Dear readers, tonight with us is a cadet officer from Her Majesty’s Ship The Daedalus. He will tell us of his adventures on the seven seas, and in particular about encountering a mysterious sea serpent.
Tell us where you grew up. Did you always want to join the navy?
I grew up in Harwich. It’s a Navy town – the Navy’s never far away. From the cottage where I grew up you could see the ships coming and going, and when you went down into the town the forest of masts above the roofs didn’t let you forget either. I suppose I did always want to join. My brother went to the naval college as soon as he could – Father had been a surgeon in the old Conqueror, so his sons were entitled to go – and I always wished I could have gone with him. You wouldn’t have thought there was any chance at all of me going too, but… well, I never actually thought it would happen, but it did.
What are you duties on board, as a midshipman?
My duties? Ha! To get under the feet of the petty officers, to annoy the officers and amuse the hands, or so you’d think. Really, a Mid is there to learn how to be an officer, to make sure we’ve salt enough in the blood, sea legs and know a sheetbend from a sheer-hulk. Half the time we’re used as skivvies and messengers and the other half we’re being sent up the masthead as punishment for something or other.
What did you first think when you saw the sea serpent?
You’ll forgive me for not giving much of an answer. So much had already happened that day. I’d nearly fallen from the fore-top, and would’ve done if Topman Panna hadn’t got a hold of my ankle in time. And then my secret was out, or I thought it was. The thing I’d been trying to keep everyone from finding out since I’d joined the Daedalus… But Spencer had got the ship into irons and everyone was yelling and rushing, and Panna understood, and he kept quiet. But anyway, the sea-serpent. It was hard to take in. Nobody had seen anything like it. It was like a giant eel or snake. I haven’t said this to anyone, but I thought there was something beautiful about it. Majestic. Free. Oh, I was scared of it. Even before we realised what it could do when provoked. I wouldn’t have wanted to be alone in the water with it, not then. But while we could sail away in the other direction, the thought of that mighty creature, plunging through the wide ocean as we do through air… If only we could be as free.
How did you feel when you spent all that time chasing it?
At first it was exciting. It was new – we were doing something no-one had done before, we were like explorers on the edge of some wonderful discovery. And it brought the ship together, apart from poor old Spencer. Even the Captain seemed to get a lift from it. I didn’t realise at the time. But I don’t think creatures like that and us are meant to inhabit the same world. And then when we started to get close – what we did to it, and what it did to us. Before anyone realised it there was no way out. I didn’t think any of us were going to get away alive, and we’d end up as a few wrecked timbers and bones scattered on the bottom of the South Atlantic or washed up on some ice island. It was us or the creature. Or that was how it felt.
What is the worst thing about living on a ship for months at a time? What is the best?
The worst thing? Living in a cramped, smelly, damp hole with two hundred men. Barely having a moment to yourself and never anything like quiet. I don’t suppose you’ve ever slept in a room that tilts in opposite directions every two hours as mine did when we were trying to get to windward, or which had anchor cables running through it. Not being able to walk for more than a couple of paces before you had to turn round and go the other way. The best thing? It might be feeling the deck move beneath you when a gust catches the sails, and the ship leans to it and leaps forward in a great rush of foam. Or sitting on the crosstrees with the world spread out beneath you as the sun first pokes over the horizon, as though you’re sitting on a mountain made of spidersilk. Most of all it’s that moment when you turn out to take in sail, and you’re hanging over the yard thumping at canvas that’s wet and gone hard as board, yelling back at the wind, and you catch the eye of some other man. Here, on land, you’d have nothing to do with one another. Perhaps on land you’d see only a drunken thug and cross the street to avoid him. But out there you know that you’re all there for each other and the ship, all 200. You’ll fight for him, same as he’ll fight for you. Once you’ve felt that fellowship, you’ll always be a part of something bigger.
What is the scariest point in your adventures?
Waiting. When we’d been fighting for weeks and the unthinkable happened. A dead calm in the Southern Ocean. Men who’d been at sea forty years had never seen such a thing. And to know that the creature was out there, could be just beneath the surface. We tried pulling Daedalus out of the calm with the boats, but even when the creature leapt out of the water like a shocked cat and upset the pinnace and all its crew… even then I wasn’t nearly so scared as when we couldn’t do a blamed thing and were just sitting there waiting for it to come and finish us.
What does the future hold for you? Do you plan to keep on sailing, or are you looking forward to retiring on land?
There’s still a whole world out there. From the frozen poles to the Tropics. I’m stuck here on the land for now. It seems a little place, even though I see in it now than I ever did before. Mr Gilpin, the Sailing Master, has been helping me learn about Naturalism, and I find plenty in its study to occupy my time, if not all of my mind. I think about the creature, and where it might have come from, what might have happened to it. I can’t believe that I won’t leave these shores again. The salt’s in my blood now. I can see the sea stretching away to the edge of the world from here. One day green, another silver, another muddy brown, another steely grey. I have to believe I’ll sail again. Whatever Lieutenant Malory says.
Matthew Willis was born in the historic naval town of Harwich, Essex. He grew up in a nearby village, never far from the sea, where he developed his passion for the age of sail. He publishes non-fiction at his blog on Naval History. Midshipman Colyer comes off the pages of Daedalus and The Deep.
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