Thursday, September 13, 2012

Lettre de marque (3): On sail

Balearic Sea, 20th November 1713

Antoni Ginard walked absently through the central gangway, both hands linked to his rear, while considering their next step. It was a brilliant autumn day. The southwestern cape of Majorca Island slid smoothly by the port side of the galley. A quick glance to the foresail confirmed him that a soft Mestral wind remained constant. Oars would not be needed until they reached Palma harbour.

He leaned on the rail, taking a look to the oarsmen deck. Just three feets under the gangway were the heads of the galliots. Two hundred and fifty-five oarsmen, one third of them, free men. These last occupied positions closer to the central line of the hull, in their respective benches, acting as bogavants and directing the efforts of all the people in his oar, when needed. One could barely distinguish between ones and the others looking for their chains. In any other aspect, it was a weather-beaten, homogeneous mass of stinky humanity, organized in the tight geometrical disposition dictated by benches, oars and narrow deck.

Ginard observed young Mateu moving among the resting oarsmen, making them drink some kind of beverage. Adding him to the galley crew had been one of his firstly decisions while still anchored in Mataró. Of course, he was not a real doctor. Or at least, not in the formal sense of word. But both his medical knowledge and his genuine will to relieve suffering of the others had nothing to envy to what any true doctor whom Ginard had ever met in the past could demonstrate. Not to say that true doctors would prefer solid ground to any hell-smelling galley. He knew he could consider himself fortunate to count with a man like Bernat in his crew. It would be needed to keep an eye on him, though. Sometimes, his dedication could border the obsession.

Ginard resumed his slow walking to the bow, while his eyes tried to perceive any unusual detail. The Americo Vespuccio galley proved to be in pretty good shape. He had taken this first journey from Mataró to Palma as a chance to get used to the ship. He had explored the different galley performances using either oars, sails, and combination of both. Galleys were not amongst his favourite vessels, but Ginard was pretty aware this galley would have to be his working tool in the next weeks.

Their first problem would be weather, of course. Winter was at the gates. The short freeboard of a galley meant that the ship could take water in even a moderately rough sea. And, even worse, when faced to significant swell the long and narrow hull of the galley could cause the ship to break into two. In winter, the yet hard living conditions of a galley crew would get worse, not to talk about all kind of diseases eventually falling upon the galliots, with their nearly non-existent protection against weather. As a compensation, this same shallow draft and oars would allow Ginard to take full advantage of their knowledge on Eastern Iberian coastal waters. They'd be able to navigate through obstacles that would be impassable otherwise, a useful resource to flee from heavier and more powerful ships, or for choosing any unlikely place to disembark. And, most probably, it seemed reasonable to consider that the Spanish galley fleet would remain inactive while in her usual hibernating season.

Considering all these factors, Ginard felt himself inclined to short sorties, perhaps no more than four days long, using quick hit and run tactics while trying to take profit of any good weather period, as well as keeping ship and crew in their best possible condition. Calm winds and shallow waters would be their allies. His galley would be as a glass knife, sharp but fragile. He ought to look for the right conditions to make every blow to count.

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