A Warm Evening At The Rock
Captain Newton, immensely proud of his new steam frigate, was enjoying an excellent dinner ashore. Then a strange glow began to light the sky over Gibraltar
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
On August 18 the Missouri put in to Fayal, in the Azores, to load fresh provisions, water, and two hundred tons of coal. The crew dickered with the dozens of bumboats surrounding the ship, lured on by offers of fresh fruit and vegetables in exchange for old clothes and empty bottles. Men, women, children, and dogs swarmed on board from the bumboats. The bear, in the forefront of those dickering for fruit, simply seized a whole basket of delightful-looking grapes and made off, followed by the vendor in close pursuit. When he got too close, Bess, in a rather unladylike gesture, snatched off the seat of his pants. The crew did not intercede; superstitious as sailors are, they thought it better to be on the side of their own mascot. If no ill befell her, none would befall them. Besides, Bess, who had a record of previous sea duty in the U.S.S. Ontario , was entitled to the respect accorded any good shipmate.
The uniforms of the sailors were filthy after loading coal at Fayal, and the men were ordered to scrub their clothes. Then, when the boatswain’s mate piped “All hands trice up scrubbed and washed clothing,” the men tied their laundry to a jackstay, which was stretched aloft between Bess’s maintop and the mizzentop, for drying. But the coal-burning furnaces deep below decks neither knew nor cared about those two hundred pieces of clean white clothing triced up in the rigging, as they unremittingly belched up smoke, unconsumed bits of coal, soot, and cinders. The natural draft carried the debris up the thirty-foot-tall smokestack, and if a few bits fell on the scrubbed and washed clothing, it was all in the day’s work of a steam warship.
But the cinders were coming up a little faster than usual, and their quick ascent hardly gave them time to cool off. Indeed, a few still glowed red as they showered down onto the clothes and the furled sails. Little burn holes began to appear, then small flames and puffs of smoke. The cotton clothes, dry in the fresh breeze, were in flames.
The situation looked bad. The Missouri’s luck seemed to be running out, with Gibraltar and their great record-to-be only a day’s run away. Lieutenant Bissell rushed up to the spar deck, saw the clothes on fire, and peremptorily ordered the men to get the clothesline down so that the rigging itself would not go up in flames. This interference annoyed Lieutenant Simon Blunt, the officer of the deck, because the men began running all over the place just when he was methodically assigning them individually to their fire stations—which he had to do then and there, because no standard fire bill had been posted. But eventually the sailors managed to get the clothesline down, removing the threat to the rigging. Luck was with them. The storm of hot cinders abated, and the ship was saved.
On that breezy August 25, while the Missouri made her approach to Gibraltar under the slender crescent of a new moon, Captain Newton relished the bold contours of the historic “Rock”—walled, ringed with many-gunned batteries, rising abruptly to the crown of Ape Hill. He had made it. The record was his. In the harbor, Her Majesty’s seventy-four-gun battleship Malabar stood guard. Newton could make out the red light on the Old Mole and the green light on the New Mole as the Missouri coasted into her anchorage —a little too far inside the five-fathom curve for safety, thought the crew of the British steam vessel Locust . She might run aground, or at least be endangered on a lee shore.
With the leadsmen in the chains chanting “By the mark five,” the Missouri came to anchor. At that moment she cleared the bottom by nine feet, but as her anchor chain paid out she swung inshore until there was only five feet of clear water under her keel. Regardless of the Locust’s criticism, the Missouri was safely anchored. Her luck had held for the second time in as many days, each occasion being closer to disaster than anyone seemed to realize. For the superstitious, however, events happen in threes. Still to come was a third trial of the Missouri’s luck that would join her, the Malabar , and the Locust in a triad of association quite unsuspected by any of them.
Saturday started off with Captain Sir George Sartorious of H.M.S. Malabar and the captain of the Locust visiting the Missouri to congratulate Captain Newton and to admire her ten-inch cannon and her engine with its six-foot cylinder. Dockyard boats brought casks of fresh water from the naval tanks a mile away at Rosario Bay. It was a day of many noisy ceremonies. At 10 A.M. the Missouri fired a seventeen-gun salute to the governor, Sir Robert T. Wilson. The dockyard replied gun for gun. At noon the Malabar fired a twenty-one-gun royal salute to Prince Albert, consort of young Queen Victoria, this being his birthday. And there would be more guns fired as the day wore on to its climax, some on purpose, some not.