43 Life at Sea

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‘From tomorrow onwards we will turn this into theatre. Make up weights for the other three squires and we will have a competition which is related to the speed to complete five sets. I will use the ship’s drum to count out the time which will make it more dramatic.’


John Stanley-20th April 1355

John waited and watched from the deck of the Mendip. To him, the meeting between Lord James, the Prince, and the captains seemed to last a very long time. By now all the soldiers were on board one or other of the boats. Then finally he saw movement. The smack brought back Lord James and the Mendip‘s captain.


As the smack bobbed alongside the Mendip, John got his first view of the Earl of Salisbury close up. John was impressed. The Earl had tied his long hair behind his head in an imitation of a horse’s tail. His face was sharp and intelligent, he had eyes like jewels and an incredibly long waxed moustache over a full mouth and a clean-shaven chin. John had seen drawings of the Viking warriors and thought that the Earl could well have been a reincarnation!

The smack moved off, conveying the Earl and the Clevedon‘s captain towards their own ship. Sailors tethered the smack on a long rope behind the Clevedon.

‘We are lucky,’ Simon breathed to John. ‘The wind is in exactly the right quarter.’ He shouted for sails to be set.

Using only the fore and aft sails, the boats moved out from behind the point and half an hour later they were in the open sea.

Simon turned to face the rear of the boat. ‘Hoist the mainsails, quick with it now.’ Sailors climbed the rigging and pulled on ropes with staccato movements coordinated by a chant from the mate. The sails filled and the ship’s timbers strained and groaned under the pressure. They were on their way. Whilst all this took place, John trailed Simon around like an anxious puppy.

After Simon regained his breath, he continued teaching John about sailing—he seemed to enjoy having someone to talk to. ‘We must sail past the tip of Brittany and across the Bay of Biscay to Aquitaine. If we went directly to Brittany we would be sailing into the wind, so we will retrace our path almost as far as the Scilly Isles before turning south.

John was amazed by the continuous work involved in keeping control of a ship at sea. He wondered if ever he would have to learn these skills. Probably not, as he was part of the Prince’s land forces, but it all fascinated him nonetheless.

Much later that evening, Lord James led John to the bow of the Mendip. He leaned against the foot of the bowsprit, giving the impression of someone who had not a care in the world. ‘So. We have embarked on our journey and it may seem that there is nothing to do until we arrive in Aquitaine.’

John was aware that Lord James was watching him carefully. His limited knowledge of the way Lord James worked led him to believe that there was a purpose in the conversation. Lord James was not given to idle chat. He was not disappointed.

‘We will be on board this vessel for anything up to a week,’ Lord James said. ‘Boredom can be a certain way to destroy morale. I want to create some activity as a diversion. I watched you exercising this morning; tell me about it.’

John explained about the exercises Olwain had shown him.

‘But you don’t just exercise, you take notes of some sort and you have another bag which you don’t actually use during the exercises. Tell me more.’

‘Oh, yes. It all part of Olwain’s programme. The other bag has a collection of pebbles, which I use to build up the weight I am using to exercise. Before we left Hellens I weighed all the stones and marked the weight on each one. Now when I exercise I get one of the other squires to count out loud slowly. The combination of knowledge of the total weight I am lifting and the time, measured by the count, gives me a feel for how I am progressing.’

‘Good.’ Lord James gave a firm nod. ‘From tomorrow onwards we will turn this into theatre. Make up weights for the other three squires and we will have a competition which is related to the speed to complete five sets. I will use the ship’s drum to count out the time which will make it more dramatic. Now, tell me, has Ewan had any involvement in your exercises?’

John was suddenly pensive.

‘No? Well, tomorrow I will make an announcement that you will be organising games and competitions. I want Ewan involved, but I leave you to decide how you will achieve that.’

‘Absolutely not, I will not make a fool of myself.’ Ewan’s red fleshy face was at its most iridescent. ‘You were given a very limited role to help keep control of these peasants who think they can lord it over us. Don’t overstretch yourself.’

John sighed and cocked his head. ‘Ewan, Lord James has requested this. It can do you nothing but good. What harm can a little exercise do?’


‘Very well, I will make it difficult for you. Henry, Edward and I will exercise competitively tomorrow. We will challenge the rest of the soldiers and crew to take part. If you don’t accept that invitation I will issue a challenge, you and me in direct competition, with the whole ship watching. You would not be able to refuse. Wouldn’t you rather take part willingly, without all the attention?’

Next morning, Ewan did take part and by no means disgraced himself. Nearly half the ship’s company partook. From the ship’s afterdeck where he had been beating the drum, Lord James caught John’s eye. He nodded and smiled broadly.

In the evening, John relaxed as Lord James gathered all the squires together and congratulated them on their initiative and told them they were now very much a part of the social life on this ship. He explained the Prince’s desire for secrecy, the plan to enter the bay of Arcachon and the perceived dangers of entering the Bay. ‘The reason I am telling you this is that when the time comes we may need to persuade the sailors to comply. If it comes to that, I will need your help. In the meantime, try to undermine the sailors’ distrust of this passage in the minds of the other passengers. The last thing we want is our own soldiers siding with the crew. Portray the entrance to the bay of Arcachon as one of the most pleasant of experiences.’He grinned mischievously. ‘Which on the right day it undoubtedly could be.’

On the third day, they experienced blue skies and light winds. Despite the variability of the winds, the boats managed to stay in sight of each other. Sailors fished from the stern, using small fish they caught as bait for bigger fish. They selectively threw the remnants of meals over the stern to attract fish to the boat’s progress. Seabirds gathered in the sky, soaring from side to side as if they were tiny kites attached to the boat, occasionally destroying the illusion by dropping into the water like a stone when fish neared the surface.

Simon spent much time with John, sensing his thirst for knowledge and his willingness to learn. ‘The pennants at the tip of the mast are not the only tell-tales to help in the setting of the sails,’ he said to John. ‘If you look carefully at the four and aft sail, you will see that small strings of cloth have been sewn onto the sail. They tell us about the way the wind is passing over the sail. If they lie tight to the sail then the setting of the sail is correct. If not, we adjust the sail. It makes a big difference to our speed if we take the trouble to get the settings right. ‘He pointed at the birds. ‘They are attracted by the fish but give us a valuable navigational aid. The smaller birds will not venture too far from land and so their presence is a confirmation that we are doing what we intend to do, tracking down the coast. The birds tell us that we are on the right course even though we cannot see land.’

The exercise program continued and, at Lord James’ suggestion, John organised an archery competition. He soon discovered just how good the archers were. Despite what they considered a short target, John had great difficulty in hitting it, whereas they never missed. Lord James came to stand alongside John whilst he waited for his turn. He chuckled. ‘Well, that has defined one area in which you will have to put in a lot of work when we reach Aquitaine; you can train with me as archery is one of my own weaknesses.’

Lord James then organised a competition of his own. He got one of the sailors to make two loosely knotted balls. The sailor attached one of the balls to the end of a thirty-foot-long rope and tied the other end of the rope to the handrail at the stern. The ball was then thrown into the water. The ship was sailing fast enough for the ball to rise to the surface, bouncing from wave to wave. Lord James looked at it with satisfaction and then gathered everyone together and held up a grappling hook. The sailor attached the second ball of rope and a longer rope to the shaft of the grappling hook. ‘Now, there are prizes for this.’ He swung the grappling hook as he talked. ‘Three points if you hit the drogue cleanly and drag it in. One point if you miss the drogue with your initial throw but then drag it in as part of the process of reeling the hook back in. Simon? Can the sailors take part in this?’

Lord James asked John to take the first turn and John quickly discovered how difficult it was. The deck heaved between his feet and whilst concentrating on swinging the grappling hook he found it difficult to keep his balance. He staggered about and the spectators yelled in alarm as there was the danger they would be struck by the hook. Everyone had gathered at the stern of the ship, but now they scattered to the bulkhead rails. Eventually, John made his throw but missed the drogue by a wide margin, accompanied by good-natured hoots of derision.

As John melted back into the crowd he noticed that the sailors were sat on the rail. They had anchored themselves in position by winding their legs around the rope pegs slotted into the coils-rail half way down the bulkhead rails. John copied them and discovered to his delight that he too could lean back to get a clear view of the drogue. The wind whipped through his hair, the sun shone overhead and showers of spray peppered his face. He was interested in the way this unusual competition generated firstly rivalry but then camaraderie. He could visibly see the groups, soldiers and sailors, drawn closer together. Each group identified its potential champion and cheered them on.

So once again Lord James’ tactics had proven correct. John noted many details of what was happening so that he could use it to his own advantage at some time in the future. Again, he thrust the thought away. He was extremely unlikely to attain a position of power and influence in the near future; in the short-term, he must concentrate on being a good and faithful squire.

There were those who displayed little inherent skill. The group subjected them to light-hearted banter but also offered them tips on how to improve. An archer called Stewart Jenkins was clearly going to win. Most of the other competitors stood close to the rail. Stewart didn’t. He stood well back and swung the hook smoothly. He did not throw it as such, he just released it, again and again on nearly the perfect trajectory. In the end, he was persuaded to pass on his technique to whoever wanted to learn.

As evening came a fire was lit in a brazier and the whole of the company ate together on trestle tables set up on the deck.

John savoured the atmosphere with nothing less than joy. This was how life ought to be, he thought. He was now absolutely confident he had chosen the correct path in life, though he admitted to himself, it had more or less chosen him. It was his fate. Now all he had to do was make the most of the opportunities presented to him.


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One thought on “43 Life at Sea”

  1. Wow. When I was young I wanted to be a sailor, but being a girl – in those days it was unheard of. However, I have always held a fascination with sea travel and perhaps in a previous life I was on just such a vessel as depicted in this chapter. As I read I felt I was there on board with the crew and just as terrified as they must have been when they saw they had to ‘surf’ such a large boat into the channel of the Bay of Arcachon, while secured to masts and such, as a monster wave approached and imminent shipwreck. Nail biting suspense.

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