My Drunken Crew, a short story by Richard A. Ridley. Date added: 2011-06-28. Times viewed: 2926.
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- Intro: A damaged ship, a sober monkey and a useless captain would be trouble enough, but when a Spanish Man O' War hoves into view it's brown trousers time. - P.S. My first novel Wait Until You Die, is now available on Kindle.
My Drunken Crew by Richard A. Ridley
I was leaning over the starboard handrail thinking that things could hardly be worse when the first mate came to me in a hell of a panic. ‘There’s a Spanish galleon looming up towards us. I don’t know if they think we’re pirates or not but I don’t like the look of it.’ I made a mental note to never ever again, start thinking along the lines that things could hardly be worse; whenever I did so, things always got worse than they had been when I was thinking that they couldn’t. It was weird really because the opposite never happened; I mean, it never happened that I was thinking things could hardly be better and then they got even better; that sort of thing never happened, not ever.
We’d been celebrating for two solid days. After our most recent victory, which had increased our haul of booty somewhat, I’d wanted to head straight for New Providence, which was a little-known place back then, but had been overruled by the captain, who was now asleep on his bunk, drunk and incapable and stinking like a skunk. We’d sailed about thirty miles away from the main shipping lanes, away from our latest victims, and stowed the sails, and slowed to a halt, then the captain broke out the rum stores and all hell broke loose on the ship. There were fights and arguments, then drunken sea-shanties, then dozy, drunken, snore-filled slumber. I hadn’t pushed the boat out much myself; I was worried about getting back to land, to a haven port and relative safety. The ship was in need of careening and varnishing, She needed proper repairs to sections of the hull which had been damaged in battle and lashed up temporarily by the ship’s carpenter whose trade before he came to sea was butchery, and it showed heavily in his work. I had a bad feeling that I couldn’t shake off. We’d had a good campaign, we were rich, every one of us. But I wanted to make landfall and I had this bad feeling. The lack of any 'way' (or speed), made the ship bob about jerkily at the mercy of the waves and several of the crew were turning green-skinned, and I was feeling none too healthy myself. And that was why I'd been thinking that things could hardly have been worse. Damn my luck.
I took the spyglass from the first mate and stared at the galleon through the hazy grime of the dirty lenses. Through the rum-stained haze I could see the damned Spanish galleon in all its Iberian glory; in full sail; her gun-flaps were raised and there was a large shiny iron cannon sticking out of every one of them. I had no doubt that they were all loaded. I had even less doubt that they would soon be spewing hot metal all over our near-stationary vessel if we didn't do something to avoid it. I judged its distance as best I could. Being just on the horizon, I knew it was still about three miles away, this distance I thought, would give us twenty minutes or so to make our preparations. A fully loaded Spanish Man o’ War is a formidable enemy, unbeatable really for a ship the size of ours, but it’s a slow leviathan; we had hope. The captain was in a useless condition and I knew that as vice-captain (first Officer in the navy, but us buccaneers were a democratic bunch), our main hope lay in my ability to deal with the situation and in the potential speed of our brigantine.
The first mate was a good sort and I trusted his judgment over the captain’s. In fact I would have trusted a drunken monkey’s judgment over the captain’s, but there were no drunken monkeys aboard at the time. I mean, we had a monkey on board but he was sober at the time and it would have taken too long to get him drunk and hear his advice. In any case I needed better advice than that of a drunken monkey; I needed the advice of a first-rate seaman; so I asked the first mate for his advice, ‘Do you think they intend to board us Baines?’ Baines shrugged his shoulders and looked at me forlornly. ‘Search me guv.’ He said at last. ‘I never fought the Spaniards in me ‘ole life.’ He said this as if the taciturn statement ‘and I don’t intend to start now’ was implied, in any case I certainly inferred it. I could hardly blame him. It's one thing to scare the hell out of a merchant ship laden with lightly armed seafarers but the Spanish navy can fight like the daemons of Hell.
At that point though, I wasn’t totally disheartened; I knew there were a few salty old sea dogs amongst the motley crew and I guessed that there were a few seasoned battlers amongst them. I gathered the men together on the quarterdeck and addressed them in direct terms without beating around the bush, I wasted not a second in telling them of the impending clash, I came straight out with it, absolutely no long-winded speeches, no attempts at terrifying metaphorical descriptions of the possible horrific fate that lay ahead for us all. No stirring oratory tricks. No messing about whatsoever. I informed them immediately, is the general gist of what I’m saying here. I hadn’t been on this ship for very long and the crew were new to me, so I had to find out quickly the caliber of the men I had at my disposal. If the worst came to the worst. ‘There’s a Spanish galleon headed straight for us. It’ll catch up with us in about twenty minutes at the current rate. Now, has any man aboard this ship had any experience at fighting the Spaniards?’
The crew had a hurried conference and then Baines, as spokesman for the crew, walked out of the huddle and addressed me with a manful, fixed stare, a fat droplet of greasy sweat rolled down his dirty, unshaven cheek; he looked exactly like one of those debauched types that William Wycherley is currently so fond of casting in his London productions. He paused for a few seconds, as if attempting to find exactly the right words.
‘Only in pubs’ He said at last.
Basically there were only two options open to us, either we set the sails and made a run for it or we surrendered. Fighting was obviously not one of our options. Even if the crew had been sober and experienced in naval warfare, the Man O’ War I’d seen in the spyglass looked as if it was carrying thirty guns, and we only had six. And none of ours were loaded. And only four of them worked.
Baines, send four men up into the mainmast rigging. We must make sail as soon as possible!’ Baines pulled a long face and said ‘I can’t do that sir’ he said dolefully. ‘I can’t send a man to his certain death’. ‘What the hell are you talking about man?’ I was perplexed, certain death would await if we didn’t make sail, ‘Do you know what the Spanish Navy do to pirates when they catch them?’ Baines stroked his beard and thought for a few seconds ‘I’ve never really thought about it sir. Not intending to get caught and all that.’
I was even more perplexed ‘You’ve never even thought about it? Then perhaps you should have.’
Baines scratched the back of his head, caught a flea and crushed it between his thick, stubby fingers. ‘You see sir’ he said ‘That to be what I’d class as a negative attitude, And I’ve always thought that you need a positive attitude to survive as a pirate’
'‘Great’ I thought to myself, ‘all I need is a pirate who’s studied psychology’. Of course I didn’t say that, it would have been psychologically unsound to do so; if you want to get someone on your side you don’t begin by criticizing them, you just tell it how you see it, in as gentle a manner as possible to begin with. ‘Well that’s really great, Baines. I commend your attitude’ I took a deep breath ‘The thing is though, that if they catch us and find out that we’re pirates, then they’ll probably beat seven bells out of us and only stop because they’re tired. After that they’ll hang us all from the yardarm until we’re dead. And that’s if they’re in a good mood.’
Baines considered this for a few seconds.
‘What if they’re in a bad mood?’
‘You don’t want to know’
‘No I do. What if they’re in a bad mood?’
‘Then they’ll cut our hands off and feed us to the sharks. Now listen to me and listen good. We wouldn’t stand a chance in a battle against this sort of opposition. Our only option is to make a run for it. Get every available hand up into that bloody rigging and unfold all the sails we’ve got. As soon as you’ve done that, report to me in the fo’csle. Do I make myself clear?’ Baines gave a ridiculously inept, imitation of a salute, and then he rushed off to carry out my order. For a few brief minutes the air was filled with cursing and shouting and oaths of every blood-curdling description, I was pleased to note that not one man was saying his prayers; not one. There was hope of salvation for these boys yet.
I instructed Thompson, who was the closest thing we had to a helmsman, to steer a dead straight course and wait for further instructions. I was thinking of detailing a party to jettison our cannons but I thought I’d leave that as a last resort, cannons are hard to replace in these seas, although when you’re making a run for it they’re dead weight. In any case I sent four men to offload the two cannons that were unusable; they were rusted so badly that they'd probably never have been rapaired so we could afford to lose them.
When Baines caught up with me in the fo’csle I was pleased to note that the Spanish galleon was making less ground on us than she had been although she was now only about a quarter of a mile behind us. Still well out of range, but still worryingly close. 'All sails are ready sir’ shouted Baines proudly ‘the fastest I’ve ever seen it done’ he lowered his voice an octave ‘by this crew anyway.’
'Well done Baines’ I said cheerily ‘we may get out of this yet. Now, I want to keep the remaining four cannons for as long as possible, and I want to keep the loot forever, but is there anything you can think of that we don’t need? Anything that’s of no real use to us and that we can throw overboard?’ Baines thought hard for a few seconds, another fat bead of greasy sweat rolled down his cheek, ‘Well there’s the captain sir’ he said enthusiastically, ‘He’s fucking useless.’ I must say, desperate as I was, thinking in a panic, you know, I actually considered it for a few brief seconds. I couldn’t do it of course, but Baines was right, the captain was fucking useless.
‘No, I mean is there anything we can chuck overboard that isn’t human?’
Baines scratched the back of his head and thought for a few seconds. Yet another fat bead of greasy sweat rolled down his brow. ‘You mean like vampires sir?’
‘Just forget it Baines. Detail four men to man the stirrup pump. I want them to give those sails a soaking.’ I was hoping that wet sails would give us the extra edge we needed. ‘And put anyone spare onto the oars. I want every ounce of speed we can get out of this ship.’ The galleon was slow but she had momentum we weren't in the clear just yet. So the crew sweated and heaved, jigging the booms, angling sails this way and that until both masts and the spritsail were giving us maximum speed. and we gathered the wind in our wet sails and we flew. And after a while the Spanish galleon disappeared into the horizon behind us. That night we gave the captain the black spot. And since I was duly elected captain, we headed for Tortuga instead of Providence and we lived like lords for a while.
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