1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 07

Sehested, hurrying to join Stirke, discovered what had stopped the small Bermudan in his tracks: his surprise encounter with a spectacle from another world: 

A telegrapher hammering away at a device that was all levers and wires. Instructions being shouted down speaking tubes. An auxiliary binnacle with down-time copies of up-time barometric instruments. A tactical plot table with a glass — or was that ‘plastic’? — weather cover, grease pencil markings showing the positions and headings of both allied and enemy ships. A compass-like instrument showing the firing arc of the Resolve’s two naval rifles. Runners scribbling furiously, emerging from and disappearing down the stairs affixed to the other side of the pilot-house. German guards with long rifles that had percussion nipples in place of frizzens and pans.

For a master of an inter-island sloop barely half the dimensions of the smallest Dutch jacht, it hardly looked like a conn at all. Nor did it sound or feel like it. Despite the constant chatter and activity, most of the exchanges sounded like chanted rituals, with subordinates often repeating their superiors’ instructions even as they began to act upon them.

Sehested set Stirke back into motion with a gentle palm that guided his elbow. “I know,” the Norwegian murmured. “I felt it too, at first. It’s not like any vessel I have travelled upon before.”

Stirke rounded on him with wide eyes, crow’s feet momentarily vanishing. “‘sooth, but it’s not like a ship at all.” He struggled for words as Evertsen joined them. “It — it’s as if a man be standing in the guts of both a windmill and a . . . a orrery, is it? . . . with naught but gears and wheels turning about ‘is head. Doing work, aye — but to what end?”

As Evertsen neared the group at the tactical plot, he was beset by runners eager to make report. He motioned for the boys to follow just as Bjelke leaned over the map-backed transparency to study the close intervals between the marks that charted the progress of the enemy ships. He looked up at the mast-mounted anenometer and then the tell-tales on the sails. “Given that they’ve a brisk wind astern and following seas, the Flota should be approaching more swiftly. Yet, the war galleons have reefed their topsails and topgallants.” He frowned. “Might they be more concerned with maintaining formation than maximum speed?”

When the two older men glanced at him without a word, he shrugged and explained his reasoning. “The intelligence indicates that when Spain’s two treasure fleets make the Atlantic crossing together, they take great pains to arrive off Dominica in good order so they may rapidly divide into the respective parts: la Flota de Nueva España, and la Flota de Tierra Firme.”

Simonszoon shook his head. “Look through your glass again, Bjelke. And not at those sea-going fortresses leading the van, but the ships further back, the ones the war galleons cut in front of when they spotted us.”

Bjelke brought up his binoculars; Stirke squinted quizzically at the device. After a moment, the XO muttered. “The freeboard of the cargo ships is… surprisingly low.”

Simonszoon nodded. “Now look at their aft draft.”

Bjelke did. “They’re out of trim, sitting back on their rudders.”

Simonszoon’s brief look of approval vanished before it had finished settling upon his face. “That’s a sure sign they’re all overloaded. Not a surprise; prior to first landfall, the cargo galleons usually are. So they’ll not sail well under full canvas. They’re too heavy to respond to a strong following wind. That’s why the Spaniards are letting their sails luff so. If they were rigged to catch all of this breeze, they’d be torn to strips and streamers.” 

“So: although the Spanish have the weather gauge, they dare not take full advantage of it.”

Simonszoon made a sour face. “Not all of them, at any rate. But mind, the less laden hulls can make more use than the others. So we’d best assume that when the war galleons come within half a league, they’ll crowd sail for the last rush to close with us. Their canvas will hold that long. Of course, when they do that, they’ll pull further away from their cargo ships.” He grinned darkly in Tromp’s direction. “Which is all part of the greater plan, if memory serves.”

The admiral nodded. “Yes, but the weather is not optimal for us, either, Dirck. This seaway is livelier than is typical for this time of year, more than we would like for our 8″ rifles.” He nodded toward the two long guns, both pointing toward the Spanish, their crews loose-limbed but at their action stations. “All things being equal, I’d rather their ships had more speed and that we had more calm.” He half-turned toward Cornelis Evertsen. “Conditions, Kees?”

“No change, Admiral. Fast, low wavelets, mostly, but there are occasional swells large enough to force our gunners to reacquire their targets. Once we’re under way, Resolve will cut a more level track; there should be no surges large enough to affect our aim.”

 Tromp tilted his head upward, as if he meant to catch the sun more fully upon his face, but his eyes were closed and his features were taut, as if he was contemplating, or sensing. “We’d lessen the surges if we turn a point off the in-running current. We’ve no reason to keep the galleons dead ahead.”

Dirck leaned his elbows on the plot. “No, but the more we swing away from the current, the more roll we’ll have.”

“We’ll also be bearing away from the wind,” Rik added.

Simonszoon nodded. “Our fellows aloft will have a lively dance, trying to keep the canvas in the right trim. None of which is the best conditions for our gunnery.”

Tromp opened his eyes and nodded. “Yes, but I will take the roll from a current on our port bow, rather than the pitch when our bowsprit is set dead into its surgest. The roll is more constant but less marked. And less sudden. And the more we stand athwart the current, the better our gunners can read the swells, time their discharges.”

Bjelke canted his head forward. “Admiral, these conditions are less conducive to accuracy than when we met the Spanish galleons head on in the Grenada Passage, last year. There, at least, we had two cruisers — Resolve and Intrepid — to take them under fire. And we had the weather gauge.”

Tromp nodded. “Worthy points, Rik, but I am decided: we shall swing two points to starboard. If we are to be sure of making full use of the guns we have, we must be sure that neither the forward mount nor the funnel blocks the aft, and by turning away from the current, we give the gunners the best possible view of swells. It also puts our bow directly on our next course heading, and so we shall come to flank speed without unnecessary delay.”

He glanced at the young Norwegian. “However, your counsel makes me wonder if we should reconsider the range at which we will commence the engagement.”

At the words “commence the engagement,” Stirke began shuffling his feet anxiously. The group around the plot turned in his direction.

Sehested smiled, inclined his head. “Admiral, I have the honor of presenting Master Stirke of the Somers Islands. He comes with news for you. He also reports that his colony has had much word of your actions against the Spanish last year.” Sehested paused to give his last words subtle emphasis. “That may be a subject worth touching upon — if only for a minute, under these hurried conditions.”