Saturday, March 21, 2009

Chapter 3 - Out to sea

Early next morning three gunboats left the sheltered cove at Rindö and moved slowly north. It was a calm, misty spring morning which promised a sunny day. There would be no wind, though, at least not until the sea-breeze set in in the afternoon. So the men had a hard day's pulling ahead of them. At least the work would keep them warm in the chill of the morning.
Lieutenant Johan Kuhlin stood on his little afterdeck and looked astern. His boat was leading the squadron with the two others following close behind. As they cleared the headland and moved towards the narrow channel called Kodjupet - "Cow Deep" he saw the little schooner Amelia weigh anchor. Amelia was to be their supply vessel. She was loaded with food, brandy, powder and shot for at least a month. She had only a small crew and could not be rowed, which meant they would have to wait for her somewhere in the norther archipelago before they would venture out to sea together in order to cross to Åland and the Finnish archipelago. Where the Russians were waiting.

The other two gunboats, number 34 and 35 were quite new boats, with lugsails instead of his own boat's lateen rig. Otherwise they were of the same construction, armed with two 24 pounder guns and four swivels. They were commanded by sublieutenants who looked very young and unexperienced, thought Kuhlin. They had all met the evening before at the camp site that had been set up for the crew at the little cove on Rindö. Kuhlin did not, however have time to speak to them very much as he had been called away to the castle for dinner. Which had been an altogether boring affair. The commander of the fort had been drunk from the beginning and most of his men looked like they had not been working physically for a decade. In fact the fort had not really been needed since the Russian's failed attack in 1719. No enemy had since even come close to it. However this might very well change now. If Russia took Finland the archipelago might easily be in reach for their galleys again.

Kuhlin made himself stop thinking along that line. Finland was not lost yet. Sure, the Russians were advancing steadily and Sveaborg had surrendered, but the inshore fleet was just assembling and with a little luck they would be able to cut off the Russian's supplies and set ashore troops to halt them. He though about his orders again. He was lucky to have his own squadron, instead of just being one boat i a long line, mostly occupied with holding his station and not missing any orders or create a mess that could be taken advantage of by the enemy. Still, he wondered what he would have to do, if he was capable of it and if the commanders of his other boats would be of any use.
Suddenly he realized that they had passed through the channel and were in more open water for a while. He might as well put those subs though a little drill.
"Tapper, he called", signal the other boats to take station in line abreast. "Then let the men ease up to give them a chance to get in place".

The three boats performed formation drill for during the best part of an hour. They formed up inline abreast, stopped, advanced together, turned in formation, split up and formed again. With only three boats these maneuvers were not especially difficult, but the crews were new and the commanders of the other two boats were not very experienced yet. However, eventually Kuhlin was satisfied that they were able to do as he wished. Now only one thing remained to make this first co-ordinated drill complete. He ordered the boats to close up and called to their commanders.
"Gentlemen, we will advance together and attack that little island over there. We will fire live shots, main guns and swivels alike. Three rounds each. Let's see some action!".

In the bows of Number 14, the gunnery officer ordered his men to get the gun ready. In order to be fired it had to be hauled out of the bottom of the boat up on it's sliding carriage, secured, loaded and run out into the firing position. Af Kint was still unsure about the gun carriage. He watched the mean hauling on their tackles and the gun sliding up into position, ropes straining and wood creaking when the load shifted. When the gun was loaded and hauled into position he raised his hand to Kuhlin who ordered the attack to begin.

The island, not more than a skerry with a few trees on it was a little more than a cable lenght away when the boats stopped oars still in the water like giant water spiders. As the guns were fixed the whole boat was moved to train them left or right.
"Fire at will", Kuhlin ordered. Af Klint looked along the barrel one last time, the nodded to the gunner who lowered a glowing piece of slowmatch into the touchhole. The gun went off with a boom. Af Klint watched the cannonball bounce off the water about 300 yards away and then crash right into on of the trees on the island, taking down several branches. Shortly after the other boats shots joined in. Two minutes later the guns boomed out again.

"They are a trifle slow at reloading", remarked Kuhlin. "Two shots every three minutes is the least thing to expect. We have fewer boats than the Russians, so we must compensate it with a higher rate of fire".
Tapper nodded. "Yes, Sir, we will have to train more".
"Indeed. Now secure the guns and let's make way. We have still some more miles to go until the evening".

They stopped for the night in an anchorage north of Furusund. From here they would start the passage over open water to Åland. As soon as the weather permitted. They would have to wait for the Amelia though. Kuhlin wanted to do the crossing in company with the supply ship. It would enable them to get a good meal when they arrived instead of the simpler provisions the gunboats carried themselves. Also, if they went over together they could protect the unarmed Amelia in case there were any Russians cruising out there. There should not be any, though, with most of the Russian high seas fleet blockaded but one never knew if some corvette or brig had been able to slip out.

The passage across the Åland Sea is about 25 nautical miles of open water. At three knots it would take the gunboats a little more than eight hours - if they could follow the direct route. Of course, if the winds were favorable the boats could sail faster. If they turned foul, however, the passage could take much longer. The gunboats were not very good at going upwind and in open water they were not easily rowed either, if there was any swell at all. Fortunately the prevailing winds this time of the year were southwesterlies, at least until the sea breeze got up in the afternoon and turned them into southerlies or made them die completely on the Swedish coast. Until then, however, the boats would be well out to sea and on the other side the sea breeze would add to the prevailing winds, making them stronger instead. On warm summer days thus near gale force winds could easily appear in the afternoons without any apparent warning.

When Kuhlin gave the order to step the masts and set out to sea, the winds were still light between the islands. He had ordered two of the gunboats to tow the Amelia out of the protected waters in order to keep his little force together. As soon as they reached open waters, the tow was cast off, sails set and the squadron started to sail on an easterly course towards Åland. In fact the real course would rather have been east by northeast, but the gunboats made so much leeway that they would end up farther north anyway.

For the crew this was easy work. They relaxed on the thwarts or with their backs against the gunwales, blinking into the sun and soaking up the warmth of the late spring morning. Kuhlin stood aft, on his usual place besides the tiller and watched the rigging and the sea around them. It was empty, not even a fishing boat was to be seen. Perhaps the fishermen were all afraid of Russian patrols. Or they had all been drafted into the gunboats, he thought.

Two hours later, the wind had picked up some and the boats creamed along nicely. Amelia, who was a much better sailor still had her mainsail reefed to slow her down but Kuhlin was satisfied. If this wind held, they would arrive well before dinner.
"Sail ho! Right on the starboard bow!" A shout from the bows disturbed his thoughts.
"Tapper, get a man up the mainmast", Kuhlin ordered.
"It's a ship" a new voice shouted. "Looks like a man of war. One row of gunports, may be a frigate".

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Chapter 2 - The crew

"Let go forward", ordered Kuhlin. "Haul in on the kedge". Slowly gunboat no 14 moved away from the quay, stern first. 56 men where seated on the thwarts, 28 to each side, two at each of the 14 sweeps that would propel the boat while under oars. Between them the two masts and lateen yards where lashed in place above the guns that had been hauled down into the bottom of the boat in order to serve as ballast when under sail. Kuhlin stood in the stern of the boat next to the boatswain who had the tiller as long as they were in confined space - or at least until he had trained someone else to act as coxswain. Two men where heaving on the stout line that was connected to the kedge anchor.
"Easy on that line", Kuhlin ordered when the boat was getting close to the anchor. He didn't want her to overshoot the kedge, risking making a mess of anchor line and sweeps while in sight of everyone ashore.
"Kedge is up and down", the boatswain reported. Tapper stood, supervising the handling of the anchor, while controlling the tiller with his right foot.
"Haul in the kedge. Ready by the sweeps", ordered Kuhlin.
Although most of the men never had been aboard a gunboat it had been explained to them by Tapper what was expected of them. Many also had some experience in rowing fishing skiffs or the like. About a dozen men had served on gunboats before, and Tapper had tried to place them as strategically as possible in order for them to be able to help the landsmen. Kuhlin looked around. The kedge was up and currently being stowed in its locker. Fortunately no other boats were around. They might as well give it a go, he thought. He raised his voice.
"Easy now, slowly and one thing at a time, men!" Then: "Out sweeps".
Slowly and carefully, like a cat that stretches its paw after a good nap, the long sweeps moved outwards.
"Down sweeps". The blades dropped into the water. "Give way together slowly!" This was the most difficult part. When rowing a vessel with many sweeps everything depended on the movement of the oars to be simultaneous. If one or several sweeps moved out of stroke they could collide with others and the whole symmetry would be destroyed, the boat would stop moving and in the worst of cases, sweeps could break. Thus every pair of oarsmen had to time their strokes with one specific sweep, normally the aftmost one on each side as the oarsmen sat with their backs to the bows of the gunboat. While they rowed they had to keep their eyes on those leading sweeps and all they had to do was keep the same beat.
Slowly the sweeps started to move and gunboat no 14 started to make way through the water.
"Hard a starboard", ordered Kuhlin. Tapper moved the tiller and the boat moved away from the shore.
"Midships. Keep her along the shore".
When underway inshore between the islands and skerries, compass courses normally were not used. It was much easier to order the coxswain to steer by sight.

This was going quite well, Kuhlin thought. Surely, the rows of sweeps did not look like anything that would impress an admiral, but they would certainly get better. Number 14 was now slowly moving along the coastline. When they passed the island of Beckholmen his nose was filled by the strong smell of tar. It was here most of the famous Stockholm tar was produced. Or had been, as the tar came mostly from Finland and with that part of the country now threatened by Russia the supplies had started to dwindle. The boat now turned to larboard, into more open water. Time to try the men some more.
"Oarsmen firm up", called Kuhlin. The sweeps started to move faster as the men leaned into them with a will. At least they had gotten a decent breakfast. A gunboat was not a fast vessel. Under oars their speed was between two and three knots. Still that was much faster than the old galleys which were happy if the could make one knot at all. Of course the gunboats could be rowed faster, but only for short periods of time. Kuhlin hoped they would be able to sail later, when they got into more open water. Under sails they would both be faster and more easy on the crew. On the other hand, pulling kept them warm and occupied so they did not have time to worry about what lay ahead of them. Kuhlin sat down on the starboard locker, pulled out his notebook and started to write his log.

In the bows, gunnery officer Eric af Klint stood and smelled the fresh air. The boat was moving at about three knots, still under oars and they were now halfway between Stockholm and Vaxholm castle, their destination for the day. Af Klint was still not satisfied with the bow guns sliding carriage. It had been freshly greased and the gun moved nicely enough when it was stowed in the bottom of the boat before they cast off. But something was not really right with that gun. Still, he could not find out what it was.
He hear some shouting and moving behind him and turned. The crew had stopped pulling and was about to stow the oars. Boatswain Tapper and two other men where fiddling with ropes and sails. Apparently, the commander had decided to try out the sails.
The gunboat was not a very good sailer, due to its shallow draft and lack of proper keel. However with the guns below it was stable enough to carry a considerable amount of sail on the two masts that were about to be raised by the crew. The rig was designed to be taken down or raised by the crew alone, at sea. As number 14 carried a lateen rig, the masts were quite short, in fact the main yard was longer that the main mast was high. This made rigging quite easy.

Kuhlin stood besides the tiller and watched the masts which now had been raised and steadied by shrouds and, as far as the foremast was concerned, by a forestay.
"Yards ready to hoist", the boatswain announced.
"Hoist main yard! Let fall mainsail."
The big yard slowly rose up the mast and was secured. Then the big sail unfolded and caught the breeze.
"Haul tight sheets and braces", Kuhlin ordered. The sail steadied and the gunboat started to move. Soon even the smaller foresail was set and the boat moved along nicely in the southwesterly breeze.
"That worked quite well, boatswain", Kuhlin remarked.
"Thank you, sir. She is moving along nicely now".
"She is indeed. Let the men have something to eat and drink, we still have a few hours to go, and I am sure they will have to pull again as soon as we are near the castle. The winds always are very fluky in that anchorage."
"Aye aye, sir". Tapper moved forward and ordered two of the sailors to follow him. Gunboats did not carry a proper galley, which meant there could be no hot drinks or meals at sea. Provisions were carried for two weeks to be cooked ashore, or else there were special supply boats attached to every three or four gunboats. As number 14 still was on the way to her squadron only cold food could be served: salt herring, hard bread and brandy. The men, however gulped it down with a will. Pulling was hard labour and could make a man eat almost everything. Now they rested, with full bellies while the boat was under sail. Some of the men took out tobacco pouches and simple pipes, carved of wood. Other just sat and talked. Some of the conscripts knew each other, although people from the same village were divided between different boats in order to make it less hard on the communities if one of the boats should be sunk.

Gunboat number 14 neared the narrow channel which formed the entrance to the big lagoon-like anchorage off Vaxholm. The lagoon looked like an hourglass with the big castle on its own island in the middle of the waist, protecting the anchored fleet from any attack. Now there were not many ships at anchor. Most of the high seas fleet were away blockading the Russians in Estonia. There were, however a few smaller ships there, mostly unarmed transports, or, as Kuhlin hoped, supports for the gunboats. Hopefully his supply boat would be amongst them.
The wind increased and shifted dead astern as soon as they were in the channel. The gunboat sailed very well, thought Kuhlin, at least with a following wind. However, as soon as they were though the channel the wind would drop to almost nothing and they would have to take out the oars again.
"Tapper", he called "have the masts taken down as soon as we are through. I don't want to have to fiddle with the rigging while trying to find out squadron."

Half an hour later, number 14 was moving slowly under oars towards the castle. Kuhlin searched the castle walls for any sign of an officer who could tell him where his squadron was. He did not have to wait long. As soon as they were in shouting distance an midshipman appeared and shouted his instructions.
"Lieutenant Kuhlin of number 14? Your squadron is just around the headland there, in Rindösund! I'll send a boat for you later, the castle commander invites you to dinner!"
"Thank you, I am very much obliged", replied Kuhlin. "Tapper, you heard him, Rindösund it is".