“Raft! On the starboard bow!!!” The cry from the sailor on the top acted like a fuse on the crew, their nerves had been tested all morning.
“Two points to starboard! Get ready to hoist the sails!” The captain screamed, reaching for his looking glass.
The whistles of the bosun and his assistants were shrill; the nervous tension of the crew quickly turned into action. The ship seemed to come to life suddenly, giving vent to the pent-up energy.
“Raise the mainsails! Furl the top sails and fasten the rigging!
“Prepare the jib for lowering!”
“Prepare to raise the mainsail!”
“Ready the starboard boarding nets!”
It was definitely better than many hours of nervous waiting for something to happen, something ... unexpected.
Earlier in the morning, the brig ‘Albatross’ had passed the White Reefs, and entered the Misty Waters.
The horizon was partly obscured by haze but from the prow, so far nothing else appeared to be happening. Sea state: 3, wind force: fresh breeze.
Peace, quiet and only the sound of the waves breaking on the hull. Everyone knew that something had to happen eventually. The tension grew with every nautical mile travelled in this calm setting that seemed to be somehow... unreal. Almost as if they were entering a completely new world. The anxiety was growing amongst the crew. Fortunately, the cry from the forward observer eased the tension, already so thick that it could have been cut with a knife.
May they not be Ted's men! Rob Harper thought suddenly; in his throat he felt the fear take on an almost tangible form, making it difficult to swallow.
Shaggy Ted, in whom the desire for adventure had also suddenly been awoken, sailed half a day before Harper's ‘Albatross’. If something had happened to Ted’s ship, then the crew won't be any further than half a cable. Rob was sure of that.
With the looking glass to his eye, he took a slight step, to rest his elbow on the rail. He could see a makeshift raft made of the flotsam from a ship, lashed together with a rope. On it, three men waving desperately.
“And have you heard the latest news?” Nick was trying to revive the slightly gloomy, still sleepy, morning atmosphere in ‘The Lame Seagull’ tavern.
Another clear day had begun, and the intrusive sun was easily piercing through the dirty grey windows, mercilessly increasing the already considerable headache of Captain Harper, who was sitting astride a bench, his back leaning against a wall, seemingly inseparable from the pint in his hand.
"Same as usual, same as every day," he muttered. And it was supposed to be different. So very different!
When Rob Harper first set foot on a sailing ship (how many years ago was it now?) in his imagination, which he has never lacked, he saw himself as a great explorer, a terror of the seas, or at least the owner of a large tropical island, with a white beach and surrounded by clear blue waters.
This hadn’t happened yet... Like most sailors, he consoled himself with his thoughts. The years spent scrubbing decks, laboriously climbing up the winding paths of the sailor's career. Study, study and even more study, all that in order to finally become the captain on the dirty old rotten ‘Swan’. And that was after almost 14 years! At that time, it seemed to be the pinnacle of his dreams – his first ship...
“Apparently, the Frenchmen with its crew has safely returned from the Misty Waters. They say that there are islands there and the sea is vast,” he said. Nick did not give up, even though no one seemed to show any interest in his mariner’s tales.
After ‘Swan’ there was ‘Nixie’, then ‘Siren’ followed by a number of other barnacled old boats, where the greatest adventures he’d had were visits to some deep-water ports, where larger ships from distant continents weighed anchor. Sometimes the black sails of pirates could be seen on the horizon, but for them Rob's wreck of a boat was small fry and definitely not worth changing course.
The morning ale slowly eased his headache, but he felt some strange tingling sensation in his stomach. Something like anxiety, but also somehow difficult to determine – maybe excitement! It is strange that such a thing can begin in the guts and not in the head. But the brain was already starting to work, rapidly increasing its pace even in those areas in which it had not been active for a long time. Imagination returned to him, suppressing his senses.
“Beer in the morning. Ah, like amber nectar!” Shaggy Ted hailed the tavern as he entered, bald as a coot. "In Viramenco, sugar cane has dropped, again there they need a few rows of rice to sow. Would someone go with me? There are enough goods and for three ships. You could make a few coins.”
Someone asked a question, Ted replied, someone coughed, someone else yawned lazily. Harper saw and heard it all, but at the same time nothing reached him – his brain was working at full speed, requiring all of his attention. “Islands in the Sea of Mists?!” He spoke out with a hoarse voice, the words suddenly drying up in his throat.
“Well, that's what they say...” Nick grunted, slightly as if disturbed by the sudden interest of his captain.
Two more seconds, one more ... Yes. Rob Harper already had a plan. The outline of a plan. But what kind of thing!
“Buy provisions for two weeks, use everything we have left. 12 barrels of gunpowder and three hundred bullets to six-pounders! Refill all the barrels with fresh water!”
Nick didn't really understand what was going on. The others also looked like a bunch of imbeciles staring at a wench’s cleavage after months at sea.
“Come on, move! Gather your crew and throw all the junk overboard, which lies by the gunwales! Unlock them and grease the hinges so that they move easily! We will swab the decks at sea.” Rob spoke faster and faster, though he tried not to let it be known how much he was in a hurry.
“Why the hell would you open cannon gates on the way to Viramenco? You'll get the rice wet...” Ted's thoughts went their own way.
“Boss, but we have only one cannon and it's a board somewhere in the forecastle. Why do we need all these gates, long fastened with nails?” For Nick it was also apparently still far too early...
“They will come in handy soon. Send me six men and a cart to Miller's stable. I'm going to pick up our other cannons, stamps, fuses and all the rest of the things we need. We leave with the evening tide!”
“Wait! Ted screamed,” who suddenly began to put things together. “Perhaps you don't want to sail to Misty Waters?!”
He didn't have to answer. The twinkle in Robert Harper's eye said it all.
“Captain, but no one comes back from there! Those big Black Ships, the Flying Dutchman and all those sea monsters!’ Nick was starting to look terrified.
“Old Abercrombie used to say that once a storm drove him all the way to the White Reefs,” said Fat Pete from behind the bar. “Apparently the waves there were as big as mountains, and from the fog came howls and moans. His crew was so shaken that nothing would ever haul them there again. Not for no money.”
“And the Spanish? They sail there, after all!” Rob said, looking in his pockets for a few coins to pay for the ale.
“Diego? Everyone knows that they are crazy, and besides, who else saw them? How do we know they went and came back from there?” Ted came closer, but he didn't seem convinced yet. Maybe that was rather sensible.
“What else did the Frenchies say then?” Rob asked, without looking Nick in the eye, for he was already busy putting on his shoes.
“Apparently, when the fog dissipated a little, they saw some high mountains, some overgrown jungles and a second island on the horizon. Maybe some small canoes, but from behind the island appeared some grey, torn sails. The Flying Dutchman – as they say. They turned about and were quickly surrounded by fog. And that's it...” Nick still had his mouth slightly open, as if he still did not believe what was happening.
“And that's it,” Harper repeated. “And maybe that's enough. What else are you doing here Nick?!” He raised his voice and hurriedly swigged the rest of his beer. Nick stood up, but he still wasn't sure if it was all a joke. Like all the other old regulars of ‘The Lame Seagull’. They hoped that in a moment a thunderous laughter would be heard, and someone would shout: “But you managed to fool us all, boy!!!”
“Nick.” Said the captain slightly lowering his voice, but enough for everyone to hear. “There are islands that are not on the maps. Nick, islands! Unexplored... not belonging to anyone – NOBODY's islands!!!”
“Start loading supplies and make room for the cannons! And act sharply!!!”
As Captain Harper walked hurriedly down the well-trodden road and up the hill to old Miler's armoury. The gleam in his eyes began to spread. On Ted's schooner, the loading of rice had just been halted, and in the seaport, things were starting to move, the like of which no one remembered here.
“Great!” He thought “I probably wouldn't have much chance myself.” He smiled broadly.
He knew that when he returned to the ship... aye... the ship!!! He will not have the slightest problem with gathering people to man the cannons! One more thought was pounding in his head. Should two long-barrelled heavy cannons be placed on the bow? After a few steps, he decided that in the Misty Waters maybe it would be more useful to aim astern, to whatever might be chasing them. A cold shiver ran through him...
“They look Spanish!” Rob said to Nick, his first officer, who was standing next to him.
“They’re not Ted’s men! They are Spanish!” Nick screamed at the top of his lungs to finally ease the tension of the crew. For a long time, absolutely everyone had been staring expectantly at the old man, waiting for the information that would decide what might happen over the rest of this journey, and maybe the rest of their lives...
The tension subsided in the crew as they prepared to drop the sails and haul aboard the survivors, when suddenly the sailor from the crow’s next shouted for a second time.
The captain quickly turned his shoulder, putting the scope to his eye – he saw it too!
“Loose on the ropes to the square sail! Change the sails to starboard! Plant the waves and put the foresail to starboard! Loosen the left rigging! Beware of the spar!”
And after a while... “Ready the cannons!" With the sails billowing in the wind, leaning slightly and quickly gaining speed, the brig moved towards its destiny ...