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".

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