Chapter 24 – The Atlantic
Sailing from Washington, Peter had chosen the wide swing above 40⁰ degrees latitude to take advantage of the prevailing winds and currents and then run down slightly to the southeast above the Azores to reach Gibraltar with all possible dispatch. Dihya’s speed had carried her to within a week’s sailing of Gibraltar. Then the weather turned thick and foul. For two days, Dihya had been fighting through heavy cross seas and torrents of rain under storm trysails. Above decks, Peter had ordered the guns double lashed to the bulwarks, hatches double battened, the fore topsail and fore topgallant yards sent down, and preventer chains attached to the main yard. The tiller had been strengthened with relieving tackles and a lifeline run from the foremast to the mainmast.
Above decks, speech was almost impossible. The roar of the wind was so strong it seemed to yank the words out of one’s mouth and blow the syllables into inaudible fragments. Below decks, as the fury of the storm increased, boots, clothes, plates, food containers, and personal gear flew around like shrapnel until they were secured. Trying to stand upright below decks was impossible; the galley fire had been doused, and men managed to grab a meager meal of hardtack and water when they could, and slept −when it was possible—in wet clothing.
Peter struggled to the stern at daybreak on the third day. What he saw, approaching from the northeast, was terrifying. Above an ugly, lightning-filled, yellow-grey horizon, a long ridge of shelf clouds sped towards Dihya, looking like the gaping mouth and lips of some gigantic monster whose teeth were wind-lashed scud. “Head into the squall!” Peter cried to Fox and the other crewman at the tiller. They wrestled Dihya a little closer to the northeast, the ship straining against the mounting pressure of the waves. Peter had time to scramble to the companionway and yell below “Secure yourselves! We’re going to be struck!” He grabbed a line at the main fife rail next to the mast and whipped a bowline tight around his body.
A shrieking whistle, accompanied by a horizontal blast of wind-driven rain, roared through the rigging and Dihya was hit with a blow from God’s Hammer. She heeled over to port, her rails under water, then as the front of the squall line passed, whipsawed over 52⁰ degrees to starboard and hung there, her main yard perilously close to plunging beneath the roiling waves.
Like a living thing, Dihya slowly fought her way out of the seas sweeping along her starboard side to right herself in the hellish turmoil of wind and dense white sea foam. In the same instant, Christopher, bos’n Wiley, Holbrook, the carpenter’s mate, and four other crewmen spilled onto the deck from the companionway, lurching to grasp the lifeline or tumbling onto the pitching and yawing deck. “See to the helm!” Peter cried. “Pray God the rudder is sound!” Miraculously, Fox at the helm had survived Dihya’s violent heeling by clutching a relieving tackle. The other crewman at the tiller had simply vanished.
“Heave to!” Peter yelled above the wind to Fox. The rudder answered, and Dihya pointed more closely into the wind and waves, taking the storm’s force off her port bow. The storm trysails had also somehow survived. “Hoist and backwind a furled forestaysail,” Peter ordered. As the sail flew and was sheeted home, Dihya steadied, the backed forestaysail pulling the ship away from the wind while the storm trysails and rudder countering that action, holding Dihya 60⁰ degrees off the wind.
Holbrook reported to Peter with the bad news. Both the main and foremasts had sprung above the deck. Worse, the stays supporting the masts, taut when Dihya had left Washington, had become slack in the warmer weather off Spain. Peter had not struck down the topmasts. With their added weight, the masts swayed and threatened to topple, turning Dihya on her beam ends until she broached to, dooming all her crew to instant death.
Without needing orders, Holbrook and his mates battled the storm to fix convex wooden fishes to either side of the foremast, wolding them in place with stout rope like a giant splint. They lowered the main boom to the deck and secured it, then strengthened the main mast as they had done to the foremast. As they worked, Peter turned his efforts to the dangerously loose stays. He and Fox watched the topmasts whip back and forth.
“Captain,” Fox said, “I have an idea. I’ll need gun tackles, four for each mast, a rigging bag with 8-inch spikes, and a maul.”
“Do the best you can,” Peter yelled above the wind’s roar. Fox ran below to get what he needed.
While Holbrook and the gunner secured lines through the tackles to the chains on either side of the foremast, Fox climbed the shrouds on the dizzily-gyrating mast to just below the topmast cap. As the ship pitched and yawed, he was almost thrown off the loose shrouds or slammed against the mast. Hammering the spikes through the tackle gear to the mast was an ordeal. Once the tackle slipped from his wet fingers, almost plummeting to the deck; twice he dropped spikes. I need four hands for this damn job, he cursed to himself. But after a half hour of pounding, he had managed to hammer 16 spikes through the tackles and into the masts. Once he was safe on deck, the crew tightened the tackles with jiggers—double and single blocks—until the mast was stable again. After just a few minutes rest, he climbed the main shrouds and endured another half hour battering aloft to secure the mainmast as well.
Eight hours later, Dihya was now sailing comfortably before a steady northwest wind under fore and aft sails. The crew had tightened the ship’s shrouds by reroving and tightening the lanyards through the deadeyes attached to the ship’s chainwales.
“Well, I certainly slept the sleep of the dead,” Peter said, savoring the hot coffee that Boggins had mercifully provided.
“Had Dihya not righted herself when that squall hit,” Christopher answered, “we’d all be sleeping the sleep of the dead, and that’s no joke.”
“Wiley has been busy while I slept,” Peter said, looking at the now taut stays.
“I feel better about the masts.” Christopher said, “Because of Fox’s courage, we made it through the storm. Holbrook and his men have done wonders, but I doubt that we can carry topsails.” He waited a moment, then knocked on the rail for luck before saying, “We may need them, however. We stopped an Irish brig while you slept and found out that the Algerine fleet is at sea, looking for Americans. They seem to have been at war with us for four years and we just didn’t know it.”
“Well, we know it now,” said Peter. “When we left Washington, I heard that Decatur was commanding a squadron to take the war to Algiers, to be followed in a few weeks by Bainbridge with an even larger force including our first ‘74, Independence. Charles Stewart is readying a third flotilla, including the new ‘74 Washington.”
“That’s all well and good, but they’re not here, and we are. And so, apparently is the Algerine admiral, Rais Hamidou, in Meshuda, a French-built 44-gun frigate.”
By the following morning, it was clear that Christopher needed to have knocked harder for luck. Since daybreak, they’d been pursued by a strange sail that slowly and ominously gained on Dihya.