We approached the land with some sail clewed up! I didn’t want to be spotted at this juncture! The sun was already low on the horizon, on our Port quarter, this left us blatantly silhouetted against the setting sun, easy to spot by any vigilant sentries ashore! I climbed into the fore-tops and joined Gilby at his post as lookout. Raising the glass to my eye, I could make out the island very clearly. No mist or such to hide in as we approached. I thought, unless they have sentries or guards posted with telescopes, then the chances of them spotting us now were fairly remote. However, if they did have eyeglasses trained to seaward, then we would be spotted without doubt! I gave the order to take in more sail. Slowing our approach would give the sun time to drop a little lower! On the other hand, with a couple of hours to go until high tide, the barrels that marked the shoals might be in sight at this time! Ah well, we had to make a cautious approach I felt! I heard the clamour from below me as more sail was furled. The island was still low on the horizon, but now I could pick out individual features, such as hills and stark stone cliffs! Perkins shouted from below.
“Captain sir! We have an escort off the Starboard bow!”
I glanced to Starboard….two pods of dolphin were gliding through the waters ahead of our bow, breaking the water with their sleek flanks and dorsal fins! So!…we had an escort! Good luck omens?….. maybe! Seamen thought dolphins were the souls of lost shipmates! If this was so, had our kith and kin had come to steer us to victory and safety?… Maybe so!
The light faded within the hour, to a twilight, and we could cram on sail again. I stayed in the tops with Gilby. We both strained to get our first views of the shoaled waters! We should see breakers, rolling surf! We should soon hear the boom of surf breaking on the coral reefs! We approached with caution! Five miles!…Three miles! Now we could see the white water! Perkins and Jordan were below with the chart checking our course! I heard variations in the course called from time to time. Two miles! Then I heard the order to take in sail! Coming now to the top of the tide….dead water for an hour! We could drift with our mizzen holding us into the wind! I shouted the order to furl everything but the mizzen! Scurrying feet below me on the yards! Crewmen, as agile as tree monkeys, sure of foot, clambered out along the swinging yards to lash up and stow the sail! Confident in their work, but a drop of over 100 feet to the deck or the sea, for the man who erred! I returned to my place on the deck!
The time was now taken up with provisioning the boats! Stowing as much equipment, muskets, pistols, shot, powder, cutlasses and anything that might be construed as a weapon, became the order of the day! Anything that might become useful, ropes, blocks, shackles….all were being selected as possible tools or armaments, quickly assessed, and discarded or loaded! I had ordered that the crewmen going ashore to be dressed in as dark an apparel as possible, faces blacked with charcoal! Once in the boats there was to be total silence, except for the hands sounding the depths! We would also have a hand for’ard in the chains on the ship, below the sprit, swinging the lead, checking the depth under the keel of the “Anna”. Just an extra security measure! I didn’t want us going aground! That would be a fatal error of judgement!
By about 2130, all was ready! The tide was dropping fast! I ordered the fores’ls run up, to give us some manoeuvreability! We slowly edged towards where the barrels should be sited! I clambered into the shrouds with my eyeglass! Nothing! I returned to the deck, and joined the seaman posted in the chains!
Seaman Farrel! I remembered his name from an incident ashore in Port-de-Paix! An incident fuelled by grog! But…he was an exemplary seaman, very capable…and I felt, just the man for this tricky task!
“What depth have we now Farrel?”
He was swinging the leaded line in a regular rhythm. He cast the line ahead of the ship, by about five or six fathoms. Then, the ship’s way took the line to an up-and-down state…and he was able to count the knots on the knotted line, which indicated the number of fathoms depth beneath us!
“By the mark four sir!”
Four fathoms below us!
“Sandy bottom sir!”
The lead sinker had two beeswax inserts that could pick up particles from the sea bed and give an indication of the nature and make-up ot the bottom!
I raised my glass to my eyes! Damn! I couldn’t see a thing! Although……..there!…there was the white line in the darkness! The line of the breaking surf! I ran the Glass from port to starboard, and back again, several times…yes!…..that was definitely the surf line! About half a mile distant! I called softly to the decks above, and was answered immediately by someone!
Tell Mr Perkins, we have a surf line half a mile in front of the ship….depth is four fathoms on sandy bottom! Then return and take the call of the sounder to him at each sounding! Clear?”
“Aye sir! Its Ryan sir!”
“Right Ryan! See to it and get back here sharpish!”
“What depth Farrel?”
The splash of the lead as he cast again……a few seconds…..
“By the mark….four sir! And steady! Sandy bottom!”
I raised the glass! Did I imagine it or was there a break in the white line to our Port side? ……..No!………was it a break?…… there was definitely a gap!
“Two points to port!! NOW!”
“Aye sir! Two points to port!”
Yes! There was definitely a lack of white water to our left!! The ship’s head began to pay-off, as the wheel was put over! I waited…..waited….
“Ryan? Steady as she goes!”
I heard his feet scamper across the deck above me to relay the order! The ship was still swinging, had I judged it right? Slowly the bow steadied…Yes! Right on the nose!!
“Steady as she goes Ryan!!!”
“Aye sir! Steady as she goes!”
“What depth Farrel?”
“Four fathoms on last cast Captain…still sand!”
“Start calling at each cast now then!”
“Aye aye sir!”
Well!! Here we go! I raise my glass to my eye! We should be able to spot the barrels soon! If only the damned moon would break through the clouds! But the clouded sky remained defiant!! Making the night as dark as pitch!
“Three and half fathoms sir! Shell bottom!”
Shoaling fast! Quarter of a mile!! Where were those damned barrels????
“By the mark three sir!”
“RYAN!!!!! TAKE THE WAY OFF HER!! FAST!!”
I couldn’t risk running in any further! Now it would have to be the boats!
“Ryan…Bring her up!! Get the sea-boats away!”
“Aye aye sir!”
I heard the order being relayed.
“By the mark three sir….rocky bottom!!”
It could shoal gently…..or we could hit an underwater cliff!!! No telling! I heard the sound of the boats being swung out! There would be a long pull tonight! A tiring pull by all! But there was no option! Where were those damned barrels????
(To be cont...........)