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   Chapter 5 -Of my First Ship, the Gannet

A Lad of Grit: A Story of Adventure on Land and Sea in Restoration Times By Percy F. Westerman Characters: 9819

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Once it had been settled that I should go to sea, my uncle lost no time in getting me a ship. Through his influence, his intimacy with Sir Thomas Middleton, and also through the interest which Sir Thomas showed towards me, the matter was an easy one, and before August was out I found myself being escorted down to the dockyard to join the Gannet.

This stout craft I must describe. She was of six hundred tons burthen and pierced for fifty guns. She had three masts, besides a small one at her bowsprit-head. When first I saw her she was having a new mizzen fitted, her old mast having been lost in a gale outside the Wight.

Her figurehead represented a man on horseback trampling on a Dutchman, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, and an Algerine. I was told that the horseman was supposed to be the arch-traitor, Old Noll, but a clever hewer of wood had caused all likeness of the great rebel to disappear, and had graven instead the features of honest George, now created Duke of Albemarle.

Her stern gallery was upheld by a row of gilt figures representing that hero of mythology, Master Atlas, of whom my father used to speak; while over the gallery towered three enormous lanterns, and above everything was a maze of spars and rigging that confused me not a little, though before long I was well acquainted with the names of all of them.

This much did I see from the dockyard wall, for the Gannet was lying at anchor in the harbour. One of the seamen on the quay hailed her through a speaking-trumpet, and presently a longboat came off for us, manned by ten lusty rowers, while a boy of about my own age sat in the stern-sheets steering the boat and giving orders to the men as if the commanding of the boat had been his life-long business.

Directly we embarked--that is, my uncle, my cousin Maurice, and myself--the boat pushed off, and urged by long strokes soon covered the distance betwixt the shore and the ship. As she neared the latter the youngster shouted: "Oars!" in such a loud voice that I thought something had happened. The rowers immediately tossed their oars, while the boat ran alongside the Gannet.

We climbed by a steep ladder up the rounding side of the ship, my uncle performing the feat with surprising agility, though he was puffing heartily when he gained the deck and took off his hat to the royal arms that graced the quarterdeck at the break of the poop.

We were received by the captain, one Adrian Poynings, said to be a descendant of the fiery governor of Portsmouth who bore the same name, and whose will was the terror of the inhabitants of Portsmouth in the days of Queen Bess.

The captain did not appear to bear the same reputation as did his ancestor. He seemed, for a king's officer, a very mild-mannered gentleman, for when speaking to his subordinates he would say: "Desire Master So-and-so to do this", or "Desire the bos'n to be sent to me"; and so on.

Having been introduced to him, I was sent off in charge of a midshipman to be shown round the ship. This youngster, whose name was Greville Drake (a remote relation of the immortal Sir Francis Drake), was one of the six gentlemen midshipmen serving on the ship. He appeared to be a keen young officer, knowing the ins and outs of everything, yet withal he was of a roguish disposition, and given to skylarking. Before long we were excellent friends.

Having inspected the waist of the ship, the main and upper gundecks, he led me below to the orlop deck, where right aft was situated the gunroom or midshipmen's mess.

Here, illuminated by the glimmer of a couple of purser's dips, or tallow candles, was the place where for the next two or three years I was to live and sleep--otherwise my floating home. The heavy beams were so low that I was obliged to stoop when passing underneath them. Innumerable cockroaches crawled across the floor or attempted to climb the sides of the cabin, till pinked by a well-directed thrust with a sail-needle.

There were four other midshipmen, taking things as easily as their surroundings would permit, and on our entry I was warmly greeted with a volley of remarks that were both good-natured and humorous.

But my tour of the Gannet was by no means finished, my mentor evidently meaning to make me thoroughly acquainted with the ship. Below the orlop deck we went, passing down a steep ladder to the flats, or part of the ship immediately above the ballast. The amidship portion of this space is termed the cockpit, and, though nearly empty, it did not require much imagination on my part to see the forms of mangled seamen dimly outlined in the feeble glimmer of the lantern, young Drake telling me of some of the ghastly sights of the cockpit during action in a highly-worded and realistic style.

I could discern the heels of the fore and main masts, and the well of the ship's pump, while farther away was a stack of imperishable ship's stores

, from which a number of rats darted, seemingly unmindful of our presence.

When we gained the daylight once more I blinked like an owl, breathing in the fresh air with a relish that the stifling atmosphere of between decks had caused; but short was my respite, for my new friend asked me whether I would be bold enough to go to the foretopmast head.

Not wishing to be thought a coward, and having had plenty of experience of tree-climbing, I assented; and Drake, kicking off his shoes, immediately sprang into the shrouds, making his way aloft with marvellous rapidity.

I followed, clinging tenaciously to the shrouds with my hands, while my bare feet were tortured by the contact with the sharp ratlines. However, I stuck to it, followed Drake over the futtock shrouds, where for a space I felt like a fly on a ceiling, and at length gained the foretop.

Without pausing for breath my guide literally jumped into the topmast shrouds, and before I had attempted to follow he was perched upon the crosstrees. Five minutes later I was by his side, and I must confess that on looking down I experienced a feeling of giddiness that required a strong effort on my part to overcome. Eighty feet below, the deck looked like a long, narrow strip of dazzling white planks, the crew appearing no larger than manikins.

"You have pluck, Aubrey," remarked Drake. "I thought you would have shrunk from the task, or, in any case, have climbed no farther than the foretop. And you didn't crawl through the lubber's hole, either!"

"The lubber's hole! What's that?"

"Those openings on the tops. Greenhorns generally scramble through those instead of going over the futtock shrouds. I say, can you swim?"

"No," I replied. "An old shipman whom I know, one Master Collings, of Gosport, used to say that swimming was a useless art, for when a man fell overboard his agony was only unduly prolonged."

"Ah! Many an old seaman thinks the same, but nevertheless to be able to swim comes in very handy. Supposing you fell overboard; well, in nine cases out of ten you would be picked up again if you could swim. I've been knocked overboard as often as four times and I am still here. Now, take the first opportunity and let me teach you."

I thanked my newly-found friend for his offer, and, now thoroughly rested, I began my descent to the deck, grasping the shrouds tightly and feeling very gingerly with one foot till I found a secure foothold.

On gaining the deck I saw that my uncle and the captain had been watching my manoeuvres, both being well satisfied with my maiden efforts at going aloft.

The time of parting had come, and dry-eyed, though with a curious feeling in my throat, I bade farewell to my uncle and cousin Maurice.

I watched them row ashore, waving my handkerchief as they went, and when they reached the wharf they waited to see the Gannet get under way.

It was a busy scene, and an operation in which I could take no part. The captain gave the ship in charge to the master; the red cross of St. George was struck at the gaff and run up to the peak. The shrill notes of the bosn's whistle had hardly died away when the rigging was alive with men; the canvas was spread from the yards as if by magic, and all that remained was to break the anchor out, the cable already being hove short.

A part of the crew manned the capstan bars, a fiddler being perched on the capstan head. "Heave round the capstan," came the order, and with a patter of bare feet, the clanking of the pawls, and the merry lilt of the fiddle, the cable came inboard.

"Up and down," shouted a man stationed for'ard, meaning the anchor has left its muddy bed. "Now, then, my hearties, heave and away!" And to an increased pace the anchor came home.

A medley of other orders, unintelligible to me, followed; the sheets were hauled well home, the braces and bowlines made taut, and by the peculiar gliding sensation that followed I knew the Gannet was under way.

The old town of Portsmouth appeared to slip past our larboard quarter, and presently the ship was lifting to the gentle swell, as, close-hauled, we headed towards the English Channel.

Thus commenced the three years' cruise of my first ship, His Majesty's ship Gannet, and I soon accustomed myself to the routine, showing a keen interest in the duties of a midshipman; and ere long I could vie with my messmates in the most hazardous tasks that fell to their lot.

The Gannet first sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar to the Mediterranean Sea, for the purpose of keeping an eye on the Algerine rovers, who had again begun, in spite of the sharp lesson taught them by Admiral Blake, to molest peaceful traders. From the Mediterranean we sailed across the Atlantic to the Indies, to make our headquarters the town of Port Royal in Jamaica, an island that Penn and Venables had seized from the Spaniards some five years before.

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