The Sailing Knife

The sun awoke as the morning rays stretched out across the calm sea. A gentle breeze began to build as the smell of salt, palm trees, and sand drifted into John’s window. The room was bathed in an orange angelic light as John stirred in his hammock. The Caribbean tide receded leaving behind glittering tide pools teeming with sea creatures of all colors.

Swinging his legs over the side of the hammock, John leapt down onto the floor of his sea side cabin. He wrinkled his toes in the cool sand, feeling the texture shift beneath his feet. He turned to his ancient chest which sat at the back of the circular room. Inside he kept all of his belongings. The chest was crafted from a rare African wood found deep within the congo. Its edges embroidered with figures carved into it. The figures stretched around the rim and told a story. John never could figure out what the pictures were trying to say.

He came into possession of the chest when a Dutch trading fluyt made anchor just off the coast. Due to the Island’s close proximity to Tortola many travelers would mistake the island for the trading capital of the Virgin Islands and mistakenly make shore on its beaches. It was convenient enough and was exactly what John sought when he settled on the island just five years earlier. It allowed for him to trade with passing ships without the need to live in close proximity with other people. The chest cost him twelve and a half halibut and a sack of pearls he’d collected when harvesting his oyster nets.

The chest held a number of items. Most of the space inside was allocated for personal items such as a shaving blade, tortoiseshell comb, shears, and a small selection of baggy shirts and loose fitting greaves. At the bottom however was a prize possession of John’s. A sailing knife.

The knife was gifted to his father by admiral Nelson after the battle of Trafalgar. His father, Jim Raven, had been cornered on the bow castle with admiral Nelson when the flag ship of the royal navy had been boarded by a French second rate frigate. Jim fought to protect Nelson as he and a handful of sailors fought the waves of French marines. When the bow castle had been retaken all except Nelson and Jim hand been slain. After escorting Jim to the surgeon’s quarters Nelson pulled from his leather belt a long narrow dagger and presented it to him. Sadly, Jim’s stomach had been punctured during the battle and died after Nelson had returned to battle. Taking the blade Jim wrote his final request to have it sent back home to his son, John Raven. Since he was eight years old John never went out to sea without the blade fastened safely to the outside of his ankle. He kept it there so as to not let the hilt become entangled with the netting while out at sea fishing.

As if lost in thought John reached back into the chest and began his daily routine. First came the long underwear which he wore under his grieves. Next came the light shirt which resembled something of a Roman tunic cut off at the waist. It served to flick the sweat away from his skin and cool him down while working under the hot Caribbean sun. Around his neck he wore only a faded blue cravat which served to protect his exposed neck from the damaging rays of the sun. Finally, he tucked his curly black hair under his worn sun-bleached tricorne and attached his dagger to the side of his ankle.

It was a strange sight to see a fisherman with such a decorated piece of military hardware. The curling orb of glittering silver which acted as the hilt was connected to the rest of the blade by a band of gold which snaked around the center steel core. The band of gold weaved in and out like a snake and stretched down the handled and ended at the pommel. There was no gem encrusted in the pommel, simply the engraving of VN, Viscount Nelson.

Before heading to the sloop John stopped at the cellar to grab dried, salted fish meat. The more John ate from stores the less he had to trade with traveling sailors. Last week an English caravel had stopped on his shores and had requested a half ton of salted fish. John sadly had hardly a quarter stones worth of fish and was unable to barter for what he really needed, gunpowder.

In recent months a band of brigands had taken to the sea and as of recently they’ve terrorized many small settlement islands. They haven’t struck within the virgin isles but rumors on the wind have traveled to John that a ship had recently been spotted flying the Jolly Roger. Not much of the ship is known other than the name, Mer Noire. Legends of the ship stretch all the way across the Atlantic of how the ship was constructed by a brilliant French naval engineer, Montagne Pierre. Its four towering masts with running stay sails meant it could sail upwards of twelve knots on the wind. Its hull constructed out of a dark mahogany, far stronger than any English oak. Two gun decks stretched on either side of the vessel in addition to topside cannons. The ship carried 52 guns and was considered swift for a vessel so large. John had heard stories of the vessel while growing up before his father had sailed away for war. The Mer Noire however was lost a number of years ago from what earlier rumors had recounted. It’s impossible for the ship to be in the Caribbean.

Shrugging the thought away John quickly entered the cellar filling his nap sack with a generous serving of smoked halibut and dried dates. He turned to leave the cellar and locked the door behind him as he trekked down to the dock.

The sloop had once been a successful scout vessel for his majesty’s navy. Originally rigged to be sailed by a crew of eight the craft had one mast with a great lateen sail which stretched upward to the sky. A jib ran down to the bow and a staysail overlapped behind the jib. The staysail allowed the vessel to travel swiftly downwind while the jib gave it maneuverability when sailing on the wind. The sides of the hull were stripped with a faded white paint and the English Oak wood was sun-stained from years of service in the southern Caribbean ocean. The vessel carried two four nine pound cannons, two on each side and six falconets. Each cannon had enough gun powder for 8 shots if their service were required. In totally the little vessel could fire each cannon 32 times before running dry.

Once again john put the thoughts of violence aside and began to load the Bounty. Large trawling nets were stowed below and crab pots were stacked where the foredeck castle used to be. The aft castle space was allocated for navigation and a tiny hammock for John to sleep on for when he travelled distances greater than a day. All in all, the bounty was a quaint, 38-foot sailing sloop. Fast, agile, and seaworthy.

As John went to shove off he reached down and tapped the old blade attached to his leg for good luck. The first stop on his journal was the island of Tortola ten miles south of his home island. He had made an arrangement to hire a handful of sailors to help set his nets and crab pots for the day. John could sail the ship himself, or he could set the pots and trawler. He couldn’t do both.

Upon pushing off from the dock John pulled two halyards which released daisy chains that secured the great canvas sails. Once released they fell to the boom and deck where John make quick work to lash them down with a Clew tie and a jib sheet. Once secured, John trimmed the mainsail and turned the helm to port, catching the morning breeze that had built to a gust. As he turned the Bounty towards Tortola, something caught John’s attention out of the corner of his eye.

“Must of been a bird.” He said to himself.

Making land in Tortola John was quick to reconvene with the men he had arranged to hire. After their brief meeting the men set off from the Salt Rum Tavern and began their twenty-mile sail north. There sat at the edge of a drop off where an inconceivable number of fish species swam. Halibuts, Groupers, and Flying Fish, all convened at this drop off trying to scrape a meager living off of the vegetation that grew on its sandy bottom.

While laying the nets one of the men, Crowley, called out from atop the aft castle.

“Sir, there seems to be a ship heading in our direction.” He reported down to John.

“What can you make of it, Crowley?” John asked.

“I don’t know, sir. It’s dark, can’t make a damn thing of it from this distance.” Crowley answered.

As the vessel got closer all six men unified in their astonishment and horror. There, on the horizon, was a ship with black sails and atop its mast flew a Jolly Roger.

“She’s heading straight for us!” Shouted Crowley.

“Bring up the mainsail!” Yelled John.

“Aye!” Boomed the men.

They made quick work and soon the Bounty was at full speed. It wasn’t enough. The ship was upon them in moments. The men desperately prepared the cannons. Now, only 100 meters away John could make out the name. Mer Noire. He reached down and grasped his blade. Before the ship lined up for a broad side, she turned. She began sailing Directly for Tortuga, an island five miles north of Tortola.

As the ship veered away John turned hard to starboard and let loose a volley of cannonballs. It was no use. All they could do now was hope to race home and warn the town before it was too late. The men silently agreed, Tortuga was already lost. With blade in hand, John used it like a conductor rod and ordered the men to make course for Tortola. With any hope, John could alert to small fleet standing ready at the harbor.