24. Landfall

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Saturday, 29th August 1733

Elizabeth lolled westward in the long glassy swell, her topsails falling near flat before filling again as she gently pitched with each wave passing beneath her hull. Both the previous evening's sunset and this morning's sunrise had shown less than a quarter point of variation in the compass, so the course steered was west by south. The morning Polaris had placed them a little over fifteen miles north of the Caicos latitude. 

As the sun moved toward due south in the pelorus, Elizabeth walked with Aldrick to the port rail of the quarterdeck, their sextants pre-set to seventy-eight degrees to shoot the midday sun

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As the sun moved toward due south in the pelorus, Elizabeth walked with Aldrick to the port rail of the quarterdeck, their sextants pre-set to seventy-eight degrees to shoot the midday sun. "Why do you call it merpass?"

"It is the sun's passing our meridian, our line of longitude. It will be directly south and at its highest angle of the day, giving us our latitude. Merpass is the nautical corruption of meridian passage."

She gazed out across the water. "Is the ocean often this gentle?"

"After a storm has passed, we arrive frequently in a calm, clear period. I have followed the theories of von Guericke on atmospheric pressure, and I have observed when my mercury glass quickly falls low, a storm soon follows, and the faster the fall, the more intense the winds. When the mercury is high in the tube such as now, we have calm, fair weather."

"What causes the change in the pressure?"

"It is still not understood, even though the change has been observed now for almost a century, and the concept that air has weight is now confirmed by science. Pascal demonstrated the pressure to be inversely related to altitude, and that —"

Elizabeth interrupted, "We can discuss the technical aspects later. Should we not concentrate on the sun? Its climb has almost stopped." She swung her sextant again and adjusted the barrel.

Aldrick raised his and aligned the images in the split mirrors, then after reading the scale, he said, "It rises still, and it has another few minutes. You will learn to judge the change."

They continued their discussion, all the while monitoring the sun in their sextants, then Elizabeth said, "Now. It has stopped and begins to fall."

Aldrick shouted across the deck. "Strike eight bells. Turn a new sand glass." Then he examined the images in his sextant.

"Aye, Sir, eight bells. New sand glass."

Elizabeth and Aldrick compared their readings while the bell pealed, then with a smile between them, they descended to the great cabin to reduce their sights. After their calculations arrived within four seconds of arc of each other, Aldrick said, "We shall take the mean of these and call it twenty-two, zero four, thirty-three."

When Elizabeth finished plotting the line of position, she looked up from the chart. "Almost half a mile closer than we wanted. We should steer half a point higher."

"No need. In gentle weather such as this, we are less concerned when approaching land. Besides, we will raise it sooner on this track." He motioned toward the ladder. "I will be up top. Have me called when dinner has been laid."

"I have had Judith arrange that we eat up there at the taffrail. I thought the weather was far too fine to spend inside. George is off watch, and he will join us."

Aldrick pursed his lips as he nodded. "A fine idea."

Twenty minutes later, as the four sat at the table which had been set in the port turn of the taffrail, a cry came from aloft, "Pale water broad the port bow."

"Thank you lad," Charles shouted up from beside the helmsman.

Elizabeth tilted her head as she looked at Aldrick. "Pale water?"

"As it shallows, it loses its depth of colour and provides a fine way to spot shoaling areas. They show much better from aloft than on deck."

"So, would this be the shoals off Water Key on the chart?"

"They might be. But they might also be uncharted shoals."

She grimaced. "We are in dangerous waters, then."

"Near land is always dangerous. But we have lookouts aloft on both the mainmast and the fore, plus a sounding crew mustered and ready in the chains."

As Elizabeth opened her mouth to speak, a voice came from aloft, "Breakers now, Sir."

Charles acknowledged, then shouted, "Point them."

"Bout three points of the port bow, Sir. And runnin' for'd. Now a long line of 'em as we top a swell."

"Thank you, lad. Eyes peeled ahead, also."

"Aye, Sir. Nowt there yet."

When the intercourse had stopped, Elizabeth asked Aldrick, "Breakers?" 

"The waves breaking upon rocks." He pointed to the swell rolling past them. "These are still seven or eight feet high from the storm, so when they hit shallows, a reef or a shore, they break and turn to white foam."

Wilson added, "Even on rocks beneath the surface. With a swell such as this, we will see disturbed water from rocks and shoals six or seven feet down, and with experience, recognise troubled waters far deeper."

The four continued eating as they talked about the signs of land, and Aldrick was pointing to the terns and gulls when a cry came from the mainmast, "Land ho. Broad a port."

Charles responded, then he looked aft to confirm Aldrick was aware, and after receiving a nod, he turned forward again.

Elizabeth shook her head. "Are you not concerned? Should you not be up and looking?"

"We will see nothing from on deck. Remember, the mast lookouts see three miles farther, and at this shallow angle of approach, we have an hour or more before we see it from here. Let us finish this delicious ham and potatoes and beetroots."

"We could steer toward the land and raise it sooner, but that would slow our progress and gain nothing but an earlier fix."

"Wise thinking, Mister Wilson." Aldrick stretched his hands far apart, then brought them much closer together. "Our long line of position has been shortened from over a hundred miles to twenty or so. We do not yet know what portion of the Caicos Islands have been raised, but raised them we have."

Elizabeth winced. "How are you so certain this is part of the Caicos Islands?" 

He shrugged. "There is no other coast along this latitude, nor for hundreds of miles north of it, all the way back to Africa. Nor is there any westward along this line for near two hundred miles. This is why we use it for our landfall."

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