Swallow & L’Horrible … encore
Or: The Romance of the Tall Ships
Excerpt from: Captured at Sea
A vessel sailed on course from Acapulco to San Francisco. She was a sturdy, elegant three master. Under her bowsprit, and along her stern she wore in golden letters the name L’Horrible. The uniform of the crew evidenced that the ship belonged to the navy of the United States, although small details in construction and rigging led to the assumption that it hadn’t been built for that purpose.
The commander stood on the quarterdeck, and looked up to the shroud, where one of the men was hanging, and with the telescope was scanning the horizon.
“Well, Jim, have you got her?”
“Aye, aye, captain; there she sails right in front of the lens!” the man in the shroud replied while he pointed into the wind. He called the commander ‘captain’, although the man in question wore the insignia of a navy lieutenant. Using the address of a higher rank cannot hurt, especially not if the person deserved the promotion.
“What course is she holding?”
“She is seeking our wake, sir. I believe she hails from Guayaquil or Lima, perhaps even from Valparaiso, because she steers from further west than we are.”
“What kind of vessel is she, Jim?”
“I can’t say yet, sir; let her come a little closer first!”
“Will she be able to?”
“I find that hard to believe,” the commander replied. “I’m curious to see the ship that can out-sail L’Horrible!”
“Hm,” the man grunted while he climbed down from the shroud. He gave the telescope to the lieutenant: “I know one who would!”
“Yes, her; but no other! But why would Swallow come into these waters?”
“Don’t know, sir; but the ship back there is no Boston herring tub; it is a swift little clipper. If it were a large vessel, one would have to see it more clearly at that distance. And Swallow is a clipper.”
“Alright, we’ll see!” the lieutenant said. He dismissed the man and went to the helm with the telescope.
“Sail in sight?” the helmsman asked.
“Wouldn’t you want to do some reefing?”
“That’s not necessary,” the commander replied as he looked through the lens. “It’s a splendid sailer; she’ll catch us without reefing.”
“Pah, sir; I’d like to see that!”
“It is so,” the lieutenant said with a voice that revealed just a hint of injured seaman’s pride. “She knows how to grab her space. Look, mate, three minutes ago she was visible from only the top; now I’m standing on the deck and can spot her.”
“Shall I luff the sails, sir?”
“No; I would like to see how long it will take her to draw level with us. If it’s an American, then I shall be pleased; but if it’s someone else, then I’d rather whish the devil upon him than such a vessel.”
It didn’t take long before the tops of the masts, and then soon after the slender hull of the stranger was visible with the naked eye.
“It is a clipper with schooner rigging,” the mate said.
“Yes. A magnificent ship, by all the devils! Look how she runs before the wind, and with full sails at that. The one who captains her has less respect of a handful of wind than anyone else. He’s even readied the topgallant sails, so that the schooner will lift the rudder and dance on the bow!”
“A brave fellow, sir. But if a squall grabs her, the clipper will kiss the sea, as truly as I am mate Perkins! The man is sailing a little too recklessly.”
“No. Can’t you see that the men only hold the lines, and that they aren’t tied down? In the event of a squall, they simply let them go, pah!”
“She’s hoisting the banner now. Truly, an American! Can you see the stars and stripes? She literally eats the water, and will be at our side in five minutes.”
“She eats the water; yes, that’s the proper expression for such a run. By God, she really has six cannon hatches on each side, a swivel gun on the forecastle, and one on the poop deck near the helmsman. Can you recognize the emblem yet, mate?”
“Not yet; but if I’m not mistaken, then it is Swallow. I’ve been aboard her in Hoboken once, and have had a very close look at every pulley and every sheet, each piece of hawser and rigging.”
“Who was the commander on her at the time?”
“I’ve forgotten the name, sir; he was an old, half wrecked seadog with a red-blue nose that looked a lot like Gin and Brandy. But I knew the mate very well. His name was Peter Polter. He came from Germany and was an experienced sailor. Everyone knew they could rely on him. Have you got her close enough to the lens?”
“Yes. It is Swallow. Keep one or two points to windward; it is obvious that she wants to talk to us!”
The lieutenant returned to the quarterdeck. “Holla, boys, to the braces!”
The men leapt to the lines.
“Hoist the pennant!”
The stars and stripes banner of the Union flew to the top. “Ready to heave to!”
The orders were carried out with admirable precision. “Gun commander!”
The gunner stepped up to his cannon.
“Reef sails! Fire!”
The sails slacked, and at the same time the cannon shot discharged over the sea.
“Attention, mate, keep the wind out of the sails!”
The helmsman immediately obeyed the order, and with the least possible canvas on the yards, L’Horrible was hove to, and waiting for Swallow. A cannon also fired on board the clipper. She came flying along with almost fabulous speed. A blue swallow carved from wood spread its golden, pointy wings under her bowsprit. The inscription of the name on her stern was not visible at that point. The stiff breeze filled her heavy sails. She was lying to the side, so that the tips of her spars almost touched the water; the confidence and elegance with which she approached was a credit to her name. Her jib drew level with the stern pennant of L’Horrible when the voice of her commander, who stood on the deck of his schooner, carried across:
“Reef the sails!”
Her sails immediately dropped, the vessel lifted her bow, rose from her tilted stance, with the momentum taking her into a quick, short tilt to the other side, before she straightened up proud and strong above the tamed waves.