Tuesday, 20 September 2011

An Old Sailor's Tale - a short story

I was told that I'd been at sea before I could even walk. My mother died when I was small; my father would take me out on his fishing smack from Whitstable, into the Thames Estuary. Just a tiny child, but I'd sail with him out to Dogger Bank, right out into the North Sea, for there was no one to look after his son while he was at sea. We lived – my father and my two younger sisters – in a smoky little cottage not far from Whitstable castle. I'm told that I fell overboard three times as a small boy, though each time I was miraculously rescued. If I wasn't, I couldn't be telling you this story! Before I was a lad, I'd learnt the ropes, I could handle all the sails, and steer a 50-foot ketch even through the stormiest of weathers.

I was born in the year of Our Lord, 1780. Before I'd reached the age of 13, England was at war with France. After Lord Howe's victory over the French fleet on the Glorious First of June there was so much patriotic interest in the Royal Navy. And so, one bright spring day, as a 15 year-old, with an engraving of the victorious English fleet in action in my knapsack, I ran away to join up as a sailor. The navy was happy to welcome a youngster that knew his way around a boat so well.

Once on board as a volunteer, I proved my worth straight away; I was at home up in the rigging, utterly fearless when tempests tossed the ship hither and yon, and, back then, I looked forward to the chance to get at the Frenchman. Mind you, it was a hard life at sea – discipline was strict – there were two big naval mutinies at that time; conditions were never easy.

The sea's not a forgiving place at the best of times; numbed hands grasping slippery wet rope in the dark night, struggling to haul sodden sheets in, the ship pitching up and down violently – but the sea becomes a far worse place when you're sharing it with a foe determined to do you in. Cannon ball, grapeshot and musket fire raking the decks, turning oak beams into showers of splinters, men torn asunder, crushed by falling masts, cries of pain – the business of war. I'd taken the King's shilling; I did what's right for my King and for England.

Back then, these were the greatest of times for England's navy; the greatest of times. I served on the Irresistible under Captain George Martin; a 74-gun ship-of-the-line, we saw action at the Battle of Cape St Vincent. Another magnificent English victory; only a very few of our men were killed, the Spanish fleet was cut in two. Well do I recall how fierce was our attack, how well Captain Martin had read the wind to gain advantage. Our gunners were merciless and accurate and swift. After the battle, in which we captured three much larger vessels, Horatio Nelson himself came on board our ship, his own having suffered heavy damage.

And yes – and I was at Trafalgar, in the very the thick of it, on board the Orion – 74 guns she had too – with Captain Codrington – aye, we captured the French ship Intrépide losing only one man dead. By Trafalgar, I'd been ten years with the navy, having seen action many times. After three years I was an able seaman; five years later I was promoted to coxswain, then, because of my childhood experience at sea, I became master's mate.

Ten more years between Trafalgar and finally seeing Boney off to St Helena. Twenty years at war – well, pretty much 20 years. Twenty years fighting the French and their allies, fighting for King and Country. After Trafalgar, there was less action. Much of that time I spent sailing in the West Indies, out of Bermuda dockyard; keeping the sea-lanes open for British commerce, hunting down French and American privateers that threatened our merchantmen. On a 12-gun sloop, Dasher, I spent three happy summers and two warm winters sailing the Caribbean, only once engaging with a French privateer. On Dasher, I also took part in the capture of Java from the Dutch in 1811.

A fine ship she was – sleek and fast, with a good crew, trustworthy and disciplined men. I was part of that navy that made the British Empire what is is today under our good queen, Victoria. And I'm proud of that. Now, let me refill my pipe, buy me another tot of rum, so we can drink to her, and then I'll tell you about what became of me when the fighting came to an end.

2 comments:

Kolin said...

Do tell! Thanks for this story. Looking forward to the next instalment.

The new(ish) profile picture (Late summer avatar) is great. More posts brewing in the head of Borsuk na Pradze but the 'auto post writing' feature of blogger is not working properly . . . !

K

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Kolin,

Glad you like it... Part II will appear on Friday. And get blogging - we miss your stuff!