Pilotage with Hornblower
Hotspur was suspended in the darkness, less than a yard of water under her keel
Hands rushed aloft. In the gentle night, the vibration of the shrouds as 50 men ran up the ratlines could be distinctly heard. ‘Send the topgallant masts down!’ Hornblower had altered the silhouette of the Hotspur as entirely as he could. With only her fore and aft sails and her main course set, and her topgallant masts sent down, even an experienced seaman on this dark night would have to look twice or thrice to recognise what he saw. Hornblower peered at the chart in the faint light of the binnacle. He concentrated on it, to find the effort unnecessary. For two days now he had been studying and memorising this particular section; it was fixed in his mind and it seemed as if he would be able to visualise it to his dying day – which might be today. He looked up to find, as he expected, that exposure to that faint light had temporarily made his eyes quite blind in the darkness. He would not do it again.
‘Mr Prowse! You can keep your eye on the chart from now on when you think it necessary. Mr Bush! Choose the best two hands you know with the lead and send them aft to me.’ When the two dark figures reported, Hornblower gave them curt orders. ‘Get into the mainchains on each side. I don’t want you to make a sound more than you can help. Don’t make a cast unless I order it. Haul your lines in, then let them out to four fathoms. We’re making 3 knots through the water and when the flood starts, we’ll be making next to nothing over the ground. Keep your fingers on your lines and pass the word quietly about what you feel. I’ll station hands to pass the word. Understand?’ ‘Aye aye, sir.’ Four bells struck to mark the end of the second dog watch.
‘Mr Bush, that’s the last time I want the bell to strike. Now you may clear for action. No, wait a moment if you please. I want the guns loaded with two rounds of shot each and run out. Have the quoins in and the guns at extreme depression. And as soon as the men are at their quarters, I don’t want to hear another sound. Not a word, not a whisper. The man who drops a handspike on the deck will get two dozen. Not the slightest sound.’
There was a roar and a rattle as the hands went to their quarters, as the gunports opened and the guns were run out. Then silence closed in on the ship. Everything was ready, from the gunner down in the magazine to the lookout in the foretop, as the Hotspur reached silently down to the southward with the wind one point abaft the beam.
‘One bell in the first watch, sir,’ whispered Prowse, turning the sandglass by the binnacle. An hour ago, the flood tide had started to make. In another half hour, the clustered coasters to the southward, huddled under the batteries at Camaret, would be casting off; no, they would be doing that at this moment, for there should be just enough water for them. They would be sweeping and kedging out, to run with the flood up the dangerous Toulinguet Passage, round the point and up the Goulet.
Hornblower was hoping, in fact he was confident, that the Hotspur had not been seen to turn back to stop this bolthole. She drew 6ft of water less than any frigate, hardly more than the big chasse-marées, and were she boldly handled, her arrival among the rocks and shoals of Toulinguet would be totally unexpected.
‘Two bells, sir,’ whispered Prowse. This was the moment when the tide would be running at its fastest, a 4-knot tide, rising a full 30ft, racing up through Toulinguet Passage and round the Council Rocks into the Goulet. The hands were behaving well; only twice had restless individuals started skylarking in the darkness, to be instantly suppressed by stern mutterings from the petty officers.
‘Touching bottom to starboard, sir,’ came a whisper from the gangway, and instantly afterwards, ‘Touching bottom to port.’
The hands at the leads had 24ft of line out between the leads and the surface of the water, but with the ship moving gently in this fashion, even the heavy leads trailed
Cecil Scott Forester (18991966, real name Cecil Louis Troughton Smith) quit medical training in his early twenties to become a writer. During the Second World War, Forester worked for the Ministry of Information. On a mission to the Bering Sea, he was crippled with arteriosclerosis.
behind to some extent. There must be some 16ft only – 5ft to spare.
‘Pass the word. What bottom do you feel?’
In ten seconds, the answer came back. ‘Sandy bottom, sir.’ ‘That must be well off Council Rocks,’ whispered Prowse. ‘Yes. Quartermaster, one point to starboard.’ Hornblower stared through the night-glass. There was the shadowy shoreline just visible. Yes, and there was the gleam of white, the gentlest of surfs breaking on Council Rocks. A whisper from the gangway.
‘Rocky bottom, sir. We’re hardly moving over the ground.’ So Hotspur was now stemming the rising tide, hanging suspended in the darkness, less than a yard of water under her keel, the tide rushing past her, the wind thrusting her into it. Hornblower worked out problems in his head. ‘Quartermaster, two points to port.’
It called for nice calculation, for now Hotspur was braced sharp up – twice the staysails had flapped in warning – and there was leeway to be allowed for as Hotspur crept crabwise across the tide.
There would be water enough now for the coasters to negotiate the shoals off Rougaste and to enter the channel. It could not be long now, for the tide flowed for no more than four and a half hours and the coasters could not afford to waste time – or so he had calculated when he made his suggestion to Pellew, for this moonless night with the tide making at this particular moment. But it might, of course, all end in a ridiculous fiasco, even if Hotspur did not touch on one of the menacing rocks. ‘Look, sir! Look!’ said Bush. ‘One point before the beam!’ Yes. A shadowy shape, a darker nucleus on the dark surface. More than that; the splash of a sweep at work. More than that; other dark shapes beyond. There had been 50 coasters by the last intelligence, at Camaret, and the chances were that they would try the run all together.
‘Get down to the starboard battery, Mr Bush. Warn the guns’ crews. Wait for my order, and then make every shot tell.’ ‘Aye aye, sir.’
Despite the precautions he had taken, Hotspur would be far more visible than the coasters. She should have been observed from them by now, except that the Frenchmen would be preoccupied with their problems of navigation.
‘Ah!’ There was a yell from the nearest coaster, a whole series of hails and shouts and warnings.
‘Open fire, Mr Bush!’