The Battle of Ustica really did take place, and the admirals and captains mentioned here
actually stood on the quarterdecks of their own ships that fateful afternoon. However,
you won’t find this battle mentioned in the history books covering the Napoleonic era,
nor will you find these captains listed in the naval archives of the day. Ustica took place
in a world where Britannia was not yet mistress of the waves, and the two strongest naval
powers in Europe were Spain and the Kingdom of Naples. Women were captains in
ships of the line and even became admirals in great three-deckers.
The battle occurred on August 5th, 2000 on the Internet. It was an inevitable clash for
power in the Mediterranean between Spain and Naples on the Age of Nelson Website and
in the world of Man of War II, Strategy First’s 18th century naval simulation. It was, as
battles go in AoN, a rather spectacular engagement, both in its execution and it’s results.
There was, in addition to the combatants, only one independent observer. Irek Wojcik,
web master of AoN, and referee and final authority on rules and disputes. The only
written description to date has been Admiral Tew’s brief battle report.
I have decided to tell this story as I remember it, through the eyes and ears of Vice
Admiral Starbolin. I have chosen to do it in third person format to avoid the tediousness
of the “I” syndrome, and to try to be as objective as possible. It must be appreciated that
it is the very nature of Man of War II that every captain experiences events from his or
her unique viewpoint--the deck of his own ship where he is free to move and look
around, but never to see the world in an all encompassing bird’s eye view. There are
going to be captains who saw the same events I did and saw and interpreted them quite
differently. I am very comfortable with the sequence of happenings up until the Rayo
became engaged in the melee. Then my attention shifted to fighting my ship and tracking
the squadron. I am dependent on Tew’s report for what was happening with his and
Avery’s divisions, so there is room for disagreement here. While I think I have every
commander assigned to their proper ship, I am not at all sure I have the actual order of
battle correct for either side. Therefore it is quite possible I am describing an action
between ships that never actually encountered each other that day. The action took place;
I simply may have ascribed it to the wrong ships. Nor do I have space or patience to
attempt to explain what corsairs are doing here. So to those of you who hold that title in
the game I have had to make you a commissioned officer in one navy or the other.
I have two purposes for telling this story. One is that it is dedicated to those men and
women on both sides who took part in the battle and made it the unique experience that it
was, and to Irek, who made the whole thing possible in the first place. The other is that I
may someday use it as a chapter or two in a longer novel. Of course, that means resetting
it to an actual historic framework, changing the nationalities and names of the ships, and
those of the captains and admirals. Unfortunately, the ladies will have to be removed
from their quarterdecks (forcefully I shouldn’t wonder) modern political correctness
Vice Admiral Starbolin stood on the larboard side of Rayo’s poop deck, his elbow
resting on the canvas boot covering the men’s tightly packed hammocks, supporting a
long glass through which he focused on the lead ship of the enemy column. The
opposing fleets were approaching each other head on at nearly opposite points of the
compass so that only the lead ships were visible to either side, the remainder strung out
behind and overlapped to view by the ship ahead. Even at this distance he could see the
red rear admiral’s flag at the mizzen of the leading Neapolitan three-decker. That had to
be Annabelle, Naples’ first woman admiral.
Starbolin’s 100 gun Rayo led the Spanish van, followed by his three 74s under
captains Mooselady, Fly, and Mateo. Then came Rear Admiral Avery’s division with his
own 100 gun Tarragona, Josh in the 74 gun Obon Buria, and Pike in the 90 gun Duke.
And last, all by himself, sailed Admiral Tew’s 100 gun Dvyenadstat Apostolov. The
Spanish fleet was steering due east under all plain sail heeling gently to a moderate
northerly breeze. The Neapolitans were steering due west, with the safety of their
fortifications above the harbor of Ustica only a few leagues behind them to the east. In
all the weeks of preparations for this battle Spain had expected to be outnumbered in
ships and guns. And then, late the previous afternoon, the frigate Guadeloupe changed
Tew had established a very loose blockade of the Neapolitan fleet, which consisted
of nine ships of the line lying under the fortifications at Ustica. The ship sloop Gardia
and the 28 gun frigate Guadeloupe alternated in keeping the port under constant
surveillance, while the eight Spanish ships of the line remained out of site to the west and
northwest. On August 4th the Armada sailed in parallel lines on a northerly heading
under reduced canvas, with Avery’s division to the east and windward, and Starbolin’s to
leeward. The Admiral had taken station between the two, and the Gardia was on station
to the northwest. It was Guadeloupe’s turn to maintain the watch over Ustica.
Not long after the Rayo’s lookouts reported a sail to windward Lieutenant Romero
hurried to the main top with his glass. A few minutes later he hailed the quarterdeck.
“It’s the Guadeloupe and she’s got stun’sails set to wind’ard. I’d say she’s even set
the wardroom tablecloth, sir!”
The frigate had left her station with news that could mean only one thing. The
Neapolitan fleet had finally put to sea to challenge the Armada’s blockade. Now the
Spanish captains would know at last what they faced. Starbolin and Rayo’s flag captain,
Elwood Barnaby, strolled onto the quarterdeck together, having been informed of the
sighting. David Lovejoy, the Admiral’s coxswain, had also surreptitiously appeared from
seemingly nowhere, and stood casually resting his backside against a stanchion of the
poopdeck ladder, arms crossed, an empty clay pipe gripped in his teeth.
“Mr. San Pedro,” Starbolin said to the lieutenant of the watch after listening to his
report, “please be so good as to have my barge swung outboard and ready to lower.”
“Aye, aye, Admiral”
“And Lovejoy, please have the lads get into their costumes. I believe we shall be
paying a call to the Flagship shortly.”
Lovejoy straightened up, touched his forelock, and in the same motion stuffed the
pipe behind his back. “’Tis already done, sir. They’ll be puttin’ on their best now, sir.”
And that, thought Starbolin, is why you are my coxswain, Lovejoy. The man had
anticipated the need for the barge’s crew from the first hail of the lookout. The other
officers and men on the quarterdeck saw the Admiral’s smile acknowledge Lovejoy’s
response. Only Lovejoy saw the Admiral’s wink.
Guadeloupe, a bone in her teeth, charged to leeward of the Dvyenadstat Apostolov,
came smartly and abruptly onto the wind and lowered her launch in the same smart
fashion. Captain Remy used the manrope to swing quickly into the stern sheets and was
soon being rowed at a rapid stroke to the flagship. Even before he had boarded the three-
decker, signal flags were racing up a halyard attached to the mizzen topsail yard, two-
blocked, and broken out to snap jauntily in the fresh breeze.
“’Division commanders to repair on board at once’.” Juan de Barra, the Vice
Admiral’s signals lieutenant, did not need the codebook to read that one.
The barge’s journey was a short one, but upwind in a choppy northeasterly sea and
Starbolin’s boat cloak was well doused when Lovejoy at last steered her under the lee of
the towering flagship. Avery’s barge was just coming around the Apostolov’s counter as
Starbolin let his cloak tumble into the stern sheets, grabbed the manrope, and on the
barge’s upward roll swung himself onto the boarding steps. He secured his footing and
said a silent prayer of thanks for another successful transfer of body and dignity before
continuing his climb up the sloping tumblehome of the ship’s side. As his head came
level with the upper gundeck he heard the clatter of marine muskets as the honor guard
came to present arms, and the twittering wail of the calls of the boatswain’s mates as he
was piped aboard. Tew’s flag captain, Caxton, met him with a salute followed by a
“Good to see you again, Vice Admiral. If you don’t mind, sir, Rear Admiral Avery’s
comin’ up the side now and we’re all three to meet with the Admiral. Captain Remy is
back there with him now, and has brought some surprising news it seems.”
Admiral of the Spanish Armada, Sir Thomas Tew, was known throughout the naval
world as a “character”. He was described by his admirers as being wily and crafty, while
his enemies would use less kinder terms. It was rumored between friend and foe alike
that he most likely had his beginnings as a corsair of unknown nationality and even now
was sometimes heard to refer to his subordinates as “mates”. Having successfully earned
a reputation among those navies who contracted for his services as producing results
where none had ever been produced before, he had been hired by the Spanish Ministry of
Marine to develop an effective and powerful Armada, and was given license to seek out
and recruit the best officers who could be induced to sign under the banner of Castile and
Leon. In an era of much posturing but little active employment, the promise of action
and prizes was inducement sufficient to produce an active and powerful fleet under
commanders who knew their business. It was a truly international club, with officers of
British and American names outnumbering those of Spanish origin. Starbolin, an
unemployed captain at the time, had been personally approached by Tew and offered the
rank of commodore and a squadron to boot if he would accept the Spanish commission.
Soon he had found himself promoted to Rear Admiral as the Armada grew larger, and
with the defection of former Vice Admiral Courageux the previous month, Starbolin now
wore the two stars on his epaulettes.
When the two admirals and Caxton entered the great cabin Tew was seated on the
bench under the gallery windows, one foot propped up on the green beige cushions, his
knee serving as armrest, holding a wine glass clutched by it’s stem as though it were a
pewter tankard. He and Captain Remy broke off their conversation to greet the new
arrivals. The flag lieutenant, Pollard, and the Admiral’s secretary, O’Hara, were also
present, with his steward, Keats, arranging the glasses of wine on his serving tray.
“Help yourselves to the Madeira, mates. Captain Remy has brought good news and
bad news. The Napolis have sailed and they’re headed straight for us. The good news is
that there are only seven of ‘em. The bad news is that there are only seven of ‘em. Vice
Admiral Lanza must be ill or somethin’. His 110 gun Coraggioso is still at anchor along
with one of their 74s. It could be they left the Coraggioso because it is their slowest ship
and would impair their retreat if that became necessary. The flagship that sailed this
morning is Annabelle’s 100 gun Impressa.” Tew paused to let the effect of this
development settle in.
“Beggin’ your pardon, Admiral,” Pollard spoke first, “but why do you say that the
fact that we now outnumber them is bad news?” Knowing Tew’s methods, Starbolin had
no doubt that the flag lieutenant had been primed by the Admiral to play it straight and
ask the appropriate question at the appropriately theatrical moment.
“Because, Mr. Pollard, there be two ships sitting safely in Ustica out of our reach!
Gentlemen, we have exercised and planned for a month with one assumption being made
about the enemy. That they would outnumber us and actually offer battle, and that in the
end we would destroy or capture every last one o’ ‘em!”
That was quite true, and not merely bravado. The Armada was now as sharp as it
would ever be, and given a month to hone their tactics they did believe that a victory was
the most likely outcome.
“Now, however,” Tew continued, “there is absolutely no reason for them to offer
battle. Seven ships bottled up in port for weeks, against eight of ours, seasoned and at sea
for a month of drills and sail handling. I can only assume that it is their Italian bravado
and the fact that they would like to get back to Naples that has caused them to venture out
now. Perhaps they don’t want to take a chance on risking everything and so have left
those two ships behind. I don’t know. But they are out here and we’ll only get one
chance to snap ‘em up. We have got to make certain they come so far westward that we
can get between them and any port in the Kingdom of Naples.”
“Aye, sir,” said Caxton, “but with the wind backin’ into the north they can simply
turn about and sail home. Even given that they make a show of force and hope to catch
us nappin’ and do us some damage they have not very far to go to the east to be safe and
“Then we must allow them to perceive they have an opportunity to do us some
damage, Captain Caxton.”
It was Pollard’s cue now. “And how do we accomplish that, Admiral?”
“That, gentlemen, shall be the particular duty of Vice Admiral Starbolin.”
Starbolin and Avery returned to their ships to call together their Captains and
explain the role each would play in the upcoming battle--if it could be brought off at all.
Then, with the wind starting to fail just before sunset, everyone was ordered back to their
commands and Tew had the fleet maneuver into their order of battle. Single column,
Starbolin leading, then Avery, and Tew himself last.
The morning of August 5th had dawned with very little breeze at all, and the
previous night had seen but occasional wisps, barely enough for the ships to maintain
steerageway and keep station on the ship ahead. All day the lookouts searched the
horizon and the Guadaloupe and Gardia attempted to work their way back to the east.
About noon, the wind began to reappear out of the north and Tew ordered the fleet to
wear in succession to a heading of due east. The breeze increased to moderate as the
afternoon wore on, and, finally, shortly after five bells in the afternoon watch Gardia
signaled “Enemy in sight” and the long approach had begun.
Soon Starbolin would lead his squadron in the hopes of enticing the enemy further
and further to the west. Everything depended upon that. Starbolin’s was known as the
Light Division, as opposed to Henry Avery’s Heavy division. During the initial planning
for this campaign it had been agreed that one of Spain’s two fleet divisions be comprised
mainly of the heavier line of battle ships, able to overwhelm the typical enemy division of
a large flagship followed by a group of two-deckers. The second division would consist
of the speedier vessels and would act as cavalry. There would be one more major
refinement. When Starbolin had first been promoted to vice admiral, Tew had offered
him one of Spain’s 112 gun ships in which to hoist his flag. Starbolin respectfully
declined, explaining that the sailing qualities and speed of the larger class would not
permit him to keep up with his “light division” of 74s. Two weeks after that, whether by
coincidence of timing or otherwise, the crafty Admiral announced that he had traded
Spain’s remaining two112 gun ships for an equal number of Russia’s 100s, built on the
same fine lines as the Rayo. It was an even swap, and no extra compensation asked for
the difference in armament. Thus it was that Admiral Tew’s own flagship had a Russian
name, Dvyenadstat Apostolov. He thought it unlucky to change a ship’s name. And none
of the Spanish ships of the line now at sea would slow down the fleet as a whole, for the
Rayo’s class could sail as fast as most 74’s and were nearly as weatherly as well.
Starbolin snapped the long glass shut and handed it back to the signals midshipman.
He looked up at the great battle ensign whipping out over the starboard beam at the main
topgallant mast truck. One of these flew from the gaff and each masthead with the
exception of the fore, where his own flag proclaimed his presence on board. The wind
was holding steady from the north, and continuing to increase, if anything. The fleets
were approaching quite rapidly now, both under all plain sail. Up to windward stood the
Guadaloupe in her new role as repeating frigate. With the Fleet Flag the last ship in a
single column ahead only the ship immediately ahead of the Apostolov would be able to
see Tew’s signals. The Guadaloupe, standing off to windward, in sight of all the line of
battle ships, would be able to repeat signals both from and to the Admiral.
“It won’t be long now, sir,” said Captain Barnaby, no doubt to relieve the tension
and let the hands know that it was business as usual among the officers.
He was, of course, referring to the signal that would send Starbolin’s division off on
their little adventure. The decks had been cleared and the men standing by easily at
quarters. It would be a while yet before they would have to sweat and manhandle their
guns. A while yet before the grim reaper would decide who should live and who should
die. A while yet before a man had to face the prospect of the surgeon and his mates
sawing off a limb in the bloody shambles of the cockpit, at other times known as the
midshipmen’s berth. Indeed, the midshipmen’s own sea chests would be put together to
form the operating tables. A time to wish that both time would stand still and that this
bloody day was over and done with and a man need no longer wonder what it held in
store for him.
“Do you think their Admiral Annabelle will follow us, sir, or hang on to the wind
“I don’t think, Barnaby,” said Starbolin, tucking his jaw into his chest and placing
his hands behind his back in the little mannerism that reminded Barnaby so much of a
schoolmaster about to give a lecture, “that they have much option if they intend to make a
show of it at all. The wind gauge is for the aggressor or the stronger fleet, which in this
case, is us. If you’ve got one eye keeping a watch on your course to safety you don’t
want a larger enemy force to leeward of you blocking that way, do you?”
“Rightly so, sir. It just seems so strange that we’ve planned for one thing, and then
the reality is all so very different. I wonder what the Napolis had planned for, and if
reality is as strange for them?”
Starbolin was saved trying to formulate an answer to this idle conversation by a
shout from the signal lieutenant, de Barra.
“Guadeloupe’s hoisting a signal.”
The vice admiral noted with some amusement that everyone on the poop deck in
possession of a telescope struck it to their eye, and then waited breathlessly as the
lanyards were tugged and the flags broke out simultaneously to the breeze. It would be
de Barra’s privilege and duty to report the signal.
“Fleet to Division B. Steer southeast. Also, Fleet to Division A, maintain present
“Acknowledge, Mr. de Barra. No need to signal our own squadron. They’ll have
seen the Guadeloupe’s signal as well.” Starbolin now turned to Captain Barnaby. “Very
well, Barny, bring her onto the new course.”
“Aye, aye, sir!” Barnaby touched his hat and strode to the poop deck railing, calling
down to the quarterdeck for the first lieutenant. “Mr. Gonzalez. We’ll be altering course
to sou’ east!”
“To the sou’ east, sir! Mr. Bows,” this to the sailing master, “steer sou’ east if you
“Aye, sou’ east it is. Hands to braces! Standby to up your helm. Quartermaster,
give her a spoke or two.”
The cry to man the braces was taken up by the master’s mates, the midshipmen and
petty officers assigned to those groups of sailors and marines who would handle the sails
during combat. It actually involved a lot more than merely slacking off the lee braces
and trimming with the windward. Sheets, tacks and bowlines had to be slacked or hauled
on as appropriate as the ship came away from the wind. Starbolin had to abandon his
position at the windward nettings as the marine afterguard came clomping over to tail on
to the larboard main brace.
The Quartermaster, a man named Pedro Miguel Sanchez, Starbolin recalled, spoke
quietly to his two mates, the men who actually steered the ship and turned the wheel just
below the break of the poop on the quarterdeck. “Come up a spoke and half, lads. Easy
dosey, there. Fine, good, that’s good. Hold her there.”
Starbolin, now standing at the head of the poopdeck ladder, hands resting at each
break of the rail, watched as the Neapolitan flagship, nearly dead ahead and fully hull up
now, slowly slid off to the left, until at last she bore four points on the larboard bow and
he heard Mr. Bows’ fine stentorian voice shouting “Steady as you go! Make all fair! A
touch more on the lee forebrace, Mr. Lewry, if you please! Make fast the fore staysail!”
Echoed by the shouts of the officers and petty officers as their charges finely trimmed the
sails on each mast for the new heading.
And how would the Neapolitan admiral react? She was faced with a decision. The
first of many to be made on this long afternoon, and one that was absolutely critical. She
must, at this point assume that the entire Armada was changing heading to the southeast,
while maintaining their line ahead formation.
Looking aft, Starbolin could see his next in line, Mooselady’s Valiente, opening up
and he could now look down the entire line of Spain’s battle fleet. As Valiente reached
that point in Rayo’s wake that marked the flagship’s change in course Mooselady began
her turn as well.
“By God, they’re coming round!” It was Barnaby, now beside his admiral at the
poop deck railing, and shouting next to his ear.
“Captain Barnaby. I can assure you I’m not deaf yet,” said Starbolin, tempering the
remark with an unavoidable grin.
“Sorry, sir, but the Napolis are changing course to match us. Bloody Hell, sir!” and
he pounded the varnished rail with his fist.
It was true. The Impressa steadied up on a southwesterly heading, and as each of
Starbolin’s division came around in succession to the southeast, each Neapolitan ship
followed its leader to the southwest.
But once the last of Division Bs two deckers, Captain Mateo’s Majestad had steadied
on the new course, the Spanish fleet began to separate. Avery, leading division A, with
Tew in the rear, continued on steadily to the east. If the Italians concentrated their seven
ships in pursuit of Starbolin’s four, then Avery and Tew hoped to stay to windward and
work east of the Neapolitan line.
Starbolin’s division, and the seven Italian line of battle ships now picked up speed as
each had brought the wind on their quarters and their best points of sailing. Starbolin was
able to see each of his opponents for the first time. During the preceding month Gardia
had been retrieving intelligence reports from sources in Ustica’s port regarding the
Neapolitan’s preparations. These reports were sent to sea on an island fishing smack
which rendezvoused on certain nights with the sloop. The signals midshipman, Mr.
Jiminez, had a list of the Neapolitan ships in port and their commanders. The Impressa
was the only three-decker in the line. The rest were two-deckers, 74s. Probably
organized into a single squadron, as the only command flag he could see through the
glass was Annabelle’s.
“Got to give them credit, sir.” Barnaby was peering through his glass once more.
“They’ve maintained a very good formation through the turn for a fleet that’s been in port
for so long. Some pretty good seamen over there.”
The two opposing first rate flagships were converging in a vee. At this point
Starbolin could not guess the opposite admiral’s thoughts. She had seven ships now
apparently opposed by only four of the Spanish. What did she think Tew was up to? Did
she feel that at least for the present she could wear her fleet if things got too bad, and in
the meantime get in a few blows against this inferior force?
There was a puff of smoke from the Impressa’s side and eventually several
waterspouts erupted in a line dead ahead of the Rayo’s bowsprit. A ranging shot hop
skipping harmlessly over the sea’s surface. But they were now in long cannon range.
“Signal from Fleet, sir.” De Barra’s shout brought Starbolin’s attention back to the
rest of the Spanish fleet who were now far off on the larboard quarter. Through his glass,
the signal lieutenant could now read the Apostolov’s hoists directly. “’Hold position!”
This was another prearranged signal. It was the Light Division’s cue to back sails
and simply kill their speed as best they could while still maintaining their heading.
“Acknowledge, Mr. de Barra. And repeat it for the squadron.” Indeed, the signal
had already been clipped to another set of halyards in preparation for this moment.
Simultaneously with the acknowledgement, Starbolin’s own signal to his captains was
being run up. And the captain’s were ready for this. It was part two of their strategy.
“Back sails and spill your wind, Captain Barnaby!”
“Aye, sir. Mr. Gonzalez! Back the main topsail and course! Loose sheets and
Immediately, there came the thumping and slatting of canvas and the rattling of loose
blocks and cordage. Again, the shouts of the officers and petty officers as they caused
the sails forward and aft to spill their wind and hauled the weather main brace hard aft in
an attempt to either back or at least make the sails on the main mast ineffectual.
“The enemy is going to battle sails, sir.” It was Barnaby speaking. “They’re
clewing up their courses. Must’ve started that about the same time we started loosing
everything. Lord knows what they think we’re up to, but they’re ready to do battle,
*Author’s note: It is quite obvious in real life when a ship spills her wind or backs her sails.
However, in the simulation of MOW II this is not at all obvious to anyone observing a ship that is doing
this. On the ship affected, the sails are flapping and drumming annoyingly, but to the observer they still
appear to be drawing normally. The more experienced captains have learned to use this phenomenon with
Thus, while the Light Division was essentially dead in the water, Starbolin watched
with more than passing interest as the Neapolitan fleet continued on course to the
southwest. In effect, they were crossing the Spaniard’s tee, but well out of carronade
range. They were also gaining ground to the westward of his squadron. Which, of
course, was the whole point of this maneuver.
Starbolin remembered the one time he had met Rear Admiral Annabelle. It was at
some governor’s reception in Salerno during happier times and he himself had been just a
Rear Admiral and she a Commodore. He had managed to place his name on her dance
card that night, but it would be for only that one dance. She was a very popular lady.
Their brief conversation had been light and predictable. She welcomed him to Sicily, and
he remarked upon the Italian’s predilection for female admirals and commodores.
“Well, sir, you must keep in mind that the Queen of the Kingdom of Naples and
Sicily is, after all, a woman. And a rather strong willed, sassy lass at that!”
“Then I can only pray, madam, that the Queen of Naples and Sicily decides to never
appoint herself to be Admiral of her own fleet, and leaves that particular duty to such as
yourself, who is only too charming, and I trust, never sassy.”
“Aha, dear Admiral! When you get to know me better you may find yourself
steering a false course with that opinion.”
“And shall I get to know you better?”
“Perhaps. If we go to war. As my prisoner, which you surely would become, you
very well may find yourself on a very lengthy and boring visit to Naples, and would be
glad of a strong willed and sassy conversation!”
And that was all. They never spoke again. And now Starbolin marveled to himself
at the predilection the female commanders had, in any navy, for being called by their first
names. The men invariably were known by their surnames, but the ladies always by their
first, no matter what their rank or standing. He couldn’t help smiling at the mystery, and
at the remembrance of his meeting with the Neapolitan Rear Admiral.
That smile caught the attention of the captain of the number two starboard
quarterdeck carronade, who nudged his rammer in the ribs.
“See that, Manuel? Our Star can smile just afore all hell cuts loose, all by himself
with no one to give him reason.. Ya might have a chance of survivin’ your first battle
after all, provided he stays in a good mood.”
“Have you fought with him before, Jorge?”
“Aye. And he’s gotten us into some mighty tight places. But yer do what he tells ya
yer ought to be doin’ and the chances are ye’ll live to tell yer grandkids!”
Suddenly Starbolin saw a ribbon of smoke working its way from forward to aft along
the Neapolitan flagship’s side. The sound of the guns reached his ears only a moment
before the telltale whisper of cannon shot in the air. Waterspouts bloomed on either side
of the Rayo, and a perfect little hole suddenly appeared in the shuddering main course.
“Mr. de Barra. Have T H ready to hoist. I expect we’ll be seeing our number from
the flag shortly.”
“Aye, sir.” That required the use of three numeral flags which corresponded to the
letters of the alphabet, two for T and one for H. Other, proscribed signals from the signal
book used the numerical pendant above three numeral flags.
Starbolin felt someone move beside him and heard a throat being cleared.
“Ahm, beggin’ yer pardon, sir.” It was Lovejoy, with Starbolin’s long uniform coat
and his plain unembellished, double edged combat sword cradled in the crook of his left
arm. “Thought you might be wantin’ these, Admiral.”
Starbolin had dressed for battle in a clean shirt, breeches, and hose, as had all of the
flagship’s officers and warrants. The medical minds of the world had proclaimed that
whereas most wounds suffered in battle contained bits of clothing, it was believed clean
clothes resulted in a lesser chance of the wound putrefying. Starbolin also noticed that
Lovejoy had removed the large gold braided epaulettes and substituted the less formal
strips of blue with their two gold stars.
“No point in givin’ their marksmen somethin’ glittering and gaudy to take aim on,
sir. We needs you for the present. An’ the men pretty well knows what you look like by
“Very well, Lovejoy. I can see you’re in no mood to be argued with,” Starbolin
smiled. They understood each other very well. Lovejoy would never, ever presume to
take advantage of his privileged position in the ship as the vice admiral’s coxswain, but
he would nevertheless be quite as hurt as a housewife if his little concerns were not
So Starbolin slipped off his watch coat and put his arms through his dress coat,
which Lovejoy held open for him, and raised his left arm while the coxswain attached the
scabbard and sword. The coat seemed unusually heavy.
“I’ve taken the liberty of charging your dueling pistols, sir, and placed ‘em in each of
your long pockets. In case you be needin’ ‘em.”
“Very good. Now look after yourself, man. I don’t know how I’d ever manage to
learn to dress myself!” Starbolin adjusted the set of his bicorn hat and saw Lovejoy’s
barely perceptible nod when all was square.
“Signal from flag, sir! It’s T H ... I mean ‘Tally Ho’, sir!”
“Excellent, Mr. de Barra. Have Mr. Ryan hoist ‘Tally Ho’ for the squadron. Captain
Barnaby, stand by to get underway again!”
Starbolin looked across the hammock nettings where Avery and the Admiral bore
well to the north and east. The pieces in the game had now been put into position.
The Neapolitan fleet was crossing ahead at long cannon shot. “Tally Ho” had been
Starbolin’s own invention when Tew had asked him to prepare a set of unique signals for
this engagement. This was the signal that would loose the fleet to execute their final
approach to the enemy. In Starbolin’s division, it canceled the order to hold position and
released the Vice Admiral to do his utmost to occupy the enemy while Avery and Tew
would come racing down from the north before the wind.
“Admiral!” Captain Barnaby was at his side. “Look, sir. I do believe the Impressa
has headed up to the north of west. She’s leading her flock to keep their starboard
broadsides pointed at us, sir.”
And indeed, as he spoke, the next ship in line, a 74, fired her own broadside of long
guns. This time the geysers of water fell short and to larboard.
“By God, sir, that be a waste of a good initial broadside!” exclaimed the first
This was the moment of truth for Naples, Starbolin realized. They could still wear
their fleet in unison and steer southeast with the wind on their quarters and run for cover
at Ustica. He could hardly believe they had come this far west, still under battle sails and
gamely offering to engage his division of four. And in that instant the Vice Admiral
realized the opportunity he had hardly dared to wish for. It was a division commander’s
most basic duty to bring his squadron against that point of the enemy where they could be
the most effective. All else he did, the paperwork, the ceremonial, the organization, the
lists, the storing, all else meant nothing against this elemental obligation. Some admirals
would spend their whole careers and never have the opportunity, and some who had it
would squander it and never get the chance again.
“Mr. de Barra. Execute ‘Tally Ho’ then hoist ‘Maintain Line Astern’! Captain
Barnaby, fill your sails and bring her up to east by north! Mr. Jiminez, when you’ve
finished that hoist get into the ratlines and see if you can identify any of those ships over
there. You’ve got the spy list!”
The shouting of orders began again, and order restored to the chaos of flapping sails
and blocks as running rigging was tailed onto and hauled taught once more. With the
ship gathering way the quartermaster gently put the helm down and her head began
easing up to the north of east. The yards were trimmed and the great fore and main
courses slapped, filled, slapped again, and filled finally as the sheets and tacks were
“Captain Barnaby, I want to pass close astern of the last ship in the enemy line.”
“Sir!” It was Midshipman Jiminez calling down from the mizzen ratlines where he
clung with his glass to his eye. “The second ship is flying a commodore’s pennant! That
would have to be Commodore Buttercup’s Aquilea Valliera. The third, I believe, is the
Atalanta, 74, Captain Mako. Can’t yet tell about the others, sir!”
“Excellent, Mr. Jiminez! Let me know as you make them out. I trust we’ll give you
a good view of the entire line as we parade by for their review!”
It was unbelievable good luck, but it was true. The Neapolitans still held in a fine
line heading towards the northwest. The Spanish light division was sailing in the
opposite direction with the wind practically broad on the larboard beam. Of all the
memories Starbolin would eventually have of this battle, none would be more vivid than
that exciting, mad, wonderful dash to the enemy rear. As they passed each ship in the
enemy line they held fire while the Neapolitans futilely expended their first precious,
carefully laid broadsides. Some shots fell short, some ahead, some even over, and some
managed to punch a hole in a sail, but none caused any severe damage. When a ball hit
the water to windward, the spray from the spout would sometimes be flung with the wind
even as high as the Rayo’s poop, and they would feel it on their cheeks. To the north-
northeast the Dvyenadstat Apostolov and Avery’s Tarragona were nearly abreast, racing
southward under full plain sail, with the rest of the heavy division in close order behind.
“Gentlemen,” Starbolin addressed the officers assembled around him by the break of
the poop, “we’ve got them in the paddock, and now we are about to close and lock the
As they passed clear of each ship in the enemy line, Midshipman Jiminez would
identify it, and having obviously studied his list, report it’s captain. All were 74s. After
Atalanta came Saminte, Captain William Boulier, then Partenope, Captain Cognito, then
Rolig, Captain Cardinal. The last two decker loomed ahead just off the starboard bow,
the triangle of water separating her from the Spanish flagship growing smaller very
Captain Barnaby was looking intently through his glass again. “I recognize her, sir.
That’s Kat’s Argonauta. That bright work on her stern is unmistakable.”
They had both met Captain Kat at different times during their mutual careers. And
they both knew the pride Kat had taken in her beautiful Argonauta. That gilding had
come out of her own purse, not the Neapolitan treasury. It was also said that her cabin
held some of the finest furnishings and antique pieces afloat anywhere. Those at least
would now be stowed below in the hold and would survive if the ship did. Starbolin
couldn’t help but wonder if Kat yet realized what was about to happen to her proud ship.
Or to her, he thought with a pain he had to stuff right now.
Looking aft between the stern lanterns, Starbolin saw that his flagship had gained
some distance on Mooselady’s Valiente. Either Rayo was even faster than the 74 or had a
much cleaner bottom. He would have to allow for the division to close up.
“Barny. Just before we come astern of Argonauta clew up the courses and t’gallants.
We’ll fire our broadside and come around to the south once past her. Let fly sheets and
tacks then to take the way off her as much as we can. I’m afraid we’ll end up
overshooting but we’ll be ready for the next ship ahead. Also, make sure the lieutenants
understand they are to reload double shot until further notice, and they are to aim to
sweep the enemy’s decks.”
“Aye, sir. I’ll inform Mr. Gonzalez to have everyone ready.” The captain headed
down the ladder to the quarterdeck to talk to the first lieutenant and the sailing master.
There was the rumble of cannon fire from astern. The Impressa, now hard on the
wind had fired on Tew and Avery at long range.
Rayo was almost up to the Argonauta now. Kat’s gilding glistened warmly in the
late afternoon sun. The glazing in the two rows of stern windows had been removed and
from two of them on the lower gun deck protruded the muzzles of a pair of long stern
chasers. As in every other battle ship during an action, the screens and panels forming
cabins on the gundecks would have been broken down and stowed along with any and all
furnishings so that each deck was completely open from bow to stern. This would reduce
the chances of deadly splinters and allow the decks to ventilate the thick smoke that
would be generated with the firing of each gun. The same danger of splinters had caused
each ship to put their boats over the side, some set adrift to be recovered later, and some
kept in tow in case of need.
There was a bustle of activity on Argonauta’s quarterdeck, and a flurry of signal
flags going aloft and breaking out when two blocked on the crossjack yard.
Captain Barnaby was back beside his admiral and spoke quietly, “I can imagine what
that signal means, sir. ‘Hey, we’ve got all these ships behind us!’”
“Shorten sail, Captain Barnaby. Battle canvas now only.”
“Aye, aye. Mr. Gonzalez! Clews and buntlines now, sir!”
It was done quickly and with little shouting other than a quick chirping on the
“Stand by, starboard broadsides!” The captain called down to the quarterdeck
where, at the companionway just abaft the mainmast the order was repeated to the
gundeck below by a midshipman stationed there for that purpose. It was then repeated in
similar fashion to the two gundecks below that. Also stationed at each companionway
hatch stood a marine sentry with a musket. This to prevent anyone from leaving his
station out of fear and seeking a safe haven in the hold. Powder monkeys, young lads
and officer’s servants of tender years for the most part, stood near each companionway
holding their cartridges ready for the next reloading. During the battle it was their duty to
run back and forth to the hanging magazine deep in the hold where the gunner would
supply them with fresh cartridges for their assigned guns. The marines had taken their
stations behind the hammock nettings on the poop deck and in the fighting tops. Already
their muskets were beginning to bark as the range was rapidly closing.
From the height of Rayo’s poopdeck, six full deck heights above the water line, her
officers could now look down at the enemy quarterdeck. There stood Kat in a little group
abaft the wheel, a telescope in one hand now clutched firmly in the small of her back.
Her hair was tied back in a thick queue and she wore no hat. She was dressed in a blue
uniform jacket with white lapels and gold facings. She wore white trousers and a white
waistcoat with a rather extravagant neck scarf being one of the few concessions to her
sex. While she was the height of calm, officers around her were yelling through their
speaking trumpets and hands were tailing onto the braces as they tried to turn away from
the impending rake.
There was a loud bark, followed within seconds by another. The Argonauta’s stern
chasers had spoken and Starbolin could feel the impact of the shot against the hull
through the souls of his shoes.
Quietly, in an almost conversational tone, he said “Captain. As you bear.”
“Very good, sir. Mr. Gonzalez... Fire as your bear!”
“Fire as you bear!” The order repeated itself to the master’s mates in charge of the
quarterdeck and forecastle carronades, to the lieutenant and midshipmen responsible for
each section of guns on the upper gundeck, then passed down the companionway hatch to
the middle gundeck, and finally, to the lower gun deck, the shouts echoing ominously in
what seemed an otherwise eerie and foreboding silence.
Lieutenant Romero was in charge of the middle gun deck battery and directed the
firing of the first section of guns himself, with a midshipman firing the second section.
He now stood directly behind the forwardmost twenty-four pound cannon. The eight
man gun crew, shirtless, some with their scarves tied across their ears, were in position on
either side of their charge, with the gun captain, Quigley, blowing gently on his slow
match to reassure himself of it’s efficacy. Along the length of the battery the other gun
captains were choosing their matches from the sand filled tubs that held them in
readiness. Gunlocks were coming into fashion and being fitted in the fleet, but Rayo still
used a powderhorn for priming and the slowmatch for firing.
Through the open port Romero could see the bulk of the enemy’s stern beginning to
fill his field of view. His guns were on a level with those of the Argonauta’s upper
gundeck, and at this range every gun captain was laying to attempt to put a shot through
an open stern window where it was more likely to cause havoc along the length of the
enemy gundeck rather than simply shatter the transom.
“Almost there, Quigley.”
Every gun captain now faced forward, eyes fixed on Romero, while their crews
couldn't help but peer furtively through the ports to judge the angle of the enemy's stern.
The Lieutenant tried to gauge the easy roll of the ship, nearly beam on to the moderate
northerly sea, to allow for the time it would take to apply the match, and then for the
priming powder to burn through to the cartridge.
Now he was ready. "Number one, Fire!"
Romero did not delay to see the result of his calculations. He was immediately in the
path of the gun’s recoil. As Quigley applied the match, the lieutenant was already
striding aft to lay the next gun in the broadside. Once a general melee had begun, after
the initial broadsides, the gun captains would do their own laying and firing for the most
part. Unlike the popular layman’s concept, a broadside, especially one consisting of fifty
guns as in the Rayo was not fired simultaneously. In fact, most officers doubted the ship
could withstand the stresses of such a massive explosive force for very long. Instead, the
guns rolled one after the other from forward to aft as each in turn came to bear upon it’s
target, the pause between firings barely a second or above.
Romero heard the deep, satisfying bark of the twenty-four pounder behind him and
heard and felt the rumble of its trucks as it recoiled against the breeching rope. On the
deck above he heard the bang and recoil of the first twelve-pounder above and then came
the forty-two pounder on the lower deck having a slightly deeper bark to a trained, albeit,
strained ear. Already he had judged the roll for the second gun of his own battery.
“ Number two, fire!”
And so it went down the line. The rumbling thunder of a triple tiered broadside
except at the bow and stern where a fourth tier of carronades added to the din. When
Romero had quickly reached the end of the first section, Midshipman Tomas took over at
the first gun of the second section and worked his way aft firing each remaining gun in
rapid turn, a handkerchief pressed to his nose as the deck filled with powdersmoke and
the light rapidly faded.
On the poop deck, Starbolin, hands clasped behind his back, chin lowered and eyes
fixed on the Argonauta’s stern, saw a sight he never would become accustomed to. The
utter destruction of a work of art. Until the scene became completely obscured in the
smoke, fortunately blowing downwind onto the enemy and away from his gunners, there
was the awesome spectacle of intricate carvings, an impressive coat of arms, cherubs
with scrolls, gilded ribbons, disintegrating in a cloud and shower of splinters. Windows
turned into gaping, black, empty maws. Hewn planks ripped from their frames and flung
spinning and whipping in every direction. He saw men on the quarterdeck tossed like rag
dolls against rails and mast and often limbs detached and flung entirely askew.
Carronades leaped off their slides, toppled and crushed their crews. And even above the
roar of the guns came the screams of the dying and the purely terrified. He could easily
imagine, as bad as this view was, the horror being played out on the gun decks. The
entire length and breadth of the ship was exposed to the murderous shot from Rayo’s
guns. The Argonauta’s upper gundeck and quarterdeck were enfiladed and exposed to
the upper tiers of guns and carronades of the towering Spanish first rate.
The previous evening upon his return from the meeting with Admiral Tew, Starbolin
had called his captains aboard and laid out the plan for this day’s engagement. He had
told them that it was his honor and duty to lead them into the mouth of hell. Well, here it
was. Come after me, captains, and take your turn, and we’ll see if we can make hell
Captain Barnaby was yelling down to the quarterdeck. “Up your helm now, quarter!
Mr. Gonzalez, loose sheets and tacks! Brace the main yards hard up!”
As Rayo swung round to starboard Barnaby was attempting to get the way off her.
The men were working quickly and efficiently to reload the guns for the next broadside,
but Starbolin suspected that realistically they would be well past the Argonauta before
they would be ready to fire again. In the meantime, they would be exposed to the
Neapolitan’s own larboard broadside.
Around they came, passing through south, the wind sliding from larboard beam to
right aft and now creeping onto the starboard quarter. It had blown much of the smoke
clear of the shambles that was now the Argonauta and Starbolin looked across at her
quarterdeck, oblivious to the occasional slap of a musket ball against the poop deck
planking. He saw bodies flung about, and two men struggling at the great wheel that was
still intact. There was no sign of Captain Kat.
“There, sir, in the waist,” said Barnaby pointing towards the middle of the enemy’s
open upper gun deck. Kat was there amidst her gunners; white trousers and waistcoat
stained a dark dirty gray to nearly match the grime that covered her features. She was
attempting to rally her men to fire their larboard guns, many of which had been displaced
from their carriages. Already blood was streaming from the scuppers and staining the
When it came, it was not clean and perfectly timed. Nevertheless, each gun still in
service on both decks, and the carronades on the upper decks, erupted in flame and
smoke and now Rayo shook as her hull took the shock of enemy shot. There was an
especially jarring crash below his feet, and Starbolin knew at least one shot had
penetrated into the hull, probably through a gunport, and wreaked havoc below.
Suddenly he saw a section of the starboard forecastle bulwark explode in a cloud of
splinters, and the slide carriage of the number two forty-two pound carronade shot to
pieces with the gun itself tumbling to the deck crushing one of the men who had been
serving it. The rest of the gun crew had been flung about like pieces of straw, most
struck down by the splinters from bulwark timbers and slide. And now began the
desperate cries of men from his own ship, some from pain, and many from the sheer
terror of being dragged below to face the sawbones and his mates.
“Steady as you go!” Barnaby eyed the next ship in the enemy line, the Rolig.
Rayo was steering west south west as the enemy was falling off the wind to sooner
bring their larboard broadside to bear. Argonauta was dropping astern, but now coming
across her stern was Mooselady’s Valiente. Kat would face the opening broadsides of
each of the four ships in Starbolin’s division and she was desperately trying to fall off the
wind and come around to the southeast, to avoid another devastating rake.
Valiente’s starboard guns erupted in smoke and Starbolin knew it was purely his
imagination, but he felt he could almost perceive the shock to the Argonauta as each and
every shot struck home.
“My God, but I wish she’d strike, sir!”
“I’m afraid not yet, Barny. She’ll try to break through to the east. Once Glorioso
and Majestad come round we shall signal the squadron to concentrate on this end of the
line. Avery and Tew should have the head well engaged shortly.”
Now they were alongside the Rolig. The captain of each gun had signaled their gun
run out and ready to fire. The lieutenant on each gun deck had called out his sections’
readiness and this was passed up to the first lieutenant on the quarterdeck, who called up
to Captain Barnaby beside the Vice Admiral on the poop.
“Starboard guns loaded and run out, sir!”
“Very well. Fire as your bear, Mr. Gonzalez!”
And the order was repeated again to each section of guns, now laying upon a new
target. This time there would be no raking fire. It would be broadside to broadside,
although the numbers were still quite incongruous. Rayo’s forty-eight or so remaining
heavier starboard battery versus Captain Cardinal’s thirty-seven or so larboard guns.
Both broadsides began almost simultaneously and the view each had of the other was
totally obliterated in the expanding clouds of smoke, which mixed in with the pall
drifting down from Valiente and Argonauta. Once again, Starbolin felt the shock to the
fabric of his ship, both from the recoil of his own guns and the enemy’s shot. He saw the
carronades on the quarterdeck below him jump back in their slides as the short guns
barked their thirty-two pound double shotted charge at the upper decks of the enemy.
About all that was visible now in that direction through the black smoke was the orange
flash of a Neapolitan gun being discharged.
There was the crack and splinter of small arms fire as well. Marines on both sides
crouched behind the barricade of hammocks and tried to pick off either enemy officers or
riflemen. Marines stationed in the fighting tops fired down at the enemy’s quarterdeck or
poop, and across at the top opposite where their opponents knelt behind the wood
barricade. Starbolin could see little chunks of splinters in the deck around him, and once
felt the poop deck rail vibrate under his hand. He looked down to see a flattened lead ball
embedded in the rail not a foot from where he had inadvertently tightened his grip upon
Cannon fire had become general now from every direction. Tew and Avery’s
division must be engaging the Neapolitan flagship by now, and from aft Captains Fly and
Mateo would be taking their turns at Kat’s Argonauta.
“Sir!” It was Midshipman Jiminez. “I can see Argonauta. She’s heading southeast
trying to cross ahead of Majestad! Her foremast is falling, sir!”
The first of many masts that would fall this afternoon, thought Starbolin.
“Mr. Jiminez, take your glass and get up to the mizzen crosstrees. You’re to be my
eyes on the squadron and the rest of the fleet. We can see almost nothing from here.
Keep us informed, lad!”
And Jiminez was off, scrambling up the larboard mizzen ratlines like a monkey born
to trees, the telescope slung across his back on it’s strap.
“Mr. de Barra. Signal Majestad and Glorioso to engage Argonauta close. I intend
that no enemy ship shall get to the east’ard of us. Signal Valiente to engage Rolig.”
If an admiral’s basic duty was to bring his ships alongside the enemy where they
could be the most effective, Starbolin felt that the next fundamental of tactics had to be
massing ones own ships to outnumber that portion of the enemy line which was being
engaged. That meant that for each enemy ship firing at you, it would be necessary to
have at least two or more of your ships firing back at it. It was something Admiral Tew
had become very good at and was one of the reasons for his earlier successes.
“On deck!” It was Jiminez now at the mizzen crosstrees. “I can see the flagship.
She and Avery’s division are heading southwest toward the center of the enemy line.
Everyone seems to be engaged now sir!”
“Very Good, Jimmy! Keep me informed!”
“Sir!” It was de Barra. “Captain Mateo is alongside the Argonauta! They’re
“That’s well, Juan.”
Trying to peer ahead through the murk, Starbolin now saw the shape of a ship begin
to emerge almost ghostlike from the fog of war. It had to be the Partinope, the next
ahead of Rolig, which was drifting aft but with whom they were still engaged to
starboard. Partinope’s silhouette was lengthening--she was turning to cross ahead of
Rayo and attempt to rake her.
“Captain Barnaby! Trim your sheets and put down your helm. Cease fire and load
the next broadside. We’ll use it against Partinope. Alert the officers to be prepared with
the larboard guns as well. For Rolig.”
“Admiral!” De Barra again from aft. “Argonauta is on fire. There’s flame and
smoke amidship, and I can see flames through her lower gunports!”
That meant there was every possibility the magazine could blow with men still
crowded on her decks fighting a boarding action and no one to spare for the pumps.
“She’s struck, sir!”
Now let’s hope Mateo gets everyone off and Majestad clear before she does blow.
“Signal Captain Mateo to engage Rolig.” A subtle hint, perhaps, to get on with their
business and leave Argonauta to her fate. One that Mateo probably didn’t really need,
but would keep his signal midshipman on his toes.
Another cry came down from the mizzen crosstrees. “Sir! The whole enemy fleet
appears to be coming around more southerly!”
Too late, thought Starbolin. The paddock gate was now shut and locked and he held
the key. He would never understand why they had held on to the west and northwest as
long as they had.
Ahead, Rayo’s bowsprit was swinging away and ahead of Partinope. Aft, they were
pulling ahead of Rolig and the enemy jib boom was swinging across their transom.
“Starboard broadside first, Captain Barnaby. Then larboard.”
Rolig was now swinging to larboard as well, attempting to avoid being raked by the
first rate and to bring her own starboard battery into play.
Suddenly Starbolin felt the air pressed against his cheek as though an instant blast of
wind had come and gone in a fraction of a second. And then followed a tremendous roar,
not close alongside, but some way off the larboard quarter, beyond where Rolig nearly
filled his field of vision. A huge mushroom shaped cloud of fire and smoke sprouted
skyward, spewing objects from its chimney in all directions. Below this awesome
spectacle he saw solid, shapeless forms of debris rain down and splash into the sea
around and about the Majestad.
Argonauta’s magazine had blown up and Majestad had barely pulled clear. But she
was clear and that’s what mattered. He hoped Kat was aboard her, with the rest of her
surviving crew. Her ill-fated 74 was now a burning, mastless, blackened log, listing
heavily to starboard.
“Fire as you bear!” bellowed Barnaby.
Then came another rumble of manmade thunder. The ship shook as her own
starboard broadside once again rolled up Rayo’s side. Once again the pall of smoke hid
everything on that side of the ship from view
Captain Barnaby gripped the poop deck rail. “Steady her up quartermaster! Mr.
Gonzalez! Stand by your larboard guns! Back the main topsail!”
Rayo was swinging to an east southeasterly heading and was just forereaching on
Rolig. By backing the main topsail Barnaby was attempting to check the flagships way,
and in combination with the last of her turn to larboard, to bring the enemy 74 into the arc
of their larboard battery.
On the opposite side of Rolig Starbolin could see Valiente heading up as well to
bring her starboard guns to bear, and Fly in the Glorioso was steering to cross her stern.
Starbolin’s squadron, which had begun this conflict as bait, was now overwhelming and
rolling up the enemy rear ship by ship.
“Fire as you bear, Mr. Gonzalez!”
“Aye, captain! Fire as you bear!”
And this time the larboard broadside roared for the first time.
Before the last gun had barked and recoiled, Starbolin decided to pass his next
instructions to the flag captain and had skipped down the poopdeck ladder to the
quarterdeck. He was walking forward to where Captain Barnaby now stood in
conversation with the first lieutenant just aft of the main fiferail when all hell suddenly
broke loose. Rolig to larboard and Partenope to starboard unleashed their own
broadsides at almost the same moment. Starbolin could actually hear the tearing wind of
the enemy shot that passed overhead, and he heard and saw the jerk of sails and rigging
as shot holes opened up in the flapping canvas, and pieces of blocks and rigging fell to
the deck or jumped in the nets. A section of hammocks and netting just ahead of where
he stood exploded into shreds of spewing fragments and one of the starboard quarterdeck
carronades flew off its slide with a loud clang and spun into it’s own crew, actually
decapitating one seaman and laying six more out on the deck in bloody heaps, limbs
hideously askew. The great ship’s wheel behind him just under the break of the poop
disintegrated in a spray of splinters and Starbolin involuntarily flinched and spun his head
as some barely glimpsed chunk of it scythed past his forehead. He found himself staring
at the larboard nettings where a long wooden splinter had buried itself deep into a
hammock. A marine screamed and spun around like a top slammed halfway across the
poop deck to fetch up in a mangled mass of blood and tissue against the breech of a gun.
The rest of his platoon stared horrified only for a moment before their corporal shouted at
them to clear the mess and get on with their business.
Captain Barnaby lost no time directing the lieutenants and master’s mates to get the
ship back under control. Beside what little remained to mark where the wheel had once
stood were three bodies, lying in a spreading pool of blood. The two quartermaster’s
mates who had been at the wheel, and the quartermaster of the watch, the man called
Pedro Miguel Sanchez. Nearby the master, Mister Bows, sat on the deck calmly tying a
neckcloth around the bloodstained stocking of his left calf. The binnacle box was still
intact, but looking forward, Starbolin noted a forged mast hoop at the base of the
mainmast had been struck and come loose, leaving a depression in the mast to mark
where it had been. There appeared to be no major damage to the mast itself.
Men would already be stationed in the gunroom where the great tiller emerged from
the rudder head ready to connect the emergency steering tackles. Steering by using the
tiller was somewhat cumbersome, but it had been something Starbolin had insisted his
squadron become proficient at during their previous weeks of exercises while on
blockade duty. But there would be several precious minutes lost while Rayo was
effectively out of control.
The ship was heading further upwind and Barnaby and Lieutenant Gonzalez were
shouting orders to regain control of the ship through use of the sails. Getting caught in
irons with an enemy battleship on either beam could ruin their whole day. Rolig’s
bowprit appeared out of the smoke and threatened to impale Rayo’s mizzen shrouds.
“Boarders! Boarding parties assemble aft!” Starbolin shouted. If the two ships did
become fouled he had every intention of using that fact to take the enemy by storm before
they could recover their wits. In any case, it would be as well to be prepared.
Through the thickness of the smoke all around them came the almost continuous roar
of cannon fire. Broadsides were no longer neatly timed and guns were fired as quickly as
their crews could reload and run them out.
Seamen and marines came rushing to the quarterdeck and were directed to muster on
the poop near the mizzen. They carried cutlasses or else grabbed the pikes that were
stowed at the bases of the main and mizzen masts. The press of men at the poopdeck
ladder gave way to let their vice admiral climb back up where he raced aft and swung
himself up into the mizzen ratlines, carefully watching the bearing of the tip of Rolig’s jib
boom. If it held steady and moved neither fore nor aft then a collision was certain. But
the boom was slowly, moving aft. He looked up at the great battle ensign streaming
almost leisurely across the starboard quarter from the top of the gaff and knew Rayo was
dangerously close to coming into irons--so close to the eye of the wind that they would
no longer have control of the ship. And how close were Barnaby and Bows to getting
back that control, anyway, he speculated.
Someone shouted, “She’s struck! Look, she’s struck!”
Starbolin looked. True enough, the Neapolitan ensign came fluttering down to the
deck, but was this intentional or simply caused by a severed halyard. No, the Rolig’s
crew were dropping what cutlasses and pikes they themselves had seized on perceiving
the threat from the three-decker. The officers were holding up two hands in a gesture of
their intent to surrender.
The men in Rayo began to cheer. It started as a single huzzah, then several, and now
they simply could not help themselves, and it was echoed from Glorioso and Valiente as
“Mr. Lewry, Mr. de Barra! Get these men back to their duties. Larboard broadside,
And then he felt it again. That sudden, evil compressing of the atmosphere followed
by an explosion some distance away, nevertheless powerful enough to silence the cheers
and cause men to stare off into the pawl that hung over everything.
Still clinging to the larboard mizzen ratlines, Starbolin shouted aloft. “Mr. Jiminez!
The seamen and marines, who had been ready to leave the poop for their usual battle
stations, now paused hoping to catch the midshipman’s reply to the vice admiral. The
guns all around had mysteriously and momentarily fallen silent. There was no doubt that
another magazine had blown somewhere and men had probably died en masse, instantly
and without a second’s preparation. But which ship and was it one of theirs?
The midshipman’s hail from his station at the mizzen crosstrees did not come
immediately. Even at that height there was no certainty the fog of battle would permit an
answer until much later. And then at last it came...
“Sir! I am pretty sure it was Atalanta! She had been between Admirals Tew and
Avery and taking fire from both flagships just a few minutes ago. She’d lost a mast but
now there is no sign of her at all. Just a lot of smoke and I can only see the masts of our
flagships now in that place!”
“Very well, thank you!”
The men now resumed their duties, relieved it had not been one of their own,
nevertheless very much aware of how close they all were to a sudden dimming of the
spark of life. Very few on that poor ship would be likely to have survived. Starbolin
jumped back down to the deck. He was aware of de Barra at his elbow. The flag
lieutenant was checking a list he had attached to his signal board.
“Sir, I list Atalanta’s commander as Captain Mako.”
“Thank you, Mr. de Barra.” Late commander most probably.
Rolig’s jib boom and bowsprit continued to slide aft. Captain Barnaby had kept
Rayo out of irons, but they were still making way to the east-northeast. Westward,
beyond Rolig, now a prize of war, Starbolin could see Fly’s Glorioso continuing on to the
south-southwest, and Mooselady in Valiente had borne away to follow him. And there,
further towards the north came Mateo in Majestad. His squadron had taken two ships
and was now moving on to their next prey. Thinking of which...
Where was Partinope? She was now no longer abeam of Rayo to starboard, had not
kept station on her larger opponent. Starbolin searched through the haze and finally, well
abaft his starboard quarter, beyond Valiente, he caught sight of their late opponent
heading nearly west-southwest and away from them. Only after the battle would he learn
that the Neapolitan commander, Captain Cognito, had been struck down and carried
below unconscious, while his first lieutenant had been killed outright. The second
lieutenant, realizing that their escape to the east was now impossible, had endeavored to
work the ship westward.
The cannonading had begun again in earnest. From northwest around to southwest
the sound of the great guns resumed like the passage of a very dark and evil band of black
The line of Neapolitan ships now was strung roughly north to south, heading in a
generally southerly direction. Those ships that had begun the battle near the end of the
line had turned first and now led their former leaders. Last and furthest north were the
flagship Impressa and the Aquilea Valliera. Their Spanish pursuers maintained their
positions always eastward of the enemy to prevent any escape in that direction.
“Here, Mr. Jiminez! Go ahead!”
“Admiral Tew is alongside Aquilea Valliera and attempting to board, sir!”
Then Captain Barnaby was beside him, wiping his very begrimed brow with a
“Tell me, Barny, do I look as soiled in the face as you do?” said Starbolin with what
he felt was a rather weak attempt at humor. But an attempt, nevertheless.
“No, sir. Of course not, sir!” What else could you say to a vice admiral? “Anyway,
sir, the emergency steering’s all set up and Mr. Bows has his and the quartermaster’s
mates in position to relay orders to the lads at the tackles. I’ve put Midshipman Lord
Castillo and a master’s mate in the gunroom with a boat compass so we can sail a
heading pretty well from there an’ keep the shouting to a minimum. Speaking of which,
sir, where would you like me to head now?”
“We’ll let the squadron continue in pursuit to the south of us, Barny. I’d like to hold
station upwind here to the east in the event anyone tries to break through and escape.
We’ve got the lot of ‘em, I believe, and I’ll let no one get to east’ard of us! You can
point her to the south, but clew up everything save the foretopsail until we see what is
going to fall out.”
“Aye, sir.” Barnaby touched the brim of his bicorn and moved back down to the
“Aquilea Valliera has managed to break away from the flagship before the admiral
could get his men aboard. They’re still exchanging canon fire, sir!”
And then, shortly after that, “She’s struck, sir!”
Even from his position on the poop, Starbolin was aware that visibility was
becoming somewhat better, at least as it affected the northern end of the line. He was
now able to pick out Annabelle’s Impressa bearing nearly due west with Avery’s
Tarragona in pursuit. Nearby another ship began foreshortening and he knew it was
turning toward the east and attempting to make a run for freedom, but Captain Josh’s
Ogen Buria was turning as well. Their new headings would take them astern of and to
the north of Rayo.
“Captain Barnaby! Please bring us up to the wind again. As close as you can easily
get under topsails and t’gallants. Be ready to shake out the courses if necessary!”
Then, to the crosstrees he shouted, “Mr. Jiminez! Can you tell what enemy ship that
is steering to pass astern of us?”
A few moments later the reply came back. “Not certain, sir, but I think it is the
De Barra checked his list again. “That would be Captain William Boulier, sir.
Belongs to an old Norman family that served under the Angevins when they held Naples
and Sicily and he himself has risen rapidly while holding a Naple’s commission.”
“Sir!” From aloft again. “Tarragona and Duke are exchanging fire with Impressa,
Duke was Commodore Pike’s 90 gun second rate that Tew had captured during an
earlier engagement with the British and the name had not been changed. It had been
Starbolin’s own flagship when he himself had joined the Armada as a commodore, and
he remembered her officers and men with a special affection.
Rayo had been headed close hauled on the larboard tack, but with the wind broad on
her beam Saminte had shaken out her courses and was making good speed to the east,
with Ogen Buria on her heels. Even after Barnaby had set Rayo’s own courses, Saminte
had overhauled the three-decker to the eastward when Josh fell off the wind and fired his
larboard broadside into the enemy’s quarter. Saminte’s mizzenmast seemed to jump in its
stays and pieces of rigging came loose and, released of their tension, whipped through the
air like loose strands of a spider’s web. Then the mast began to buckle near it’s foot at
the quarterdeck, and slowly and majestically fall towards the sea popping more rigging
and eventually taking the main topgallant mast over the side with it.
The mizzen had fallen to starboard and now clinging wreckage dragged the
Saminte’s head to leeward and downwind, taking most of the way off her. Seamen raced
with cutlasses and axes to cut away the rigging that still held the now fatal spars
alongside their ship.
Josh came back up into the wind and began overhauling the Italian. Marines and
seamen could be seen mustering on the Buria’s forecastle, pikes and cutlasses in hand,
while officers checked their lists and other seamen readied the grapples to be swung from
the ends of the foreyard and the fore and main chains.
Now Rayo would be able to pass astern and get upwind of Saminte and to provide
assistance to Josh if that were necessary to secure the enemy.
The sun was close to setting and cast an eerie golden glow over the hazy pawl of the
battlefield. Nature’s beauty framing and ennobling man’s destruction. Ashore, there
were people strolling with lovers, dining on verandas, herding sheep or cattle who were
lit by this very same sun. And none of them would be aware of the drama, of the death,
of the brave and vicious acts their fellow human beings were even now engaged in under
the light of that golden orb.
And out of the glowing ball came a strange silhouette, as perfectly framed by it as
any painter could wish or imagine: The foreshortened hull of a great ship, a tall, towering
first rate. What made it strange, eerily ghostlike, was the condition of its sails that hung
like cerements--graveclothes--from its yards. The canvas of the fore topgallantsail
literally hung in strips from its stick, and all other sails were pockmarked with shot holes
of every diameter. Obviously, grape and canister had been fired at the fighting tops, and
one could assume, at the deck as well. This apparition was none other than Tew’s
Dvyenadstat Apostolov. And the condition of her sails was likely due in no small part to
her boarding action with Commodore Buttercup’s Aquilea Valliera.
“Captain Josh is laying alongside Saminte now.” De Barra had come over to stand
near his vice admiral and a few minutes later reported a signal going up the Apostolov’s
halyards. “Assist Ogon Buria, sir.” De Barra knew better than to say it aloud, but his
tone as he reported the signal indicated he felt the message to be a mite superfluous.
“Now, Mr. de Barra,” said Starbolin, “remember that Admiral Tew feels that signal
lieutenants get little enough practice in actual battle conditions as it is and I have no
doubt he feels the exercise will do both you and his own lieutenant a world of good.”
“Aye, aye, sir.” There was nothing else de Barra could say.
Starbolin called down to Captain Barnaby on the quarterdeck. “We’ll work up to
wind’ard and astern of Seminte, Captain. Then let the drift and leeway take us down on
her larboard quarter. That way we’ll stay clear of Ogon Buria.”
As Rayo gathered way and moved toward the two ships locked now in mortal
combat, Starbolin sucked in his breath when he saw the first sign of flames through the
Saminte’s after gunports. Josh’s boarders had pressed onto the Saminte’s waist and
forecastle, and most of the Italian defenders held the quarterdeck and after section of the
upper gundeck. Rayo’s looming presence astern of the seventy-four in and of itself
would achieve a devastating mental effect on the defenders, but even that would pale in
comparison to the knowledge of the fire now raging on the lower gundeck.
And so it proved. Captain Boulier, confronted by a situation now inextricably out of
his control had no choice, and down came the Neapolitan flag. At least his surviving
crew might find some solace in the relative safety of imprisonment on board the Ogon
Starbolin turned to de Barra. “What of the squadron, Juan?”
“Masthead, there!” shouted the flag lieutenant, cupping his hands to his mouth after
tucking his signal book under his arm. “Report on the starbolins! Beggin’ your pardon,
The vice admiral was well aware that his staff referred to the squadron as the
“starbolins”, though they never ordinarily used the term in front of him, anymore than a
seaman would call the captain the ‘old man’ to his face. Except for his secretary,
Jonathan Cratchett, who would say in response to a squadron order dictated by the vice
admiral, “Shall I write that up fair for the starbolins, sir?” and never blink an eye.
“Deck there! Captain Mateo has gone to assist against the Impressa, sir! And
Glorioso and Valiente are in pursuit of Partenope!”
“Bring her around again to the south, Captain Barnaby. We’ll keep company with
the Apostolov for a while, and stand clear of Saminte.”
Indeed, the fire in Saminte’s lower gundeck was now reaching through the
companionways and hatches to spread to the upper gundeck. Josh’s men were
shepherding the last of the boarders and captives off the stricken ship, and others were
already cutting away at the grapples and tangled rigging that attached both ships.
The only firing now came from the south-southwest where Annabelle’s Impressa,
devoid of fore and mizzenmasts, continued to engage her pursuers as she tried vainly to
steer to the southeast and east. Avery was closing from one quarter in his Tarragona, and
Pike’s Duke was closing from the other. Even further south, Majestad cut off escape
from that direction.
The sun had just dipped below the horizon when Jiminez reported again. “Deck
there! Rear Admiral Avery has boarded, sir!”
And from the men still at their now silent guns, and tending and mending the broken
bits of rigging, came another cheer. A loud upwelling huzzah shouted with fervor and
relief, and a release of emotion. They knew then that they would survive this day.
“Let them have their moment, Barny. God knows, they’ve earned it!”
“Signal from flag, sir. ‘Hold Position’.”
The flag captain passed the order on to the first lieutenant and sailing master, and
when he rejoined his vice admiral at the poopdeck rail a few minutes later, Starbolin
commented, “I do believe Admiral Tew desires to work alongside within hailing
Astern, against the darkening northeastern sky, Seminte had become a blazing
bonfire, sails and rigging now being consumed by the uncontrolled rage of flames welling
up from her charred hull. Ogon Buria had gotten well clear and now trailed Rayo on her
larboard quarter, while Tew’s Apostolov crept up on the starboard.
And then the third great explosion of that afternoon deprived the Armada of yet a
third prize. It was a sight that had become all too familiar, yet one which would always
shock and cause men to pause in the midst of battle in a state of awe. Saminte didn’t sink
immediately. Along with the wrecked hulk that was Atalanta, still barely afloat to the
northwest, the fires continued to rage and no doubt would be visible that night for miles
around. Few merchant ships in these times of trouble would even dare to come and
investigate lest they too should fall victim to the wolves that were loose this night.
Suddenly they became aware that there was utter silence beyond the normal
workings of the ship. The cannonading and crack of musket fire had stopped. Ahead, in
the fading light were the entangled silhouettes of Impressa and Tarragona.
“Deck there! She’s struck, sir! The enemy flagship has struck!”
This time the huzzahs of the men were echoed all around the horizon, as the shout
was taken up on the Apostolov on one side and the Ogon Buria astern. And undoubtedly,
thought Starbolin, on every ship in the Spanish fleet at this moment as well. And not
long after that, Partenope hauled down her colors and the victory was absolutely
The pink rays cast by the departed sun still glowed off the bottoms of the few puffy
clouds moving slowly and majestically to the southward. The first and even second
magnitude stars were now visible to the unaided eye, and the faint slap of waves against
the hull reminded Starbolin of the buzzing of night insects under this same sunset as
viewed by a farmer ashore walking his cattle back for their milking.
And now he heard Tew’s shout above the slap of canvas and rattle of blocks as the
Dvyenadstat Apostolov slid alongside to starboard.
“A very fine evening, eh, Vice Admiral Starbolin?”
“A fine evening indeed, sir!”
“Did we lose anyone?”
“No, sir. I don’t think so.” Starbolin knew he was referring to ships and their
“We’ll have the fleet heave to for the night and tend to our wounds and secure the
prizes. Damn, but there’s only four of ‘em left! Wish the hell the rest of their fleet had
sailed with ‘em!”
“Let us be glad they sailed at all, sir! In any event, congratulations!”
A silhouette against the last light of the western sky, Admiral Sir Thomas Tew
leaped onto the poop deck hammock nettings, swept off his bicorn hat, pressed it to his
chest, and bowed as deeply as an actor making his third curtain call. Caught up in the
moment, Vice Admiral Starbolin climbed atop his own stage of hammocks, and returned
“Thank you, Star. Thank you very much indeed!”
They each straightened up and stared across at the other with the dark patch of
Mediterranean Sea between them, grinning for all the world like a pair of macaque apes
A month after the battle of Ustica the long conflict between Spain and the Kingdom
of Naples died of it’s own accord. There was no formal peace treaty, but the causes of
the conflict were no longer very clear in anyone’s memory. Naples would eventually
rebuild a fleet, and Spain would begin a long period of relative peace. The great Armada
would be laid up in ordinary for the most part in the naval anchorage at Cartagena.
Crews were paid off and most of the admirals and captains who saw action at Ustica
would resign their Spanish commissions and retire to enjoy their families or dabble in
politics, farm their estates or write their memoirs.
Business would occasionally bring Starbolin to the Costa del Sol, and one day he
hired a carriage to pay a number of visits to old naval acquaintances in and about
Cartagena. He directed the coachman to drive the pair of grays out along the long mole
across from the naval anchorage from where he could view the line of battle ships. Now
devoid of topmasts and upper hamper, they were snuggled up beside each other, their
gunport lids secured, the scars of battle erased, and riding to their permanent moorings
like a great wooden bulwark of implied power and glory. It was easy to pick out the
great first rates, and there, seagulls crying above her now silent and empty decks,
sandwiched between a pair of 74s and towering above them, he recognized his Rayo.
Would she ever again know the tred of an admiral’s buckled shoe, or feel the
slapping bare feet of seamen tailing onto the great yards, or the stomping boots of
marines? Would the world even remember the quartermaster, Pedro Miguel Sanchez,
who’s mangled body he could still picture lying beside the place where the wheel had
been shot away. Would it remember the role any of them on either side had played that
memorable afternoon when he had been given the splendid honor to lead a band of brave
captains and magnificent ships into the very mouth of Hell.
And it had been Hell’s turn to flinch that day and allow them a safe passage. At least
until the next time.
You may contact Starbolin at: Starbolin@compuserve.com