Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Maelstrom

The Maelstrom
A story of the British Royal Navy during the French Revolutionary Wars
Kenny McKenzie
(age 17)

Midshipman Barrows stands on the forecastle of the HMS Maelstrom feeling the breeze whip through his hair. Looking up, he sees the seamen scrambling about the rigging, loosing and taking in the sails. He hears commands behind him. Turning, he sees his ships Royal Marine sharpshooter detachment drilling.

Suddenly, the steady work pace is shattered by the lookout’s cry, “Enemy ship, two points to larboard!” Within seconds, the drummers sound “beat to quarters”, and the Bo’ sun’s pipes shrill out. Gun crews jump, readying the cannons. Barrows runs down to his berth amidships, dodging seamen carrying powder and shot for the guns, and cutlasses and pikes for boarding. After grabbing his spyglass, he returns to the deck, rushing past the marines that are climbing to the sharpshooter’s nest, and places the telescope to his eye. There, a French warship bearing down fast.

“Mr. Barrows,” shouts the captain, “Stand to your post!”

“Aye sir!” Barrows shouts back, and runs to his gun station. His crew stands ready cannon primed and loaded. I must remember to congratulate them on their speed when this is over.

The French ship swings around bringing her starboard guns to bear. The sharpshooters’ rifles on both ships crack, sending lead flying through the air. The gunners duck down behind the sides, knowing they are the prime targets.

“Fire as she bears, Mr. Hodge,” the captain says to his lieutenant. As the French draw abreast, he yells, “FIRE.”

Gun crew commanders repeat the order, “FIRE.”

“FIRE.” Barrows shouts, “FIRE.”

With a roar, the cannons hurl shot at the opposing ship, tearing through sails and splintering wood. A ball hits another gun crew, sending wood flying through the air. Wounded men scream and are assisted down to the surgeon. The dead are moved away. CRACK. The foremast on the French ship has been hit dead center. It falls towards the Maelstrom, crashing down next to the main mast.

Volley after volley is fired, wood shattering and sails tearing. A cannonball smashes the foredeck. One destroys the mizzenmast. Another hits the rudder.

Suddenly, shouts of victory resound from the crew. The French captain has surrendered.

The French survivors are herded down to the hold and locked in the brig. The seamen chop the warship’s fallen mast away and set a slow fuse in its powder room before rowing away. A sudden explosion blows the French ship in half, and the pieces sink below the waves.

A month later, the Maelstrom docks in Falmouth, England and the men are given shore leave. Sitting at a table in one of the many taverns, Midshipman Barrows reads from his book, A History of British Birds, by Thomas Bewick, that he purchased while on leave. A group of sailors starts to sing a rousing sea shanty, “Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate”. Nodding his head to the music, he joins in.

A cabin boy interrupts their reverie. “Just received orders for the Maelstrom to sail again. All hands are to report at once.”

“Where we sailin’ to?” A sailor calls out.

 “Copenhagen,” the boy replies, “Under the command of Vice Admiral Nelson.”

 The sailors stand and file out. Barrows closes his book. He’ll have to finish it later. Right now duty calls.

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