How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 07

          In the teeth of such a wind, the lee shrouds would have been a deathtrap, and the topmen swarmed up even the weather shrouds with more than usual care. They gathered in the tops, keeping well inside the topmast rigging, while men on deck tailed onto the braces.

          A seventeen mile-per-hour wind put one pound of pressure per square inch on a sail. At thirty-two miles per hour, the pressure didn’t simply double; it quadrupled, and the wind was blowing far harder than that now. At the moment, Destiny‘s forecourse was double-reefed, shortening its normal hoist of thirty-six feet to only twenty-four. Unlike a trapezoidal topsail, the course was truly square, equally wide at both head and foot, which meant its sixty-two-foot width was unaffected by the decrease in height. Its effective sail area had thus been reduced from over twenty-two hundred square feet to just under fifteen hundred, but the fifty-five-plus mile-per-hour wind was still exerting over seventeen hundred tons of pressure on that straining piece of canvas. The slightest accident could turn all that energy loose to wreak havoc on the ship’s rigging, with potentially deadly consequences under the current weather conditions.

          “Brace up the forecourse!”

          “Weather brace, haul! Tend the lee braces!”

          The ship’s course had been adjusted to bring the wind on to her larboard quarter. Now the foreyard swung as the larboard brace, leading aft to its sheave on the maintop and from there to deck level, hauled that end — the weather end — of the yard aft. The force of the wind itself helped the maneuver, pushing the starboard end of the yard around to leeward, and as the yard swung, the sail shifted from perpendicular to the wind’s direction to almost parallel. The shrouds supporting the mast got in the way and prevented the yard from being trimmed as close to fore-and-aft as Destiny might have wished — that was the main reason no squarerigger could come as close to the wind as a schooner could — but it still eased the pressure on the forecourse immensely.

          “Clew up! Spilling lines, haul!”

          The clewlines ran from the lower corners of the course to the ends of the yards, then through blocks near the yard’s center and down to deck level, while the buntlines ran from the yard to the foot of the sail. As the men on deck hauled away, the clewlines and buntlines raised the sail, aided by the spilling lines — special lines which had been rigged for precisely this heavy-weather necessity. They were simply ropes which had been run down from the yard then looped up around the sail, almost like another set of buntlines, and their function was exactly what their name implied: when they were hauled up, the lower edge of the sail was gathered in a bight, spilling wind out of the canvas so it could be drawn up to the yard without quite so much of a struggle.

          “Ease halliards!”

          The topmen in the foretop waited until the canvas had been fully gathered in and the yard had been trimmed back to its original squared position before they were allowed out onto it. Squaring the yard once more made it far easier — and safer — for them to transfer from the top to the spar. Under calmer conditions, many of those men would have scampered cheerfully out along the yard itself with blithe confidence in their sense of balance. Under these conditions, use of the foot rope rigged under the yard was mandatory.

They spread themselves along the seventy-five-foot long spar, seventy feet above the reeling, plunging deck — almost ninety feet above the white, seething fury of the water in those fleeting moments when the deck was actually level — and began fisting the canvas into final submission while wind and rain shrieked around them.

One by one the gaskets went around the gathered sail and its yard, securing it firmly, and then it was the main topsail’s turn.

* * * * * * * * * *

          “Keep her as close to northeast-by-east as you can, Waigan!” Sir Dunkyn Yairley shouted in his senior helmsman’s ear.

          Waigan, a grizzled veteran if ever there was one, looked up at the storm staysails — the triangular, triple-thickness staysails set between the mizzen and the main and between the main and the fore — which, along with her storm forestaysail, were all the canvas Destiny could show now.

“Nor’east-by-east, aye, Sir!” he shouted back while rainwater and spray ran from his iron-gray beard. “Close as we can, Sir!” he promised, and Yairley nodded and slapped him on the shoulder in satisfaction.

No sailing ship could possibly maintain a set course, especially under these conditions. Indeed, it took all four of the men on the wheel to hold any course. The best they could do was keep the ship on roughly the designated heading, and the senior helmsman wasn’t even going to be looking at the compass card. His attention was going to be locked like iron to those staysails, being certain they were drawing properly, lending the ship the power and the stability she needed to survive the maelstrom. The senior of his assistants would watch the compass and alert him if they started to stray too far from the desired heading.

Yairley gave the canvas one more look, then swiped water from his own eyes and beckoned to Garaith Symkee, Destiny‘s second lieutenant.

“Aye, Sir?” Lieutenant Symkee shouted, leaning close enough to Yairley to be heard through the tumult.

“I think she’ll do well enough for now, Master Symkee!” Yairley shouted back. “Keep her as close to an easterly heading as you can! Don’t forget Garfish Bank’s waiting for us up yonder!” He pointed north, over the larboard bulwark. “I’d just as soon it go on waiting, if you take my meaning!”

Symkee grinned hugely, nodding his head in enthusiastic agreement, and Yairley grinned back.

“I’m going below to see if Raigly can’t find me something to eat! If the cooks can manage it, I’ll see to it there’s at least hot tea — and hopefully something a bit better, as well — for the watch on deck!”

“Thank you, Sir!”

Yairley nodded and started working his way hand-over-hand along the lifeline towards the hatch. It was going to be an extraordinarily long night, he expected, and he was going to need his rest. And hot food, come to that. Every man aboard the ship was going to need all the energy he could lay hands on, but Destiny‘s captain was responsible for the decisions by which they might all live or die.

Well, he thought wryly as he reached the hatch and started down the steep ladder towards his cabin and Sylvyst Raigly, his valet and steward, I suppose it sounds better put that way than to think of it as the captain being spoiled and pampered. Not that I have any objection to being spoiled or pampered, now that I think of it.

And not that it was any less true, however he put it.