VOYAGE OF REPRISAL
by Kevin Glynn
Lawton knelt down above the ship’s keel with a gunner’s quadrant and focused over the muzzle of the long culverin. He timed the swells in his head while covering a particular point on the enemy ship at the crest of each wave. He ordered corrective actions on the tiller after each cresting wave passed. Upon the fifth swell, he gave the order to fire. The long culverin jerked backwards and bellowed forth smoke and flames. Two half-balls linked by a bar whirled toward the enemy ship. The whining sound of the shot’s passage decreased in pitch as it gained distance until it smashed into Spanish rigging with a sound of rending wood. Despite the cheering voices, Lawton didn’t pause to gloat over the hit. He turned and stumbled aft.
“Bring her around now, Yves!”
The Egret responded painfully slowly in the high seas. The bow of the war galleon was bearing down upon her. She was so close that she filled the sky. Willie stared with mouth agape at the gigantic crimson crosses and golden crowns embroidering the width of the vast canvas expanse of her maincourse. Scores of helmeted figures could be seen upon her foredeck’s beakhead. Muzzle flashes began flickering from the enemy’s decks as small arms fire broke out. A shout from Bowman brought Willie back to his duties as enemy arquebus balls flew by.
The pinnace turned to windward just in time to avoid a disastrous collision. Fournier was rigid with fright. Lawton had ordered the masts evacuated and the starboard sweeps hauled in just before the close pass with the galleon. The two vessels glided past each other so closely that they scraped hulls. A rain of crossbow bolts and musketry fell upon the pinnace’s open decks. Several screams denoted hits among the English crew from enemy small arms fire. As the pinnace passed amidships to the galleon, Lawton gave the order to fire the starboard broadside. The muzzles of three demi-culverins and three falcons were depressed at maximum angles to hit the enemy hull at or near the waterline. The detonations of English great guns were joined almost immediately by the tremendous peal of a Spanish broadside. Keeping with Lawton’s intent, the Egret’s approach was so close that the Spanish great guns’ firing angles could not be depressed enough to cover the pinnace’s decks or hull. The English upper masts, however, were vulnerable as they passed before the Spanish gun deck. Both masts were blown apart, showering the English deck with shards of shattered timbers. Two men were pinioned beneath debris. Lawton quickly rallied the uninjured men. They begin clearing debris from critical areas while the Egret’s great guns were reloaded.
The pinnace passed aft of the galleon and steered hard to larboard into the wind to get out of the point-blank killing zone of the enemy’s starboard stern chasers. What sails remained deployed on the pinnace fluttered, luffed, and stalled. Slowly and awkwardly she turned on her sweeps and rudder to resume the attack on the enemy from the rear quarter. For her part, the galleon continued her straight course on the heels of the Elanor Rose as if disdainful of the diminutive opponent’s presence. After her turn to windward was completed, the Egret’s crew bent hard to the sweeps. Their efforts were aided by a spare storm sail being hastily erected upon the shambles of the pinnace’s rigging.
“Let us break off now, I beg you Robert,” Fournier implored. His hair ran crimson from a scalp wound.
“One more thing left to try, Yves, then she is all yours.”
“What in Heaven’s name do you expect to accomplish? We are hopelessly outgunned.”
“You braved a difficult pass back there, Yves. I’m proud of you. It was all for this moment. We have the weather gauge and her weakest link lies before us. Behold, her rudder. Let us ready the bow chaser and prepare for a turn to leeward.”
“Her stern chaser...”
“She has one shot at us before we grant our coup de grace. That is fair. We have time. Load our bow chaser with bar shot. Maximum elevation. Fire on my order. Prepare to load with round shot afterwards. Let’s see how fast your gunners are, Yves.”
The gunners complied. At maximum distance, Lawton fired at the enemy bonaventure mizzen mast. Again, a discharge of whirling ball and bar was flung into enemy rigging, this time from behind. A huge tear opened up in the lower lateen sail above the Spanish halfdeck. Heavy wind action widened the hole until the sail was rendered largely ineffective.
“We’re evening the odds for the `Rose, Yves, that’s what we’re doing.” Lawton gazed at the sky. Diffuse gray light in the west penetrated thick, running clouds. The Elanor Rose was still visible up ahead of the war galleon, closer than before.
Lawton gave the word and Fournier directed the pinnace at the enemy stern. When they were well within effective range, the Spanish starboard stern chaser fired. The iron round shot of the demi-cannon impacted squarely upon the Egret’s bow. It punched clean through the hull just above the waterline and into her lower deck. The pinnace began taking on water as her bow plowed over the crest of a wave. Soon her ability to maneuver would be seriously degraded.
“Pull harder, boys,” Lawton cried. “We’ve got to get closer!”
Fournier pointed ahead. “Look, she is preparing a turn to windward. She is going to unleash a broadside on us!”
Lawton ran forward and began aiming the bow chaser in on the rudder. He yelled several times in frustration, urging adjustments of helm to acquire a better aim on the elusive target.
“Her ship master is on to you, Robert, he knows the danger,” Tompkins said from his position at the bow chaser. The original gunner lay in a swoon from loss of blood. “He aims to deny his rudder to you while finishing us off with a broadside.”
“Well, he heeds us at last.” Lawton beckoned Tompkins to look upon the enemy sails. They were luffing as the ship maneuvered closer into the wind. “Sloppy sailors. We’re doing our job, Tompkins, she’s losing speed. It’ll take her some time to reacquire the wind and even longer, now, to catch the `Rose. Let’s see if we can delay her some more.”
Lawton concentrated on his aim while wielding the slowmatch himself. Conveniently for the Spanish, the galleon’s turn to starboard retained the rudder’s narrow edge-on profile relative to the approaching English pinnace. Lawton cursed under his breath as the pinnace bucked under rolling waves. Sensing his final opportunity, Lawton applied the slowmatch to the touch hole. The long culverin fired. The round shot glanced off the enemy stern above the rudder. Lawton had missed his mark. The galleon had attained an oblique broadside firing angle on the Egret. She fired.
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©copyright 2000, 2001 by Kevin Glynn. All rights reserved
©copyright 2000, 2001 by Kevin Glynn. All rights reserved