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Authors: David Donachie

The Perils of Command

BOOK: The Perils of Command
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The Perils of Command

DAVID DONACHIE

To Martin Cartwright for his generosity and his company, both remarkable

Lieutenant John Pearce was luxuriating in the captain’s cabin of HMS
Flirt
, albeit his tenure would be brief. The official occupant, Henry Digby, master and commander, was aboard one of the recently taken French merchantmen, in a convalescent state following the receipt of a bad wound in the recent action in the Gulf of Ambracia.

In a bout of despondency Digby had overexposed himself so his second in command, when he visited him, reckoned that if the man attending his superior had to look to corporeal repair, he had to work on the man’s damaged spirit.

Pearce had good reason to be pleased with himself regardless of the sudden and temporary increase of space in which to work. The twin prizes the warship was now escorting represented a great deal of money, much needed to pursue his own private and legal affairs. With the sun well over its peak and with the brig sailing easy, he was in contemplation of that when the ship’s master asked to be allowed to enter.

‘Winds getting up, Mr Pearce, and I have in my mind that the sky does not seem as friendly this last hour.’

Matthew Dorling was young for his post but he was ten times the sailor of his titular superior. At sea since he was a nipper, Dorling had risen to the position of master by dint of hard work and application added to natural ability. He had also, in his years afloat, been exposed to observations on the weather both personally taken and related by older practitioners.

This constituted a body of knowledge and folklore that told him much about climate patterns, cloud formations and tidal flows that to an experienced sailing master were as plain as words on the page to a reading man and still something of a mystery to a man who had come by his rank in a sudden and unusual way.

It was not to question his judgement that John Pearce joined Dorling on deck, but to extend his own understanding. The master requested he harken to the singing of the wind in the rigging and note the slow but steady increase in the level of noise. Not that it was needed; the strengthening breeze could be felt on the skin and it was oddly warm in what was a Mediterranean midwinter. Next he was asked to examine the sky to the south-west, its present direction. That was looking what Dorling called ‘very brassy’.

‘I reckon there’s a tempest behind that, of the kind thrown up by the desert.’

‘Would I be intruding, sir?’

The question was posed by the marine lieutenant, Edward Grey, who had appeared behind the pair. Pearce turned to see a respectfully lifted hat and smiled; they were relatively new in acquaintance but he had come to respect Grey as a doughty fighter, amply proven in the recent action. In doing so he also observed that there were quite a few hands on
deck looking towards the stern and it was clear they too were curious.

In the fighting line Pearce hoped they respected him and likewise Grey; when it came to surviving what the elements could throw at them, and at sea that could be anything and sudden, such faith would not apply. In those circumstances Dorling was their man.

‘If it comes upon us and is as bad as I fear it will do so in darkness. I would wish to prepare for it while we can still see what we are about.’

‘Sensible, Mr Dorling.’

‘Happen it will pass us with no ill effects, mind.’

‘I hope you know that when it comes to such matters you will scarce get an argument from me.’

That brought forth a jaundiced look from the brig’s master, quickly masked. There had been more than one occasion since the pair had sailed from the Hampshire anchorage at Buckler’s Hard when John Pearce had done precisely that and with perilous consequence.

‘Are we expecting a hurricane?’ Grey asked, softly.

‘Taking precautions, Mr Grey, that’s all,’ was Dorling’s reply. ‘Mr Pearce, I have a mind to take us close to our two captures so you can have a word with the crews, given you are competent at their lingo. I will tell my master’s mates what I want but it would be best if the men they must order about know what is required and are willing.’

It was not just the whistling rigging that indicated something troubling in the offing. Imperceptibly but noticeably the deck beneath their feet had canted slightly more from the pressure of wind on canvas and there was a discernible increase in the swell.

The sun, which had been sinking and would always finally do so in these waters as a red orb, was that colour already, which meant a higher level of dust in the air than normal, while the Southern Adriatic, across which they were sailing, was as prone as all other areas of the Western Mediterranean to sudden squalls and tempests.

Trapped between the southern deserts of North Africa and the massive mountain ranges to the north, sudden gales could come from any quarter, even Pearce knew that much. Given agreement Dorling quietly ordered the helmsman to alter course, first to close with
L’Elize
. Once alongside, Pearce, through a speaking trumpet, warned the French crew to prepare for the very worst, adding a reminder that they owed their very lives to the men aboard
Flirt
.

‘What was the nature of that last request?’ asked Grey. ‘I heard you mention Mr Digby?’

‘I asked that he be lashed in his cot and that made secure. The last thing he could survive is being cast out onto a hard deck. Also, that the man tending him stays by his side.’

Dorling was now instructing his master’s mate, who had charge of the skeleton prize crew, to get rigged storm canvas, batten down the hatches and clear the decks of anything loose. As soon as he had done so the brig changed course once more to issue the same set of commands to the second merchantman,
Jeune Eugene
.

Matters were well in hand aboard
Flirt
, topgallants already struck down and the topmen bending on heavier canvas both aloft and on the bowsprit. Extra preventer stays were being rigged to the masts while the gunner, Sam Kempshall, was checking that his cannon were well lashed to the bulwarks, the round black balls in their plaited rings
removed to be stored in the bowels of the ship.

These things happened naturally, almost without spoken orders. Pearce knew that below, men would be securing barrels with wedges and extra ropes, others adding straw to the manger to protect the livestock, bound to be tossed about on such a small vessel. It was ever thus on a well-run ship and HMS
Flirt
was such a vessel.

The crew were, almost to a man, volunteers and, despite some disagreements on the way from Corsica to the Gulf of Ambracia that had hinted at disharmony, John Pearce and Henry Digby had never allowed themselves to ignore the kind of duty that made such efficiency possible.

In the cabins – apart from the main, they were no more than cubicles screened off by canvas – the servants were likewise making safe their masters’ possessions. A ship at sea was always a dangerous place but in severe weather anything loose could be deadly, so the work was carried out with care. A flying object was not choosy of the rank of its victim.

The wind was strong now and increasing; the final act for John Pearce, and he needed no advice from anyone about this, was to change the heading of the whole trio of ships. He reckoned he had plenty of sea room and that would allow him to run before the storm to mitigate some of its force. It would take him away from his intended destination but that mattered not at all since time was of little consequence.

The wall of water ran just ahead of the sun sinking into the western horizon, black and like some kind of celestial screen until any light was suddenly extinguished. It hit the deck to the sound of hard drumming to then disappear as strong jets through the scuttles. The hatches were shut and would remain so unless the sails needed to be adjusted, the
only folk on deck being those who were needed to steer and a pair of steady hands in the chains with logs that would be continuously cast to try and calculate their speed.

Three men were on the wheel, one of them Dorling and including, for his strength, Pearce’s friend and so-called servant Michael O’Hagan. The man in command, clad like the others in oilskins and a foul-weather hat, stood behind them swaying with easy grace on alternately giving knees, but that could not last.

When the full force of the wind hit the stern it would be time for that old and wise saw, ‘One hand for the boat,’ and in this case often two. The seamen in the chains were lashed off to avoid being cast overboard: danger would arise when it came to changing them; it was too exposed a position to be occupied for longer than a half a watch by the same souls.

Edward Grey had put two of his marines to guard the spirit room, with muskets and bayonets. Pearce was unsure if that was wise, given it sent out a message of distrust. Yet it was true that if a tempest evoked fear in those who could see and feel its strength, the effect was ten times worse for those confined below. Naval folklore abounded with tales of men made desperate by fear of drowning being determined to die in a state of total inebriation.

There was no quiet talking now, only shouts could carry. The waters around them boiled in that way particular to an inland sea, bringing high waves but with little trough between them, which presented much danger as the stern of the ship would have just ridden one before a second came thudding in to make holding a steady course close to impossible.

The brig, lifted and with its rudder exposed, would yaw and it took every hand on the wheel to steady the ship when
it was once more submerged. In this, timing was crucial, it being doubly risky to overreact and swing a rudder while there was no force of water for it to act upon.

Given their stern lanterns were invisible, no one on deck knew how their sister vessels were faring. In theory, deeply laden merchantmen, larger by far than HMS
Flirt
, should handle such weather with greater ease. John Pearce could not avoid the thought that theory be damned; it depended on competence added to luck whether a ship survived. In such a sea a fluke combination of waves and wind could confound the most proficient helmsman.

Nor was the wind steady; it was gusting, which made the occasional diminution as equally treacherous as its full force as stretched canvas ceased to billow, that putting extra strain on the creaking masts. Not that it ever fully eased, but such a fluctuating gale put much stress on the falls holding in place the yards, causing them to tighten and loosen in a manner that could cause a break.

The moment when that fear became manifest was one to savour and take pride in, but only in retrospect. The line that snapped snaked across the deck and would have cut in half any human flesh it encountered so great was the force. The wind continued to act upon it to create a whip even when it lost its main threat, so it posed a continuing hazard.

The mainsail yard and the well-reefed sail upon it, released, began to swing one way then another so the way on the ship was now solely maintained by the straining jib sail. Added to this was the pressure of the waves, and since they were coming in at angles, the danger was close to mortal. It was John Pearce who went forward, driven along by the wind,
holding on for dear life to the manropes rigged earlier, to call all hands on deck.

The men that rushed up from below walked into a near blinding downpour but that did nothing to impede what years of imbibed knowledge told them was necessary. The loose fall was taken in strong hands and bare feet were jammed into the soaking deck to hold steady the mainsail yard, this while their mates contrived a secure knot that would repair the break. That complete, the yard was once more hauled square and lashed off to a cleat.

John Pearce had witnessed this kind of behaviour before, but it never ceased to amaze him how well a British tar behaved in such circumstances, though he would be the first to concede that such skills were commonplace in men who made their living on the sea from whatever nation they came.

In calmer recollection it served to also remind him that his own skills, at least when it came to knots, were as good as those he commanded, albeit they were rusty given it seemed an interminable time since he had sailed before the mast as a pressed seaman and had received instruction in the art.

The night was long in these waters, a full fourteen hours and exhausting. The helmsmen could be changed but both captain and master must stay on deck and there was no relief until the light of day began to penetrate the thick overhead cloud, still dark and forbidding. Throughout the night the bells had been rung to tell all of the time and Dorling had dragged himself along the deck on the man ropes to enquire from those casting the logs what speed they were making, that marked on the slate below the binnacle.

Occasionally he would disappear into the tiny cubicle
that contained his charts to make some calculations. In full daylight, and with a weary but worried face, he pressed his lips to John Pearce’s ear to inform him that all that sea room they had enjoyed was fast diminishing. The gale was driving them towards the string of islands that dotted the coast of Dalmatia, while those same islands were surrounded by rocky shoals that would be near impossible to steer away from even if they could be spotted in time.

‘You think it best to come about?’

‘There’s a rate of guesswork in my calculations.’

‘But!’ Pearce barked; this was no time for prevarication.

‘Not at this moment, but if this is still gusting by the time we ring the first bells in the afternoon watch, then I reckon it to be necessary.’

The next voice in Pearce’s ear was that of Michael O’Hagan, back on deck for his third stint at the wheel, who took the liberty of addressing the man he served in the familiar manner normally reserved for private conversation.

‘How are we faring, John-boy?’

Pearce answered through salt-caked lips, while the Irishman’s height required that he duck to make hearing possible. ‘I daresay you have been praying for salvation?’

‘Sure since I first put my hand on the wheel and spoke many an hour past.’

‘Well don’t give up on it.’

‘Saints be praised,’ came a mocking response, ‘you’ve seen the light.’

BOOK: The Perils of Command
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