1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 29

Eddie was surprised and reassured by the frankness of that admission. He doubted Christian would have been happy with Bjelke drawing such a straight line between his own presence and the Danish king’s desires. And while it was possible that this was disinformation meant to instill false confidence in Rik, a look at the younger man’s face and genuine blush-response told Eddie otherwise. Bjelke was simply a polished, well-educated young man who was likely to prove courageous and capable in the years to come, but right now, was a youngling out on his first great adventure. If there was any duplicity in him at all, it would be minor, and contrary to his nature. Eddie could live with that. Easily.

“Well, Rik, however you got here, you’re here. So, welcome aboard the Intrepid. First order of business is to make you at home.”

“Thank you, sir. My man Nils has seen to my berthing and I must say it is a welcome change from the Serendipity. Those accommodations were most…uncomfortable.”

“Well, I’m glad you like your stateroom” — more like a long closet, reflected Eddie — “but when I suggested we make you at home, I meant familiarization with the ship. Do you have any questions about the Intrepid that your briefers didn’t answer for you?”

Rik brightened immediately; if he’d been a puppy, his ears would probably have snapped straight up. “A great many questions, Commander. Although not for want of my asking. Frankly, my briefers, as you call them, knew fewer particulars about your new ships than I did. I had studied the classes of American vessels that were the foundations of your designs, which they had not. And they could answer only a few questions about how they differed, other than the guns and the steam plants. Seeing them, it is clear that you have made other significant modifications.”

Eddie nodded. “Yep, we had to. This class — the Quality I class — needs to be an even more stable firing platform than the original Hartford was.”

“Because of the increased range and capability of her eight-inch pivot guns?”

Eddie shrugged. “That’s a large part of it. But it gets more complicated. Firstly, the Hartford had its broad side armament on the weather deck. We put ours below.”

“Better performance in bad weather?”

“Well, that too, but it was actually the result of some complex design trade-offs. Firstly, we wanted maximum clear traverse for the pivot guns. So that meant ‘clearing the gun deck,’ as much as we could. There was already a lot that had to go on up there. We needed our anti-personnel weapons on the weather deck so they could bear freely upon all quarters. And although we have a steam engine, that’s for tactical use only. Strategically speaking, we’re just a very fast sailed ship. Meaning we’ve got a full complement of rigging and sail-handlers on the weather deck as well. So, the only way we could clear the deck was to put the guns underneath.

“What we got out of that was a more commanding elevation for our naval rifles. But it also allowed us to bring a lot of the weight that was high up in the Hartford down in our design, thereby lowering the center of gravity.”

“So, putting the broadside weapons on a lower deck also made the ship more stable.”

“Exactly. But then, we didn’t want to put our crew down in the bowels of the ship. So we had to put the crew quarters inboard on the gun-deck. The only reason we were even able to consider doing that was because our broadside weapons are carronades. They’re a lot shorter than cannons, and their carriages are wheeled so as to run back up inclined planes when they recoil.”

“But that still wasn’t enough, was it, sir?” Rik looked over the side at the noticeable slope that ran out from the rail down into the water. “So to get the rest of the room you needed for inboard crew berthing, you pushed your battery further outboard by widening the beam of the gun deck.”

Eddie nodded his approval. “Bravo Zulu, Mr. Bjelke.”

“‘Bravo Zulu?'”

Eddie smiled. “An up-time naval term. ‘Well done.’ Learned it from my mentor.”

“Ah. That would be Admiral Simpson.”

“The same. And so, yes, we widened the gun deck, which meant another change from the original Hartford. She had pretty much sheer sides, which is just what you’d want for a fast sloop. But when we designed the Quality I class, we realized that not only would adding that outward slope of the sides — or ‘tumble home’ — be a good thing to add in terms of deck width, but for stability in higher seas, thanks to how increased beam reduces roll.”

Bjelke leaned out over the rail. His eyes followed the waterline from stem to stern. “Yes, these are the structural differences I saw, and at which I wondered. Thank you for explaining them, Commander.” He pointed at the somewhat smaller steam ship pulling past them at a distance of four hundred yards, her funnel smokeless, her sails wide and white in the wind. “I see the same design changes in the smaller ship — the Speed I class, I think? — but less pronounced.”

Eddie nodded. “Yeah, we decided to keep her closer to the original lines of the sloop. So we put only one pivot gun on her, kept the tumble home shallower, and freeboard lower and the weather deck closer to the waterline. She sails sharper, faster, more responsively, and has three feet less draught.”

“So better for sailing in shallows, up rivers, near reefs.”

“Yes, and strategically speaking, our fastest ship. In a good breeze, she’ll make eight knots, and she’s rigged for a generous broad reach. Unless she’s fully becalmed, she can make reasonable forward progress with wind from almost three-quarters of the compass, assuming she has the room to tack sharply.”

“And yet you do not label her a steam-sloop, as was the ship that inspired her.”

“You mean the Kearsarge from the Civil War?” Eddie shrugged. “Well, as I understand the Civil War nomenclature, if a ship had a fully covered gun deck, she wasn’t a sloop. Even if she had a sloop’s lines, she’d still be called frigate-built. Although frigate-built doesn’t necessary imply a military ship.”

Rik smiled ruefully. “I grew up on farms. Even though many of them were close to the water, I confess I do not have a mariner’s vocabulary yet. I find these distinctions confusing. Because, if the reports I hear are true, you are not calling the other ship — the Courser, I believe? — a frigate, either.”

“No, we’re calling her class a ‘destroyer’ and the Intrepid‘s class a ‘cruiser’. As class names, they’re not great solutions. But at least they’re up-time terms that haven’t been used to describe ships, yet, so they’ll be distinctive and somewhat descriptive in terms of role. If you’re familiar with the up-time history of those classes of ships, that is. But anything else we tried to come up with ran afoul of the labeling confusion that already results from the current lack of international naming conventions.

“In fact, ‘frigate’ would have been the most confusing label we could have settled on. Ever since down-time naval architects started doing research in the Grantville library, most of the shipyards of Europe have started building new designs, the straight-sterned frigate chief among them. So if we called our new steam-ships frigates, they’d routinely get confused with the new sailed vessels currently under construction throughout Europe.”

Bjelke nodded attentively, but Eddie saw that his focus was now split between their conversation and something located aft of their current place at the rail. As soon as Eddie noticed Rik’s apparent distraction, the young Norwegian moved his eyes, ever so slightly, upward over his superior’s shoulder and toward the new item of interest.

Eddie turned and saw, back by the entrance to the companionway leading down to the officer’s quarters, that his wife — and her ‘ladies,’ as Bjelke styled them — had emerged to stand on the deck in a tight cluster. They were not an uncommon sight topside, but they usually reserved their appearances for fine weather, not overcast skies. However, despite the mild wind freshening from out of the southeast, they were all dressed for cold weather, apparently. Or were they? Eddie squinted, saw no coats or shawls, which made him only more confused. So why the hell do they have kerchiefs covering their heads? And all three of them, no less. Damn, I’ve never seen a lady of the aristocracy allow herself to look that, well, dowdy. And now they’ve all adopted the same frumpy look? What the heck is that abou — ?

“Commander, given the arrival of the ladies, perhaps it would be convenient for you if I were to take my leave?”

Eddie nodded. “Probably so. Tell my wife that she can” — and then a voice inside his head, the one that was partially schooled in the etiquette of this age, muttered, No, Eddie, that won’t do. Think how it will look, how it will seem.

Damn, ship protocol was tricky, and yet was still kind of free-form in this era when navies weren’t really navies just yet, and had protocols for some things, but not for others. For instance, take the simple desire to have his wife join him alone at the rail. He couldn’t very well wave her over. That would be an obvious blow to her stature, and mark him as an indecorous boor, which would work against his accrual of respect as well. But if he sent Bjelke over to summon her, that would be like making the young Norwegian nobleman his valet and also be entirely too formal, to say nothing of downright stupid-looking. Yet, if Eddie left the rail to go over to Anne Cathrine, then it could be difficult to extricate themselves from the presence of their respective attendants — Bjelke and the ladies — if they didn’t all know how to take a hint —

Eddie discovered that, for the first time since he had stepped on a deep water ship, he had a headache and an incipient sense of seasickness. Which he allowed, probably had nothing to do with the sea at all.

But Bjelke offered a slight bow to Eddie, and inquired, “Might I — with your compliments — inform the ladies and your wife that you are currently without any pressing duties? And that I would be happy to escort any and all of them wherever they might wish to go?”

And for the third time — wasn’t that some kind of spiritual sign, or something? — Eddie felt a quick outrush of gratitude toward the young Norwegian. Bjelke’s simple solution allowed the junior officer to decorously depart from his commander, greet the ladies, and inform them of the status of the ship’s captain. Then Anne Cathrine could approach or not — with Bjelke and her ladies in tow or not — and this idiotic etiquette dance would be over and Eddie would have thus achieved the hardest nautical task of his day thus far: finding a way to converse with his wife, on deck and in private, for a scant few minutes.

Eddie nodded gratefully — hopefully not desperately — at Bjelke, who smiled and with a more pronounced bow, left to carry out his plan.

Which worked like a charm. He arrived at the ladies’ group and presented himself. Cordial nods all around, a brief exchange, then he walked with Anne Cathrine halfway across the deck, and by some miracle of subtle body language, managed to successfully communicate to Eddie that he should meet them about half way. Which done, effected a serene and stately rendezvous between man and wife as the crew watched through carefully averted eyes.

Bjelke nodded to both spouses and retraced his steps to the two remaining ladies. Eddie smiled at Anne Cathrine and as they walked back to the rail, the young American breathed a sigh of relief. Another terrifying gauntlet had been run.