Saturday, May 23, 2009

Chapter 1. - Challenges at Sea

Her Royal Majesties Steamship Drake left the port of Weymouth, England in the summer of 1842. She sailed south toward the Cape of Good Hope. This was the start of a long journey to India. The RMS Drake was loaded with trade goods, building materials, and mail for the far flung garrison posts. The mail was to be delivered throughout the East Indies trading company expansion.

The weather was fair with a slight breeze coming in off the Atlantic. A young couple, standing together at the railing, were gazing out into the sea. The breeze, crisp and cool, raised goose-flesh on the arms of Lady Sarah Swithington, late of Darby Dale. 

She was the brand-new fiancée of Sgt. Major Reginald Fitzsimmons. The Sgt Major, a daring and dashing figure of a man, looked at her and smiled. Lady Swithington gently rubbed her arms and smiled in anticipation of the voyage to come and the experiences of exotic ports of call.

Meanwhile - out in the middle Atlantic, weather conditions had been remarkably placid for much too long. Wind had been almost non-existent for days. There had been very few clouds and the sun was in full blossom...

The RMS Drake lazily sambaed her way southward calling in many exotic ports. She visited Brest, Bordeaux, Oporto, Lisbon, Cadir and finally Gibraltar. Lady Sarah and Sgt. Major Fitzsimmons went sight seeing in each port. There they sampled local cuisine, gathered small souvenirs and stored memories that would last a life time. The voyage had been idyllic. Lady Sarah could not imagine a more perfect trip.

The Drake resupplied and provisioned while in Gibraltar. Capt. Roger DeKaban also had her inspected and was satisfied with the report. Although, why did the boiler suddenly cease operation between Lisbon and Cadir? That thought, nagged at him for years to come. RMS Drake left Gibraltar and turned south toward the coast of Africa. She made good speed with the boiler rhythmically chugging a happy little melody.

Out in the Atlantic the clear sky and merciless sun began to heat the water. Wind directions in Antarctica changed and begin blowing northward. And cool breezes had been following the Drake southward since Weymouth.

Along the coast of Africa, RMS Drake made port at Robat, Mogadore, and Bofadar. By selling most of their trade goods, the Captain and crew were happy. It was their intent to buy more on the "Coasts" that were quickly approaching. The lure of cheap Ivory, Gold and Silver had them smiling in anticipation. This would be a very profitable trip.

A small toast was raised in the Captain's cabin to celebrate the crossing the Tropic of Cancer. Afterwards Sarah and Fitzsimmons retired to their respective cabins. The small dram of brandy had merely whetted the Sergeant Major's appetite, not quenched a thirst. The men of the Highlanders had nicknamed him “Snort” because of the prodigious amount of whiskey he could drink. 

One of his mates, Mark Winterglen, had said "If he is not on duty, he is drinking, watch your whiskey boys, he just snorts it down." That had been a good laugh and had cost Fitzsimmons a few more drinks. The name "Snort" had been with him since that day. Now where was that bottle?

Sarah entered her cabin and began to make preparations for her evening's repose. She absentmindedly noticed that the swell was somewhat larger The wind seemed to be more noticeable too. One of her lamps was guttering somewhat. She needed to trim the wick. One last thing, though, she had better go check on Reginald. She had noticed the wistful look on his face as the Captain had put the stopper back in the decanter.

The voyage continued down the coast of Africa with stops at Port Lokko and Free Town. The Drake stopped at Monrovia on the Grain Coast and resupplied some of the foodstuffs. Turning east, she then began her voyage on down the Coasts, stopping at every port imaginable. The Drake's crew and Captain traded diligently picking up Ivory, Gold and Silver. 

As she neared the Mouths of the Quorra, preparing to turn south again, the boiler went out. No warning, nothing. One second it was perking along normally, the next it was ominously quiet. It did relight, after some effort, but its rhythm had changed.

The water vapor suspended over the area that had been heating for weeks met with the northerly flowing winds from Antarctica and the southern bound winds that had chased the Drake all the way from England. Rotation around the hot spot started almost immediately.

The party for crossing the Equator allowed the crew to blow off some steam. Snort lived up to his name and enjoyed himself tremendously. The tips of his ears and nose turned slightly red when he drank, but that was about the only visible symptom. Even though he could drink prodigious amounts, he was never out of control. Things were good with the world. Snort Fitzsimmons was a thoroughly likable man. 

Once the Drake left Nazareth, it was back to work. The boiler was running rougher now although it had not failed again. Capt. DeKaban made inquiries at every port but spare parts were not to be found. He decided to press straight on to Cape Town in hopes that spare parts or at least an adequate smithy could be found.

The Drake's boiler died twice between Mayumba and Cape Frio. The crew had tried everything to fix it. This included a complete cleaning of all the firebox and circulation components while docked at Cape Frio. That activity helped somewhat. The engine was still off rhythm, but it did not die again during the remaining voyage to Cape Town.

The mid-Atlantic storm had gathered strength and had grown into a full-fledged hurricane. It had wandered around the hot spot like a drunken tripod dog, not quite deciding to travel east or west. The north winds finally grabbed hold and started pushing the storm southeast.

At Cape Town the inquiries for spare parts went for naught. There were several smithies but the Captain thought his crew were more qualified than the smiths. He set them cleaning, lubricating and polishing one more time. The Drake replenished its fresh water supply and added some fruit to the stores. Snort and Sarah spent a delightful evening with an old friend of the Captain.

Mark Fairvictory was an excellent host and conversationalist. He enjoyed entertaining his old friend and the other travelers from home. The meal was superb, with excellent cigars and brandy afterwards. The dinner conversation embraced many subjects including news from England, local hunting conditions and sporting events. Fairvictory was extremely keen on his teams chances in the upcoming Cricket tournament and regretted that DeKaban would not be around to watch.

The next day dawned crisp and clear, but there were ominous clouds off in the northwest and the swell was rising. The captain ordered RMS Drake to cast off, he was going to run in front of the storm. The Drake should be safe once it got around the Cape of Good Hope and sheltered on the eastern side of Africa. 

The Drake dropped south out of Cape Town, the boiler chugging right along. It stayed out south of the Cape. The Captain wanted to make sure there was deep water under the keel. Finally the Drake started its turn to the east.

The storm was a monster and its winds were gaining velocity, it was now bound directly for the Cape of Good Hope pushing high seas in front of it.

The captain realized he had dreadfully underestimated the storm. The seas were tremendous, with waves continuously crashing over the bow. He ordered all his crew to be tied to lifelines and anything else lashed into place. All passengers, including Sarah and Snort were told to stay in their cabins. It was not said, but understood that this situation was dicey. 

The RMS Drake sailed into seas that were becoming rougher and wilder. The Captain called for all the power the little boiler could produce. The Captain and the helmsman were both manning the wheel, straining to keep the bow into the huge waves. The Drake was pounding along, its bilge pumps were almost overwhelmed. The captain applied every bit of skill he knew to keep his ship alive. Silently, he prayed to every god he knew, to let his beloved RMS Drake to survive.

The seas were immense, they had become nasty, boiling, living monsters with wild frothing mist blowing off their tops. The wave walls were vertical, taller than many multi-storied buildings. The Drake was barely capable of maintaining steerage, and the storm was pushing against it violently. Pound, pound, pound! Waves crashed violently onto the deck. 

Late in the day, the engine simply gave up. The rough conditions had exacerbated the internal problems and it simply couldn't cope anymore. RMS Drake, now without power, could only be pushed along in front of the storm. All the captain could do was sail, dammit, sail. To keep the Drake from capsizing he used the rudder to keep the bow into the waves. He did not sleep, he sailed and prayed.

The storm blew for several days, the Drake was literally lost at sea. The ship was showing signs of the incessant pounding. It was tossed around as easily as dandelion seeds in a breeze. The storm winds were so fierce and shrill that one couldn't hold a coherent thought. 

Sarah was violently seasick and Snort was not much better although putting on a brave face. They were clinging to each other for comfort. All were privately making their peace with their God in one way or another. Minutes passed like hours and days seemed like years. The storm raged on.

Oh dear, will RMS Drake and all on board be lost at sea. Will our Lady Sarah Swithington survive? Stay tuned.

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