The Green Brig

First, I need to say that the logical part of me denies reincarnation.  Deep down...I just can't admit that I don't know.  Anyway here is my "experience" for what it's worth.  I apologize for the length of this.


            The first little bit I remember is from when I was very, very young.  There wasn’t much specific here, just a general feeling and a few sketchy images.  I remember that my friends and I were in wooden boats rowing across pitch black, ice cold water through sea islands around the shore.  There were no towns or anything near us.  There was only our camp back on the mainland shore which was a couple of miles by water away.

            I say it was my friends and me in the boats but it wasn’t specific people.  They were people I knew, trusted, and loved like friends, but they weren’t my friends.  I don’t know a single one of their names.

            Much later – years maybe – I dreamed that my friends and I were on a small sailing vessel headed out to sea in the hours just before dawn.  The winds were calm but there was enough to sail.  I was shouting things I didn’t understand and the crew was doing what I said.

            I had no idea what “mind the braces” meant.  Nor did I understand “sloppy work with that jib!  Tighter!  Tighter!”  I remember saying “set the courses and mind your posts.”

            I remember that last one because I figured that “set your course” meant to point the vessel in one direction and to keep going that way.  I did not know how the vessel could have more than one course (as in “set the courses…”).  It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that the largest square sail – the one hung from the lowest yardarm on a mast - is called a course.  Most sailing vessels would have more than one.

            I was still very young when I dreamed about getting the vessel out from the maze of islands where we hid her while we resupplied.  There was no wind and very little room to maneuver among the islands and sandbars that surrounded us.  Without wind a sailing ship cannot move, right?


            A vessel can be moved by means of “warping,” but how I knew that at 8 years old I can’t imagine.  Warping does not mean that we roust Misters Scott and Sulu from their bunks and have them engage the star drive engines.  It means dropping a longboat into the water, setting the sea anchor into it and having two men row it outward in whichever direction one wishes to go.  The men then drop the anchor into the water.

            Back on the ship, the crew now turns the large capstan to raise the anchor.  However, the anchor does not immediately lift from the sea bottom and return to the ship.  First, the slack between the anchor and the capstan is taken in around the giant wooden spool.  That draws the ship toward the anchor, moving her through the water to the location where the anchor was dropped.  Not until the vessel is resting above the anchor does the anchor begin to rise.

            By putting the anchor back on the longboat and rowing it to another location the ship can be warped a second time.  Wind becomes irrelevant when the ship is being warped.  She can travel anywhere, albeit dead slow.

            I was surprised to learn as a young man that vessels actually were moved via the anchor and capstan in much the same way I had envisioned in my sleep.

            Once I dreamt that we were aboard that little vessel again, this time in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  We had been at sea for a couple of weeks and we were headed back to the black water port, which I now thought was among the many tiny islands along the extreme north coastline of Maine or even on into Canada.  We were talking about what we had done – how we had chased off more than one (and I want to say three) British vessels which had been harassing our merchant vessels.  It was common practice back then for British ships to overhaul American merchant vessels and press members of the crew.  That is to say take them and put them to work on the British vessels.  We were proud we had stopped this on more than one occasion.

            But now we were low on powder and nearly out of shot.  If we were overtaken we would be in as much or more trouble than the merchants we had been sent to protect.  We were members of the American navy, operating at sea without a flag.  We were – as far as the Royal Navy would care – criminals.

            It was dark and the seas were getting choppy.  There was a ship on the horizon.  She was pulling full sail – studs and skies – trying to catch us.  We were over-gunned and I ordered six of our cannons thrown overboard in an attempt to lighten us. 

            The chase went on through the night, but when morning came the ship was still on our horizon.  I don’t know what happened after that.

            Later – much later – I remember dreaming in vivid detail about rowing out to a vessel that was moored in a black water inlet.  There were about twenty of us in several boats as we rowed out to a smart little brig.  None of us had ever seen anything quite like her and the part that sticks out even to this day is the mint green channel (stripe) that ran down her gun deck.  It was beautiful and unique.  It was like nothing we had ever seen.  She certainly didn’t look like an American ship now.

            Under the light of the full moon we warped the vessel out of the shallows and made it to sea two hours before dawn.  Once again I shouted at the crew to mind the braces and to be less sloppy with the jib (although I did now know what a jib was).  I also felt the morning sea breeze across the weather deck and ordered the courses unfurled.  Then I had the helmsman set a course for the open sea.

            We caught sight of a British man-o-war waiting for us to the south as we made our run for the sea.  We whooped and hollered at her as we passed several miles to her north.  She could not catch us.

            “Not if the dev’l himself were filling her sails!” said my lieutenant.

            Over time other fleeting images have appeared and faded.  They all seem more real than simple imagination and there is an eerie coldness to many of them.

            I remember a storm where we had to free all the sails and let the currents take us where they willed.  I remember being chased by a British frigate, taking fire as we cut a zig-zag course across her bow – all the while drawing her further and further from the merchant vessel she had been stalking.  I remember exchanging fire with a much larger ship – maybe a 64 gunner or larger.  We put several shots through her stern, staying upwind and to her rear where she could hardly get a shot at us.  She fired several volleys of “hot shot” (cannon balls heated in a fire until they are red-hot, intended to start fires on the target vessel) at us and one even passed through one of our top sails.  There was no fire and we jeered at the limey sons-of-thunder until they broke their attack and drifted south.

            Over time I’ve remembered little bits and pieces that I’m not sure fit and if they do I’m not sure how.  Somerset seems like the name of at least one of the vessels involved.  Lieutenant Thomas Russell is a name I think means something.  (Curiously, the “captain” of a brig would not actually hold the rank of captain but of lieutenant.  He would still be called “captain” and would have all the power and responsibility of a full cap.  He would, however, only draw a lieutenant’s pay.)  I think the year was 1811.  I think I had been a cabin boy, then a midshipman, then a lieutenant on a larger vessel and finally the first lieutenant on a frigate (the name Stingray or Stinger) sticks out.  I think I was offered this job as a reward for something and was promised a frigate in the future.  I know I intended to take my brig crew with me when I moved up.

            I don’t think we died at sea.  I believe we were taken.  I think most of the crew was (ironically) pressed into service with the Royal Navy.  My officers and I would not have been so lucky.  We were probably taken to London and tossed in a cell where they have since forgotten about us.

            I do know we blew a hole in the side of our pretty little brig and she never suffered under a British commander.

            The name Java sticks out, although I know this ship fought the Constitution during the War of 1812.  Whether I’m fixated on it because I know about it now or I became fixated on it because we met her two hundred years ago I don’t know, but I feel an unusual sense of hatred toward that name and I’m glad her wheel now adorns the deck of an American frigate.  Though, I’d be just as glad if the whole ship now rested at the bottom of the ocean in a million pieces.

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36-40, M
1 Response Mar 12, 2010

Loved your story,which I know is true<br />