An excerpt from Chapter 23 of the new novel. The girls (disguised as boys) are sailing on Captain Swiftfoot Darkrunner’s frigate Velocity. Erin is known to captain and crew as Aaron Spotsworth; Sophie, as Michael Claude. The day after they’ve been promoted to midshipmen, the ship enters a terrible storm. Mr. MacLeish is the boatswain.
“Well done, Mr. McLeish,” Darkrunner told him.
“Oh, thank you, sir.”
“Is there anything you need?” Captain Darkrunner asked.
“Only a dozen more sailors, Sir,” MacLeish said. “But we’ll do with the ones we have. I don’t wish to give them airs, but they’re the best I’ve ‘ad the honor to sail with.”
“Good man, Mr. MacLeish,” said the captain. “But if you have a deck hand to spare, I think we need two more hands at the wheel. I fear Mr. Short won’t be able to hold her steady alone through his watch.”
“Aye, Sir.” Mr. MacLeish said before descending the companionway.
Erin shielded her eyes from the rain as she watched two men trim the foresail above. “It’s amazing they can hang on in this weather.”
“Sadly, not all do,” he said staring off at the ragged gray clouds advancing from the north. “A boy not much older than you was struck by a loose boom a fortnight ago and plunged to his death right where you’re standing.”
Erin quickly shifted from the spot and searched the boards for signs of blood.
“It was appalling to see the lad splayed out like a broken doll.” The captain hesitated a moment before he was able to continue. “He was French — a prisoner shipmate of Mr. Petit’s until they joined the mutiny. Poor Petit scrubbed the deck furiously for an hour, sobbing like a child.”
Erin felt frozen where she stood. She felt uneasy staring down, but didn’t want to look up into the captain’s face.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Spotsworth,” the captain said swiping his hand across his eyes. “I didn’t mean to burden you with my woes.”
“Oh, no, sir,” Erin said lifting her eyes. “It’s quite alright. I know how awful it is to lose a friend.”
“Someday, we’ll sit in my cabin and you can tell me about it over a glass of port. But today, we’d best see to the living.”
It was then someone forward shouted, “Flotsom!” Erin looked ahead and saw it was Hoskins who spoke. He was standing on the bowsprit pointing forward and to the left. “Two points off the larboard bow,” he screamed over Erin, toward the quarterdeck.
“Ready about staroard!” shouted a voice at the wheel.
The ship, then close-hauled on a larboard tack, suddenly heeled over to the right as it swerved to avoid whatever it was that Hoskins had seen. The course change flung Erin and the captain toward the larboard rail. The captain stopped himself by reaching out for the breach of a nine-pounder. Erin managed to turn just enough to avoid hitting the sharp edge of the pinrail. She struck the breastwork with her shoulder, which gave her a bad sting, but did no damage.
Recovering her balance, Erin became aware of a great flapping above, as air spilled from the sails that were now turned across the wind. She rushed after the captain who was then dashing forward. In his haste Darkrunner struck Mr. MacLeish emerging from below, nearly knocking the man down the companionway. Erin leaned over the forecastle rail just in time to see the battered bottom of an overturned dinghy rising on a wave, not twenty feet from Velocity’s hull. As the dinghy flashed past, Erin suddenly recalled passing a buoy at about the same speed in a Sea Sprout race across Comet Bay. At that moment her skipper snapped a button down on his stopwatch and shouted, “Twelve knots.”
Erin searched the heaving sea for survivors. Seeing none, she was filled with pity at thought of the poor souls tossed from the tiny boat into the vast, heaving ocean. She imagined them struggling for breath, glimpsing their companions as they drifted away across the roiling waves.
Having recovered himself, the captain motioned to Mr. Hoskins to come to him. Hoskins struggled to hold onto the lines as he worked his way down the slanting bowsprit.
“Sir?” the man said easing his way onto to the deck.
“I need you aloft just now, Mr. Hoskins . We’re in for a real blow, and we’ll require our most experienced hands to trim and reef the sails.”
“Yes, Sir,” Hoskins said. “Thank you, Sir,” he added appreciatively. “I’m happy to be of service, Sir.”
“Come with me, Mr. Spotsworth,” the captain said ushering Erin to the bow. “I need you to take Mr. Hoskins’ place, though here on deck. Not on the bowsprit. You know your points no doubt, but I’ll review them quickly.” Darkrunner held out his arm and pointed as he spoke. “Larboard is left. Starboard is right. Each quarter has eight points. So turning seven-points off the starboard bow is slightly less than a right turn. Dead ahead is directly before us, and dead astern is in our wake. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Sir,” Erin said. She did understand.
“I’m going to split you and Mr. Claude into opposite crews to stand bow watch for the duration of the storm. You’ll take the first watch. Go below and inform him of my order. I’ll stand your watch until you return, but be quick about it. I’ve much business to do.”
Erin found Ariel below with Mr. Howard . She stood behind him unsteadily as he led the men in securing the cannons.
“That’s a good man, Mr. Hawser,” Howard said to a squat fellow swinging a maul. Howser was pounding a wooden wedge against one of the carriage wheels to keep a cannon from rolling loose across the deck, mangling anyone in its path.
Erin quickly explained the captain’s orders to Mr. Howard.
“You should get some rest, Mr. Claude,” Howard said glancing at his watch. “In two hours you’ll have to take a four hour watch. Now that Flewellen and I have moved to new digs, you can take the starboard midshipmen’s berth.”
“Yes, Sir,” Ariel said saluting him with a four-knuckle salute.
Ariel and Erin exchanged a quick glance. Erin wanted to hug her, but didn’t dare while in disguise.
“Find Mr. Cooper quickly,” Mr. Howard said. “Tell him to issue you an oilskin to share. This storm will blow for a day and a half, I reckon.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Ariel said. She exchanged a worried look with Erin as she turned toward the door.
“And, Mr. Claude?”
Ariel looked back at Mr. Howard. “Yes, Sir?”
“Take care of yourself, Mate,” he said. “It’s going to be a wild blow, and we don’t want to lose you. What I mean to say is you’ve the making of good officer or I’m very much mistaken.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Ariel said. She passed Erin a smile on their way down the companionway.