Captain Joe Schooner, Part One
Joe Schooner, merchant captain aboard the Good Hope, finds himself being keelhauled by the greedy pirates who captured his ship.
Captain Joe Schooner was in a bit of a pinch, alright. For six days his ship had been drifting on a dead calm sea, waiting for wind to continue on his journey to America where those ever-thirsty colonists waited for his precious cargo of tea leaves. If he'd had a wind, even a head wind or a slight breeze he would have been in Boston by now, paying his sailors their wages and perhaps drinking some of his own tea with the governor. Instead, the seventh morning had dawned calm as a church service, but with a square-rigged brigantine on the horizon. Immediately Joe had been fearful of the crew it likely carried. A common myth claimed that pirate ships outgunned most other vessels, but in reality a pirate ship's true weapon was its large crew of swarthy sailors willing to fight for a piece of gold. Typical piracy tactics consisted of boarding a vessel, not destroying her with their cannons. Once the ships were locked together, the pirates’ sheer numbers and fighting experience practically guaranteed a victory.
The big ship came on and on, sailing under a light breeze which somehow refused to even stir the edges of the canvas on Captain Joe's own ship. Even when the faint breeze finally died and the now-visible muscular pirate crew resorted to kedging (towing their ship by anchors dropped a mile ahead) the foreboding which hung over Cap’n Joe’s own ship was impossible to shake.
They’d given it their best shot, of course. For three days the two crews raced each other, drawing the anchor chain out by longboat, dropping it, and weighing anchor to pull the ship ahead. Captain Joe's small crew of British sailors pulled their weight and more each hour on the capstan, winding in the long anchor chains on each desperate kedge. But merchant sailors they were, and merchant sailors, even merchant sailors who feared for their lives, could not match pace with a pirate crew twice their number and all hungry for a black market cargo and the purse of gold which followed after. There was no outrunning a pirate ship when Joe's own ship carried 100 tons of precious sugar cargo in the hold.
And so, here he was, on a pirate vessel watching his ship sail away under a skeleton crew of cutthroats to be auctioned off at the black market. His crew were below in the brig, those who hadn’t been pressed into service to augment the pirate crew. And Joe, bound hand and foot with a rope around his waist, was about to be keelhauled. Yep, Joe decided, it was a pinch alright.
“On ya go, mate!”, the big pirate said with a grin as he snugged the last knot and prodded Joe up onto the railing. “It’s only a few dozen fathoms!” All the crew roared at this as Joe stared downward into the dark waters below.
Suddenly the noise hushed. Joe turned, careful to maintain his balance on the slick wood railing, and came face to face with the pirate captain. At six feet four inches, the captain’s figure reminded Joe of a broadsword, long and lean and deadly. His face was shrouded by a hood and a dirty brown beard, and his voice was low and smooth like a snake in sand.
“Hello, brother” he said with not a trace of emotion. “I see my first mate has followed my instructions. I don’t usually bother myself with executions, but I changed my mind last minute.”
Joe said nothing.
"Family, you know.” the captain continued. “Speaking of my first mate, meet Robert Dyson, or ‘Big Rob’.”
The barrel-chested first mate touched his eye patch in a halfhearted salute, then crossed his arms again and flexed his biceps.
“Then it is true.” Joe had been slow to believe the rumors of the pirate captain “Harpoon Chuck”, who had been rapidly gaining wealth and notoriety for the last several years. “You were shanghaied.”
“And studied under the finest pirate captain ever to squint through a looking-glass.”
Big Rob shifted his stance, obviously tired of talk and ready for a first rate keelhauling. “It’s getting dark.” He gestured to Joe’s rope which travelled underneath the ship and up over the port railing where it was gripped tightly by no less than five eager pirates.
“Right then. We can talk on the other side, eh?” Harpoon Chuck winked and raised his arm to the sailors in waiting on the port side. “Heave-Ho!” The captain cried. Before the words had left his mouth Captain Joe jumped, spiraling into the waves with a Joe-sized splash.
It all depended on his swimming ability. A slow keelhauling meant certain drowning, but if he could swim quicker than the pirates could pull he could avoid being dragged along the barnacle-covered hull of the ship. Otherwise he’d be lucky to reach the other side with all of his limbs attached.
So he swam downward towards the keel with all of his might, contorting his body to allow his bound legs to push him along. As he swam, his double-jointed thumbs picked at the knots holding his wrists together behind his back.
Just as the knots were coming loose the rope in front of him straightened and jerked him along, re-tightening the knots. Up ahead the rough timber keel loomed, ready to bash his head in a matter of seconds. Desperately he grabbed the rope with his teeth and pulled, then with the slack loosened the knot and slipped his hands free. Without a moment to spare, he ripped his lower pant leg open and drew a hand-sized blade from its hiding spot and rammed it into the ship's keel, burying the long blade up to the handle. Two quick turns of the rope and suddenly the line drew tight as the five sailors above tried to pull him to the surface. He drew another dagger from its place under his belt, slashed the bonds on his feet, and raced to the surface with burning lungs and a plan forming in his mind.
On deck there were shouts of confusion as the rope tightened and refused to move.
“He’s grabbed hold of the keel! HEAVE, you bilge rats!” Big Rob had never seen a problem which could not be solved with more force. At six foot five inches and 300 pounds, his rolling shoulder muscles aided him in this philosophy.
In the water below, Joe’s head burst above the water with a gasp as he filled his aching lungs. He grabbed the taut rope with his left hand and slash at it below him with the knife in his right. Once severed, the startled sailors above him fell backwards, drawing the rope and Joe up the side of the ship. He reached the top in a moment and perched once again on the railing, only now he held a fourteen-inch dagger.
“Harpoon Chuck, Captain of the Seagull, you are hereby ordered to surrender or I and my crew shall be forced to give no quarter!”
While the stunned crew looked on, he reached under his shirt and produced a third dagger which he threw to his own first mate, Josh Willoughby, who was seconds away from his own keelhauling. Josh deftly caught the blade behind his back and cut his wrists free in one swift movement.
Harpoon Chuck, Terror of the Seven Seas, drew his own cutlass and let out a grim smile.
“So be it.”