A Nerd at Sea

Portsmouth, England, 1633

Captain Erasmus Waddle didn’t waddle, Jeremy noted. He seemed likely to, being a short, portly man of middle years with graying hair. If you saw a portrait of him you might well assume that he waddled like a duck. Instead he moved with a stiff, but forceful, precision, that seemed to say “Step aside or be run over! I’ve important business and you’re interfering with it.” Jeremy let such thoughts occupy his mind as his father and the captain disposed of his future without so much as glance his way.

“I’ll train him to command if he’s up to it, Mr. Toot,” Captain Waddle said. “You can’t tell till you see them in action, but he’ll gain the skills right enough.”

“Well, do what you can, sir.” From his father’s expression, he didn’t expect much. The men shook hands, then Jeremy’s father put his hand stiffly on Jeremy’s shoulder. “Do what you’re told, son.” Then he left. Just like that. Jeremy was used to it and didn’t really think his father didn’t love him, but it hurt anyway. The England of Jeremy’s birth was rather closer to Shakespeare than Rule Britannia. Its navy was closer to Drake’s than Nelson’s. Jeremy knew of Drake but nothing of Nelson or the traditions that made him. Those traditions were just being born, as much in the British East India Company and merchantmen as in the Royal Navy.

“Well, Mr. Toot, you’re an apprentice master’s mate aboard the Hazard now and I would imagine that it’s going to be a bit of a shock,” Captain Waddle said. “It might help you to know the reasons why things are so different before you are faced with it.” He snorted. “It certainly would have helped me. A ship at sea isn’t like a farm or a croft. People can’t leave and there’s not room for them to go off by themselves. Even a simple mistake can kill not only you but everyone on board, if it’s just the wrong mistake at the wrong time and there’s no place to run to get away from the disaster and no one outside the ship’s company to come to our aid. The answer to that is ship’s discipline in order to minimize the mistakes people make.”

Jeremy was aware that the Hazard was named for the dice game. He’d heard his parents talking about it. Still the name seemed all too prophetic for comfort.


Out of Portsmouth they sailed to Hamburg, while Young Mr. Toot learned what ship’s discipline meant at the frayed end of a piece of rope. He also started learning navigation, ship handling, rigging, and the location of everything on board ship.

“Why Hamburg, Lieutenant Wesley? My da said we were going to the Indies,” Sam Townsend asked. Sam was one of the five other special ship’s boys, the ones whose families had paid to have them trained to be ship’s officers. The ones that the captain and Lieutenant Wesley called “midshipmen” to differentiate them from the regular ship’s boys, and because they were housed amidships, while the regular crew were housed before the mast and the officers in the stern.

Mr. Wesley gave Sam a hard look and Jeremy was glad he hadn’t asked the question. Then the first mate shrugged. “Since we’re at sea it doesn’t matter, but I will have a few words with Mr. Townsend when we get to shore about speaking out of turn.” Mr. Wesley, as was often the case with first mates, was the backer’s representative on board. “After I’ve talked with your da, I imagine he’ll have a talk with you. He did at least tell you not to mention the Indies, didn’t he?”

Sam nodded.

“We’re going to Hamburg for two reasons,” Lieutenant Wesley continued. “First because that’s where we told the government we were going. The Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies has exclusive license from the crown to do business in the East Indies. So sailing straight from Portsmouth to the East Indies would be a crime—which your father, Mr. Townsend, would be assumed to be a party to. However, after going to Hamburg to pick up various goods, the captain’s instructions are, officially, simply to look for opportunities for trade and shipping. If we should happen to end up in the East because that’s where contracts or the trade took us, that’s a much more iffy matter . . . and can hardly be considered the fault of the investors.

“The other reason is to buy trade goods. No doubt you’ve all heard of the up-timers.” He looked around at the midshipmen, collecting nods and more than one doubtful look. “I’m not sure I believe everything I’ve heard, either. But wherever they come from, they have some unbelievable goods—many of which can be had in Hamburg. Goods that become more valuable the farther you get them from where they are made. I haven’t seen all those goods, but I know a German captain who bought a set of clocks that he swears are accurate after months at sea. If they are, then any captain that puts to sea for a long voyage without them is a fool. Now explain to me, Mr. Townsend, why is that? What is the advantage of having an accurate timepiece at sea?” Which brought the discussion back to issues of navigation. They spent another half hour on navigation problems then an hour discussing maritime law, after which they were released to the second mate.

Mr. Wesley taught them the book learning; Mr. Burnside oversaw them as they took sightings and other work having to do with managing the ship. Jeremy rather enjoyed their time with Mr. Wesley, but none of the midshipmen enjoyed their time with Mr. Burnside. Nor, as he made quite plain, did Mr. Burnside enjoy wasting his time on a bunch of puffed up ship’s boys whose parents had more money than sense. Mr. Burnside was a quick man with a rope end.


“Now be quiet in here, Mr. Toot.” The captain was a stickler for manners. Hamburg was Jeremy’s first visit to a foreign port. He was moderately well educated and surprisingly well read, but his German was, at best, spotty. He could worry out written German well enough, but understanding what was said was another matter. Which was why he was trailing along in the captain’s wake while Captain Waddle went looking for clocks.

The store was easy to find. It was located in the most upper-class section of the port area of Hamburg, near a tavern where captains and officers from the ships came to dine and discuss business. It also had a rather large sign saying Naval and Navigational Equipage in the florid German style. Inside were clocks, true enough, but there were more than clocks. There were sextants, much more accurate than the Davis Quadrant that they had been using on the trip over. Sextants, as the shopkeeper explained, used adjustable mirrors to locate the distance from the horizon.

Jeremy watched with some amusement as the shopkeeper noted that they were English and pointed out that the first use of the technique was by the famous, not yet born, English scholar Sir Isaac Newton. He wondered who the fellow would have credited with the invention if they had been French. Probably a mythical viscount or something. The device, sextant, from the arch of one sixth of a circle, was no laughing matter at all. The clerk demonstrated it and the accuracy was amazing compared to the Davis Quadrant and so was the ease of use.

Absent knowledge of the exact time, it was more accuracy than would do you any good for longitude but for latitude . . . it could tell you within a mile of where you were. Then the clerk showed them the clock sets. Each box showed three clocks. As a safety feature, the clerk explained. It would be much later before Jeremy learned why the works of the clocks were oriented differently, or why there were springs made of combined metals. The little booklet that came with the clocks didn’t say. But if they worked, it would mean you could tell longitude as well as latitude. They were expensive, but not exorbitantly so. Which was surprising when they got a look at the works.

Then they looked at the charts. “These are a combination of the locations provided by the up-timers maps and rudders and more precise, well, more detailed, maps we already had access to,” the clerk said.

“How does that work?” the captain asked.

“The up-timers have very accurate maps,” the clerk said, “but often they don’t have a great deal of detail. They will give, either in the maps themselves or in a listing, the exact location, longitude and latitude, of a geographic feature that we also have records of. For instance, they have the location of Surat, but the maps of the coast near Surat are not at a useful scale. They lack detail, so we use the location of Surat from the up-timers references and combine that with coastal maps, and that gives us the location of cove and coast for miles around the city. It works even better when we have two or three features that are on both one of our maps and one of theirs.”

Jeremy couldn’t help it. “You guess,” he blurted out.

The clerk started to look offended, but Captain Waddle laughed, then nodded. “Mapmakers have always guessed, Mr. Toot. A worthwhile thing to remember.”

“Granted, Captain. But the up-timers maps and records make the guesses much better. Using this technique, we have chart books of greater accuracy than can be found outside the Ring of Fire and greater detail than can be found inside it.” Then the clerk looked Jeremy up and down. “A likely lad. Perhaps he would like to examine the more general references we have from the Ring of Fire while we talk.”

It was clear even to Jeremy that he was being gotten rid of while the clerk tried to make a sale. But the captain nodded and waved Jeremy over to the general knowledge section.

By Jaime PatneaudeIt was in the general reference section that Jeremy found A Compilation of Useful Up-timer Knowledge Gleaned from the Encyclopedias and the Mother Earth Booklets. It was in English because the author—transcriber might have been a better word—had rushed to print without taking the time to translate, apparently in an attempt to get there first with the most. Considering that there were several copies gathering dust in a back corner, it seemed likely that it was a less than astute business decision.

Jeremy paged through the books. The print face was uninspired and the spelling was atrocious, but he was used to variations in spelling and if the print face was dull, it was quite legible. And there were quite a few pictures and diagrams. It occurred to Jeremy that these books would probably sell rather better in London than in Hamburg. There were designs for irrigation systems, wash boards, tillers, all manner of things. Jeremy found himself caught up in a discussion of hydraulics.

When Captain Waddle and the clerk had finished their business, Jeremy showed the captain the books he had been reading. And whispered that they would probably be worth more in England than here, “because at least we can read them.” The problem was that they weren’t headed for England. Still, the captain let Jeremy buy one copy of the set.


“You, boy!” Captain Waddle shouted. “You, ah, Perkins, isn’t it?”

A scruffy ship’s boy with brown hair that looked like a haystack ran over. Captain Waddle handed him the bag he was carrying. “Take this to my quarters. Toot, you help him. That bag is heavy.”

As soon as Captain Waddle turned away, Perkins sneered. “Don’t need any help, Mister Toot. You gwan back to your books and figures, why don’t you?”

“Because I’m under the captain’s orders just as much as you are,” Jeremy said. “And I’ll not be wanting to get my rear end kicked up around my ears anymore than you do.”

Perkins just snorted and Jeremy didn’t know what to do. His rank was sort of higher than the ship’s boy’s, but only sort of. A hundred years later, even fifty years later, when midshipman had become an official rank of the Royal Navy he would have put Perkins in his place. Fifty years earlier there would have been no distinction; he would have been just another ship’s boy. Jeremy had no way of knowing that he was caught in the middle of making a tradition. So he helped Perkins carry the load to the captain’s quarters. Then collected his books and went back to his place amidships.


Bob Perkins wiped the sweat from his eyes. It was hot in the hold. They were stowing pallets of copper plate. Which Bob had heard wasn’t what the captain had wanted. It wasn’t that there wasn’t stuff from that Grantville place in Hamburg. Just not enough of it. Perkins had seen the weirdest stuff and you could buy it. Well, Bob Perkins couldn’t, not on a ship’s boy’s pay. But all the officers and most of the Middies had bought something or other. There just wasn’t enough to fill a hold. So they were shipping copper plate. Which First Mate had said was little better than shipping ballast. Some better because they could get a fair price for copper in the Indies but nothing like they would have got for a load of electrics, steam motors, or pumps. The bos’n said they had gotten the copper plate at a bargain price because there was some new process for making it and they’d made too much of it.

Perkins looked up at Mr. Jeremy Toot standing by the bos’n while the bos’n told him how the pallets were to be distributed to keep the weight of the ship evenly balanced. No heavy lifting for the midship boys. Stuck up little snots.


From Hamburg, they sailed northwest around the British isles, threading the needle between Far Isle and the southern tip of the Shetlands. Then south/southwest for the Azores, all the while avoiding the sight of land, partly as a test of the new navigation equipment, and partly to avoid the channel pirates. They didn’t quite manage to avoid all sight of land. The lookout saw Far Isle, though it wasn’t visible from the poop deck. But they did hit Ponta Delgada dead on. They reprovisioned at Ponta Delgada and used the northern trades to take them southwest to the equator. They made it slowly through the doldrums to the southeast trades, where they ran into a storm. It wasn’t a hurricane. All the officers were sure of that, because hurricanes didn’t happen in the south Atlantic.


“Damn it all, boy!” Second Mate Franklin Burnside screamed over the storm. “You blasted lubber, you did that on purpose.”

The “that” in question was Midshipman Jeremy Toot’s last meal, which had heartily offended his stomach and been forcefully ejected from it. Jeremy was convinced that had the meal returned to the bowl it had started from no one could have told the difference. Disgusting going in and only slightly more disgusting coming out. However, Jeremy’s aim was lacking. The former contents of his stomach were now decorating Lieutenant Burnside’s left boot and trouser leg. The leg that had been sticking out from the table. Vomiting on the lieutenant’s boot and pants hadn’t been intentional, not even the aim, though Jeremy privately felt the outcome was just. Lieutenant Burnside, among his other faults, had an iron stomach and enjoyed showing it off.

The ship heaved again but this time Jeremy managed not to. The storm had lasted for the past two days. It was the worst pounding the ship had taken since he had been consigned to it.

Burnside raised a fist and Jeremy tensed but didn’t flinch. He had learned that flinching or cowering didn’t help, and any show of defiance brought utter disaster. But this time all Burnside did was shove him away. “Get on deck, mama’s boy. Maybe we’ll get lucky and the storm will take you.”

Jeremy made his way on deck with considerable difficulty, where he was put to work under the bos’n. For two more days, he and the rest of the crew worked the ship out of the hurricane’s influence, on little food and less sleep. They survived, but not intact.


“Have a look over there, Mr. Toot. You, too, Perkins,” the bos’n said.

Jeremy squeezed around the barrels and bundles in the hold, Perkins following resentfully. Jeremy didn’t know what the ship’s boy had against him. They were in the same boat after all.

Being bookish on the Hazard had not made life pleasant for Jeremy. While navigation and the keeping of accounts was held in high regard, reading for enjoyment and doing maths not needed for accounts or navigation was considered decidedly odd. Not exactly effeminate, but snooty. Jeremy, whose reading was better than Mr. Burnside’s, had been assigned to teach basic reading and math to the ship’s boys, relieving Mr. Wesley of that duty. And Perkins was doing pretty well. He certainly worked hard enough at it. But every time Jeremy had to correct him, he could almost feel Perkins grinding his teeth.

“Well, now. Isn’t that a mess?”

Jeremy gulped. This did not bode well for the ship.

Bos’n Garry Jordan shook his head. “A right mess.” He looked over at Jeremy. “Ah, now. Come along. Best to get the bad news and make what we can of what’s left.”

“Aye, Bos’n.” Bos’n Jordan was a hefty fellow, strong as an ox. He heaved aside one of the broken water barrels. Jeremy did his best to help, but he was slight compared to Bos’n Jordan. “How bad do you think?”

Jordan had picked his way to the barrels that hadn’t overturned and smashed. “‘Tisn’t good. Not good at all. See here?” He held up the end of the rope that usually helped hold the barrels in place. “Frayed. The storm will have finished it off.”

They continued to pick their way through the destruction in the holds. Jeremy noted that many of the barrels that hadn’t broken were sprung at the seams and leaking. Worse, when they opened a cask, the water tasted of salt. The bilge water had seeped in to the barrel.

“Bos’n!” That was Perkins, on the other side of the hold. “Come see!”


“It’s nah so bad, lads.” Bos’n Jordan clapped Jeremy and Perkins on their backs. “Old Cookie, he can use the saltier water in the porridge. ‘Snah like we’re not used to salt, after all.”

Jeremy shook off his shock. He was a midshipman, after all. “I’m sure we’ll manage, Bos’n.” He paused a moment. “Well, I’d best report to the captain.”

There was enough water for about three weeks. With the Hazard in the condition the storm had left it, they were at least five weeks from any known land. If they got rain—enough rain—they might make it. But it didn’t look good. Sailing ships didn’t follow the shortest routes; they followed the best winds. They were in the mid-Atlantic, actually closer to the Americas, but when the storm let them loose they were at thirty-three degrees south in the Horse latitudes closer to where the southern westerlies blew from west to east. The closest place in terms of travel time was Africa.


The second mate, Lieutenant Burnside, stared down his long, long nose. “So, Toot, just what is our status?”

“Forty-eight barrels, sir.” Jeremy Toot didn’t want to give this report. “And fifteen of those are iffy. The bos’n said we might have to use them anyway.”

“Not good. Not good at all.”

“No, sir. But there’s worse, I’m afraid.”

“Well, don’t just stand there, Toot.” Burnside stood and tried to tower over Jeremy, although he wasn’t really tall enough for the full effect. Jeremy wasn’t all that short. “What else?”

“It’s the beer, sir. The beer barrels are all empty and broken. The ropes broke. So, it’s water or nothing . . . and soon enough, it will be nothing.”


“Perhaps if we head west?” Lieutenant Burnside set down his mug and looked up at Captain Erasmus Waddle. “Turn north and catch the trades. We’re closer to land westward.”

Captain Waddle shook his head sadly. “Not much closer, not much at all. And I don’t want us stuck in the Horse any more than we can avoid.” He took a sip of his own water ration, which had been topped off with a bit of his private stock of rum. “We’re best to continue as we are, I’m afraid. If we keep the men busy, they won’t have time to worry and fret.”

“Well, then.” Burnside stood up and fetched a map the captain pointed out. “We’re here, by this morning’s sighting.” He studied it for a moment. “If we sail southeast we should get into the westerlies and fetch up in southern Africa. That’s if we can ever get free of the Horse.” The Horse latitudes were a high pressure zone extending from roughly thirty to thirty-five degrees where the winds didn’t blow well or consistently.

Waddle worked out some figures. “Yes. I wish we were a bit further south, but if the wind cooperates, we may make it.”

Burnside nodded. The winds were not being especially cooperative. Since the storm, they’d died down to light breezes. The ship wasn’t moving quickly at all.


“The Hazard is owned in part by Captain Waddle,” Jeremy explained to the ship’s boys. “I understand he did quite well while serving the British East India Company. And the rest is owned by a cabal of investors.” Including Jeremy’s father but Jeremy didn’t mention that part. “She was bought at auction, refurbished, refitted and renamed. Originally built for the often hostile eastern trade, she’s five hundred tons and carries twenty guns.”

The guns meant that the Hazard carried a larger crew than might normally be expected of a merchantman. More crew meant more provisions which decreased her cargo. Jeremy didn’t mention that either. He didn’t want to remind the boys that they were low on the most vital provision—water. “The truth is that the Hazard is halfway to being a smuggler and a quarter of the way to being a pirate. Which was perfectly clear to anyone in Spithead that cared about such things. What they couldn’t tell, from her provisioning was where she’s going to do her smuggling.” Jeremy kicked himself mentally. He shouldn’t have mentioned the provisioning. The main reason for the second hour of classes each day was to keep them occupied and keep their minds off the lack of water.

“Navigation,” Jeremy rushed on, “that let’s us stay out of sight of land and hopefully other ships is important to the captain’s plans once we reach the Indies. He hopes to be able to contact friends he made there without the factors of the East India Company ever being the wiser. We can buy a load of spices and sell them in Spain or Scotland and all have a major bonus.” Which was another reason that Captain Waddle had been willing to try the new navigation gear they had bought in Hamburg. And why Jeremy had—with an advance on his wages—gotten a three book set in English, sort of, called A Compilation of Useful Up-timer Knowledge Gleaned from the Encyclopedias and the Mother Earth Booklets. Jeremy didn’t know what a Mother Earth Booklet was. He had no way of knowing about Mother Earth News magazine, which described its version of how to live in harmony with nature, and which had been quite useful to the up-timers in making their cheat sheets. Nor did he care all that much. What he cared about was the information contained in his book set on subjects as diverse as food preservation and solar water heating. Information he could get back to as soon as class was over. He loved those books. They had made much of the trip since Hamburg more pleasant.

So why not use them?


Bob Perkins kept his mouth shut with an effort as Mr. Toot went and got his silly books. Showing off his education as usual. Yet Bob found himself interested as a simple solar oven was described. A situation not to be borne.

“It might work like it says,” Bob said. “But where on earth would you get mirrors that big, is what I want to know. Or a glass container big enough?”

“That’s a good point, Perkins,” Mr. Toot said. Bob hated it when Mr. Toot said things like that. He always sounded so bleedin’ pleased, almost surprised. Like his half-trained dog had just fetched him a stick. The truth was that Jeremy Toot was pleased, honestly pleased, to have provided knowledge to a fellow human being. Bob Perkins was unprepared to admit that even to himself. Especially now when he was scared that they were all going to die when they ran out of water.

“The directions for the ‘simple solar oven’ are indeed simple enough,” Mr. Toot continued. Then, checking the book’s title page, “For an . . . up-timer, but as Perkins points out, simple isn’t the same as practical. Not that Cookie being able to cook without fire wouldn’t be a good thing. It would be a saving on wood, assuming you had sunshine, of course and more importantly, open flame on shipboard is dangerous. Still I imagine the directions for making a solid gold chamber pot are as simple. They probably start with ‘buy five pounds of gold’ and I think we’d all find better uses for five pounds of gold than making it into a chamber pot.”

Bob snorted in spite of himself. “So, does your book have a way to turn salt water into fresh?” he asked, almost congenially.

Mr. Toot froze as if he’d been struck by lightning. Then he was running his finger up and down the contents listing in the first book, mumbling like a madman and all the other boys looked at Bob as though asking what he’d done to Mr. Toot.

Mr. Toot stopped only his eyes moving back and forth. “Solar distillation. How to distill water using the sun. Book two, page one forty-three,” he said. Then he grabbed the second book and was flipping through the pages.

All the boys knew what distill meant. It was what you did to make rum, scotch and brandy. Which was all they knew about it. But in Bob’s mind a light went on. If you could distill the spirits out of mash to make rum, could you distill the salt out of water to make fresh water? Now, that was something they could use. And Bob was caught by conflicting emotions. If there was such a device, they might all be saved and that was a good thing. But their saving would come out of Mr. Toot’s bloody useless book and that was very definitely a bad thing. While Bob was balancing dying a slow and painful death on the one hand and having Mr. Toot be their bloody savior on the other, Mr. Toot had been reading through the article.

“Damn it to bloody hell!” Bob heard Mr. Toot’s curse with disappointment not unmixed with relief. “They do have a solar distiller for making fresh—what they call distilled water,” Mr. Toot continued with a defeated air. “It will work on salt water. According to the book, it will even work on piss. Unfortunately, it’s like the solar oven or the solid gold chamber pot. It requires glass and quite a bit of it to make it work.”

Almost against his will, Bob said, “Well, maybe if you put that one together with something else in there, you might have something that would work. ‘Sides there is some glass on board. The captain’s wife made him buy them big glass winders for the captains cabin.” Most ships had glass windows, made from little bitty bits of glass held together with lead. But the captain’s cabin on the Hazard had bigger squares of glass held together with wood. The captain’s wife had insisted over the objections of everyone else and paid for them. Being the younger daughter of a baronet, she got her way.


Jeremy followed Perkin’s advice after dismissing the class to other duties. He didn’t have to look that far. The solar water heater was only a couple of articles over and it mentioned that while the glass and reflectors made it more efficient it would work without it. Black pipes were all you needed. But there was a problem that Jeremy didn’t even know was there. What he had wasn’t a book on thermodynamic theory. It was a how-to book. Long on what, but really short on why. The picture showed the water flowing through the pipes getting hotter. And it mentioned in passing that the reason the solar water heaters worked was because hot water rose. That was enough for Jeremy to guess that if they put their small solar still on top of a solar hot water heater, it ought to work just fine. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—the book didn’t mention the heat of vaporization in the bits Jeremy was reading. Five hundred and thirty-nine calories per gram would only have depressed him.

The book didn’t mention that both a solar hot water system and a solar still are open thermodynamic systems. That radiant energy, sunlight, is converted into thermal energy. That the thermal energy is concentrated temporarily because the hot water rises faster than it loses its heat to its surroundings. It didn’t mention the second law of thermodynamics at all or the fact that someone who wasn’t all that familiar with it might assume that the temporary concentration of thermal energy violated it. Which it didn’t, because in terms of heat transfer the solar hot water heater, the solar still and the bastardized half and half that Jeremy came up with were all open system, not closed systems and didn’t violate it at all.

On the up side, Jeremy proceeded in a sort of blissful ignorance that more closely resembled wisdom than the sort of certitude of impossibility that a partial understanding of thermodynamics’ second law might have produced. On the down-side it meant that he had a vague and limited understanding of what was going on and even less notion of what was important. He didn’t, for instance, realize how important the transfer of heat from the outer surface of the pipes to the water in the pipes was.

Jeremy wasn’t at all sure that it would work. There were things the books stressed, like how the pipes had to be dark, preferably black. That black absorbed more light and so got hotter, sooner, in sunlight. What he had in mind wasn’t exactly like any single thing in the book. He would take it to the captain.


Captain Waddle wasn’t as intimidating as Mr. Burnside, Jeremy told himself. At least, not intimidating in the same way. Besides, this was for the ship. Jeremy knocked on the door to the captain’s cabin and discovered not only the captain but the second mate in his cabin. Mr. Wesley was on watch.

“What do you need, Mr. Toot?” the captain asked.

“Ah. Well, sir . . . I was teaching the ships boys using those books I got in Hamburg and Perkins had a thought. When I looked it turned out that there was something to it. According to the books the up-timers had a way of . . . ”

“Bushwah!” Burnside stared at him. “Bushwah, Toot. Now is not the time to get lost in fairytales ’bout mythical magi from the future.”

Captain Waddle harrumphed. “Leave the boy alone, Burnsey. The sextant and the clocks have proved useful enough.”

Jeremy winced. The captain had used a fake Scot accent, which was guaranteed to put Burnside in a foul mood. He insisted that he was English to the core, not a Scot. Only the captain could twit him about it, though.

“What does this up-timer book have to offer us?” Captain Waddle pointed at the book. “I assume it’s in that one?”

“Yes, sir. It’s called a solar still, sir.”

“You want to make rum?” Mr. Burnsides asked.

Jeremy shook his head. “No, sir. It’s a way to distill fresh water from sea water, sir.”

“Now see, Mr. Burnsides? The lad has solved all our problems.” It was clear from the captain’s tone that he didn’t believe it would work but he had decided to be amused rather than angry.

“Yes, sir,” Mr. Burnsides agreed in the same lack of belief but taking his cue from the captain. “No doubt. And with the added benefit that it doesn’t require taking off our clothes like Seaman Crocker’s rain dance. Your scheme doesn’t require me to strip, does it, Mr. Toot?”

“No, sir!” Jeremy felt his face turning red.

“Well, if Mr. Burnsides’ modesty is assured,” Captain Waddle said, “trot out your plan, Mr. Toot.”

So Jeremy did, showing them the drawings in the books of the solar still and the solar hot water heater. And describing how Perkins had suggested that there might be some combination of other things in the books.

“And what do you think of Perkins?” asked Captain Waddle.

Jeremy was caught. Perkins hated Jeremy’s guts, of that Jeremy was sure. And truth be told, Jeremy wasn’t that fond of the resentful ship’s boy. But . . . “Sir, Perkins dislikes me and all the midshipmen, but he doesn’t let that interfere with the good of the ship. He’s smart and hard working, sir. He works harder at everything than any of the other ship’s boys. I just wish he’d give up the chip on his shoulder.”

Jeremy waited as the captain and Mr. Burnsides exchanged looks. Jeremy realized that they disagreed about something but Mr. Burnsides was the captain’s choice, unlike Mr. Wesley, who had been selected by the owners. Neither man gave ground and the moment passed.

“And you’ll need glass?” Mr. Burnsides asked. Then he grinned. “My modesty is safe, Skipper, but not your windows.”

“Yes. There is that,” the captain acknowledged. “But just think . . . if I doesn’t work I shan’t have to explain it to the Mrs.”

“Aye, sir, there is that.”

“Take your project to the bos’n, Mr. Toot. Have him look it over and advise you.”


After the boy had left, Captain Waddle turned to his second mate and long time friend. “Jeremy seems to be shaping up fairly well, don’t you think?”

By Jaime Patneaude“And Bob Perkins, Skipper,” Sam Burnsides said. “My problem with your midshipmen is that they’re coddled. They’ve been coddled all their lives and they’re still being coddled. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Perkins may not have the education that Toot has, but he has more grit. And I’d say more sense as well.” At the captain’s glance Burnsides shrugged. “All right. Your Mr. Toot did acknowledge that Perkins had the idea and that speaks well of Toot. But, Captain, Perkins deserves his shot and it’s not fair to have these pampered mama’s boys put ahead of likely lads because their parents have more money.”

“The world’s not fair, Franklin. It never has been and never will be. You know it as well as I. The midshipmen’s parents have paid for their education and the education they bring with them makes learning what they need go faster.”

“So what do you think of this solar still, Skipper?”

Captain waddle snorted. “I think the same thing you do, Franklin. It will keep the crew occupied and not brooding. There’s a good chance they can keep tinkering with it till it rains.”

Burnsides nodded grimly. “Or till we’re all too weak for it to matter.”


“Never work.” Bos’n Jordan spat over the side. “Not possible, not on board a ship.”

“But, it shows how . . . ” Jeremy started to say pointing to the combined drawings he had made.

“Shows how on land, lad. Think a moment, you with your seasickness. The motion of the ship—that’s the problem.” Jordan pointed to the solar still part of the drawing. “Look. ‘Tis a long, flat box, not a bit higher than, say . . . oh, the length of my hand. This is a ship. It rolls and yaws with every wave. What do you think would happen when that long box tilts with the motion of the ship? Whoosh . . . sea water in this section here all flows to one end, then up over the wall betwixt it and the fresh. All the way up to splash the glass, if we had glass. Near as I can tell from what this shows, it’s the drops of water on the glass that are the good water, yes?”

Jeremy hadn’t considered that at all. He let himself slump against the rail. “Well . . . well . . . damn.”

“Let me take a look at that book again.” Jordan held out his hand. “We’ll see if there’s something that might work a bit better.” He grinned. “Downright pity it doesn’t tell how to make beer.”

Jeremy grinned. “Aye to that. But right now, I’d be happy to have a bit more than a mug of water a day. Especially in this heat.”

A cloud passed over the sun, and they both looked up hopefully. Unfortunately, the cloud was high and white, not the type that portended rain.

They bent to their studying.


“There must be something we can do.” Jeremy slumped back against the wall. “Something. Anything.”

“Could be. Could be. We’ll start at the beginning,” Bos’n Jordan said, pointing at the pipes of the solar hot water heater. “Now what do these pipes do again?”

“They make the water hot.” Jeremy said. “The water comes in the bottom cold and gets hotter as it goes up through the pipes.”

“This bit here?”

“That takes the hot water from the hot water heater to the still.”

“And the flat box with the windows is the still,” Bos’n Jordan confirmed. Then pointed to the pipe that went from the still back to the solar water heater. “What’s this for?”

“It takes the salty water back to the heater.”

“I can see that, lad, but why?”

The problem was Jeremy wasn’t really sure why. “Well, the drawings of the solar hot water systems all have that circular flow in them. I think the water has to be able to flow for it to work. I almost had the distilled water go back but would just make it salty again.” He shrugged. “I’m not totally sure we need it but better to have it when it’s not needful than not to when it is.”

The bos’n nodded. Then pointed back to the solar still. “What does the glass do?”

“That’s a bit confusing,” Jeremy said. “The drawings in the book show little arrows which must be light going through the glass and hitting the water . . . maybe going into the water. It’s hard to tell. And they show the water collecting on the glass and dripping down the side of it. But it doesn’t explain what’s happening.” What the drawings from the book showed but didn’t explain was that the light didn’t turn into heat till it was stopped by something. Because the light passed through the glass rather than being absorbed by it the glass stayed cool so the water vapor condensed on to it.

“Let me think on it. Meanwhile I’ll get the ship’s carpenter on these pipes.”

“If you say so, Bos’n. But they need to be put together a bit odd. See here?” Jeremy pointed to the drawing. “Can he do that?”

The pipes were obviously meant to be metal, but all they had was wood. That would mean carving and forming a hollow channel in the wood, then putting two halves of channel together, probably with glue, then covering the seams with pitch. And the rather odd configuration would be very difficult and have a lot of seams.

“Well, I’m wondering if it has to be that shape.” Jordan pulled the drawings toward himself and looked at it again. “From what you said the hotter the water gets, the higher it will rise. So why this shape? If it will rise, why not maybe this?” He drew a Z shape in the air. “The bottom starts low, goes up a bit, then the next bit is a bit higher, it turns, goes up more, turns again and goes up to your still? Looks to me like if the water will rise in the one, it would rise in that. If we can make it hot enough in the first place.”

“I don’t see why that wouldn’t work.” Jeremy ran his finger across the page as he read aloud. “‘The pipes should be painted black and should not be very big around.’ I’ve been thinking about that, too. We don’t have black paint, but we do have ink. Perhaps stain the wood with the ink? Make it darker?”

“Ah. That might work. I’ll go speak to Fred.”

Jeremy was just as glad it would be Bos’n Jordan going to see the ship’s carpenter. Fred Grundy was about as big as Jordan, after all. And a lot less patient.

“We’ll need some container to draw off the water. Glass would be best so we could tell how much we’re getting and maybe adjust stuff,” Jeremy pointed out.

“You leave that to me,” the bos’n said with a gleam in his eye.


“It’s a waste of time, Bos’n,” Fred Grundy complained.

“Ah. Beyond your skills is it, Chippy?”

Fred just looked at him and Garry Jordan gave back a half grin. A ship’s carpenter was the elite of all carpenters, at least according to ship’s carpenters. A good ship’s carpenter could build a ship, given the supplies and time. A more prideful set of craftsmen you’d not find on land or sea.

Fred was no less prideful than any other ship’s carpenter, but he was wise to the ways of the bos’n. At the moment, Jordan knew that Chippy was inclined to agree with the second mate on the value of the work he was being set to. “It’s the captain’s orders, Chippy,” Jordan finally said with a bite in his voice. Then, in a more reasonable tone, “Listen, Fred. If it don’t work, at least it’s something to do and if it does even just a bit it could make the difference. Myself, I’m starting to think it might. I’ve listened to the midshipman as he read from the book and it makes sense.”

Fred sighed. “Show me what you want.”

Of course, once he had seen what was needed and had why it was needed—as Jordan knew it—explained to him, neither the book’s nor Jordan’s design would do. First making a whole set of pipes, solar water heater design or not, would be a pain in the rear end. For what they wanted, they didn’t need pipes. Instead, he made a simple, very flat, box with internal supports that acted as channels for the water. There was a wall between the back chamber and the front—the sunny side and the shaded side—that went to about half an inch above the bottom of the box. The water he explained would “flow down the back chamber and up the front.” The front chamber was only about a half inch thick internally so there was a lot of surface area for each cubic inch of water in the box.


Garry Jordan didn’t creep. He was an experienced seaman and doing no more than his duty, after all. He did make note of the fact that the second mate was on watch and would be away from his cabin for some hours before he got around to collecting the clear bottle that Mister Toot required for his device.

He picked up the bottle and admired the rich dark amber color, not of the bottle but of its contents. Then he carefully wrapped it in a cloth he had brought along for the purpose. This was to protect the bottle from breakage and had nothing to do with the fact that wrapped in the cloth it might be anything at all.

The bottle being wrapped, Jordan took it to the crew’s quarters and called together the ship’s petty officers. “Lads, I have a problem.” Jordan unwrapped the bottle and held it up for all to see. This produced some nervous looks. For it was well known that Mr. Burnsides liked one thing and one thing only about the Scots. Their whiskey. “Now, Mister Toot needs a clear bottle for his project. He told me so himself. So I collected the only clear bottle on board. However, it’s almost three-quarters full, since it was filled shortly before the storm from the second mate’s personal stock. What we need is an empty bottle. Now, I considered the simple solution of pouring it over the side, but that seems wasteful.”

The mid-watch crew chief looked around him at the many containers that might store the whiskey. Before he could speak, he was kicked in the shins by the chief cook. “Don’t be trying to think like an officer, Dobbsson,” Cookie told the junior chief. “You don’t have the brains for it.”

“We all must make sacrifices for the welfare of the ship,” Chippy said portentously. “I am very much afraid we are going to have to . . . ” He paused and shuddered, then visibly forced the words out. “Drink it!”

“What a clever notion,” Jordan proclaimed. “Get your cups, lads.”

The cups were gathered and Jordan, with great ceremony, poured a shot or so into each man’s cup. Dobbsson took his down in a shot, much to the disgust of the others present. This was, after all, fourteen-year-old sipping whiskey. Mr. Burnsides had commented on it several times.


The bos’n smiled pleasantly at the second mate. “Mister Toot needed a clear bottle to collect the water. The captain said that he was to have what he needed and you had the only clear bottle on board.”

“And where is my whiskey?” Lieutenant Burnside looked around the crew’s quarters.

“Well, sir, I poured it out,” Jordan told him quite truthfully. “We just needed the bottle, not what was in it.”

“Into what? A jug? Which one?”

“Why, what a clever thought, sir. I never thought of such a thing.” Jordan shrugged self-deprecatingly “That’s why there’s officers to think of things like that, sir.”


“He claims he poured out good whiskey.” Lieutenant Burnside pointed at Garry Jordan.

“If Garry Jordan says he poured it out, then he poured it out. I’ve known him for years. He’s an honest man.” He looked over at Jordan. “What did you pour it out into?”

Burnside interrupted. “I asked him that, sir. He denied pouring it into another container.”

The captain gave Jordan questioning look.

“I didn’t poor it into a jug, sir,” Jordan said.

“Of course not. What did you pour it into?

Caught, Gary thought. “Cups, sir.”

The captain sighed. “Sit down, Mr. Burnside.” He waved Jordan out, with a glare that said “I’ll take care of you later.”


The still had lots of little boxes in it, that would keep the water from sloshing all over the place. Each little box was filled with black cloth to hold the water and absorb the heat.

“But how do we fill all the boxes from just the one tap?”

“They leak, Midshipman. Just not real fast.”

Along one side was a trough and a higher partition between the trough and the little boxes. The wall between the trough and the boxes, thankfully, didn’t leak.


Lieutenant Burnside was beginning to look as ragged as the rest of them by four days later. The water was down to thirty-five barrels, with a half ration of water per day per man. Still, Burnside wasn’t being at all helpful, although Captain Waddle kept him out of the way most of the time.

Meanwhile, the port side of the poop deck looked a mess. The contraption, side on, looked a little like an upside down L, or perhaps a weird P, with the vertical hanging off the port side of the poop deck. The vertical was the solar hot water heater. The bulgy horizontal was the solar still. With the larger-than-they-should-have-been windows Captain Waddle’s wife had insisted on.

“It couldn’t be helped, sir.” Jeremy very carefully placed the window in position, then covered the edge with more pitch. “They’re all we’ve got and something has to let the light in, so the sun will keep the water hot.”

“If we get another storm, Toot, you’d best make your best effort to save that glass. The wife will have my guts for garters if it gets broken, indeed she will.”

Jeremy hid a grin. Captain Waddle had a fund of “the wife” stories. The woman sounded like a terrible scold, but Jeremy had seen her once. Tiny, a good bit younger than the captain, and very dainty. There was no way that little thing could have the captain truly fearful. “I’ll do that, sir. Meanwhile, I think we’re ready.”

Jeremy looked over at Seaman Timothy Booby. “Start filling the tank, Tim, and we’ll see how it works.”


The wait was excruciating. Finally . . . drip drip drip. Water—not a lot, but some. It tasted a little of tar but not of salt. It would help but it clearly wasn’t enough.


In spite of the small amount that had come from the tap, the crew was suddenly very interested in the up-timer how-to book. There were discussions on how it might be improved. Still, water barrels were emptying and the men were getting weaker. The still had made no real difference. Bob Perkins was irritated about the solar still. It seemed the worst possible outcome. Not enough water and Mr. Jeremy Toot was the darling of the crew.

Bob was convinced that there was something wrong with the still because it did work, just not well. If it worked, that meant that the books weren’t just fairy stories and if they were real, then it ought to be working better. He went to have a look at the still only to find a horde of crewmen watching water bead on the glass sheets. Then he and all the others were quickly run off by Mr. Burnsides. Having failed to get a good look at it, Bob went to Mr. Toot, mumbling about the unfairness of the universe the whole way.

It was when he talked to Mr. Toot that things got really weird. Mr. Toot didn’t act at all as Bob was expecting. He invited Bob to look at the books, helped him with the odd words. Pointed out places where he was confused by what he read and asked Bob’s help in understanding them. He even took Bob up to the poop deck and let him examine the still.


“Excuse me, sir,” Mr. Toot said to Mr. Burnsides. “I’d like to give Perkins a look at the still. He may be able to find ways of improving it.”

Mr. Burnsides waved them to it without a word. Bob got to touch the glass which was cool to the touch and the thin wooden box which was hot but not as hot as, say, a cannon that had been in the sun for a few hours. And it was in that touching that some of the things that had been in the books but not made a great deal of sense suddenly did.

“That’s what it means by conducting heat,” Bob said.

“What do you mean, Perkins?” Jeremy asked.

“It’s the wood, Mr. Toot. It don’t conduct heat. Not like bronze or iron.” The wood box that was supposed to be pre-heating the water was almost useless. Bob was sure of it and there was a part of him that wanted to call Mr. Toot a fool in front of Mr. Burnsides. On the other hand, Bob was a fair-minded boy and Mr. Toot hadn’t dismissed him but had talked to him and asked his help. Shown him the still and explained what did what and why. Also, the last time he had shown disrespect to a midshipman, Mr. Toot as it happened, Mr. Burnsides had taken a rope end to him. Ultimately, it was more Bob’s fair-mindedness than fear of Mr. Burnsides that held his tongue. He waited till they were back in the midshipmen’s quarters and even then didn’t call Mr. Toot a fool. Instead they talked about what was happening inside the still and what wasn’t happening well.

Then, between them, they designed a new box, one that used one of the copper sheets in the hold for the front of the box, painted with lamp black and linseed oil. “We don’t want the whole box made of metal, Mr. Toot, just the part that will be facing the sun,” Bob told him. “‘Cause the metal bits’ll take the hot away from the water as fast as they brings it.”

Then Bob froze. There was something he had seen, something he had felt. The little droplets of water beading up the inside of the glass. And the water droplets forming on the mug of cold beer he’d had in Hamburg. That was quite unlike the warm beer of England. “We don’t need glass to make it work, Mr. Toot,” Bob said. “All we need is something that’ll say cool.”

Mr. Toot was nodding before Bob had finished his sentence. “Heat pushes the water into the air, cold pulls it out.” Mr. Toot said. “The water takes the heat when it steams away and gives it back when it condenses.” Which observation, while new to the boys, would have been no news to any distiller in Scotland.

The midshipman and the ship’s boy did some experimenting with various materials and a pot of soup the cook had boiling. They found that a copper plate worked pretty well to condense steam at first, then it got hot and didn’t work so well anymore. But if you cooled one side of it with a damp rag, the other side stayed cool.

The new contraptions didn’t have glass. Instead, they had a copper plate tent covered by a bit of sail cloth dampened with sea water to condense the evaporated water. And after they had argued and discussed for a day and a half they went to the bos’n and a new set of stills was made.

They worked quite a bit better than the first model, but they were running into a new problem. There just wasn’t enough space onboard ship to distill that much water. If it had been a standard cargo ship they would have been better off, but this was an armed merchantman, with a large crew. A large crew that needed a lot of water. Much more than could be produced by the solar stills they could set up on the deck of this ship.


Then came the day there was little water produced by the stills. They’d sailed into the line between a warm and a cold front. The moisture in the air formed clouds and the wooden boxes with their black copper fronts didn’t warm noticeably.

“Barely a drop, sir. It’s the clouds”


Then it started to rain. They collected rain water, more in one day’s rain than in all the time the still had operated.

They had recovered much of the water that they had lost in the storm and Lieutenant Burnside wanted the still taken down, insisting that it hadn’t made any difference. “The men wasted more sweat making the blasted thing than we ever got water from it.” And there may have been some truth to his accusation.

But the men didn’t want it taken down. The stills had made water when they needed it. Perhaps not enough, but maybe enough to make the difference. No one had died. Perhaps no one would have died anyway. Who was to say? They had been close to out of water when the still stopped working. Midshipman Jeremy Toot figured that over the weeks of operation the stills had added perhaps two days of water for the crew.


“Well, Mr. Toot, what do you think should be done with your contraptions?” Captain Waddle asked. “The wind is freshening and we’re getting close to the westerlies. With the deck covered in stills, it’s going to be hard to set the sails.”

“I think they should be taken down and stored away, sir,” Jeremy said. “I think we can sell them. There have to be lots of places where fresh water is hard to come by but salt water, or just bad water, is easy enough to find.” Jeremy hesitated. “I don’t know. I’m just guessing, sir.”

Oddly enough, it was Mr. Burnsides that ran off a list of places where fresh water was hard to come by. Places where being able to turn out water for ten or twelve people with just a bit of work would save people the trouble of shipping water to them.

“What about Perkins, Mr. Toot?” the captain asked. “You’ve mentioned several times what a help he’s been in making the contraptions work. What should his reward be?”

“Make him a midshipman, sir. Consider his work on the design of the stills his apprenticeship fee. It will encourage the ship’s boys and the midshipmen alike to work harder and think better.” Jeremy felt himself grinning and didn’t even try to hold it in. “And how is he going to resent the midshipmen if he is one?”

“He’ll find a way, Mr. Toot.” Mr. Burnsides laughed. “I have faith in Perkins.”




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