A fleet of ships sailing from Tunis to Naples found themselves swept by a strange current which took them far from their intended destination. They were returning from the wedding of Claribel, the daughter of King Alonso of Naples, to the King of Tunis. They were high-spirited and slightly tipsy and obliviously surrendered themselves to the sea. Under the cloak of darkness the current took them westward across the Mediterranean, through the straits of Gibraltar and pulled the ships south into the Atlantic. When they became aware of the inordinate length of their journey they were of course puzzled. Their navigational aids appeared to be reliable but their readings made no sense- the journey got longer, and the sky got broader. They didn’t remember passing the island of Sicily, and they wondered when the mighty peak of the volcano Vesuvius, looming over the bay of Naples, would appear on the horizon to indicate how close they were to home. The ship sailed on but the horizon remained empty. After a few days they were lost and desperate. How it happened no one could say, after all Tunis to Naples was a routine journey. The days grew hotter, and the passengers irritable. The air became humid. This wasn’t like the intense summer heat of a Mediterranean summer but a damp tropical heat, which made the passengers sticky and nervous. Although they were surrounded by a mighty ocean and its cooling breezes, the heat only became more intense and sapping. Without warning thunder boomed across the skies. At first they cheered, welcoming the relief. But their high spirits were short lived. The sea became a tumult of mammoth waves. Dark clouds enveloped the ship like wrapping paper. The boats were in chaos.
“Bosun!” the Captain yelled, calling for the man in charge of the sailors.
“Here, Sir. Is everything okay?”
“Get the sailors to control this boat or we will run aground. Get a move on, man!”
The bosun ran back to the bridge and used his whistle to co-ordinate the efforts against the tempest.
“Get your backs into it, my lads! Carefully, carefully, take in the topsail. Let the storm blow until its lungs burst, as long as we can pass through!”
King Alonso came on deck accompanied by his brother Sebastian; Ferdinand, King Alonso’s son; Antonio, the Duke of Milan; and Gonzalo, a gentleman from the King’s court. Several other terrified passengers surrounded the royal party.
“Bosun, dear fellow- take care! Where’s the captain? Make the sailors persevere!” King Alonso said.
“I beg you all, stay below!” the bosun yelled back.
“Where’s the captain, bosun?” Antonio demanded.
“Can’t you hear him?” the bosun asked bewildered, and pointed to the captain overseeing from the bridge. “You’re a hindrance up here- you’re helping the storm,” he bawled as he waved them below.
“Be patient, dear fellow!” Gonzalo interceded, slightly affronted at the bosun’s manner towards the King.
“I’ll be patient when the sea is!” the bosun countered. “Now, below! What do these roaring waves care for the name of King Alonso! To your cabin and be quiet. Don’t bother us!”
“Good man, please remember who you have on board!” Gonzalo said.
“None that I love more than myself. You’re a state official- if you can command these elements to be silent and calm the seas, we won’t waste our time with another rope! Use your authority! If you can’t, give thanks that you’ve lived so long and retire to your cabin and be prepared for a watery end, if it happens. Gentlemen, out of our way!”
The royal party were left speechless by the determination and aloofness of the bosun. Gonzalo was first to comment: “I take great comfort from that man! I don’t think he was born to drown. The gallows is his destiny! Fate, stick to your plan and have him hanged! Make the rope of his destiny stronger than the rope of our anchor, which isn’t up to much! If he wasn’t born for the gallows, our case is lost.”
On Gonzalo’s lighter note they staggered to their cabins to ride out the storm. Meanwhile the bosun continued to co-ordinate the sailors’ duel with the storm.
“Down with the topmast!” he bawled. “Faster! Lower, lower! Inline with the main-sail!”
The bosun struggled in the howling wind to manage the sails. And he was antagonised by the anguished wails from the passengers below.
“A plague upon this yelling!” the bosun screamed, kneeling on the deck, hoping they would hear him below. “They’re louder than the weather and the sailors put together!”
His patience was taxed further by the unexpected reappearance of Sebastian, Antonio and Gonzalo.
“Yet again! What are you doing here? Shall we give up and drown? Are you hoping we will sink?”
“A pox on your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, uncharitable dog!” screamed Sebastian.
“How about doing some work then!” the bosun yelled back.
“Hang, you mongrel! Hang, you scummy, insolent loudmouth! We are less afraid to drown than you,” Antonio bawled, clearly riled.
“He won’t drown- even if his boat is no stronger than a nutshell and as leaky as an incontinent old slag!” Gonzalo said.
Partially ignoring them, the bosun continued to manage the ship’s passage through the tempest: “Heave ho! Heave ho! Set her sails. Out to sea again!”
The exhausted and drenched sailors began to voice their discontent: “It’s hopeless! Just pray! Pray! All’s lost!”
“So it’s cold mouth and cold corpse, for us, eh?” the bosun said.
“Let’s join the King and the prince in the prayers,” Gonzalo suggested to Sebastian and Alonso, “we’re all in the same boat, so to speak.”
“These sailors have exhausted my patience,” said Sebastian.
“We’re cheated of our lives by drunkards! Chubby-cheeked bosun- may you hang on the shore for ten tides!” Antonio shouted.
“He’ll be hanged yet,” Gonzalo said, “but every drop of water says otherwise and the sea is trying to swallow him!”
As the hull and keel made cracked, the anonymous screams from below deck get louder and more desperate.
“Farewell, wife! Farewell, child!”
“We’re breaking up!”
“Let’s all sink with the King,” Antonio said.
“Yes, let’s say our farewells,” Sebastian said.
They went below to confront the chaos. Gonzalo stayed on deck, pensive and fearful. “Now I would give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground- heath, scrub, weeds- anything! The will of above will be done! But I would have preferred to die a dry death.”
Then the tempest seemed to split the ship. Their terrors were justified, but they had no idea at all that this tempest was man-made…