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Authors: Richard Woodman

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Ebb Tide

BOOK: Ebb Tide
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Summary

It is 1843 and Captain Nathaniel Sir Drinkwater embarks on the paddle-steamer
Vestal
for an inspection of lighthouses on the west coast of England. Bowed with age and honors, the old sea officer has been drawn from retirement on half-pay to fulfill his public duty. The following day, tragedy strikes, and Drinkwater is confronted with his past life: his sins and follies, his triumphs and his disasters.

Drawing on a true incident, Richard Woodman deftly concludes the career of his sea hero. Drinkwater's complex character is revealed in its entirety. Far from being the reminiscences of an old man, the novel skillfully weaves the past with the present; the personal tensions below decks, the straining creak of a man-of-war under sail, the crack of a cannon shot and the plaintive mews of the trailing gulls are never far away. To the end, Nathaniel Drinkwater's life is full of incident and the unexpected, so typical of the sea officers of his day.

Ebb Tide
by
Richard Woodman
Table of Contents
For Jane and Vernon Hite
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, IV, iii

The Sunset Gun

13-14 July 1843

Mr Martin Forester was growing anxious. He pulled out his watch and looked at it, then glanced up at the sky before turning his gaze impatiently towards the shoreline. It was getting late and wanted only six minutes to sunset, but an advancing overcast had obscured the setting sun to cause a premature darkness. He did not like the look of the weather. The ship, although anchored in the lee of the high land half a mile to the south of her, lifted to a low swell rolling along the coast, and the wind was strong enough, even here, to set up a mournful moan in the rigging. Beyond Bull Point to the westward the Atlantic was brewing an unseasonal gale. He felt the vessel, lying with her head to the west, snub to her cable as the flood tide surged past her hull and fought for mastery of her with the wind in her rigging. If the wind got up any more, he knew she would see-saw back and forth, her cable occasionally jumping against the whelps on the windlass gypsy with a judder, until the tide turned and she lay betwixt wind and tide, rolling to the swell. It was not going to be a pleasant night. Not for mid-July, anyway, he concluded, giving vent to his feelings.

'Damn it!' he muttered.

Sensing rather than hearing the mate's agitation, the quartermaster on the port side of the bridge above the paddle-box lowered the long watch-glass and announced helpfully, 'No sign of the boat yet, sir.'

'No,' responded Forester irritably. 'Damned nuisance.' He sighed resignedly and walked across to where Quartermaster Potts stood. 'She won't be back before sunset, so we'll make colours first. Pipe the hands to standby'

'Aye, aye, sir.' Potts replaced the telescope in its rack and moved to the centre of the bridge where the wheel and binnacle stood, relinquishing his post to Forester. The mate was not a bad fellow, Potts thought, but always wanted things to run smoothly, and when there was a delay, as there was this evening, he was apt to become irritable. Potts had been the victim of Mr Forester's short fuse on several occasions and had learned to live with it. He put the call to his lips and blew the piercing summons that would bring the watch on deck.

Standing out over the paddle-box, Forester took another quick glance at his watch and then, composing himself for the few minutes he had yet to wait until the obscured sun dipped below the western horizon, he looked about himself. Being the steamer's mate and a conscientious seaman, he cast an experienced eye over her from his vantage point. The paddle-box that rose over the sponson was not only high above the water but was also outside the line of the ship's rail. With his back outboard he could, in a single sweep, take in the whole ship from her bowsprit to her counter stern.

A seaman emerged from the forward companionway and walked up to stand by the jackstaff. The jack, a curious device of St George's cross quartering four ancient ships whose broadside cannon belched fire, flapped vigorously in the southwesterly breeze that came off the Devon coast, carrying with it the scent of grass and wood-smoke. The foremast yards with their close-furled sails were neatly squared to Mr Forester's exacting standards. The sails on the mainmast astern of the narrow bridge that spanned the vessel from paddle-box to paddle-box were equally tidily stowed. But rising above and dominating the whole after part of the ship was the great black column of the funnel.

Mr Forester hated that funnel. Even now a sulphurous shimmer from its top told of the banked boiler hidden down below and, if he looked across on the starboard quarter, he could see the faint but unmistakable pall of its smoke laid on the grey surface of the sea. With the boiler fires banked, the funnel was quiescent, a malevolent threat which, it seemed to Forester in his more irritable moments, possessed a secret hatred for the mate, for he was engaged in a ceaseless war with the thing. Mr Forester had been bred in a tough school and had spent most of his life under sail. He had, moreover, seen service in the Royal Navy as master's mate and had been in Codrington's flagship, the
Asia,
at Navarino. He was therefore accustomed to decks being white, not besmirched by soot and smuts. Steam, whatever its advocates might claim, seemed to Forester to have introduced as many problems as it had solved. He sighed and let his gaze roll aft again. Beyond the long after deck with its saloon skylight and the glazed lights which illuminated the staterooms below, rose the huge ensign staff. A seaman stood alongside it, the halliards of the large defaced red ensign ready in his hands. Its snapping fly bore the same device as formed the jack and it was repeated yet again in the flag which stood out like a board from the mainmast truck high above his head, indicating the presence on board the steamer of an Elder Brother of the Trinity House.

Satisfied, Forester turned forward again, distracted by the noise of voices almost immediately below him on the foredeck where the crew closed up round the polished brass barrel of the short six-pounder, one of four carriage-mounted guns borne on the long deck of the Trinity House Steam Vessel
Vestal.

'Colour party mustered, sir,' Potts reported, as the gun-captain below the bridge knelt behind his gun's breech, one hand upraised.

'Aye, aye.'

Forester withdrew his watch again. One and a half minutes. He wished the boat had returned and that he could have had the whole deck snugged down with the cutter in her davits before embarking on this ritual. If the wind veered and caught them on a lee shore, they would have to get under weigh, so he wanted to make sure the ship would be fit for the eventuality sooner rather than later.

He stared out over the leaden water with its froth of white caps and watched a fulmar cut its shallow, sweeping dive across the very surface of the waves, its wings immobile. The absolute confidence with which the bird made so close an approach to the turbulent surface never failed to amaze him. Beyond lay the high coast. Lights were appearing in the town of Ilfracombe which nestled beneath the moor in the seclusion of its rocky bay. The strong tide which flooded east offshore would be scarcely felt within the compass of those rocks, he reflected. Then he saw the boat.

It came clear of Chapel Hill, its oars moving in perfect precision, and headed out towards
Vestal,
the diminutive flag at its bow showing grey in the gathering gloom. As the coxswain cleared the land he applied his helm to offset the eastward sweep of the flood and the cutter began to crab across the tide, exposing her starboard side, though making for the steamer in a direct line, judged to a nicety.

'Damned good coxswain, that Thomas,' Forester murmured approvingly before glancing at his watch again. He nodded at Potts, turned aft, drew himself up and raised two fingers to the forecock of his hat.

The pipe shrilled its high, imperative note and Forester saw the ensign start its slow descent. Behind and below him on the boat-deck the gun-captain applied his match, and the sudden boom of the gun, with its sharp stink of burnt powder, echoed round the bay, reverberating from the cliffs and sending into the air scores of roosting auks and kittiwakes. The smoke swept past Forester as he stood immobile, atop the paddle-box, until, giving an almost imperceptible nod to Potts, the quartermaster blew the descending notes of the 'carry-on'.

Forester relaxed and walked inboard to where the bridge widened on the ship's centreline to provide the compass platform and steering position, behind which stood the handsomely varnished teak chart-house. 'Very well, Potts. Pipe the watch to stand by the boat falls.'

Potts blew the pipe yet again and both men waited as the hands turned up from below. A steam-ship provided power for hoisting the boats, so the job could be accomplished with the deck-watch alone. Now that they worked the three-watch system, it made life much easier for the seamen, though Forester, in his blacker moments, was certain all this ease was not good for any of them. He had a remorseless belief in the imperatives of duty.

'No need for another flag, Potts,' he remarked to the quartermaster, 'now that Cap'n Drew's is up.' Forester nodded at the main truck where the Elder Brother's flag still flew, unstruck at sunset since it was a command flag and remained aloft as long as the officer so honoured was on board.

'There's Drew now, sir,' said Potts as a gold-braided figure appeared on deck below.

'Come up to meet the new fellow,' Forester added conversationally, mellowing now the cutter was almost back.

'Who is 'e, sir, this new fellow?' Potts inquired.

'Captain Sir Nathaniel Drinkwater KCB,' explained Forester, who made it his business to know such things. 'Newly elected to the Court of Trinity House, but a distinguished sea-officer.'

"Ow is 'e distinguished, then, sir? Were 'e at Navarin?' asked Potts mischievously, knowing Mr Forester enjoyed reminding them of his presence at the battle.

'No, he was well-known as a frigate captain in the war. I don't think he ever commanded a ship-of-the-line, though. Spent a lot of time on special service, I believe ... ' A cough interrupted this cosy chat and

Forester turned. 'Ah, Cap'n Poulter, sir, red cutter's approaching, Captain Drew's on deck, and the wind's tending to freshen.'

'Very well, Mr Forester. I had better go down and join Captain Drew.'

Poulter settled his hat and made for the ladder, hesitating at the top and turning his head as though sniffing the air. 'You're right about the wind, Martin,' he added informally, then disappeared to the deck below.

 

Captain Sir Nathaniel Drinkwater drew his boat cloak more closely round him as the cutter pulled out from the shelter of the bay. He could sense the damp in the air as it made the old wound in his shoulder ache, and there was a discouraging bite to the wind as they came out from under the shelter of the land. He cast an eye over the men at the oars. They were all kitted out in ducks and pea-jackets, long ribbons blowing in the wind from their round hats as they bent in synchronized effort to their oars. Beside him the
Vestal's
second mate, a young man who had introduced himself as William Quier, directed the coxswain's attention to the influence of the tide.

BOOK: Ebb Tide
10.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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