26 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 before moving on to deliver the Earl of Salisbury to the Clevedon.
As the smack bobbed alongside the Mendip, John got his first view of the Earl 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 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 movement 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 direct 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 watched 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 a 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 myself 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 favourable 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. Sea birds 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 his turn. He chuckled. ‘Well, that has defined one area in which you will have to put 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 then attached one of the balls to the end of a thirty-foot-long rope. The sailor then tied the other end of the rope to the handrail at the stern and the ball was 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 danger they would be struck by the hook. Everone 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 long way, 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 round 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 backwards 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 first 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.
Later, John watched as the smack transferred the Lords and the captains to the Sally and then after a long delay returned them.
Lord James strode towards John, a scowl on his face. ‘Nothing in this life is without risk,’ he muttered as he passed John, but gave no further explanation.
The Captain of the Clevedon called Simon into his cabin.
It was nearly half an hour before Simon returned and he did not look happy.
‘Looks like we are going to see a bit of excitement, John. The Captain tried to get an agreement from the Prince that if there is surf running across the channel to Arcachon we will turn back to Bordeaux, but the Prince would not hear of it. Instead he has offered to provide insurance for all three ships. If they are damaged or sunk, the owners will be compensated and every sailor who makes the passage will be given a bounty payment. What none of this seems to take into account is that if we sink in rough, fast-flowing waters we might all drown.’
‘But that is what we are going to do?’
‘In the end the Prince attacked their captains on their weakest point, their professional pride! He threw down the gauntlet. He offered to take the Sally first through the channel, and to take control during the passage.’ He raised his brow. ‘We are going into the Bay of Arcachon, come what may!’
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, it more or less chose him. Now all he had to do was make the most of the opportunities presented to him.
By the time they reached the mouth of the Gironde, the estuary that gave access to Bordeaux, everyone lined the rail. As the ships continued south, John noticed that Simon deliberately set a course which carried them well out to sea.
Once again, Simon kept John informed. ‘Make no mistake, the entrance to Bordeaux is not easy. There is a reef, or at low tide a small island, called Corduan, which has brought many a ship to grief. But compared to Arcachon this is easy. The channel into Bordeaux is deep and constant and once you know the geography, it is easy to find, at least during daylight.’
Cautiously, they moved closer to the shore. Great dunes formed the horizon.
‘Can you hear that?’ Simon asked John.
‘You mean the pounding of the surf?’
Others joined them on the rail, commenting on the size of the breakers. The wind picked up. Simon pointed to a particularly large dune. ‘The entrance to Arcachon is over there but there are other dunes closer to us. The channel runs between the two sets of dunes so it cannot be seen from here.’
Simon left and visited every single member of his crew, encouraging, instructing and occasionally barking orders.
John approached the bow to get a clear view of what was happening. They sailed on south for a considerable distance before lowering the square-rigged mainsail and turning north. The three boats positioned themselves line astern, the Sally, then the Clevedon and finally John’s ship the Mendip, with a distance of twenty boats between them. Sailors rushed past John, climbing to precarious positions on the bowsprit so that they could gaze down into the clear water hoping to identify a deep-water passage.
‘There’s moderate surf running,’ a crew member shouted.
John watched on as other members reduced the fore-aft sail to give the minimum power needed for control.
Because of the Mendip’s rear-most position, John found it impossible to tell the degree of difficulty of entering the bay. The wind and surf rose and the Sally rocked violently, but it held a steady course. John’s heart pumped hard as he watched her move in.
John counted the frequency of the waves, which he could determine by watching the Sally. Usually there was a count of fifteen between each wave but there was a variation. He suddenly realised that the longer the count between waves, the bigger the wave. He wished he hadn’t made the count, for now at the end of a count of twenty one his heart was in his mouth as he waited to see the effect on the Sally.
And then it was over. After the tenth count, the waves no longer pounded the Sally. She sailed into the bay and made a sudden right hand turn, listing to an alarming degree. She recovered and vanished behind the headland, looking stable and secure. Standing side by side along the rail, the crew cheered.
John then turned to watch the progress of the Clevedon as the captain was endeavoured to follow the exact path of the Sally. Increasingly violent surf battered the entrance—worse than what the Sally had endured. John had recommenced counting the waves only to discover a consistent count of twenty, indicating a huge swell. Waves broke over the deck and the Clevedon struggled to hold its line.
Lord James shouted to everyone around him, ‘Either go below or tie yourself to the mast or rails. You will be swept away if you attempt to stand on deck as we make the passage.’
John immediately thought of the helmsman. How would he cope with the breaking waves? The helmsman, only too aware of the danger, busied himself tying his body to the rear mast, immediately behind him. John searched the deck for rope, finding only what they’d used in the throwing game earlier in the voyage—a rope fitted with a ball of rope and a grappling hook. He pulled the hook against the coils rail, spun round a couple of times and then tied off the other end of the rope to the nearest vertical support to the main bulkhead rail.
John had only just finished lashing himself to the bulkhead rails when a huge wave enveloped the Mendip. At that moment he wished he had chosen differently. The force of the water threatened to tear him from the rails or tear him in half or both. Worse followed. The first wave had washed over the boat, but the second wave struck before John could regain his breath, driving the ship sideways. The Mendip trembled and shook as it grounded on the side of the channel, but recovered and regained the desired line.
John glance up and saw that the Clevedon had made the right turn successfully and was gliding in calm water. It was no longer relevant to his own situation. The Mendip was in great danger.
John could no longer see the progress of individual waves, but he could count to twenty and brace himself for the impact of each wave. A brief respite followed as the Mendip battered its way through a succession of smaller waves. John tried to remember how many waves had hit the Sally but realised he had not started counting early enough to really know.
The count between waves dropped to fifteen and the waves seemed smaller, but then there was a delay. John counted: sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty … He knew what it meant, the longer the delay the bigger the wave. Even that assessment was an unduly optimistic thought. He heard the shouts of alarm from the others still on the deck.
A monster wave descended on them. This was completely different. The wave got underneath the rear of the boat and lifted it. All control was now gone. In fact, the wave carried the boat through the entrance but well clear of the channel. It threw the boat onto the beach where it landed with a jarring impact. A momentary stillness took over. Soldiers on deck surveyed their immediate area or tested limbs for injury. The Mendip had landed a little outside the protected area of the bay. Waves continued to pound the boat and every so often one of the monster waves broke over the top of them.
‘Every man for himself,’ yelled Simon.
John saw some soldiers throwing themselves in the water. One of them got his timing wrong and hit the side of the boat on the way down. He was unconscious before he hit the water. The next wave picked him up and flung towards the shore, but the undertow immediately pulled him out again.
John watched on as the current pulled the unconscious soldier away from the beach and he realised that they were in an ebb tide with a strong underlying current of water from the bay to the ocean.
John struggled to untie himself from the rails. The knot had tightened beyond belief, due to the soaking with sea water and the forces placed on it by the pounding waves. Simon saw John’s predicament and used a marlin spike to loosen the knot.
John checked over his shoulder and noticed that the waves were less ferocious. He searched for the unconscious soldier, but he was nowhere in sight.
‘We must leave him,’ Simon said. ‘God bless his soul. It’d be a fool’s errand to try to save him in that.’
John knew in his heart that Simon was right, plus he couldn’t swim well enough to save his own life. He placed his hands on the bulkhead, ready to vault overboard, but turned back to see what Simon was doing.
‘Are you coming?’
‘No. My job’s not finished; there is still an opportunity to save the ship and your supplies.’
John waited for the next wave and threw himself into the trough in front of it. The wave thrust him towards the beach, but the rope was still around his waist. To his horror he was pulled back into the heart of the wave. The grappling hook had buried itself in the sand and was holding him back. The length of rope was too short to allow him to reach the surface. He opened his eyes to survey his situation. He was in a turquoise and silver maelstrom punctuated by the roar of waves as they passed him by and the crunch as they hit the beach.
He pulled on the rope but the grappling hook simply bit deeper into the sand. He pulled again, but with no improvement. It seemed that his adventure… and his life… was at an end.