The Voyages of the Waved Albatross
Author's note: This is only the first two chapters of a longer book, which I am in the process of making, if you... Show full author's note »
The Windward Passage“Ever since we had left New Providence, we had been pursued by the two brigantines, which stayed either on, or below the horizon. They weren’t as fast as we were, but fast, all the same.
“When he got the chance, the captain read to me and Jack the Articles of the ship, and had us sign them alongside all of the other crew-member’s names. Each pirate ship had its own variation of these rules, but they were all, generally, similar. They showed how much of a prize one could expect, described the rules aboard the ship, and what one could expect to receive if those rules were broken. They also showed the compensation for injuries received during a voyage. Most pirate Articles correspond with an old code that the Brothers of the Coast used, and the Waved Albatross’s Articles derived from these.
“After I and Jack had signed the paper, we were each assigned to one of the Ship’s Watches, each under the command of one of the captain’s officers. These Watches were mainly for the regular crew, and the duties of each Watch included tending to the sails and rigging, keeping a lookout, and steering the sloop, (the term ‘ship,’ is only applied to large, two or three-masted vessels, and originally, the word ‘sloop’ was used only to describe the rig of the sails on a ship. Nowadays, it is the name for the type of ship as the one we sailed, small, with only one mast, that is fore-and-aft rigged). I was assigned to the Watch under the command of a man named Elijah Nathaniel, who, that day, had the morning watch. Jack was put in the Watch of a Turk named Cengiz Yilmaz, who was also the head gunner.
“At the time, we were at one bell in the morning watch, heading east-southeast, going around 12 knots with our topgallant raised. We had been getting a nice crosswind from the north, and with our sheets close-hauled, we were nearly going 13 knots, a rare feat for a sloop. The only problem with the wind at the moment was that if we were to turn and fight, our enemies would have the weather gage, and therefore the advantage in a battle.
“I was up in the rigging, keeping a lookout while most of the crew slept below. The brigantines were no longer visible, they usually could not exceed 7 knots, and even with this wind they would not make it past nine.
“The water below was a dull gray color, capped with white pinnacles of foam that would rise for a brief moment as an irregular mountain, and then sink into the trough between two others. The deck of the Waved Albatross was deserted, except for a few of the men on watch holystoning the deck, and the current helmsman Caspar Wiggers, another Dutchman who was in some way related to Geert Visser.
“The sun was just beginning to appear over the horizon, and from below deck, the sailing-master, Laban Teague, burst out, carrying a small round object called an astrolabe, which was used at sea to find our position north-south of the equator. Behind him came another man, probably a slave, who carried a large leather-bound book and a quill-pen and ink.
“Teague took the astrolabe and held it aloft, made a few measurements, and jotted them down in the book. The two then retired back into the bowls of the sloop.
“This was one of the most important…maybe the most important thing we had to do each day and each night. Find our latitude using the astrolabe in the morning and at noon, and then again at night. But one thing that we could not put off for anything was the keeping of the Ship’s Log. The purpose of this log was so that we could guess at our longitude, (position east-west of the equator), which was impossible to find except by a process called Dead Reckoning. Even this crude technique could only help us estimate our longitude, and without a fair amount of luck, you could end up leagues off your destination, but it was better than nothing. It consisted of writing in the Ship’s Log each day: in what direction we were going, how fast we had gone in that direction; how far we had gone in that direction, and what our latitude was. It was a tedious and tiring procedure, but it was worth it.
“I heard stirring beside me, and I turned to see a Jamaican reclining in a sling in the ratlines. His eyes, that seemed unbelievably white against his dark skin, sparkled with laughter. His expression bespoke a carefree, easy-going disposition, and he had a mystical, mysterious atmosphere about him. The two most prominent features of his face were his glittering eyes, and his wide, yet sharp, nose. His matted, sandy-colored dreadlocks fell around his dark face as he inclined his head towards me, a wide grin spreading across his face; his teeth were yellow, but looked pearly white against the overall blackness. Why I hadn’t noticed him sooner, I had no clue, there had been no warning, no sound, to signal his approach and arrival. It was as if he had blown onto the ship with the wind…or that he was the wind itself, hanging about the sails and rigging, making itself known when it chose.
“‘Ahoy, da, Sa,’ he said smoothly, in a humid, Jamaican accent.
“‘Ahoy,’ said I, looking him up and down. ‘May I beg to ask who ye are? I am Marc Bones.’
“‘The titles we all wear mean nothin’, but it seems as though indolence has made our titles vital to us.’ Before I could ask what he meant, he went on. ‘But if ye must know…I be Carlo Kian. Weelcome aboard da Waved Albatross, Mista Bones.’
“‘Thank ye. She’s a beaut she is, fell in love with her the first time I saw her.’
“‘Aye…tis’ da magic of ships it is. Was da seme with me. Love her like she is family, and she might as weell be family.’ As he said this, the Jamaican drew from his pocket a silver coin, which he started to pass from finger to finger along the top of his hand. When it reach his little-finger he would somehow pass it back the way it had come, and he proceeded to do this, faster and faster, until I could no longer see the coin. And then, suddenly, he stopped with a flourish, and the coin was gone. I hadn’t realized that I was staring until he began to turn out all his pockets, showed me his hands, opened his mouth to show that he had nothing there, and took off his bandana so that I knew that he had nothing hidden in it. He kept his arms slightly bent throughout this inspection; I suppose to add to the mysterious aura that had grown thicker about him. He then passed his hands around each other, not touching any part of his body, or any article of clothing. He flourished his hand again, and there was the coin, between his thumb and forefinger! Trying to understand what he had done, I gaped at him with an open mouth. I don’t know why he began to laugh, but he did: a pleasant laugh that matched his deep Jamaican accent.
“‘I have…neva…had an audience as responsive as you, Bones! Ha, ha!’ He said through chuckles. ‘You should have seen your face!’
“When his laughter subsided, we began to talk. I found he was witty, clever, and extremely ambiguous, always speaking in confusing riddles, or saying only part of what he meant, and hiding the rest.
“When my watch ended, I met Carlo’s dog, Captain, and the ship’s carpenter, Karlheinz Berg, a tall, reserved German, always engaged in making sure that the ship would stay afloat, even if his vigilance was not needed. His mate, Windy Yeboah, was opposite, rather detached, and thoughtful, but talented in carpentry.
“The captain, Javed Hunt, was constantly with the sailing-master, studying the charts, and the ship’s log. When he was not, he helped the current officer of the watch direct the men, though he always seemed to make sure never to give a direct order, addressing them in a manner such as this: ‘Ye might do well to join that man aloft; he appears to be having trouble.’
“The day wore on, and on the horizon in front of us, Hispaniola and Cuba came into sight, and our destination: the Windward Passage, the space between the two islands. We had to get there by evening; otherwise, the winds would back, and blow outward from the Caribbean, and not into it.
“Dark clouds lurched into the sky like wounded beasts, growling at we who tottered at the brink of every wave, and then plunged down into the trough below, only to be swept up, once again. The water, like a great cat frightened by the angry storm-clouds, stood on end, tossing our tiny sloop like a toy, but the Waved Albatross, true to her name, still glided gracefully off of every wave, mastering the sea but for a while longer, lingering still, on the crest of every wave. Her sails were reefed now, for a sloop carried more sail than a normal ship in contrast with her size, and the violent wind would rip them apart given the chance. The captain stood at the helm with Geert Visser, I, Alden Chauncy, and a few other men of the watch.
“‘The wind is starting to back!’ Geert said, struggling to keep the flailing sloop on course. ‘We shall not make it to the Windward Passage by dark!’
“‘Furl the topgallant, and unfurl the mainsail and jibs to full extent, Bamidele!’ He shouted to the bos’un on the main-deck.
“‘Captain!’ I exclaimed. ‘The wind is too strong, it’ll rip these sails to pieces it will!’
“‘I think the wind is still high enough to risk it, Mr. Bones. Teague! Take the noon reading if ye please!’
“‘Is that really important at the moment?’ Asked the swarthy sailing-master over the wind. ‘The islands are close, we know where we are!’
“‘Never the less, it cannot be shirked! Carry on, Mr. Teague! And get me a chip-log in the water!’ The ‘chip-log,’ is a piece of wood with a length of rope with knots at regular intervals attached, and to judge our speed, we would throw it into the water at the bow, and count off how many knots went out from the sloop in a certain amount of time. It is from this that we get the term, ‘knots,’ for speed.
“I supervised the logging, and conveyed to the captain that we were traveling now at nine knots.
“At this speed, we reached the Windward Passage just as the wind was backing so hard that we could no longer have more than the jib and the staysail down without being pushed back out beyond the two islands. We were about seven leagues off of Cuba when the captain gave the order to douse all sails. We were at three bells in the first watch, and the moon and stars did not shine that night. I, as I stood at the bowsprit, could not distinguish the sky from the sea where the two met on the horizon. Onboard the Waved Albatross, the men were quiet, speaking in whispers as tense as a bowstring. They huddled together at the bulwarks, staring back over the water to where, if you listened, you could just hear the mournful toll of a Ships’ Bell. The brigantines were closing in, for they were better suited than a sloop for running against the wind; heavier were they, and carried not so much sail in contrast to their size.
“‘Have the men dye the sails black with whatever we have left, Bamidele!’ Hunt whispered. As everyone scurried up the mast to carry out his order, he turned to me. ‘Douse the lamps, Sir. Pass the word for silence.’ Using my thumb and forefinger, I extinguished each lamp, fore and aft. Their wicks sputtered and coughed as my fingers closed around their throats. And then the whisper for silence floated through the air on deck like a wisp smoke from a pistol shot. The still movement of my voice to the men quieted them instantly, imposing silence upon them in the urgency of the whisper. The only sound heard, and it was a faint one, was of the men aloft dying the sails black with anything they could find that would not damage the canvas. The rest of us, at Chauncy’s order, began to prepare for battle. In the darkness, for the captain would not allow any light to be lit, I fumbled dimly in the weapons-locker below-deck, muffling the sword-sheaths, as they would make noise when the sword was drawn. The rest of the men made ready the cannons, and at the moment, I wished that I was with them. Because the man who had been chosen to help me, was a Portuguese named Mauricio, who was called Gab by the crew, his ever gushing mouth accountable for that sobriquet. Sometimes I wondered how he found words enough to continue talking, for it seemed as if he found every term he could to lengthen every sentence. He had been a slave to a rich sugar-farmer on Cuba, who had had him learn English to perfection, though perhaps he would not have been quite so annoying if he hadn’t. He was given to great redundancy, supporting my earlier point of his verbosity.
“‘Our illicit endeavors should not have incited such a violent and vehement reaction from the malevolent and spiteful Crown of England!’ He said quite loudly. Though he did sound ridiculous, he spoke smoothly, rolling each word off his tongue as if he had tasted it in his mouth before slowly allowing it past his lips.
“‘Belay there!’ I snapped. ‘Focus on yer work, less ye wish to die prematurely in life! As to yer puerile statement, I should not venture to think that England would conform to our wishes, so tis’ no use griping about it in a self-flattering manner, Gab!’ That shut him up right quick; however I could still hear him muttering something about verbal chastisement.
“The whispered call for all hands to stations brought me up out of the weapons-locker and to the mainmast, where all the crew who could be spared had gathered. The captain sat on the boom, his legs dangling freely over the deck. I took my place beside Jack and Milan Lange, who were up towards the bow.
“‘Alright, lads,’ he said in his strange voice, ‘with a fair bit of skill, and no small amount of luck, we may just pull this off. I know from me experience, that there be not a measly, or cowardly heart amongst ye, but prepare yourselves all the same. If this trick proves a failure, then we shall have to fling ourselves into the bloody sea of a battle, and if it should come to that, then we will be up against two vessels twice our size, with twice our numbers.’ His face became stern. ‘Gun captains, ready your men, and have your cannons set for battle. If it does come to a fight, we shall have the advantage of the first blow. Bamidele, keep the men aloft at the mainsail, topgallant, staysail, and jibs, ready to hove short and cast off gaskets when I give the word. Keep the deck clear, and step to it chearly or I’ll have your hides. If we fight, gun-crews, aim for their mainmast and hull, and we may yet escape anyway.’ There was long lull, and I could hear the men breathing heavily with excitement. ‘Well what are ye waiting for? Get to it, handsomely now!’ The crew scattered to obey his orders, and I found myself as the sponger for one of the larboard cannons, with a man named Fredrik Garn as my gun captain. A powder-monkey handed Garn a cartridge, which he rammed to the breech with the rammer. I fitted round-shot into the sabot-block, and placed it in the bore for Garn to ram home. Garn took the priming-wire and inserted it into the vent, withdrawing it afterwards. Finally, we ran our gun forward, ready to fire should the command be given. The same procedure went on around us, until both the starboard, and the larboard battery was ready for action. Utter and complete silence settled like black smoke over the sloop, the kind of silence that comes when a pistol is leveled at a target, and is waiting to be fired. The toll of a Ships’ Bell was heard once more, closer, though it was hard to tell in the deadening darkness. Cold sweat ran down the men’s faces, every drop sounding like a multitude of splashes from a great waterfall as they hit the deck. Coupled with the raspy breathing from every man, the noise was like that of thunderstorm.
“The padded steps of Captain reverberated in the night air, and the big gray dog appeared from some dismal corner of the ship to lounge beside the dark barrels of the cannons, a lazy grin sagging on his long face. The southerly wind whispered to the furled sails above our heads, as if it was telling them to hearken to its gentle pull, and follow it northward in great speed. A pure note resonated from somewhere in the gloom, sending its haunting voice floating over the peaceful water like a pale melody from ages passed trying to stay in the air for a moment more.
“The waves softly rocked the Waved Albatross like a child’s cradle, crooning as it did so in a rippling voice. Rising, and falling. Rising, and falling. It lulled the crew into a trancelike-state, sagging at their posts, eyes dimly aware of their surroundings. My face was against the cool metal of my cannon, the sponge lay forgotten in my hand.
“‘Three points off the stern, starboard side!’ The call came, and it was as if cold water had been splashed in my face. I stood, hunched over the gun, and the men in the rigging and on the yardarms stirred.
“The second call came shortly after, and it was said so quietly that I wondered if I had really heard it. ‘Four points off the stern, larboard side!’
“Blood beaded like a red gem on my chapped lips as I bit them with tension, the greatest tension that I had ever known. I tilted my head astern, and saw a nimbus of orange light approaching, and slowly, I was able to make out the pointed shape of a bow, and then the rest of the ship emerged from the shadows. Her sails were double-reefed, and she was making sluggish progress down the Windward Passage. I craned my neck and saw the second brigantine, which was already almost level with the Waved Albatross, being slightly ahead of the other. They were on either side of us, and moving at an excruciatingly slow pace. I became so still that my arms cramped as they gripped the bulwark and the sponge. I could see the watchmen up in the rigging of the brigantines, frozen like gargoyles, staring out over the water to try and spot our vessel. They were abreast of us now, and I could have spit and hit the one in front of me. My gun-crew aimed the cannon at the brigantines’ mainmast, ready to fire if need be. My heart sounded like a drum pounding vigorously, and I was surprised that the two ships had not heard me. I was as tense as a coiled spring, and I was beginning to fear that my nerve would not hold. The brigantines were moving so slowly, that they were nearly not moving at all. They seemed to hover right beside the Waved Albatross, not stirring an inch, and I was ready to burst. The steady clapping of the waves against both our, and the brigantines’ sides was unbearably irritating in this moment of trial, and I shifted my position, feeling like I could jump at that instant over the gap that separated us to the brigantines’ deck.
“Their stern was parallel with our amidships, and it was then that I could bear it no longer. I reached down carefully and pulled the loaded pistol from my belt, aiming it at the sailor standing on the brigantines’ poop-deck. I don’t know how it happened, but as I reached for the trigger, the gun slipped, and as I fumbled to grab it again, it tumbled into the water with a loud splash. All eyes turned to me, and I looked up at the brigantine. The watchman turned and scanned the water around us. I closed my eyes, resigning myself to the inevitable.
“Minutes passed. No call was heard, no alarm was raised. The dark quiet remained unbroken even for the pounding of my own heart. And then, a call came, but it was not the one that I expected. It was the call to hove short and cast off gaskets, followed by the sharp bark to loose canvas and sheet-home. I opened my eyes, and found the atmosphere of the sloop as one of silent jubilation, and my heart immediately joined in with elation as we came about and, with our black-dyed sails, disappeared with the wind into the shadows.”