1636 The Atlantic Encounter – Snippet 12
The North Atlantic
A thousand years before Gordon was born, and more than six hundred years before the date on the calendar, people had made the crossing that Challenger was undertaking now. Their boats were even shallower draft and their instruments were far more primitive. They had not possessed an ephemeris or twentieth-century maps.
Gordon also knew that they didn’t have helmets with big horns, either: that was just in the movies and the comic books. But horny helmets or no, the Vikings had followed the stepping stones across the ocean until they reached North America. Despite Maartens’ skepticism, he intended that his expedition should do so as well.
It was a decision that he would think about long afterward.
* * *
In open ocean, Challenger enjoyed a few days of calm seas, which were pleasant enough that Gordon and Pete spent more time on deck. Maartens was not as happy about them, though; the ship made little headway, as he ordered changes of heading to try and proceed. It wasn’t as if there was insufficient wind: the sails looked full to Gordon.
“It’s not the wind,” Maartens said. “It’s this.” He pointed to the sailing chart tacked to the table in the pilot house. The map of the Atlantic, direct from a twentieth-century book, showed a tinted oval path that followed the North Atlantic coast and extended arms northeast to the British Isles and eastward toward Africa. “It’s more powerful than the following wind, and it’s costing us time.”
“You mean the Gulf Stream,” Gordon said.
Maartens scowled at him. “Is that what it is. I imagine that it will make the return trip faster.”
“It always did. That’s how they found it,” Gordon answered. “I think Benjamin Franklin first mapped it.”
“A famous American.” Who might never be born, Gordon thought. “We have to get north of it.”
“The further north we go, the worse the storms,” Maartens said. “You want this ship to be trapped in ice, Chehab.”
“It’s quite a way to the Arctic Circle.”
Gordon looked down at the chart. “In order to avoid the Gulf Stream, we will need to sail north — but not as far as the polar ice cap. We need to sail toward this” — he pointed to the area northeast of Labrador and west of Greenland — “and then work our way down the coast.”
“It would be easier to sail south of this Gulf Stream, then head west and let it take us up the coast.”
“But we’re not doing that.”
“Because you have this great desire to see Newfoundland first.”
“Because,” Gordon said, standing up straight, “the purpose of this mission is not simply to reach North America, but to learn as much as possible about the situation there. And, incidentally, to avoid being killed or captured in the process.
“If we went to Virginia first, there is some chance we might find that the French are already there. If I were Cardinal Richelieu, I’d try to exercise my claim there rather than in Newfoundland — it’s more temperate, it’s more fertile, and it has a valuable cash crop.”
“That’s right. King Charles’ father hated tobacco, but King Charles was taxing it — and requiring every hogshead of the stuff to be carried in English hulls, to be stored in English customhouses, and subject to English tax. When he sold off his colonies, he sold off a lucrative income stream. The Virginians are probably thrilled, but they’re also probably defenseless.”
“You really think that the French have taken Virginia?”
“I don’t know. That’s why we’re going to North America. But if they have, we’ll probably be welcomed as a prize of war. I’m not eager to spend any time in a French prison; are you?”
Maartens grumbled a reply but it was clear to Gordon that he hadn’t thought much about it at all.
“If they have taken over Virginia,” Gordon continued, “we’ll know about it in advance. And the Gulf Stream will help bring us home. Begrepen? Understood?”
Maartens was a burly, well-built man; he angered easily — particularly at his own crew. Gordon stood two or three inches taller, but was perhaps forty pounds lighter. The Dutch sailing master was also steadier on his feet on a sailing vessel.
Gordon wondered if the sailing master’s temper was going to get the best of him, and if the approach he’d just taken with the man had been enough to set him off.
“This was what Miro advised, ja?”
“Cavriani, actually. He has some cousins involved in the Danish venture in Newfoundland, and yes, he thinks — so does Miro — that Virginia’s the first target of French expansion. And he doesn’t want us in some French jail either.”
“I’d rather have heard that from him.”
Maartens crossed his arms over his chest, as if that settled the matter — but Gordon had a good comeback.
“That can be arranged,” Gordon said. “You can hear it directly. It’ll be a good test of the radio.”
* * *
Though the route had been previously discussed, Gordon wanted to avoid dissent — having Maartens as an ally was important, and he wasn’t about to risk having him as an enemy. Accordingly, he paid a visit to the structure that had been built amidships to hold the radio equipment. It was small, barely big enough for two people (who weren’t too tall); it was sturdy, covered with a solid roof that held a large, irregular canvas tied down and covering something — the crew avoided it, as if it was going to jump out and bite them. A thick, rubber-coated cable emerged from the canvas and connected to the antenna, strung across the masts and crosstrees. Another cable extended over the side and into the water, where it attached to a hardwood plank sheathed in copper — the ground for the antenna. Though the down-timers didn’t truly believe it, a lightning strike on the mast, the highest spot for a hundred miles in any direction, wouldn’t harm the ship a bit: it would discharge harmlessly in the ocean as long as the radio was offline. A knife switch in the radio cabin connected and disconnected the radio to the antenna.
As the day was cool and fair, the door to the shack was open and Gordon could see Ulrich Jaeschke, the radio operator, sitting by the receiver with his long legs stretched out toward the doorway. When he saw Gordon approaching he sat up, but Gordon waved him off.
“I think we’re going to have to put you to work, Herr Jaeschke,” he said. “We should see if you can actually reach the mainland with this.”
“Ja, of course we can, Herr Chehab,” the young Magdeburger said, his English tinged with the clipped plattdeutsch accent common to the northern part of the Germanies. He slapped the ceiling with the flat of his hand. “Just have to connect the radio to the antenna.”
“The lads are afraid of the wires. They don’t think that it’s safe to touch the wires.”
“What, do they think it will bite them?”
“Or electrocute them.”
“There’s no juice in the antenna if I’m not transmitting. It’s just like flypaper — except for radio waves. Even if I am, up on the mast there’s nothing to ground to, and so nothing to fear. At most it might tingle if they grab it.”
“Try telling them that. They mostly think it’s magic, and that you’re some sort of magician.”
“And so I am,” Jaeschke said. “Two years ago I was at a brickworks, sweating out an honest day’s pay — and now here I am, doing magic on a sailing ship. You up-timers have changed everything.”
“Nein, not a bit. I’ve baked enough bricks to last a lifetime, Herr Chehab. I don’t care if I never see another.”
“Fair enough. What do you need to get ready?”
“Nothing, really.” He rested his hand on the big knife switch. “I’ll warm up the set.”
* * *
Jaeschke was right about the crew’s aversion to the antenna. It was held off from the mast by ceramic insulators. There were two wires running down from the top of the mast to each side, forming a giant upside down “V.” The diagonals ended well above the ship’s rail with large insulators attaching to the ropes that anchored them. The main armature was nearly a hundred feet long, hooked to posts along the mainmast, with the side lengths extending along the sails.