HMS Maria, English Chanel, 1796
“Damn. We’ve lost her captain. She’s got the weather gage and the wind behind her. We’ll never catch her now.”
“Thank you, Mr Zacharias,” Captain Smith replied as he took the eyeglass from the lieutenant and watched as the tiny speck of white sail disappeared over the horizon. His face remained impassive though he shared his first lieutenant’s frustration.
“Change course Mr Zacharias, west south west a quarter west.”
“Aye aye, sir, west south west a quarter west.”
The tall lieutenant saluted, turned to pass the new course to the helmsman and bellowed the order to wear ship.
The boatswain’s pipe shrilled, and the deck rang to the patter of bare feet as the men ran aloft to reef the sails. The hands took the braces, blocks squealing as the yards swung around, the helmsman put the helm over, and the ship started to turn. Her momentum slowed as she turned, hesitated for a moment, t’gallants luffing, before the wind caught her and HMS Maria settled onto her new course.
Despite his irritation at loosing his chase, Captain Smith nodded in satisfaction; he had a good ship, a good crew and officers that trusted and respected him.
Erwin Smith may have run a tight ship but he still had a reputation for being a progressive captain. He was slow to use the lash but did not tolerate indiscipline or insubordination and he didn’t hesitate to punish where punishment was due. It was an approach that gained respect; Captain Smith respected his men, and that respect was returned tenfold.
HMS Maria had once been one of the fastest ships in her class; a Cruizer class brig, she was seaworthy, manoeuvrable and armed with eighteen heavy guns. Her sixteen 32-pound carrondades gave her a devastating short range broadside of over five hundred pounds, and with two long-range bow chasers she was a force to be reckoned with. In her heyday her officers maintained she was the finest ship to swim and the men swore she could do everything but talk. But now the Maria was old and crank, her seams leaked, she rolled heavily in high seas and had a frustrating tendency to miss stays. But she was Smith’s first command and he had done all he could for her; shifting her ballast, altering the rake of her masts and configuration of her sail plan until she could almost reach the speeds of her glory days. He’d set the carpenter and his mates to work, pitching and caulking every seam, and though she was still a wet ship, at least the men slept in dry hammocks most nights. Which was more than could be said for his own cramped cabin where the deck head leaked and dripped continually into a small canvas cot that was a good foot too short for him. Still, his own comfort was of secondary consideration to that of his men.
Erwin Smith did his best with what he was given, which was just as well, because the world had not given him much and he had worked his way up to his current position largely on his own merits. Initially Erwin’s prospects had looked modestly promising. His father, a school master, had the foresight to place his name on the books of a ship captained by a friend of the family. By the time Erwin joined the Royal Navy at the age of fourteen he already had four years of alleged service under his belt by virtue of his name being carried on the books of a ship that he had never seen. The false muster rankled with the principled boy, however it was common enough practice, so young Erwin learned to swallow his misgivings and accept what little help he could get to set his foot upon the ladder. It was little enough. Erwin’s father had died suddenly during the boy’s first cruise, his fickle friends turned their back on his struggling widow, and what little interest Mr Midshipman Smith possessed had disappeared like haar before the sunrise. Erwin had little choice but to make the best of it and shift for himself. And so he did. He was smart, resilient and resourceful and proved to be a natural seaman. Never one to shirk action, he had quickly caught the eye of his commanding officer who put him forward for his examination for lieutenant at the earliest opportunity.
By the age of nineteen Lieutenant Smith was serving as fourth lieutenant aboard the Admiral’s flagship. For a young officer without patronage or interest it was as promising a berth as could be wished for. However Erwin chaffed at the inaction that was typical of the flagship, yearning for a commission with greater opportunity of seeing action, of winning glory and the hallowed promotion to post captain. What Erwin desired above all else was a commission in a cruising frigate and the freedom to take the fight to the enemy. And eventually through persistence, perseverance and more than a little judicious flattery and manipulation, Erwin got his way. Every opportunity for action he seized with both hands and it didn’t take long for him to distinguish himself. Volunteering to lead shore-based operations, he took out several signal stations on the enemy’s coast with minimal casualties and loss of life and was rewarded with promotion to post captain and his first command, HMS Maria.
His first act as captain of the brig was to write to the Admiralty to request Mr Mike Zacharias as his first lieutenant. Mike Zacharias was a born seaman. Quite literally so. The son of a sailing master, he had been born between the great guns on the lower deck of a 74 as she weathered the Cape. He’d been barely a year old when he first crossed the line and had been at sea almost continually ever since. Unlike Erwin, Mike had no need for false muster when he presented his certificates at the Admiralty to pass his examination for lieutenant.
Mike and Erwin had first met aboard a ship of the line when Erwin was a fresh-faced midshipman, wet behind the ears and green around the gills. Mike had immediately taken the boy under his wing, shielding him from the worst excesses of the midshipman’s berth, and helped to see him through his first few years at sea relatively unscathed.
If Erwin had little interest, Mike had even less. Though he had successfully made the transition from warrant to commissioned officer, he lacked the influence to rise further than the rank of lieutenant. As a junior captain, Erwin could not promote his friend, but at the very least he could pluck him from the obscurity of the Portsmouth guard ship where he’d been languishing as third lieutenant for the last year. Though it might have rankled with other less equanimous men, Mike was only too glad to server under his former messmate as first lieutenant of the Maria.
So by the age of twenty-six Erwin had the single epaulette of a junior post captain, a weatherly ship, a tight crew, and a reputation as a gifted and intelligent sea officer, but there his naval career stalled. Despite his undoubted seamanship and talent for cool strategic thinking, many of the old order of officers viewed him with something approaching distaste. In too many influential circles Captain Smith was regarded as an uppity commoner who didn’t know his place, and had already risen too far above his station. Worse still, he was too clever by half. His men may have trusted him with their lives, but the same could not be said of his superiors. And that was why Erwin Smith found himself stationed in the home waters of the Channel keeping an eye on smugglers rather than paroling Brest Roads with the inshore fleet or flying down the coast of Brittany with the detached frigate squadrons. Still, opportunity was what you made of it and Erwin Smith was nothing it not resourceful.
Erwin frowned as he double-checked the figures set out in neat columns in the ledger spread open on the little writing desk wedged into the captain’s day cabin. The cabin was tiny, the desk smaller still, and Erwin’s large frame dwarfed his surroundings. After an average boyhood, he had suddenly grown into his full height at the age of sixteen. After frequent painful collisions with the deck head and months of mild concussion, Erwin had quickly learned to stoop at all times below deck. Even though, he still appeared outlandishly large for the confines of the brig’s aft cabin.
“Johnston, ” he called to the Marine outside his door, “pass the word for Dr Zoe.”
“Aye, aye, captain,” the Marine responded smartly and Erwin heard his bellow echoing through the ship. “Pass the word for Dr Zoe!”
The ship was so small that Erwin’s own voice would likely have carried all the way to the doctors quarters in the cockpit below but he was the captain and protocol had to be observed if discipline was to be maintained, even in a ship this small. Especially in a ship this small, where officers and men lived cramped together, one on top of the other with little opportunity to maintain their dignity and station. However impractical it may be in a ship this size, and as much as it rankled with Erwin, the captain was expected to keep himself apart, aloof from his people.
Dr Zoe, the ship’s surgeon, had no such concerns with either protocol or dignity. They breezed into the cabin a few minutes later smelling strongly of rubbing alcohol and camphor, with suspicious looking stains on the front of their apron that the captain did not care to know the nature of.
“What’s up Erwin?” They asked without ceremony, plonking themselves down on the 18-pound long gun that took up most of the space in the aft cabin.
“Hanji…” Erwin rubbed the bridge of his nose irritably, “how many times do I have to tell you not to sit on the guns? It sets a bad example and drives the gunner to distraction.”
“Oh! Sorry,” Hanji hopped off the gun and settled on the chest in front of the small stern windows instead.
“That little brig give you the slip again?”
“Indeed she did.” Erwin sighed.
“Maybe you should give up on her Erwin, is she really worth the trouble?”
“Probably not, but I’m convinced she’s smuggling.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Every time we catch sight of her she always changes course, but not so obviously as to attract attention. Whoever her captain is, he knows these waters and he knows his business. The way she changed tack today though, she was definitely running. Mark my words Hanji,” Erwin tapped the desk with his forefinger to emphasise his point, “she’s carrying something, something valuable and if we could just bring her to heel, that cargo could be worth a pretty penny.”
“Really Erwin?” the doctor eyed him with obvious disapproval, “since when did you care so much about prize money? I thought you were above such petty trifles?”
“I wish I could be,” Erwin ran his hand over his eyes and turned the ledger around so the doctor could see the figures.
“As you can see from the gunner’s accounts the powder magazine has all but run dry. If you are to continue your experiments with improving the gun sights, we need more powder.”
“But…” Hanji frowned as they ran their eye down the column of figures before glancing up at the captain, “can’t you just get more powder from the gun wharf?”
“Dr Zoe,” Erwin laughed mirthlessly, “your faith in the Navy Board touches my heart but alas, we ran through our allotment of powder long since.”
The doctor looked at him in confusion for a moment.
“So where did the rest of the powder come from?
“I paid for it,” Erwin answered lightly.
“Jesus Christ Erwin, you mean you paid for all that powder I’ve been burning through testing the new sights?”
“Yes, it’s worth every penny though. If you can improve the accuracy and range of our guns, then we have a better chance of every shot hitting home, and of minimising our own casualties. If it saves lives, it’s worth it.”
“Even so Erwin…damn…” the doctor pushed their spectacles up onto their forehead and wrinkled their nose as they peered at him. “How much money have you spent? It’s not like you have much to spare.”
“No,” Erwin agreed ruefully, “I don’t. And that’s why we have to catch that little brig.”