Chapter 3 – At Malta

Part 3 – Lieutenants

Chapter 3 – At Malta

Ephraim felt that at last the Lord’s provision in providing this naval life for him in the Mediterranean fleet in Malta was working out well. He felt at home there, knowing the capable Rear Admiral Formby was in charge in the Flag ship, Alexon, and it pleased him to be associated with the stability of the station. Malta was the great repair shop of the Royal Navy. It meant Greatheart was in harbour most of the time and Ephraim enjoyed being in supervision of the division of blue jackets who worked there. They were mostly sober and good tempered, looking after the various needs of the ships brought in for caulking, coppering, restorations of hulk and sails or simply barnacle removing. He was also glad to have the company of Sebold, who was made flag mate in Favourite, alongside him. There was a lot of work interpreting signals at Malta so Seb had less time ashore than Ephraim.

Captain Turner ran a quiet and civilized ship. The other officers seemed harmonically content, the gunroom only occasionally disturbed by an argument over bridge or chess. At Malta the Admiral and First Lieutenant lived ashore with other officers. It seemed the small irritations that could become large in a confined community were eased. It was as peaceful a life as he had known; he felt he could really belong to the Navy in this ship. There was also, the always enjoyable time out of the ship on such a pleasant station.

It was only his desire for Emily that was the thorn in his flesh – not an inapt analogy if not exactly Paul’s problem! He realised this thorn could not be removed until he became a lieutenant and able to marry and that would likely take two years unless something happened to change things. What could he do to change things? He would have to look out for an opportunity to make his mark and accelerate his career.

Despite being advised against it, such an opportunity seemed offered in a small way by the challenge of a four-day canoe trip out from Valetta. He managed to persuade Sebold to join him by reminding him ‘things like this will serve for our promotion’. Sebold brought his ‘interest’ to bear on Captain Plum who agreed to the arrangement. Ephraim also thought the venture might impress Emily. They each chose a canoe and having gathered provisions, they set off in high spirits on a rising sea and a freshening breeze to make a small name for themselves.

At the outset there was a problem. It was obvious that Sebold was going faster than Ephraim, Ephraim’s mast was holding too much wind and his canoe was making little progress against a breeze which was soon blowing a good 6. It was holding Ephraim back.

‘I’ll take your canoe in tow behind.’

Sebold clambered alongside Ephraim’s canoe to fasten it.

‘Careful!’ shouted Ephraim, as a wave threatened to overwhelm them. He stood up, ‘Let me give you a hand.’

‘Don’t be a fool,’ cried Sebold, ‘You’ll have us over! Sit down, I can do it.’ Ephraim wondered if he could. Seb was in the water now, at the back of his own canoe, his head went under several times. Ephraim feared the worse. What should he do if Sebold failed to emerge? Would not do much good to their reputation, either! There was a sudden pull on Ephraim’s canoe and it lurched forward. He never got to know what he would have done if Sebold had gone under. ‘Good old Seb,’ he thought, as the two canoes thrust forward. ‘Splendid chap.’

The first night, they had difficulty finding their designated landmark in the dark, but eventually they ran in under the lea of some rocks under St Paul’s statue and, putting their canoes side by side on the shore, they spread their sails on top and waterproofs underneath and settled into an exhausted sleep. Despite the hard stones and an occasional flap from a wet sail or a gust of wind, they soon fell asleep and did not wake till about 6am when the cold wind made them wish they had brought more covers.

‘C’mon old chap, cocoa,’ said Sebold. He had heated a mug over a candle while Ephraim was still asleep and spread out hard-boiled eggs and sardines. Mutual spirits rose and Ephraim soon felt they were breakfasting like kings after the hard night’s work. He would have something to tell Emily about. He could just imagine her with him, enjoying the adventure. The weather would do that cough of hers good. They decided to see if they could get a wash and anything extra to eat. Nothing was forthcoming but they found a well.

‘The question is, how are we going to get the water?’ said Sebold.

Ephraim came up trumps with his tooth mug tied to a ball of string, making a drink available and the possibility of a sketchy wash. Then it was back to the boats.

‘We haven’t chosen the best weather,’ said Sebold. looking at the lowering clouds. Indeed, they hadn’t. The clouds produced a sharp, stinging rain and the sea was rough. It was a long, hard pull. Ephraim was almost tempted to give up because he still could not get his mast down. It would keep holding the wind. ‘Look here, Seb, I can’t get my mast down and this canoe is useless holding the wind like this. I’m just slowing us down and my muscles are dying from all this pulling, I don’t know about yours. What do you say we turn back now? Bit of fun while it lasted.’

Sebold was horrified, ‘What would they say if we came back to harbour now. We would be a laughing stock and never hear the end of ‘I told you so’. And it certainly won’t help our promotion.’

‘You won’t need help for that, and I’m past caring. Come on, Seb, give it up! Tell you the truth, I only emphasized promotion to get you to join me, nobody is going to blame us if we just turn back.’

Emily would understand the good sense of it.

‘No doubt, but we will raise some cheers if we stay out.’

Sebold would not hear of giving up and eventually, exhausted, tired and very wet, they landed at the top of the island where they found the bliss of a night in a local hostelry. They sat on top of charcoal stoves to dry themselves and ate the most wonderful dinner, ‘Never enjoyed anything so much as this beefsteak,’ said Sebold, and Ephraim agreed.

Next day the weather played its usual trick of starting well and then getting nasty. Tempers frayed easily now.

‘If you had got yourself a decent canoe, I wouldn’t have had to hold back to let you keep up with me. I can pull heavier than you, and my canoe is lighter and gets its mast down without help! You never think anything through.’

‘Perhaps if you had said something when we got the canoes!’

There was an argument about stopping for lunch. Ephraim wanted to get on. He feared being out on the sea in the freshening wind with nowhere to run for cover. There was always the fear of capsizing miles from anywhere. They paddled on, opening headland after headland until the wind completely died away and gliding along in tow, at about 2 miles an hour with spinnaker set, and getting hungrier and hungrier, the heavy swell gave a slight set in their favour and by late evening they arrived off Marso Surroes and thankfully reached the shore.

They rigged a ‘tolerably comfortable shanty’ on a level ledge on the cliffs with masts and paddles. They lit half a dozen candles to warm and dry the place, lighted a lantern to boil some cocoa, then went in search of wood. They could not find any wood, only an old fort with defunct guns. They returned to their shanty and had a frugal meal of a tin of sardines and biscuit and cocoa which they found boiling over when they came back, but the site of the sun going down over the island was magical.

Ephraim stretched out on the rock, ‘I’m enjoying this better than many a dinner of more courses.’ He wished he were sharing this delightful break with Emily.

‘Huh,’ said Sebold, ‘But one gets tired of all things, even eating sardines with fingers, drinking brandy grog, and looking at the moon.’

They spent an uncomfortable night with their legs hanging over a precipice, but they were prepared to see the venture out.

Next day they explored the ruined fort and found a corporal and private of the Maltese Fencibles living in a nearby tower and doing duty as policemen. Early suspicion gave way to friendliness, the naval officers were invited in – the only entrance being by a ladder to a door twenty feet from the ground. The room the men lived in ‘smelt strongly of garlic and other abominations’ thought Ephraim and they were thankful to leave it. They went up to the lookout roof and down to a well in the old Magazine at the foot of the tower where they stripped much to local astonishment and had a good bathe. Water bottles were filled, the boats re-rigged and they launched again in renewed good spirits intending to complete the journey that day.

The last day was not without incident. They narrowly escaped a shipwreck passing between a small island and the mainland, and were nearly grounded on the reefs a good mile from the shore.

‘I’m sorry Seb, I should never have suggested this.’

‘If you would just have had the sense to get a better canoe for yourself and realized you haven’t got the strength for pulling, we wouldn’t have had so much trouble. You know Effy, you are much more impulsive than you think. If you are to make a success in the Service, you must learn to think out the implications of your thoughts before you turn them into impulsive action. There is more to life than thinking and giving way to ideas which seem bright at the time but don’t work out in action.’

‘Oh, so you are the wonderful one then! And what’s with this Effy?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous! Just friendship!’

‘Don’t be so patronising!’

‘Don’t be so pompous!’

‘Don’t be so know all!’

‘Don’t be so childish!’

The sulked and tried to outdo each other in pulling but it was a lost cause for Ephraim.

As they approached Valetta, they staggered home in a wind which was as much as they could manage with under whole sails. A Pinnace passed them full of ladies who could not make out what two such ruffians were doing in such weather in canoes. Then, as they opened a point they saw a fleet of small skiffs and canoes before them.

‘It’s Saturday – the fellows have come round to meet us!’ Sebold exclaimed.

The sailors were gratified. They heard cheers.

‘Perhaps we haven’t done so badly after all!’ Sebold laughed.

‘All’s well that ends well. Friends again?’ Ephraim held out his hand.

‘Whenever not?’ Sebold embraced him.

They got back to Valetta and enjoyed their notoriety. It was a change for Ephraim to be admired. He was looked at and wondered at for a day two. He resolved to have an extra bonnet put on his canoe mainsail next time.

However, it was not long before another impulsive thought became action, and he was admired again. Greatheart had been returning to Valetta edging along the shore trying to keep out of a strong wind when, about half way across, there was a cry of man overboard and Ephraim had a slight view of a blue frock floating aft, apparently the back of a man. Lobb, another bluejacket, jumped overboard, but there was no sight of the lifebuoy going, or the Kirbie, another lifebuoy, being thrown. Ephraim threw off his frock coat and cap and dived in.

Again, he wrote an account to his father. It had been a new and demanding experience:

‘When once overboard, had trouble reaching Lobb. We succeeded in supporting him by the collar for some time. Then he caught me by the brace, I succeeded in freeing his hand and held him at arm’s length, Lobb doing the same as we were both much tired. The man opened his mouth and could not shut it though we told him constantly to do so.

The Kirbie lifebuoy was floating some distance to leeward and I told Lobb to get it, but he would not. I lost my hold of the man for a minute but tried to regain it as I swallowed buckets of salt water and thought of the care and comfort and comparative safety on the lifebuoy to leeward if we only left our charge, but we could not and held on spitting and splashing as well as we could. At last, I turned around and saw the lifeboat coming and told Lobb we had to keep our backs to the ship as the seas broke over us. The cutter came with so much weight that the stroke oars man who caught hold of me nearly came overboard too and dragged me away from Lobb and the wretched man, to whom they gave an oar. I thought they were sunk and rang out for someone to dive after them.

After a bit they dragged the other two into the boat and then I would have given anything for the Instructions for restoring the drowned. The man frothed all round his mouth, a yellow nasty looking stuff. Lobb was sick and I felt bad but could bring nothing up. When we came alongside, Kellet brought the boat straight bows on, which worried me. The man was taken up on a bowline and some stuff came from his stomach, but he never spoke or breathed his name, he was working on the port lower boom when the lead struck him and knocked him overboard. (I felt all right and went on the poop again though rather shaky. After a brandy and soda with Piggot I went to bed at 9.30. At about 2 woke up seedy. Went forward and at 2.30 thought my last night had come having cramp in the chest which nearly stopped my breath.’

Sub Lieutenant Browne received a bronze medal from the Royal Humane Society in recognition of his valour in this ‘brave and difficult rescue’. Would it help to bring the much desired appointment to Lieutenant and the future he longed for? If not, perhaps he should broach the Captain.

Comments are closed.