Pilotage with Horn­blower

Hot­spur was sus­pended in the dark­ness, less than a yard of wa­ter un­der her keel

Yachting Monthly - - A BOOK AT BUNKTIME -

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!’

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