The wind off the North Sea howled through the antenna wires outside, blasting rain sideways at the shack’s windows, driving droplets through the chinks in the double-hung sash. The occasional snap from the speakers told of faraway lightning bolts striking the sea. Inside, the electric lights fed from the little turbine at the transmitter site cast a warm glow over the log sheets. The coal stove in the corner and the coffee pot softly bubbling away on its top were a mercy to the three operators on watch.
BzhzhzhzhzhzhzhzhzhzhzhZHZHZHZHZH . . .
The raucous whine erupted from all three receivers at the two megahertz desk, never mind that they were tuned to three different frequencies spread halfway across the band. There’d been some message traffic earlier in the day about a Swedish coaster in-bound for the Harlingen base; that was probably him tuning up—into a live antenna, of course. Frankel half-muttered, “I will be so happy when spark goes away!” He picked up a pencil and waited, ready to copy. The watch supervisor looked across in sympathy.
SOS SOS SOS DE FV FV FV
It just stopped. No procedure signal to go ahead, no nothing. It took him a second to gather his wits. “What the hell, Breuning? Is that some kind of a French call sign for a ship, but only two letters? We answer?”
“Ja, Frankel, we answer a distress call from anybody. Find out where they are and what’s happening.”
It came again, and stopped. Frankel fired off a quick request across the telegraph wire to the transmitter site, tone modulation on and high power amplifier in line—a station with a spark transmitter was probably receiving with a stone-deaf crystal set—then hit the key.
SOS FV FV FV DE PBN PBN PBN R R R QTH? K
—Distress transmission. FV, this is PBN. Received your transmission. What is your position? Go ahead.
PBN DE FV QUE SIGNIFE QTH?
—PBN, this is FV. What does QTH mean?
Breuning stared for a second. “Oh, Jesus, he doesn’t know Q signals. Bet he doesn’t know Dutch or German either. Try sending ‘Quel est votre position?’ I hope to hell position is a French word. Ellegoot, I’ll cover for you. Go wake up Courriveau, tell him to get in here on the double.” He reached over Frankel’s shoulder and patched one of the receivers into a direction-finding antenna.
Frankel’s mouth was suddenly dry. He didn’t even notice the burst of rain that blew in during the second and a half Ellegoot had the door open. He started sending again. This was not going to get done by the book. Whatever happened, it was going to be a long night.
Some weeks earlier
It was such a beautiful, bright blue morning. The waves whispered upon the sand, retreated, advanced again. Overhead, the white gulls cried incessantly as they searched for things to eat. The kite fluttered and swung from side to side in the offshore breeze, as Professeur Lebrun finished his preparations at his table full of indescribable apparatus. Through a decent glass, Henri Fourchet could just make out the other kite, across the bay at Sainte-Adresse.
“Do you suppose your assistant is ready, Professeur?”
“We shall soon see. Our clocks are now synchronized, therefore he knows when to connect the antenna to listen and when to send to us. There, now, I have the wire wedged in place on the transmitter’s terminal. I shall check the tuning—yes, the screw is at the proper mark. On the minute I shall try.”
“This seems an awkward arrangement. How would we manage this when one of my ships is to give us notice of its arrival, hours before or even a day before? We could never maintain such timing.”
“Ah, that’s a different thing. This is only a crude affair, to determine what will work. I have seen pictures of a thing called a knife switch, which Charcoutier the coppersmith can make for us. I will draw it. Then we would leave the antenna connected to the receiver at most times, and in the merest instant move it to the transmitter when we wish to send.”
“But could you not keep it connected to both, and avoid this? I speak as a layman in these matters, of course.”
“Sadly, no, for the power of the transmitter would instantly ruin the delicate receiving crystal. So we shall have the knife switch. Excuse me, I see it’s time.” He bent to the key, and began tapping out a series of long and short buzzes. As he did, an iron piece rattled on the side of the “induction coil,” whatever that was, and long purplish-blue sparks came and went between the two small brass balls on top. A pungent metallic odor assaulted Fourchet’s nostrils. After a minute Lebrun stopped. “The patterns of long and short bursts of sound stand for the letters of the alphabet. It’s called Morse code; it was in the books I studied in the Grantville libraries. I was forced to make up patterns for our accented letters; the books said they existed, but did not have them. Now we shall listen.”
He unfastened the wire and secured it to another collection of outlandish-looking contrivances of wood and metal. He picked up one bulky cylindrical affair trailing a pair of linen-covered wires and held it to his ear, took up a pen in his other hand, dipped it, and waited poised over a scrap of paper. Fourchet heard faint sounds coming from the thing. Success? Lebrun began writing, a letter at a time, on the paper. What was the message? A passage from the Bible? No, it was a verse from that rowdy university student’s drinking song, “Gaudeamus Igitur.” He left off writing, and began making painstaking adjustments, an expression of intense concentration on his face. The sound came and went, but did seem to grow stronger after some effort. “There, that’s easily audible now. Clearly, we can make this work over a greater distance.”
“All very well, but can it allow my ships to send word to me here, so that I can arrange to have buyers ready to bid for my goods when they arrive, and have day workers on hand to unload promptly? That is the heart of the matter.”
“True. Well, then, we must find out, not so? We shall need to take this on board, and move about on the water to see what happens. How shall we proceed?”
“I expect the arrival of La Fleur de Villerville at any time. She will need to have some of her rigging renewed before she sails again, not to mention collecting the rest of her outbound cargo, and so will be here for perhaps a few weeks. Will that serve?”
“Admirably, and perhaps while the apparatus is being improved, we could arrange for a more durable support for an antenna at your establishment. An old ship’s mast, perhaps.”
Michel Pouliot had a few minutes free before beginning the day’s work, and so he paused by the Seine to admire the sun shimmering on the ripples. Freneau’s ship Petrel had evidently come to anchor in the last hour or two; one of her boats was grounding on the strand. Suddenly a crowd formed around the three men who had just stepped ashore; arms moved excitedly. Pouliot went to listen. When the news sank in, he hurried to the warehouse of Henri Fourchet.
“Michel, what is it? Have you seen the devil?”
“No, Monsieur. The Petrel is here. Their mate says he saw La Fleur de Berville, four days ago. She was headed southwest, past Quessant, into the open ocean, with strangers on her deck.”
“Mon dieu! Are you certain?”
“I wasn’t there to see it, but I have no doubt those who did will tell you all they know, over a glass.”
Fourchet’s closed hand pounded softly on the desk. “Pirates. And not from our coast. Even if we had anything powerful enough to take her back, she’s beyond reach by now. This is disastrous.”
“I’m sorry to bring such news. Still, I must ask what I’m to do today.”
“Keep the shop open, I suppose. We’re likely to see buyers for some of what we have here. I must make a few calls regarding cargo for La Fleur de Villerville. I’ll be thinking, on the problem of what to do next.”
The children were long since asleep. Spread out in front of the candles on the dining table were the account books, the latest inventories, and a sheet of hastily written figures. The warm evening and the chirping outside brought little comfort. “I see, Henri, but what are we to make of all this?”
“Anne, I see only penury slowly closing around us, if we stay here and try to carry on. Things have been precarious for a considerable time; this loss pushes us over the cliff. Everyone around here is worried at what’s going on in the world, nobody spends more than they must, and some of the most desirable imports are becoming expensive at the source. We cannot expect profits enough to sustain us, let alone regain our old fortunes.”
She drew in a breath. “Are you saying we’ll be cast out? Lose our home and go on the roads? Starve?”
“No, not if we act while we still can. In the east, there’s opportunity. The new rulers in the Netherlands value commerce, and protect it. The United States, more so. We have funds on deposit in Amsterdam, commercial contacts as well. In Copenhagen they know us. We still have La Fleur de Villerville. If we load her with what we can take, sell what we can’t, we should have enough to establish ourselves.”
She looked around the familiar room, the old pewter ranked on the shelves. “To lose all this? Everything we’ve known all our lives? Our relatives? The friends of Claire and Jules? I can hardly imagine it.”
He nodded, and laid his hand atop hers. “Yes, and all the people we know, who speak our language. We can expect no more than a letter from them at long intervals. But others have borne much worse. We will be able to live, and God willing, prosper again. Especially for Claire and Jules; for their sakes alone, we must go. If there’s an alternative, it eludes me.”
“So. This is so much to take in, so suddenly. We must leave as soon as the cargo is assembled?”
“No, ma cherie. I see no point in waiting for that. We would only drain our funds further. It’s best that we load what we have and go as soon as we can. I’ll begin closing our affairs here in the morning.”
La Fleur de Villerville was crowded, even though only half-loaded with salable goods. Besides the crew and the Fourchet family, Michel Pouliot, his young wife, and their three children had elected to follow his master, as had two of the warehousemen. Professeur Lebrun, as well, saw better opportunities in the Netherlands, and accepted Fourchet’s offer of passage. Perhaps he would teach at Leiden.
They’d had a following wind much of the way. They’d passed through the narrowest part of the Channel in the dark, sailing by the compass, and not been seen. Food and water, well, there was enough to last his crammed-in multitude until Amsterdam, with a little care. It wasn’t too far, now.
As evening came on, an overcast crept in from the west, and the sky slowly became darker and grayer. Captain Bouclet studied it for a time. “All hands on deck! Aloft, and furl the topsails.”
He went below to the cabin and busied himself with the charts for a few minutes. Back on deck, he gave the helmsman a new course to steer. Fourchet looked at him, a question in his eyes. “Knowing where we are, Monsieur, by seeing the shoreline, is good. But if those clouds mean what I suspect, it will be better to be far away from land. Never mind that we’ll have further to sail afterward.”
Fourchet nodded, and said nothing. He knew when to let a man do his job. Especially a man as experienced as Joseph Bouclet.
The last of the daylight faded; the only light on deck now was the binnacle lamp and a couple of lanterns. Emile Giscard had the watch. Over the hours the wind swung around to the northwest and strengthened; rain came at times. He and the hands on deck covered themselves with what protective clothing they owned; at least the coldest time of year wasn’t yet at hand. So far, they’d been able to swing the yards and shift the sheets little by little to hold their course and still keep driving ahead, but Giscard could see that they would soon reach the limit of what was possible in that regard. Evidently, Captain Bouclet could tell the same by the ship’s motion, even below. Though the watch wasn’t yet at an end, he came on deck, listened, felt the tension on the various lines, and reached the decision Giscard would have made in another few minutes. The wind was too strong to continue sailing. It was time to lie-to under bare poles, until the worst of the storm passed. “All hands on deck! Clew up and furl.”
Giscard moved to the mainmast’s running rigging, his usual place during all-hands maneuvers. Suddenly a strong gust hit like a giant’s fist. The ship heeled over hard. Miraculously, the weather shrouds held, but from aft came the terrible sound of wood splintering and then canvas tearing out. A thundering impact shook the deck. The hands froze in shock. Giscard felt the bow begin to swing down to leeward as the balancing force of the great lateen mizzen sail was lost. In seconds, the fore and main would belly out, taking the full force of the wind broadside, and blow out from the strain, if the masts didn’t go first. No time to form any of this into words in his mind, only time to roar out the one vital order. “Obey the captain! Cast off sheets and clew up! Helm hard alee!” He already had his hand on the port mainsheet.
With the fore and main sails hauled up to the yards, the high poop and whatever there now was of the mizzen sail had turned the bow to face into the wind. Ships had ridden out storms that way for hundreds of years. That took care of one danger, but whatever had crashed down on deck was liable to go over the side at any moment and drag the ship down onto her beam ends. Yet no orders were coming from the captain. Giscard took his lantern and went to look.
“Lord, take his soul into Heaven!”
The huge yard must have broken in half just above the midpoint. The whole upper yardarm and half the sail had come flying down with the wind behind it to the main deck. The captain had evidently tried to take shelter in front of the break of the poop, a sensible enough move in the dark, but luck had gone against him. The broken spar must have been pivoting as it fell. But Giscard couldn’t stay to look, there was immediate danger to deal with. The upper end of the yardarm thrashed back and forth along the remnants of the poop rail with the roll of the ship. If it didn’t go over, it could batter away the shrouds.
“Buisson! Garrier! To the poop and help me secure the wreckage to the mast. The rest, aloft and furl.”
Finally, with the remaining part of the mizzen yard and sail lowered to the deck and roughly secured, there was a moment to take stock of the situation, and to make a proper report to their employer. The immediate danger of foundering, or further damage to the rigging, was past. The great concern now was their position. Did they have enough sea room to just wait out the blow, while they determined what sort of repair was possible? Not that they could even find out the condition of the spars and standing rigging before first light. Giscard went below and brought the navigational calculations up to date. The answer was not to his liking. If nothing changed, they had only hours. Perhaps ten, perhaps fifteen. The storm could easily last that long, and the way it was blowing, nearly from the northwest, they were embayed. There was land further to windward, whatever direction they sailed. If they could sail. Well, that would become possible, with just the mainsail and the fore and mizzen topsails, once the wind moderated. But slowed down by the effective loss of the largest sails on two of the masts, they’d make leeway almost as quickly as lying-to, so that would be useless unless the wind direction shifted as well. Well, it usually did, when a storm finally passed. In any case, all that was for later. What was left for now? Anchor and buy time? Giscard called for the lead to be cast. There was a bottom, within reach of the cable.
“Rig the anchor. We shall drop it.”
Fourchet said, “That’s heavy work, I understand. Will it help if my warehousemen and I lend our strength?”
“No, Monsieur, I cannot permit landsmen on deck while we do this. You wouldn’t know where to stand or when to move. Later, there may very well be occasion to accept your offer.”
They got the exhausting, dangerous job done. But the motion of the ship was wrong. Giscard put his hand on the cable, to feel it. Yes.
“Monsieur, the anchor is dragging. I must order it hoisted again; we can use your men’s help now to get this done quickly, and the women under Buisson’s direction to lay it in proper order in the cable tier so it will run freely again.”
“Even dragging, does it not slow our leeward drift and gain us more time for the storm to pass?”
“A little, but if it drags on the bottom for long, the cable will chafe and we’ll lose the anchor and be worse off. No, we must take other measures. Boatswain Tissot, if I set everyone you can use to help you, can you turn the wreckage of the mizzen yard and sail into a sea anchor?”
“Certainly, mon capitaine.”
Mon capitaine. Was this what it felt like to be a captain? It was an honor he could have cheerfully forgone at this moment.
With the ship finally riding to the crude drogue, Emile Giscard paced back and forth, thinking of alternatives. There were a couple of spare spars, but nothing the size of that yard. They could perhaps hoist something like a square topsail on the lower mast. That would be worth something. The mizzen topsail itself would be worth something; they still had it.
Before they could do anything like that, however, it would be necessary to inspect the mizzenmast and all its rigging for further damage—he knew already that at least two of the mizzen shrouds had parted. They could splice, but rope once broken in such a way wasn’t to be trusted. They would have to rig preventer stays before putting any strain on that mast; fortunately, they had a spare length of anchor cable.
So, then. There was no way to move against the wind while it remained too strong to set topsails, but once it moderated enough, or changed direction, they could head up and get past the Texel, or at least turn the other way and move somewhat back the way they’d come, but out to sea, and then wear round to take up their course again. But setting any sail while the wind kept on at anything like this strength would require great caution and constant vigilance. Not to be attempted in the dark. If anything else blew out, they would be done.
Other ideas passed through his mind, to be instantly discarded as useless or impractical. In the end, it all came down to two conclusions. Everything depended on some sort of a change in the wind, before they were finally driven onto the Dutch coast, and it was impossible to determine the true condition of the rigging or make workable repairs before first light. For now, set a small anchor watch and rest the crew for the work to come.
Anne was below, alternately calming the children and praying, first for poor Captain Bouclet’s soul, then for their own safety. Several others, those who were awake, had joined her in prayer. Henri, after comforting her for a time as well as he could, returned to the deck.
“Well, Giscard, how do we stand?”
“We wait and keep watch. When the wind moderates, we set course again.”
“And if it does not? We’re driving closer toward shore, are we not?”
“Yes. If it does not, we’ll be coming into well-traveled waters. There’s a good chance we’ll encounter local shipping or fishing boats at daylight. They could tell us the direction to the harbor at Velsen, which is not too far from here.”
“Could we find it, though? For that matter, by then would we be in a position from which we could still reach it?”
“It should be recognizable by its buildings. But it would be preferable to pay a local fisherman to lead us to the entrance.”
“So, then, if I understand you at all, it’s uncertain, much depends on luck, and maybe someone heading out to fish in this storm at daylight would be there to help us, and quite possibly not. We’re in trouble, yes? We could end up driven ashore and find nothing there but beach or rocks, in this violent weather?”
“Yes, Monsieur Fourchet, you have the right of it. We’re in trouble.”
Fourchet considered this. “But, help. Well, then. Lebrun, could that collection of mysteries you have below bring us help? I believe you once spoke of such.”
“Perhaps. I can try.”
“Try, then. No sense letting any more time slip out of our fingers. If there’s help to be had, there’s no knowing how long it may take to reach us. Giscard, you agree?”
“Yes, Monsieur. If it can be done, the sooner the better.”
They were far enough east, perhaps, to be in seas where men had radio. What frequency to try, though? The answer was: all of them. Victor Lebrun slowly, methodically worked his crystal set through its tuning range, searching for signals. The minutes wore away. Then, through the ship’s manifold sounds, he passed across something strange, inexplicable. It wasn’t anything he recognized, but curiosity brought him back, to spend a few moments puzzling over it. There were faint, rhythmic interruptions in the atmospheric background noise, at a frequency far above anything he’d used in his experiments. But, wait, the interruptions were in the patterns of Morse code, or a strange mirror-image of it! He could think of no explanation for such a thing, but those regular rhythms couldn’t be a natural phenomenon, they could only be an unknown effect of someone else’s transmitter. He delicately moved the tuning screw back and forth, settling on the strongest position. He switched the antenna over to his transmitter, and set it roughly by eye to what should be about the same frequency. Then he closed the key, and refined the setting until the sound was strongest in his receiver.
Radio stations, he knew, had call signs, strings of letters by which they could tell one from another. What should he call himself? The book had said call signs were given out by nations, and each had its own set. All call signs beginning with F belonged to France. What else, then, to distinguish him alone? V, for La Fleur de Villerville? Well enough.
SOS SOS SOS DE FV FV FV
Off Vlieland, Netherlands
Keeping a radio watch with a total crew of four, including the cook, was something on the bare edge of the possible. Petty Officer Third Class Otto Schmied had enough to do, between steering, keeping the sails trimmed to make the best use of the wind, and keeping up a proper lookout. Heaven help his chances for promotion if he failed at any of those duties. He could hear the speaker, protected from the weather under the skylight, monitoring the four megahertz calling frequency, but nobody on deck was going to copy any traffic on paper with all this spray coming over the rail. Staying on course and keeping track of his position claimed most of his attention. Even in a fast and able schooner like this one, a lee shore was an uncomfortable place to be, especially in the kind of weather the latest reports spoke of. The captain’s orders were to go straight out to sea a good long way, before turning for home.
The latest addition alongside the compass housing was a marvel. One dial showing speed through the water, and another showing distance traveled. He hadn’t the faintest idea how all of that worked, but he would very soon. Lieutenant Cameron had already put its operating and maintenance manuals on everyone’s list of required studies. Now, if some genius could figure out an instrument to measure leeward drift as well . . .
He looked at the compass again, and checked the luff of the sails. Right where they should be. Running lights glowing brightly, and nothing visible on the horizon except a few stars low down in the east. Another hour and a half at this speed, and he could make the turn. They’d be off the Elbe in the morning.
Morse code came out of the speaker, as it had periodically since they’d left. A routine beacon transmission from a shore station, inviting calls. Suddenly it penetrated his attention. NOK, on the Norwegian coast a few miles west of Stavanger, had just sent a CQ—a transmission addressed to all stations—with the SOS prefix. Somebody was in danger, somewhere. Harlingen would be repeating it in a minute. He locked the wheel and went below to wake the captain.
It was a common misconception that Archibald Alexander Cameron had ridden with Mackay. In fact, he’d never sat on a horse. He had, though, walked many a rolling deck in his years, though few as odd as this one. But he’d needed a place, and this new navy needed sea officers who knew what they were doing. After a year and a half, though, he was still refining his mastery of this United States courier schooner, the original of the Wild class herself. Well, sometimes old sea dogs had to learn new tricks; everything about seamanship was getting turned sideways these days.
Tonight he was dreaming of home—the freezing winters, the land you couldn’t get your hands on, the crops you couldn’t raise on it if you did, the sheep-stealing bastards you and your dogs had to keep watching out for . . .
Someone was shaking his shoulder. “Sir. Sir. There’s distress traffic on the net. I’ve started the transmitter warming up.”
“Urff?” Blood and balls! Would it ha’ been too much to sleep to the end o’ the watch? The mental fog began to blow away. Dinna nip at a man for doing his duty. He worked himself into a sitting position and massaged his forehead. “A’right, Schmied, I understand. Thank y’, you can go back on deck now.”
He moved over to the radio position tucked into the corner of the main cabin and sat down. Getting some clothes on could wait. Here came Harlingen repeating the emergency message; he copied it and then acknowledged. What followed was as predictable as sunrise.
WNDS DE WNP QTH? K
He snorted. The duty officer at Harlingen base knew SSIM Lawrence Wild’s itinerary as well as he did. With a glance at the chronometer, he worked the rough numbers in his head and banged them off. The question at this minute was, should he divert? That decision was his responsibility, and nobody else’s. Well, the fleet mail could stand to take an extra day en route if it had to, and the only other cargo on board was even less urgent—a dozen burst boiler tubes for the shipyard engineers to puzzle over with their microscopes and their destructive testing machines. Meanwhile, there were twenty-two lives in deadly peril somewhere to the southwest, and no other vessel had acknowledged the message so far. Maybe the little Wild could make the difference, maybe it couldn’t, but it certainly wouldn’t if he didn’t go. The chart was right there on the mess table. He reached for the parallel rule.
Cameron went up the ladder carrying the slip of paper with the new course, and slid the hatch open. “Is that you, Captain? I just spotted running lights, off to the north. I’m going to sheer off a little, to steer clear.”
“Eh? No, dinna do that. Keep on, then turn and run parallel off their quarter. I’ll hail them with the flare pistol. The sails will raise less racket, with us running before the wind.”
That course change could wait just a little longer.
They’d edged in as close to that other vessel as he dared, in this rising sea with nothing to see her by but the running lights. Even so, it was still hard to tell what the other captain was shouting. Halvard Wooden-hand had his elbow crooked around the shrouds, the other hand cupped to his ear. “I think I heard ‘distress’ and ‘radio.’ That’s all I caught.”
“Radio? Lars! Man the radio!”
CQ CQ CQ DE SAFF SAFF SAFF QRZ? K
—Who is calling me?
SAFF DE WNDS . . .
Stripped of Q signals and abbreviations, it went:
Who are you?
I am schooner Mariehamns Aurora, three hundred tons, out of Kymi River with sawn lumber for Harlingen base.
I am SSIM Lawrence Wild, thirty tons, out of Harlingen base with mail for Hamburg. A French ship in distress off Haarlem with twenty-two souls on board needs to be towed off a lee shore. Can you assist?
Yes. How will we find them?
Radio direction finder. Do you have one?
I do. You can keep my running lights in sight. If you lose me, I can guide you back with the direction finder.
All right. Tell me the course you intend.
WNP, did you copy? Inform PBN. Estimated time of arrival five to seven hours.
At the turn of the watch they were far enough west to have a straight over-water shot to Vlissingen, and hear PBN’s beacon signal while WNP was still in range. Mariehamns Aurora was holding station astern and to leeward. Cameron called an all-hands briefing. He and Boatswain Paul Langenburger worked out the estimated dead-reckoning position separately. They took separate radio bearings on the two coastal stations. The shore stations took bearings on them, unhindered by pitching and rolling. From here on it would be dead reckoning off a lee shore, and Cameron wanted to know where they were starting from. They weren’t yet close enough to hear the French signal, so Cameron drew a course to the search area, safely off shore.
“And that’s the way of it. Questions?”
“Looks like dirty weather we’re heading into. Should we reef down now, while we’re all still awake?”
“Aye, that’d be a sensible idea, Langenburger, except we don’t know how much time those folk have. They likely don’t, themselves. That being so, we’ll reef when we must. It’s your watch and your call, just don’t wait overlong. And get bearings on them when you can. When you call me for my watch, belike we’ll be close enough by then to gather everybody on the same frequency and make some plans.”
“Aye, aye, Captain. Until then.”
Giscard had left orders to be called as soon as there was light enough to see by.
In the cold gray dawn, he and Tissot could finally see and touch all of the hurts La Fleur had suffered. It was worse than they’d imagined.
“Boatswain, your face speaks of words you dislike to say. Best you come out with it.”
“Very well, mon capitaine. Outside of a shipyard, I see no way to set all this right. The broken and stretched shrouds, yes, those we can jury-rig with some of the extra anchor cable. The broken deck planking, bien, that we were able to cover over last night with canvas to keep most of the water from pouring in. But see how badly sprung the lower mast is! Before it could carry any sail, we would have to fish it. We could use a piece of the broken yard to lend it strength, perhaps.”
“Perhaps. I was thinking of recovering the sea anchor and dropping the hook again; we may be over better holding ground by now, and the wind has dropped a little. But, if those two ships Lebrun has been communing with half the night should arrive soon, and he swears their radio signals are very strong now, it would take much longer to raise that than to bring in the sea anchor.”
Tissot put his finger to his lips, thinking. “True enough. But then, carrying sail on the fished lower mast is one thing, carrying sail on a topmast resting on a fished lower mast would be a different matter entirely. That, I would not like to do. But . . . if we set the topsail yard on the lower mast instead, then we would have the topmast itself to fish it with.”
“Ah, yes, and of course the topmast already has all the bits of iron in place to carry the yard.” He slapped his hand on the lee rail. “Eh, bien. This is clearly the best that can be done, and the quickest. Very well, you may call the hands and begin. And I will wait a little longer to try the anchor again.”
The thought went through his head that if this tow succeeded, they would likely need to cast it off anyway to get through the narrow passage into the Zuider Zee, and so would have to sail on their own when that time came. If it failed in any of half a dozen ways, then they would need to sail again as soon as the wind let them—if the anchor could keep them from being driven ashore in the meantime. And perhaps nothing would work, but fortune favored those who prepared the way for her coming. As he finished his ruminations, Buisson called down from the masthead, “Sails in sight to windward! Some crazy sort of foreign rig!”
Giscard took a moment to climb part way up the foremast shrouds to see for himself, and saw a small vessel, moving very fast, changing course to come straight at them. Behind her, something much bigger, long and low, emerged from the murk. So this was what a three-masted schooner looked like.
There was a great lot of jury-rigging going on this morning.
Archie Cameron watched the Swedish crew finish hanging their heaving line out where his men could snatch it on a run past the stern. Nowise would he give up steerage way close to another vessel in this sea. Mariehamns Aurora’s mizzen boom stretched out well past her taffrail, and they’d given it extra reach by lashing on a twenty-foot four-by-four from their cargo. The heaving line hung down from the very tip, with a loop in the end spread open with an odd bit of lumber. Up went their boom with a rush, safely above Wild’s mast height.
A few feet aft of where Cameron stood, Salvatore Bardaro had more pressing duties at the moment than getting porridge on the boil. He stood ready with a boathook lashed to an oar for extra reach. He and his implement were secured to the mainmast with a line each; if ever there was a good time to have a man go overboard, this wasn’t it.
Over on La Fleur de Villerville, they were sending down the mizzen topmast, not a thing to be done on a whim with the waves rolling in like this and the wind ripping sheets of spume off their crests.
Langenburger braced his lean form against the wheel housing. “It would be so much easier to pass a towline with that beautiful motor tender we have hanging in the stern davits.”
“Aye, Bosun, daft as it would be to try lowering a boat amid these tumbling waves. O’ course, if it weren’t for yon sea and th’ gale, we’d na be here passing a towline t’ begin with. And t’would be a good deal easier to pick up th’ line, had we all day for the Swedes to drift it down to us. Well, they’re set. Let’s be aboot it.”
“Aye, aye, Captain. Ready about.”
Schmied threw off the inner jib; everything else but the foresail was already furled for this business. Langenburger spun the wheel hard over, and around they went, on a broad reach, aiming just to leeward of the hanging line, with Schmied and Cameron playing the sheets.
Bardaro got the boathook on the hanging line for an instant, but it slipped off before he could get it inboard.
“A braw practice run, Bosun!”
Langenburger acknowledged with a rueful grimace, and ran on just far enough to get room to tack. Back past Aurora, and around again.
This time, he had the feel of the leeway they were making, and got them in closer. Bardaro aimed the boathook like a lance, pointed forward. The tip went through the loop. He swung it in, and the line came sliding down the shaft toward his waiting hand. Cameron grabbed, bent down, whipped it around a deck cleat, and crossed it over the top. The bit of light yarn holding the line to the four-by-four broke free as soon as the strain hit, and off they went, with the cable paying out from Aurora’s stern.
“So much for the easy part.”
Langenburger steered for the Frenchman’s stern, to pass to leeward as close as he dared. Just beyond, they headed up, dragging the line up toward the stern. Someone threw a grapnel, hauled in. Missed. The man tried again, but the line had caught the sloping edge of the rudder and slid down out of sight.
“Ballocks. Take us down t’ leeward, Bosun, and stretch that line out again, so it’s well clear o’ that rudder. We’ll tack, beat up, and come at him again.”
This time the man with the grapnel had a better method. It was already hanging straight down from the extreme aft end of the poop deck, just under the waves. The courier passed, bore up to windward, and as the heaving line straightened inside the courier’s turn, it slid right into the grapnel’s line and kicked it sideways. The French sailor hauled up furiously, and had the line in his hands within seconds. Bardaro flung the free end over the side, stick and all.
The work at the mizzenmast was not to be interrupted. Giscard thought about calling Fourchet’s men to help bring the heavy towline aboard, but no, this was no time to risk mistakes. It was a job for sailors. Garrier had already tied off the heaving line and was leading it forward. “Buisson! Come down on deck and help us with this.”
A few minutes of hauling by three strong men, and they had it. Giscard gave a close look at their handiwork; yes, the heavy line was properly secured to their forebitt. Getting in the sea anchor took little longer, with Fourchet’s men helping at the plain hauling.
Giscard looked aft. The topmast was safely lashed to the lower mast in two places, and wouldn’t be dislodged by any awkwardness in starting the tow. Good. It was time. He turned toward the Swedish schooner and gave the agreed-upon signal, hat waving in a circle above his head. Nothing happened. Again. Nothing. Apparently, they couldn’t see him; well, he couldn’t see what was happening on their decks any too well through the spray, himself.
“Professeur Lebrun . . . “
SAFF DE FV TIREZ K
FV DE SAFF R K
The Swede’s sea anchor must have already been hove short. It lifted from the waves and swung inboard with little apparent effort. The foremost and smallest of their sails rose from the bowsprit and stretched out to port for a few moments. Slowly, delicately, the bow turned. The sails began to gingerly draw, shivering at all but the trailing edge. She made bare steerage way, into the gale, taking up the slack in the towline. La Fleur de Villerville responded, pivoting to follow the cable. At that, Mariehamns Aurora’s bow swung smartly to leeward, and the three great sails filled, heeled her over, thrust her forward across the oncoming seas. Their own bow wave rose like a waterfall, and away they went to windward and north to clear the Texel. Never had he seen any vessel sail so close to such a wind. What could she do, unencumbered by a tow?
The little navy vessel waited until they passed, then filled her sails and bore up, crossing their wake, finally taking station to windward like a shepherd’s dog. Down the wind came a snatch of song.
Storm along, drive along, punch her through the rips Don’t mind the boarding combers, as the solid green she ships
“Just mind your eye and watch your helm,” our skipper he did say
“Clean decks we’ll sport tomorrow, on the Mary L. Mackay.”
It was nearly a year since Lawrence Wild had been to Harlingen. Cameron stood amidships, listening to Petty Officer Second Class Schmied by the wheel, teaching the new man the fine art of holding course in the light mid-day breeze. If it weren’t for the lesson, he’d have just lowered the boat and motored in. Up forward, Langenburger stood with a boathook lying at his feet, ready to pick up the mooring, meanwhile keeping a lookout all around as they worked their way into the anchorage. Suddenly he stopped and stared at something.
“Captain, I think you’ll want to see this.” The boatswain handed him the ship’s binoculars and pointed at a tidy-looking new building on the commercial waterfront.
Cameron looked. It took a second for the sign on the building to register.
“Well, isna that a bonny sight! So those folk we snatched from the wind and wave have come and taken root here, eh? It’d be a fine thing to finally go meet them face to face, wouldn’t y’ say?”
Langenburger’s face settled into a quiet smile. “I’d like that. They would too, I think.”