The Flagship Niagara Diaries Part 5: Ready the Cannons!

The 0630 sunrise casts cheery pink rays across the deck, barren aside from a few half-awake crewmembers and the engineer and boatswain, who for all their hardened resolve can’t help casting a mournful glance now and then at the remaining shards of gunport at the stern. I sit with a small plate of some unidentified (and probably better left that way) egg concoction that I manage to slurp down, doing my utmost to keep my brain and my tongue from speaking to each other.

We have a great cook on board, no mistake. But everyone’s allowed to have a bad day now and then, right?

I watch the pink hues in the air morph to yellow as the sun crawls over the tops of the pine trees lining the bank as we gently roll downriver. My head gets heavy and droops, the plate in my  hands slipping. Suddenly, a firm whack to the shoulder wakes me up again.

“Don’t fall asleep!” Neil chuckles.

*****

The next hours pass without much circumstance, the narrow river widening into a vast blue expanse — edgeless, curved and endless. At around 1330, a smattering of grey spires and cubes rise out of the water. The skyline of Toronto.

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White sails crop up around us, and the ship that has been tailing us hoists her mainsails and scurries next to us. I smile. They do call this a “Tall Ships Race.” 

We hoist our own sails in challenge, hauling up the foretopmast staysail and the first jibboom sail  at the front of the ship, the white canvas inhaling the wind and falling into place like the feathers of a bird in flight.

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I haul away on yards, more certain of my place as each day goes by. The rocking of the ship against the coarse waves no longer shakes my steps, and I walk straight on a rolling deck — I seem to have finally gained my “sea legs.” As the shores of Toronto grow larger on the horizon, I hop onto a deck box and look over the rail to see masses of people huddled on piers, docks, and anything else they can find to stand on. For a moment, I mistake the thousands of camera flashes for sparkles of sunlight off of the water.

Wheeling around a small, rocky promontory, we brace the yards sideways to turn and unfurl most of the spanker — maybe to show off just a little in front of the cheering crowd.

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Once we’re out into the deeper waters again and a safe distance from shore, I see fourth mate Pat snag a long, strangely-shaped pole and loose some of the lines holding a monstrous black cannon in place. I step back and out of the range of danger, remembering from a diagram that Captain showed once that the deadly range of a live cannon on a ship is much larger than it appears — deadly from in front but also from behind and to the sides!

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Sunlight flashes off the brilliant silver coating of a football-sized something that Pat carries across the deck while an OS takes a long pole tipped with wool (and looking rather like a seven-foot Q-tip) and twirls it around inside the mouth and into the belly of the cannon. After he yanks it back out and hands it to a friend, Pat gently slides the silver packet into the cannon; his focus and care in placing it is written all over his face.

He’s being so careful, I think. Then it dawns on me. Gunpowder! That’s a football-sized load of gunpowder!

Once he’s satisfied, he reaches for another long stick, this one tipped with a blunt wooden flat. He musters a couple quick but strong pounds into the cannon with the ramrod, and the slight screech of the silver as it slides deeper into the barrel twinges my ears.

Captain Wes holds up his hand. “Fire.”

“Fire,” the gun crew echoes.

“FIRE!”

I feel as if someone has just slammed a sledgehammer into my chest as all the breath in my lungs leaps out in a muffled grunt. I take a step backward as the crackling reverberations rattle through the deck and out into the distance, a fog of smoke swallowing the deck and engulfing me in a grey silence.

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My heart trembles for a few moments before it remembers its regular rhythm again. Onlookers cheer, and I smile again, the shock of the blast fading. I certainly don’t doubt that these cannons can fire 32lb. cannon balls any more.

The glimmering flashes of picture-taking and the dull roar of the crowd are like the blast of the cannon extended a thousand-fold — light and noise, stretched and constantly around me, but welcome. At about 1400, the dock lines are set and we emerge into a sea even more roiling than the waters we crossed to get here — a sea of people.

*****

I am a firm believer that you can’t understand at all what that cannon was like if you’ve never even heard a cannon fire. This video clip is not mine; it was shot for the Perry 200 commemoration when Niagara fired two cannon rounds. It’s obviously not nearly as loud when you’re not on deck, but listen to the continuous, aggressive crackling after they’ve been fired and try to tell me that’s not some mean, angry artillery. Listen for that whining, zipping sound that I’m sure you’ve heard from the cannonballs in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. [Cannonfire starts at approx 22 seconds. Also, please ignore the annoying beeping of a utility vehicle in the background.]

Quotes from this day’s ship log:

“Breakfast was a disgusting egg thingy, but I ate some.”

Blended3

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