Caribbean Commander (Chapter 43)
We slept on deck that night, both crew, and officers. Taking a night sighting by the stars, I was able to determine we had travelled a mere 23 nautical miles, most of that was tidal movement, which meant the possibility of returning to whence we started, or thereabouts, at the whim of the tide. The sea was like glass. Not a ripple had disturbed the mirror-like calm as night had fallen. Now all that was heard was the creaking of timber, the occasional slap of canvas, and the splash of fish jumping to avoid predators. The ‘pool’ had been a great success, Jenkins had excelled himself. It was about 3ft deep and about 8ft square. There was the odd leak, but the old canvas was holding up, even after some rough horse-play amongst the crew. At one time I had found myself under attack, being roughly dunked beneath the water and sat upon by Jordan. At least it took the crew’s minds off the heat and the humidity.
I had taken my palliasse up onto the deck and stretched out beneath the toe of the mainmast. Far enough away from the constant movement of the watchkeeping helmsman and his Bosun’s Mate. Just before turning in, I had, once again, peered at the glass, 942 millibars, 2 mbs above the stop bar. I had never known a glass fall so far. I stripped and lay on my back, watching the same clouds occasionally changing their shape, I chewed upon my lower lip, anxiously thinking of the impending storm. We would have been better, perhaps, to have stayed in harbour, although I had heard stories of ships thrown from the sea onto dry land, when supposedly safely berthed alongside in a harbour, during a fierce storm. I thought about Moses and the ‘Dolly’. I could hear nothing coming out of the blackness of the night, no bell chimes signalling the end of the First watch and the start of the Middle watch, nothing to suggest that another ship was within hailing distance. Had Moses made some time up somehow? I thought not. His crew were probably doing as this crew was, desperately trying to find some cool air to be able to sleep. I must have finally fallen asleep during the middle of the Middle watch sometime, although I heard three bells sound at 0130am.
I was on a golden beach with Anna. We were lying in the small rivulets of the surf making love. Anna was laughing, leaning down and shaking her wet hair into my eyes as she sat astride my hips. I was still inside her and did not want to break the magic of the moment, but I did wish she would stop getting me wet. I woke suddenly with a start and a yelp. All around me men were scrabbling to their feet, cursing as a deluge of rain fell from the dark sky. It was bouncing on the deck, rebounding to about three inches. God! The bathing pool! It would fill with water and burst asunder. Dashing through the rain I leapt the after ladder to the quarterdeck, just in time to see Jordan and Ryan rolling up the canvas. I felt a bit of a fool, but it could have ripped beyond repair if no-one was alert and thinking of it!
Jordan sent Ryan below with his huge bundle of wet canvas, and jogged across the deck to join me.
“Looks like the start of it sir! I’ve piped the hands to muster. Getting the topmen aloft and getting that sail in!”
“Aye Mr Jordan. I don’t think the wind will be far behind it. Just let her run on for’s’l and mizzen I think, take in all the rest!”
“Aye aye sir!”
Men were rushing to their stations, everyone knowing exactly where to be and what to do. I felt the first puff of the wet wind as the rain was driven against my face. The heavens had opened sure enough! Suddenly the sky was rent asunder by the crackling roar of thunder, quickly followed by the whole sea being lit from horizon to horizon by forked lightning. It crackled its way across the sky in a jagged blue light. It seemed to go on for several seconds before the darkness returned. During that time I had managed a glance seawards, nothing! No sign of Moses. There was another crash of thunder. It was not overhead by any means, so still some time until the storm proper erupted around us. I suddenly realised that men aloft were cursing and shouting above the roar of the rain. The wind was rising and they were struggling with the wet canvas. I ran to the steering platform and checked the card. It was coming out of the sou’west, out in that direction lay the open ocean. When the lightning came it forked across the sky both ways, zipping and crackling across the heavens in jagged arcs of light. We were completely alone, lit up like a Christmas tree.
“Helmsman! Bring her round to course 150, sou’ west a point west, and get double-manned on that wheel at the double!”
The man’s cry of ‘aye aye sir’ was lost in the din of the next roll of thunder. The lightning had left a smell, like molten steel in the air. The roar of thunder made my ears ring, and, I was sure I felt the whole ship tremble. The wind was rising steadily now, driving the rain across the decks and into the faces of the men both on deck and aloft. I shouted aloft, more of a scream than a shout.
“Ahoy aloft! Every man belay themselves with a lanyard!”
I think I might just as well have saved myself the effort as the wind carried my order away to the north’ards.
I saw Jordan chivvying the deck crew into battening everything down that would move.
“Keep her head to the wind Helmsman! Don’t fight her, let her ride!”
The bow was already rising and falling, it hadn’t taken more than a few minutes for the wind to whip the sea into white horses. Another crash of thunder and an immediate arc of dazzling blue light shot across the tops of the masts. In the brief seconds the scene was lit, I saw a ship! Was it the ‘Dolorosa’? I was sure the image of the ship burned on my retina still had sail up, but why? I ran to the charthouse for the eyeglass. The air was full of the smell of brimstone, I could feel the hair on my arms standing up! I grabbed the glass and steadied myself against the charthouse door. I waited for the next crack of thunder, which didn’t let me down. The ship trembled once again as the roaring engulfed us. The lightning was immediately behind the thunder, I had the glass at my eye searching during those brief seconds. Not a sign of anything! Had I imagined a ship? I thought not. I was lost in thought when there was a sudden scream from aloft……