[An homage to one of my favorite authors, Patrick O’Brian.]
HMS Adder took a sudden, lurching roll that almost threw her commander across the low-ceilings space that was technically his great cabin. Lieutenant Howard Penvesal, Commander only because he commanded the tiny old sixteen gun brig, had been in the midst of fair copying his rough log into the official one when it happened, and even without being on deck, he knew the cause. Adder was beating her way through another in a string of late winter gales the inshore squadron blockading Lorient had endured, trying to find the rest of the Royal Navy. A vicious storm two nights before had blown in just at the end of the last dog watch, dropping visibility so much the bowsprit was invisible to those manning the wheel. When it had cleared, not a light from of the other ships, not even the massive stern lantern of HMS Ajax, command ship of the squadron, was visible. It had been over a week since the clouds had thinned enough for Penseval to attempt to make an observation of even the Sun, and between the cross-grained seas and in-shore currents, his best guess of his location was just that, a guess.
So Adder scudded along under a minimum of storm canvas, her tops filled with man who’s eyes watched for the first sign of rocks that might send her and them to the bottom. They were relieved at each bell, but how long could they, and the ship they manned, feel her way through this ugly weather before their luck ran out? Howard pushed such dark speculation aside as he moved the log back to the center of the shelf he used as a writing desk. “At least the bloody ink didn’t over set.” he muttered to himself as he took up his pen and looked at what he’d written so far.
“3 March, 1810, strong gales ENE, seas heavy. Ship working heavy, speed five knots, course three points W of NW. People again employed mending storm damage.”
Should he write about the thing that had taken him on deck at first light? And if he did, what could he say that made any sense?
Dawn, if the gradual fading of a pitch-black night into something approaching a dim gray rain swept reality could be called that, came two hours after Howard had cast himself into his hammock. In a small ship like Adder, even the commanding officer stood watch, and with the dirty weather they’d been fighting, Howard had taken the graveyard watch. The night before, Masters Mate Lucas Simmons, his second in command, had taken the same watch, so named because it stretched from midnight to four in the morning. Howard’s exhaustion was so profound he had no memory of throwing off his tarpaulin jacket, nor of climbing into his hammock, but the shout of “Ship off the larbiard bow!” had awoken him as surely as a bucket of cold Atlantic water dumped over his face. He rolled out of his swinging bed, grabbed his telescope from the rack by the door, and charged onto deck.
What he found there was not the motion of a crew moving to either intercept a prize, nor to flee a superior French ship (and nearly every ship the French might send out was superior to the Adder), but a crew staring in dumb amazement to larboard. Simmons stood by the lee rail, eyes fixed ahead and mouth gaping, as if he’d been turned to stone. Howard rushed across the quarterdeck to get clear of foot of the mizzen sail that blocked his view…and found the source of his crews consternation.
It would not have been visible if not for the white bow wave its knife-like bow threw off. The gray shape, easily longer than Ajax, blended almost seamlessly with the sea and clouds. How it moved, Howard had no clue, for not one sail was visible, nor any masts. Yet move it did, with a terrible speed, far faster than even the smugglers Adder often intercepted. Staring at it, Howard realized it was not just moving with great speed, it was moving against the wind. But the thing that froze his heart was the ensign streaming from its stern: the French tricolor.
How could the French have built and launched such a ship with nary a hint of its existence? No gun ports broke its sides, but the fact that the French possessed a ship like this meant it was only a matter of time before they gave it cannons. But how did it move? It clearly was not a clanking steam-powered paddle-wheeler like the one Howard had heard now operated in the Clyde, so what drove it through the waters with such rapidity? The unknown ship and Adder were angling towards each other, and he currently possessed the weather gauge, so Howard decided to see if he could intercept the stranger and find out how it operated.
“Make sail, all hands make sail! Main and topsail! Course five points North of NW. Let’s see if we can take Admiral Cartwright a fine prize to make up for our absence.”
The bellowed command was followed by a moment of silence, as if the crew could not believe he proposed to set about the gigantic French ship, then Simmons took up the cry. “All hand make sail! Top men lay aloft!” The bosun’s brass voice took up the call, his whistle shrilling out its command, and the men sprang to action. The ratlines were soon dark with men, while others gathered to sheet home the lines as the sails came free. Adder was no crack ship, Howard never having seen the need to whip sails out in seconds, but the crew did her justice, casting gaskets off and bringing the lines home to set her sails taught and drawing to their peak.
The old ship responded to the sudden increase in thrust. She heeled slowly over and began to pick up speed, her rigging moaning as the extra strain came on it. But she breasted the waves and took to her task like the stolid old war horse she was. Howard turned his attention back to the Frenchman. He slid through the water, and from the lack of any crew moving about, he was seemingly oblivious to the existence of Adder. Were his lookouts blind, or did he just not regard the ancient brig as a threat? Time to show him the Adder had teeth. “Gun crews, larboard side!”
Howard wasn’t rich enough to buy his own powder like some officers, so his crew had only fired the six-pounders they now swarmed about a handful of times. But he had conducted regular gun drills, running the unwieldy monsters in and out in to memorize the actions needed to service them. Now, though, they ran their pieces in with deadly intent, the gun captain drawing the tompons as others raised the gun port or took up their assigned place. The master gunner moved down the line, placing a lite tub of slow match beside each gun, ready for the moment when the order to fire came. He came to the last gun, then looked across the narrowing line of water.
“Sir, where should the guns be pointed? She ain’t got no riggin’ to shoot away, and if we hull’er, how’ll we prove to the Admiral we done sunk somethin’ like that?”
It was a question Howard hadn’t thought of, but as he glanced at the approaching French ship, he could only think of one place to aim the guns. “Whether we can prove we sank a French man-of-war or not isn’t important. Gun crews, aim for the waterline! A hole between wind and water’s a better argument to surrender than anything else I know of.” Down on the gun deck, men cheered and plied their crows, shifting their aim downward to hammer the French hull where it would do the most damage. Howard watched the last barrel shift and looked at his target. They were close now, well within the range of even the Adder’s meager guns. But they wouldn’t enjoy that position for long. The speed of their opponent was drawing it ahead. Already, its bow was beyond the forwardmost reach of his bow gun. Howard drew in a breath, ready to shout out his order to fire, but a voice like God speaking from the heavens themselves rang out from the French ship, interrupting him.
“Navire inconnu, identifiez-vous. »
Howard knew no French, but the challenging tone of the voice made it clear this was no friendly greeting. Time to act. “From the bows, fire as you bear!” The bow gun roared out, and the mist hanging in the air hazing as the ball passed through it, leaving a trail a blind man could follow. He watched as the ball hit, but did not hear the sound of its impact as the the next gun in line fired. Each gun, down the line, discharged its deadly content, and all of them but the Number 9 gun stuck home at or slightly above the French waterline. Number 9 fired as Adder took a freak wave on her bow, pitching the ball high so it struck what looked like a boat stowed on the Frenchman’s deck. That was the only visible damage, the other balls bouncing off with no trace that they had struck beyond a slight depression in the French hull. Could this giant ship be made of metal? The thought flew through Howard’s mind, but he had no time to reflect upon it. They were approaching the stern of the French ship, and even if she were made of metal, a raking fire down the length of her hull would do just as much damage to her as to any other ship. The gun crews were working their pieces, swabbing, loading and ramming. Number One, the bow gun called Old Tom by its crew, was already run out for another shot, and Howard shouted for their attention. “Hold until she presents her stern to us, then kick her in the ass men!”
That drew another cheer from his crew, but their actions had also drawn the attention of the French ship. Men, dressed in strange, bright orange clothing ran exposed across the other ships deck, making Howard wish he could draw his guns and load with grape. No time for that now. The stern of the French ship approached, and the last of Adder’s guns were out and ready to fire. “Helmsman, lay us as close across her stern as you can.”
Again, the mighty, inhuman voice echoed from the French ship. “Cesser vos actes hostiles, ou vous serez tiré sur! »
Howard saw the Frenchman’s wake, a turbulent stream of white water far more churned up than any wake he had ever seen from a ship, then in dark letters, a name appeared as the stern came fully into view: “Prairial”. Adder began her turn, and as she did, Howard saw something move on the French ship. A single man moved it, a long, thin barrel like some immense swivel gun, and it tracked the Adder like a line connected the two ships. Howard was aware of his own forward gun crew, heaving on their piece to bring it to bear, and wondered how a single man could think his puny gun could match eight six pounders. Again, the disembodied voice rang across the water “Armes libres, feu à volonté!”. The gun Howard had been watching bloomed fire, and a steady “Boom! Boom! Boom!”, far faster than any fire he had ever heard, came to him as it did. And with each report, an explosion shook the Adder. He felt her timbers shudder and knew Adder could not take much more of this punishment. “Starboard your helm, hard over! House your guns, man your sheets!” Adder was no racing yacht, but under the urging of her commander and crew, she managed to spin nearly in her own wake. Whether because the sudden maneuver threw their aim off, or they simply didn’t care to press their advantage, the French stopped firing Howard had one final glimpse of the French colors, then a squall swept down, drawing a veil between the two ships.
That chance event saved the Adder. They had managed to plug the ugly holes blown in her side, and splice the shredded rigging. But how could he explain it all in the log? Perhaps the best explanation was the least. Inking his pen, Howard wrote “Encountered and exchanged fire with unidentified French vessel in heavy squall.” It wasn’t a lie, and none of his crew would contradict him, so Howard sanded the page before closing the log on his account of the strange event with a clear conscious.
As the frégate de surveillance Prairial sliced through another squall on her way to a major refit at Brest, Capitaine de frégate Pierre Fosse leaned back and contemplate his computer. He had been updating his ship’s log, and had reached the point where he and his ship had had their strange encounter. Their surface radar had been functioning properly, at least as far as any of his crew could tell, but it hadn’t picked up the strange vessel until it was nearly on top of them. And even when it had been reported, the lookout manning the camera had hesitated to report what he saw. Pierre understood his reluctance to speak as soon as he saw the image on the monitor. He remembered once seeing the ship used in filming “Master and Commander” and marveling at the detail that had gone into it. But that was nothing compared to what their surveillance camera had shown them. Filth drooled down what he could only guess were the heads. Men rushing about in rough tarpaulin jackets to haul on ropes. And the cannons, stubby little brutes that would have been comical if not for their jerking tracking motions. Pierre had warned them over the loud hailer, but could not believe the crew of the other ship would be insane enough to actually fire on him. Then, they did, and became a deadly earnest threat.
The Prairial still pumped, her outer hull cracked in several spots where cannon balls had struck, but by luck, none of his crew had been injured. He had viewed the video from the F.2’s gun camera, seen the holes blasted in the mysterious vessel’s side, men sent flying by the impact of large pieces of wood, and had wondered if she’d survived. But the same video also contained an image of the ship’s stern, where her name was clear to read: Adder. The Royal Navy was not as free with its current military information now as it had been before opting out of the EU, but their archives were just a satellite link away. Adder was there, listed as a ‘sloop of war’, but also listed as ‘Sold out of service, broken up.’ in 1815. So what he had seen could not have been a two hundred plus year old ship lovingly restored. Nor could it have been an illusion, a figment of his imagination. He looked in the corner, where a smooth iron ball rested in a cradle of sandbags. It had been recovered from the wreckage of the #1 launch, and that was why Pierre could not simply gloss over the incident.
He had not seen fit to contact headquarters and report the encounter, hoping perhaps to come up with some way to explain what had happened by the time they arrived in Brest. But what could he say that would not make him look insane? What entry could he make in the ship’s log that would not read like fiction? His crew still spoke of the strange event, and Pierre knew they would be calling their families to relay their own take on the bizarre fight as soon as they were in range of shore-based cell service. There was no other way than to report what had happened. Pierre leaned forward and began to type.
“0635, radar reports unidentified contact 900 meters bearing 095. Surveillance camera revealed contact to be unidentified sailing vessel, rigged as a brig and possessing 16 gun ports. Vessel warned to identify itself by loud hailer. Vessel deployed cannons and took frégate de surveillance Prairial under fire. Seven balls struck hull causing minor damage, one ball struck #1 launch, destroying it. Ordered crew to action stations surface and warned unidentified vessel to cease hostile actions. Vessel observed preparing to fire on Prairial again, permission was given to return fire with #2 F.2 cannon. Multiple hits observed, extent of damage unknown due to vessel breaking off attack and fleeing into storm where radar could not maintain accurate fix. Based on markings observed on hull, hostile vessel is believed to have been HMS Adder, a Royal Navy sloop of war reported broken up in 1815.”
Pierre read the entry, then saved it to the onboard server. His chronometer said it was nearly lunch time, so with a final click, he secured the computer, stood and stretched. With a final shake of his head, he left his cabin.
“I have given them the facts. Now it is for those higher up the chain of command to figure out what happened.”