just come around and make a figure S to wind up on the windward and pointing the right way!"

Bishop swore. "I am in command, I give the orders!"

Perry shouted into the wind, "What are your orders, sir?"

"Tell the galley to come around and we will, too."

For the galley to try and turn one hundred and eighty degrees in these seas would be suicide. She was much too narrow and shallow to have purchase against the broaching waves. 

"She'll be rolled, sir!" Perry shouted. "Let her hold while we maneuver!" Suddenly he knew how to persuade Bishop. "We are the more seaworthy craft, sir! We can maneuver better! We're the superior vessel! We are better seamen than they are!"

An appeal to Bishop's vanity was always in order. "Drop back, let her go ahead, then tack across her stern and come up along her starboard side!"

Box-hauling a square-rigger in a gale could go horribly wrong, but if properly executed, would work. "Prepare to tack!" Perry roared.

Thorton was astonished that Bishop was even willing to try it. 'Bold' was not a word that generally appeared in descriptions of the Ajax's current captain. Thorton raised the speaking horn. "Hold your position!" he shouted in Spanish. Whether they heard or not he didn't know, but they were holding position anyhow. They knew the folly of turning broadside to sea and wind.

1 comment:

  1. "...the frigate, presenting so (much) more surface..."
    missing word. Ripping yarn. Back to reading.