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HMS Seawolf

by

Michael Aye


Introduction

 

The early stages of the American Revolution were hamstrung by shortages of gunpowder.  At the battle of Bunker Hill the colonists did not have enough to repel the third British charge.  A survey by George Washington at the time showed army stockpiles were sufficient for 9 rounds per man.

The British had been careful to restrict the manufacturing of gunpowder in the colonies.  British gunpowder was supplied by the Board of Ordnance. The three main magazines were located at Palace Yard, Westminister, the Tower of London, and the largest at Greenwich. From these main magazines, naval supplies were distributed to Ordnance yards close to main dockyards.  Overseas bases included Jamaica, Antigua, and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

George Washington’s armies totaled about 11,000 men.  At the same time there were 11,000 privateers at sea intercepting British shipping in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and even between Ireland and England.

Washington’s schooner fleet and privateer raids were directed toward establishing a supply of the precious war commodity as their main objective.

By 1777, the privateers and merchantmen brought in over 2 million pounds of gunpowder and saltpeter.

Privateer John Manley captured the Nancy, supplying the American army with 2,000 muskets, 31 tons of musket shot, 7,000 round-shot for cannon, and other ammunition.  Captain Jonathan Haraden from Salem, Massachusetts, who captured 1,000 British cannons, was considered one of the best sea fighters, successfully taking on three armed British ships at the same time.  Privateers captured countless British reinforcements and over 10,000 seamen, keeping them out of the British Navy.

The capture of the British ship, Margaretta, is a true incident.  Below is a short description of how the cutter, Margaretta, was taken.

 

Machias, just east of the Mid-coast region of Maine, was already well-populated by June 1775 when a British ship arrived in port accompanied by a cutter, the British warship Margaretta.  The ships were to return with lumber for the British.  The citizens of Machias who met at a town meeting, declared they would never contribute lumber to the British and erected a liberty pole in the town square to emphasize their declaration.  The next day, the Patriots attempted to capture the Margaretta’s captain, but he stood fast until he was hit by two musket balls.  The Margaretta surrendered and the captain died.  The Margaretta was appropriated by the Patriots and was renamed the Machias Liberty.

 

There was a proposal to invade Nova Scotia but not by privateers.  It was submitted to General George Washington for action provided there were not more than 200 British troops at Halifax.  This can be found on the web at History of Nova Scotia-Communications and Transportation, Chapter 4, 1776, Jan-Dec.



PART ONE



The Watch

 

The officer of the deck

Peered through the blinding snow

They’d just turned the glass

Only thirty minutes left to go

The distant sound of muskets

A flash as something explodes

Turning to the mid he cussed

Just our luck don’t you know

 

...Michael Aye

 

 

 


Prologue

 

BOOM!…KA..BOOM!

“What the hell!”

“I’m not sure, sir, seems like two explosions-a small one, then a larger one.”

BOOM!….

“My God, sir, it appears the tender has exploded!”

“Aye, it does,” Herrod, the first lieutenant, answered his fifth lieutenant. “Be careful that some of that debris doesn’t set Warrior a blaze, Mr. Johns.”

 “Aye, sir, I’ll call the fire party.”

 “Mr. Dewey.”

 “Aye,” the young mid answered the first lieutenant.

 “My compliments to the captain and he may desire to come on deck…Mr. Dewey?”

The young mid turned in his stride, “Yes, sir.”

 “The captain is in conversation with General Clinton and Lord Anthony so be mindful of your manners.”

 “Aye, sir.   Mind them I will.”

The harbour was alive with activity.  Firelight from at least two blazing ships lit up the snowy night brilliantly when only minutes before a stiff offshore wind had been blowing flurries of snow across the dark anchorage.

 “That’s musket fire, is it not?”

Turning, Herrod acknowledged his captain.  “Aye, sir.  Small arm and explosives.  What a way to start the first day of 1776, is it not, sir?”

“Aye, Mr. Herrod.  Happy New Year,” Captain Moffett replied dryly.

 “Look...Look there, sir,” Lieutenant Johns pointed.  “Some kind of vessel low in the water next to the transport, Cambridge.  It’s Cambridge’s marines that are firing their muskets at the contraption.”

BOOM!…This explosion rocked Warrior and the small group of officers were thrown to the deck.  The night sky was even brighter now with large pieces of fiery debris raining down on the ship.  As Moffett and his officers regained their feet they could feel the intense heat.

 “Mr. Herrod!”

 “Aye, captain.”

 “Beat to quarters if you will, sir.  Mr. Johns have the fire party form a line with buckets and douse the sails.  They’re furled and covered with sleet but they could still catch fire with all the debris in the air.”

The bosun had to use his starter more than once to move the crew along.  Several men appeared frightened and unnerved as they glared at the inferno that was once the proud Cambridge, her bowsprit hanging like a broken tooth.  Now her tenders were also ablaze.  Other ships had cut their cables to avoid being engulfed in the Cambridge’s flames and now several had drifted together, entangling spars and rigging, adding to the mass confusion.

 “Quarters, sir.  Eleven minutes flat even in this confusion.”

 “Very well,” Moffett answered his first lieutenant.  “Now, Mr. Herrod, put a couple of boats in the water if you will.  I want to be warned if that contraption comes toward Warrior.  I’ll not have Lord Anthony’s flagship destroyed in harbour by some devilish boat only Satan would conjure up.”


 

Chapter One

 

It was nearing dawn.  His Majesty’s Brigantine1 SeaWolf was fighting a light wind as she tried to make Barbados before nightfall.  Dawkins had laid out his captain’s clothes.  Today, as everyday when not in port, his boyish captain dressed in sailor’s slops.  Added always to this were his sea boots and coat.  Hot or cold he wore the coat.  He might take it off after his first appearance on deck but he always put it on.  He rarely wore his hat other than as required by duty. 

The captain’s hair was jet black with a bit of wave.  Well not exactly jet black.  The youthful captain had a strip of gray on the right side.  A bullet had creased his scalp and when the hair grew back there was a gray furrow.  Dawkins watched as his captain stared at his defect.  Lady Anthony had said it made young Gabe more mysterious and romantic to the ladies.  Dawkins had not known the captain to lack attention from the ladies, and he had known his young captain several years now.  The captain, though only a Lieutenant by rank, was a midshipman when they met. 

In fact had it not been for the then midshipman Anthony countermanding an order to fire a cannon in gun drill, Dawkins would have lost a leg when the cannon recoiled after being fired.  That had created a stir, ending only when Lieutenant Witz had gone mad and jumped overboard.  Dawkins had also been present when his captain had made lieutenant.  In fact he was an oarsman when “Gabe” had been rowed back to Drakkar to inform his brother, Commodore Lord Anthony, he’d passed his exam.

Dawkins was also present that day when Drakkar had defeated Reaper.  He’d been wounded.  However, when the ketch Shark went back to England with Lord and Lieutenant Anthony, Dawkins still recovering from a wound in his arm was made part of Shark’s crew.  Dawkins was no longer fit to be an able seaman.  However, he’d learned his numbers and could read and write which was rare for a British tar, and he could perform those duties of captain’s steward.  He had been pleased by the offer when the captain was given command of SeaWolf and gladly accepted.  Not because he needed the billet.  He’d put up enough prize money to retire, but there was something about his boyish captain that drew Dawkins to him.  Something he couldn’t explain.  He had been to sea more than thirty years and he’d never met another he’d serve this way.

Dagan was talking to the captain.  Dagan was a mystery, some said a gypsy sooth-sayer, but he was the captain’s uncle, his protector, and he watched over Gabe like a hawk.  Dagan stood watch, and acted as cox’n but otherwise came and went as he pleased, without interference from anyone.

Dagan and Dawkins usually dined together, but Dagan was not much of a talker, therefore Dawkins had learned very little about him beyond what he’d already known from serving together on Drakkar.

The captain was a hard riser.  He’d sit on the edge of his chair rubbing his eyes, then run his finger in his hair, take a sip of coffee, then put on a boot.  He’d repeat the process for the other boot.  Then before putting on his coat, he would clutch the leather bag fastened around his neck.  Some wondered what the bag held, but Dawkins knew.  It was a large ruby.  How it was obtained was questioned in some circles but Dawkins never questioned it.  As he touched the bag every dawn the captain would look at Dagan and say “for luck.”

 

***

Lieutenant Gabriel “Gabe” Anthony strode up the companionway to the main deck just before first light.  Though the faces were not clearly visible, Gabe knew each of his men.  In the few months they’d been together they had meshed into a good crew.  A good crew and a good ship. 

SeaWolf was a thoroughbred, a brigantine.  She was captured at the onset of the war with the colonies.  Her master had the ill fortune of being caught on a lee shore by a British frigate and was never able to use the ship for the purpose she was built.  She was to have been a predator, a privateer, raiding British commerce.  Now she was being used against her former masters.

Gabe, like many, was not sure he agreed with the politics that caused this war with the colonies.  He’d do his duty as his brother, Lord Anthony, had often stated, but being a man of intelligence, he had to question some of the British policies.  He’d heard Commodore Gardner discuss Lord North’s complacency and his underestimation of the colonies’ abilities many times. 

Well, this ship was proof positive of Britain’s complacency about shipbuilding.  They’d never have built a vessel like SeaWolf.  British shipbuilders continued with the same old plans, making the same old mistakes and never seeming to learn.  Colonial shipbuilders had recognized the need for change and made modifications to improve a ship’s performance.  The bow was sharper and cut through the water.  The keel was deepened to give the ship more balance under full sail plus the keel was more curved aft so as to draw less water.  A brigantine was a swift vessel and more easily maneuvered than larger ships.  It was the perfect privateer.

SeaWolf was one-hundred feet long, thirty feet across the beam.  She was armed with eighteen six-pounders and six swivel guns.  She carried two masts.  She was square-rigged on the foremast and on the main-mast, a fore-and-aft mainsail.  When needed, stay-sails could also be bent on.

Gabe’s only concern was the gaff and boom.  It had caused a few “headaches” in the early part of the commission but now the crew was wizened to the dangers and no recent injuries had been reported.

Some consideration had been given to the master’s comfort when SeaWolf had been constructed, leaving Gabe to believe the previous master had likely been a part owner of the vessel if he didn’t own it outright.  To allow for more head room in the master’s quarters a poop deck had been created.  The gaff and boom hung amidships over the poop and was maneuvered by a block-and-tackle that was secured aft to the larboard and starboard sections of the poop.  The ship’s wheel was located just behind the poop and slightly starboard.  SeaWolf had been built by shipbuilders who knew their business.

 

***

SeaWolf’s complement was written as one-hundred thirty.  However, Gabe was happy to have a crew including officers and marines of one-hundred twenty-one.  Some of the crew had been with Gabe on Drakkar.  It was a comfort having known men when the commission first began.  However, everyone now knew their commander’s ways; else the bosun would know the reason why.

As Gabe made it on deck he was met by his first lieutenant, Everett Hazard, and the master, Mr. Blake.  This was Hazard’s first commission as an officer.  He’d been a pressed man who had flourished in the Navy.  He was slightly older than Gabe and would likely end up with a command of his own at some point.  He was one of a few who made it to the wardroom from the lower deck.  He needed some polish in regards to a gentleman’s ways but his seamanship was superb.  That was what Gabe needed most, a real seaman.

What could be said about the master?  A breed apart!  He could tell you what the weather was going to do before even the weather knew.  He was tall, bald and leathery.  His eyes always seemed to be squinting.

“Morning, cap’n.”

“Mr. Hazard, Mr. Blake,” Gabe answered, a ritual that never changed.

“The wind has started to freshen and a find drizzle made the dawn seem to linger longer than usual. The hands are at quarters till dawn breaks,” Hazard volunteered.  “With your permission once we secure from quarters I thought we’d spend some time in sail drill, sir.”

“Very well.  You’re the first lieutenant, Mr. Hazard, proceed as you see fit,” Gabe answered.  It hadn’t been that long ago he’d been asking permission before undertaking any task.  Gabe wanted Hazard to feel comfortable in his new station. It was not necessary for the first lieutenant to ask permission to carry out duties that were his responsibility and in the months since SeaWolf had been commissioned he’d grown with the task.  No, Gabe had no complaints.

“Dagan!”

“Aye!”

“Let’s go break our fast.  It appears Mr. Hazard and Mr. Blake have everything under control,” Gabe said as he headed back to his cabin with Dagan trailing.

By the time Dawkins had poured coffee Hazard was putting the men through their drill.

“Ready ho!  Put the helm down.”

Gabe could feel the bow begin to swing across the wind. 

“Helms a lee, off tacks and sheets.”


END OF SAMPLE

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