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Saturday, 16 November 2019

Memories of an Old French Sea Dog - When the Fog Lifts

Memories of an Old French Sea Dog (Souvenirs d'un vieux chien de mer fran├žais)

We had been sailing hard for four days and nights, beating against contrary winds from the Straights of Messina to The Balearic Islands via the very windy Straight of Bonifacio between Corsica and Sardinia. We nearly lost our foremast there due to a misunderstood order on the fore deck. Five of the foredeck crew were put in irons for that but everyone on the ship knew it was the Captains fault. He’d been drinking more than ever and the situation on the ship was getting worse, I believed at the time that he would fall (or be pushed) over the side before too long.

We sit here in this cosy bar, in front of a roaring log fire and you see an old man, but back then I was Jean Vagabond 1st Lt on the French Navy’s ship Hermione, a beautiful Concorde Class Frigate and should the Captain fall (or be pushed) overboard or just drink himself to death, I would have to take command and try to get the officers and crew to operate as one, if not we would all perish in our next action against the enemy.

We were chasing a British Navy ship, HMS Unite, she was the same class as us, one of our ships taken by the British in ‘93 I think it was and we might as well have been sailing in convoy, we sailed at the same speed and as close to the wind as each other, neither of us could break the invisible chain that joined the two ships.

HMS Unite was carrying a passenger who had vital information for the British and we needed to stop him reaching the port of Mahon, on the island of Menorca, how we would achieve that I did not know, until the night of the 18th June.

I can remember it like it was only yesterday, thick fog has enveloped us, the wind has died and we are making slow progress, the Captain is in his cabin, drinking. I came on watch at 04:00 and 2 hours later the fog was lifting and daylight was lighting up the eastern sky, when there was a shout from the Main Top Lookout, “ship on the starboard bow”. Call the Captain I shouted at the nearest crewman, it must be Unite, and I ran up the ratlines, yes I could run up the ratlines in those days, when I was a young man. Don’t think I’ve always been this fellow with grey whiskers that you see today, propping up the bar in this old tavern.

We were closer to the island than the Captain had calculated, and in the distance I could see the north cape of Menorca, I can’t remember its name now, but I do remember thinking that the Unite had missed her landing, Mahon was south of us.
Cap de Cavalleria that was it, you see my memory is not so bad, there was Fornells to the south, I could see the entrance to the Cala off our larboard quarter. Unite had made landfall 15 miles further north than she should have, but so had we, this was a good thing or we would have run straight into the east coast of Menorca before we even saw it and my life would have been very different as a ship wrecked mariner.

With the wind from the North this meant she would have to circumnavigate Menorca, or put in at one of the other harbours but I think Ciutadella on the west coast was the only deep water harbour and almost as difficult to get into as Mahon.

Any way enough of that, you bar flies don’t understand a word I’m saying so I’ll just concentrate on my story. Yes another brandy would be nice, it’s cold outside and this winter of ’32 has been damnably hard for an old man, even if I have the blood of a young sea dog flowing in my veins, it’s just flowing a little slower these days.

I saw the Unite as soon as I reached the top, she was close on our starboard bow, in irons having come up into the wind and I could see we had the advantage if we could take it, raking her stern would cause devastation.
For you lubbers here who don't understand these things, the wind was blowing towards the land and when a square rigged ship faces the wind she stops moving forward, the trick is to sail at an angle to the wind and turn through it, using the ships momentum to make the change, if you don't make it the ship stops and eventually goes backwards. Don't look so glassy eyed, it's a simple enough concept, have another swig of your brandy, that always helps the brain cells.

I slid down the main mast back stay but before I could issue any orders the Captain staggered on deck, ordering the helm over and we slowly turned into the wind and lost way. I looked on in amazement as the Unite put her helm to larboard and slowly came round onto a starboard tack. She was never going to clear the small sandy island in front of her.

With the wind on her starboard bow she can only pay off to larboard and there just isn’t enough sea room. What do you mean you don’t understand “larboard” you dumkoff, a ship has 2 sides, looking forward, that’s the pointy end to you from the stern, that’s the blunt end. On your left is larboard and on your right is starboard, no more questions if you please, just listen to my tale.

If I may be allowed to continue. She only just had enough way on to move forward very slowly and so although the collision did quite a lot of damage as she slid into the shallow water if there had been rocks rather than sand she would certainly have been sunk there and then.

Our Captain finally managed to stutter out some orders to the helmsman, if I’d heard them I would have risked my career to countermand them, but we turned slowly to larboard and both ships fire a partial broadside. We should have turned to starboard and raked the enemy as they lay at our mercy, but it was too late, our course was set.

I can tell you now sat here in the warmth of this bar, it was not as warm as it was that day. Our fool of a Captain ordered another change of course and we turned back into the wind, tight in front of the full broadside from Unite.

We were lucky that the violence of the collision had shaken the gun crews on the Unite or we would have suffered terribly, but you can see that our new course was going to lead to another collision.

No – you don’t understand, well let me use these bottles of beer to show how the two ships stood. Don’t worry the bottles are empty. Ohh, well almost empty.

There was a loud grinding noise as we ran straight along the side of the British ship, we were not going fast and glanced off, but there was a lot of damage to the paintwork although nothing significant to the structure of our ship.

Our Captain was blaspheming at the Helmsman, threatening him with the lash, but it was all he could do to stay on his feet he was staggering so much, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone so drunk before and not fall over.

As we bounced off the British ship, they let go a blast from their quarter battery but they were in much disarray, finally our gallant captain fell to his knees and slowly toppled forward onto his face and lay still, snoring like a pig.

Get him below I shouted, with such anger that the crew jumped quickly enough.

With the wind behind us we were able to get some sea room and bring the full larboard guns to bear, causing tremendous damage to the Unite, it was hard to see a good French ship take so much damage even if being sailed by the British, but this is war after all.

The British Captain finally managed to get a boat over the side with a kedge anchor to try and kedge the ship off the shore.

What do you mean, you don’t know what a kedge is for, good grief I can see why France is in the state it’s in with citizens like you who know nothing of the sea. You take an anchor from the ship, row it out in a small boat, drop it in the water and then pull on the anchor warp, then that pulls your ship towards the anchor, do you understand now. Oh pass me those beer bottles again and I’ll show you what I mean.

They were successful pulling Unite off the shore and then putting the helm over they quickly got underway, heading west. They were in a good position and ahead of us, so there was still a strong possibility they would get away.

I got Hermione as close as I could and we were able to fire another salvo into Unite, how much more of this terrible punishment they could take I didn't know. We would just have to pound them and pound them again until they struck their colours and surrendered.

More punishment than we had given them so far, that’s for sure, they got as many sails up as possible and started to pull away from us but I wasn’t done yet.

Turning Hermione to larboard (well done young man, you are correct, we turned left) we were able to get a final shot at the Unite and at that they lowered their colours and surrendered the ship to us.

It was a famous victory, I was feted in Paris and even met the great man himself, Napoleon did ask me what happened to the Captain and I told him he was lost, a hero’s death, buried at sea, I’m not sure that satisfied him but Josephine entered the room and he seemed to lose interest in me. Probably just as well.

Come on young man put another log on the fire and if you bring me another brandy I’ll tell you more stories of Jean Vagabond and my exploits fighting for France during the great Napoleonic Wars.

For those who know about these things here are the ships cards at the end of the game.

The Hermione was sailed and mostly Captained by the French hero Lt Jean Vagabond a proud, bold and handsome sailor in the French Navy.

HMS Unite was sailed by Captain Horatio Snapcase, this was his first independent command and at the Court Martial to investigate HMS Unite running aground it was agreed that the aged seaman Scrotum was to blame, his Ear Trumpet was full of freshly peeled prawns and he did not hear the command to go to Starboard, turning to Larboard instead.

It's rumoured that this action was the main reason that 30 years later the Admiralty changed the name of the left hand side of ships from Larboard to Port, it was too easy to confuse Starboard and Larboard in the heat of battle, of course with a Scrotum on the helm many things could go wrong.

This was one of the games we played when Wild Dougal Emfore and Captain Bertram Snapcase came to the north for a few days, Dougal arrived a day later than the Captain and missed this entertaining game, it's main entertainment was the incompetence of the two Captains, but in our defence it's only the 4th time I've played the game and the first for the Captain.