Friday, 23 September 2011

An Old Sailor's Tale - part two

It was after that devil Bonaparte was sent to exile that I worked out I'd been in the navy for a full 20 years, and at sea for a third of a century! For most of the time since I was born, we'd been at war with France. And now, we'd finally beaten them, thanks to Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, at Waterloo – but also thanks in to our great Royal Navy, our bravery and our skill in battle, blockading their ports, keeping our trade routes open. I was proud to have been a part of that.

Now, one day, soon after the fighting was over, we were sailing a barque across the Channel full of French sailors, bound for Le Havre. Prisoners-of-war who'd been captured along with their vessels, and held on prison hulks moored off Portsmouth, seamen who'd been shut away in unspeakably horrid conditions for many years, were now finally going home. They boarded the vessel, the Ribble, in jovial mood, relieved by the prospect of freedom. It was a smooth crossing; a light nor' westerly and clear skies under a warm sun.

The Frenchies weren't a bad sort. To show there were no hard feelings, we opened a barrel of brandy and we off-duty sailors got talking with them. There was a lot of sign language and parlez-vous and lingua franca. Once the Froggies had got over reciting their old cant that all men are brothers, we got talking about childhoods spent at sea, storms experienced, shipwrecks survived, great catches, times of peril, times of joy. Calm starry nights, or urgent hours chasing the tide, stinging salt spray in the howling gale... Aye, two or three brandies and the mariners' talk of the sea – mariners who'd been away from the open seas and strong drink for several years – got more emotional.

I slowly began to realise that I had much more in common with these seamen – foreigners though they be – than I had with landlubberly Englishmen whose lives and property I'd spent all those years fighting for. Like the French sailors, I was more at home up in the rigging or hauling in the sheets than tilling the soil with a plough horse or tending a flock of sheep. We were all men of the sea – so why had we spent the last 20 years fighting one another?

Once moored in Le Havre, we let them off the ship, saying our adieus to one another. The wind picked up from the sea, the tide was against us, so us English seamen stayed overnight in Le Havre, enjoying a first taste of shore-leave in a France that had been newly returned by force of arms to its rightful ruler – King Louis. I was expecting a lot of politics, bad blood at being vanquished at Waterloo – but no; the sight of so many English sailors in Le Havre brought about curiosity rather than anger, and in the auberge where we were drinking there was a good deal of questions asked of us about the ins and outs of seamanship – of our knowledge of tides, knots, sails, winds – and the conclusion that night was that there indeed existed a brotherhood of men – men of the sea.

It was a good way to end a long war; and, thinking back, it was that day in Le Havre that prompted me to take to sailing the Mediterranean. With the war over, we discharged sailors from the Navy were begging English ship-owners to take us on - experienced men - even as able seamen - hands on board their merchant vessels; but only the well-connected few could easily find work at sea. With my back pay in my pocket, I chose to return to France; I worked my passage to Marseilles, learning some seaman's French along the way.

It was there I spent most of my working life. Happy years, all of them, so full of sunshine and wine; so many delightful ports, many good friends from all around the Mediterranean. But I as I got older, I got complacent. Careless. One rainy night in Naples, a crate full of molasses, unfortunately stowed in a sling, slipped from the ship's crane and crushed my left hand. Unable to find any work as a sailor, I made it back to Whitstable, back where my youngest half-sister – the one who never married – lives. So here I am, yearning for the open sea! 

Still, that was the past. Now, if you will, I'd like to raise a glass to the young Queen Victoria; long may she reign over us! 

This time last year: Prague-Jeziorki-Moscow 

This time two years ago: The Passing of Lt. Cmdr. Tadeusz Lesisz 

This time three years ago: Summer ends, autumn begins


Maciej Swirski said...

What about Hornblower?

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Maciej

Hornblower - many's a Hornblower book I read as a teenager! C.S.Forester's tales - and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle's Brigadier Gerard books gave me an excellent taste of Napoleonic war - which really was the first world war (a global conflict fought on four continents).