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Read an excerpt from The Ship’s Carpenter
Abraham manned his station below to check for hull damages on the orlop deck and in the hold. He overheard the battle above and, for the first time, experienced what sailors felt in terrifying engagements at sea: fear. The quaking of the ship was tremendous as the Northumberland replied with her guns and Abraham grabbed a plank to steady himself.
“Head for the 64-gun!” Captain Watson tore for the French warship. As he made for her, the first ship turned about in the English ship’s wake. “This will be a day they’ll remember, Lieutenant,” he said as they prepared to strike again. “Keep an eye out for the 62-gun astern.”
“That’s the Mars ahead, Captain. I’ve seen her before.”
Inside of a minute, le Mars was passing and firing its port-side guns. Likewise, Watson’s ship returned the fire with greater accuracy, shredding sails and raking the decks. The Northumberland turned for another run as the first French ship caught it halfway and blasted away the foresail of the Northumberland. Her huge foresail yard, falling and lying across the deck with a limp web of lines, made it difficult to man the fore guns.
The first ship, le Content, navigated away from the Northumberland to wait for le Mars. Then, together, the enemy warships attacked the Northumberland from both sides in a continual shower of cannonball and musket fire. The carnage was everywhere; nevertheless, the firing continued with exchange after exchange—every ship showing more damage with every volley.
Belowdecks on the Northumberland, the roars deafened the gun crews, who depended on hand signals from their officers, and the thick smoke of the cannons often blinded them, making aiming difficult. Men carried the injured below for the surgeon and his aides to attend. A few powder monkeys, boys as young as ten, were wounded in the firestorm while running powder canisters up from the magazine storeroom. Deep in her belly, the carpenters ran and crawled on the decks and in the hold inspecting the hull. Removed from the mayhem above, they checked hits below the waterline for leaks or other structural damage.
The power of the heavy iron thrown through the planked sides was devastating. Nothing had prepared Abraham for the continual pounding of doom upon the great wooden shell. His blood burned with excited, terrified energy. He hurried from side to side, fore to aft in search of damages. All the while, over him, cannons exchanges covered the decks with wood splinters, fallen lines, and wounded men.
The horror ground on for over three hours as the ships locked together in a contest of dominance and death. In the late afternoon, le Mars—crippled—withdrew from the action. Even so, le Content continued the barrage as injury to the ships and men mounted still higher. Captain Watson eventually staggered and fell upon the poop deck. Crewmen carried him below to the quarterdeck where he leaned against the mizzenmast, alive, though gravely wounded by a musket ball.
“Cease firing, we have struck!” A shout came from the poop deck above him.
Angered, Captain Watson turned to his first lieutenant, who was just as puzzled by the command. “Who called the strike, Lieutenant?”
As the first lieutenant climbed the stairs to figure it out, a blast from le Content shattered the helm. It instantly killed both helmsmen and took away the wheel in splinters. The ship lurched as the wind spilled from the sails, freeing the ship of any control.
“Damn the rascals. Leave firing and house your guns, we’ve struck!” The curse bellowed from the poop deck. It was the shipmaster trying to surrender. He and the gun master came running down the stairs followed by the first lieutenant.
The three hurried to the ashen captain, the shipmaster was shaking with fear. “We will all be killed! They are going to rake us fore and aft, Captain. Strike and let us cut away the masts, we’ll be retaken tomorrow. The ship is without a helm and can’t continue.”
French cannons continued firing through the dense powder smoke, unaware the Northumberland’s shipmaster had struck its colors. The officers carried the pallid captain below to the purser’s cabin for the surgeon to tend. In a faint breath, Captain Watson gave a weak order. “Put her before the wind and continue the fight.”
Unsure whether the existing damage put their warship in any danger of sinking, the first lieutenant sent for the master carpenter. Within a minute, Abraham arrived in the purser’s cabin. “There’s not an inch of water leaking in, sir. She’s in fine shape below.”
The shipmaster and the first lieutenant returned to the poop deck to consider Captain Watson’s order, but the firing subsided just as the captain fainted dead away.
Abraham started back for the orlop deck when the ship bumped something. Shouts of “Cease your fire!” came from the upper deck, then the tromping of feet from French marines. The shipmaster had struck the colors, and the French had boarded.
“My God, we didn’t strike, did we?” Captain Watson asked as a French lieutenant came to accept his surrender. Mister Lake, working on his wound, ignored the French soldiers, too busy to care.
“Oui, sir. Your ship is surrendered,” said the French officer in English.
“The fool.” Captain Watson, with little strength left, motioned to the doctor to hand him his sword; while still in the surgeon’s hand, the captain pushed it toward the Frenchman. “Here, I won’t need it any longer.”
“He’s finished,” said the lieutenant to two marine guards as he took the sword. “Get the English officers on the upper gun deck so I can instruct them. Unarm the crew and take them to the gun deck. Careful, many will want to continue fighting!”
Abraham, understanding the exchange, was aghast: his ship had surrendered, his captain was seriously wounded, and worse—he was a prisoner of war!