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James Skinner goes to sea with the Spanish Armada - 'Victory will be ours'.

Rogelio was the youngest son of a fisherman’s family. Their home was on the outskirts of Corunna, Spain. Rogelio spent his days fishing with his father and helping his mother at the downtown marketplace. One particular Tuesday was like no other however, for Rogelio looked out towards the bay and saw a sight he would remember for the rest of his life; The Spanish Armada had arrived from Lisbon to undergo a refit.

It was a grandiose sight. Over a hundred and fifty warships were at anchor in the harbour. The town was swarming with thousands of soldiers as they feasted before embarking on their forthcoming voyage. The fleet commanders were recruiting more seamen for the ships companies (whether they wanted to go or not). Rogelio felt a sense of adventure flow through his veins. Without hesitation, he signed up as one of the cabin boys. His father was overjoyed; his mother cried.

‘Your main chores are to clean the officers’ cabins, empty bedpans and prepare the bunks at night,’ said his Captain. ‘Si ,’ answered Rogelio. ‘You will also find time to assist the deck hands in repairing sails. Is that understood?’ ‘Si Senor ’. There was no mention of battle duties.

On July 12th, 1588, the Armada set sail, northward bound to confront their eternal enemy – the English. The fully rigged ‘Ciudad de Salamanca’ was one of ten transport vessels. A four masted schooner with a compliment of 300 men, she was laden with fleet supplies. As she sailed across the Bay of Biscay towards Cornwall. Rogelio took a last glimpse at the disappearing silhouette of his hometown. He was both sad and happy, yet he was proud to be part of the magnificent Spanish navy as it sailed to conquer England. (He was assured that this would be an easy victory as the English were not prepared and besides, were terrible sailors.)

Two weeks into the journey, Rogelio sighted land. ‘Look, Manuel ’, as he pointed towards the Lizard, off Cornwall. ‘Is that where we will fight?’
‘Yes’ answered his new and erudite friend. ‘Just be patient.’ He then added: ‘keep an eye out for a big ugly Englishman. His name is Drake the Pirate. Try to avoid him as they say he likes to gouge out Spanish cabin boys eyes.’
A shiver ran down Rogelio’s spine.
The Spanish Commander of the fleet continued towards the Channel whilst the English navy slipped silently out of Plymouth in pursuit of its prey.

Suddenly the English were there!
They had appeared from nowhere. Rogelio rushed towards the side shacking with excitement. He stood stunned at the magnificent display of vessels. They all seemed to follow a particular pattern as they positioned themselves for battle. Within minutes it began. Gunners manned their positions. Officers shouted orders. Cannons roared and broadsides began to find their mark.

'Don't blink,' Manuel told him, winking, 'it will all be over by noon and we shall be celebrating.'

Rogelio’s was not so certain. This was a far cry from casting nets with his father. The incredible noise seemed to shatter the inside of his head. Cannonballs really did 'roar' through the air. The Captain of the ‘Ciudad’, being a supply ship, was trying to keep back, out of trouble. Rogelio, still transfixed at the railings, was suddenly thrown to the deck. A rigger had fallen on him from the main mast. His face had been blown away. Rogelio, ran for cover out of sheer panic. He huddled under a staircase, clutching his chest, his eyes shut tight and his teeth clenched.

Many ships had been badly damaged now and began to burn. Several were completely destroyed and rapidly sinking. After suffering heavy casualties, the Armada headed for safety. Hours later, they finally made it to Calais for reinforcements.

The remaining Spanish ships were now at anchor, and the crew were tending to their wounds. The Captains pouring over charts were busily working out the next course of action for the invasion of England. Although still stunned by his first experience of battle, Rogelio was helping with the clean- up of his battered ship. By nightfall, completely exhausted he retired to his bunk. he was puzzled. Where was this victory he had been promised?

Suddenly all hell broke loose. Rogelio was fast asleep when he heard shouting and screaming going on above deck. The English had set off ten fire vessels filled with inflammable material in the direction of the stationary fleet. Floating fireballs could be seen slowly making their way towards their mark. Bells began to sound, anchors were cut loose, sails were hoisted and mayhem set in. The Armada was once again on the move. This time it was running for its life.

Rogelio felt a hefty blow on the back of his head. ‘Get up top and help put out the fire!’ shouted the First Officer at his humble servant as he hit and pushed the poor lad up the ladder. He found himself on deck shuffling through dozens of frantic sailors trying to control the blaze. Luckily it was a minor one caused by fragments of burning sail from another ship. The fire was soon under control and the remainder of the fleet was back at sea. Many ships had been lost in the ensuing battle of Gravelines, yet the ‘Ciudad de Salamanca’ and young Rogelio managed to survive.

Daybreak was followed by a change in the wind. What was left of the Spanish Armada was being blown towards the coast of Scotland off the North Sea. The Commander of the fleet, Medina Sidonia, took a wise decision. It was time to head for home.

As the ships moved away from battle, Rogelio began to think about home. He had been gone for just over a month yet it seemed like an eternity. He pictured his father going about his work and casting his daily net for the odd fish. He reminisced about his mother when she wiped her tears without saying a word as he walked up the gangplank to his unknown fate. He thought about his brothers and sisters. Would they be proud or would they scorn him for leaving home?

Storms in the North Sea were not uncommon. Ferocious southwesterly winds began to stir the ocean as the Armada retreated. Once again, Rogelio’s survival instincts were put to the test. As the ship rolled from side to side, he dropped the cutlery he was putting away and ran up top. The ship ahead had come to an abrupt halt. There was an enormous explosion and it suddenly keeled over and sank. It had hit a rock just off the coast of Ireland. The ‘Ciudad de Salamanca’ couldn’t have been more than half a mile away and heading in the same direction as the captain shouted: ‘Hard starboard!’ Rogelio could see the remains of the ship slipping beneath the sea. He could hear the screams of the drowning sailors fighting for what was left of their lives. What next he thought? Will I ever get back home? For the first time, Rogelio began to cry.

Many more Spanish ships and men were lost as gale force winds battered them in every conceivable direction. It was as if rocks and rough seas were in collusion to destroy the remnants of the Armada. Nevertheless, the ‘Ciudad de Salamanca’ miraculously pulled through. A calm Atlantic ocean welcomed the remaining sixty odd ships as they rounded the south of Ireland.

They eventually entered Santander harbour three months after setting sail from Corunna. On the quarterdeck of the ‘Ciudad de Salamanca’, the Captain bellowed orders to his crew as if nothing had ever happened. The cold look on his face disguised the horror that had gone before them. Rogelio was packing his few belongings as his friend Manuel entered the cabin. ‘We’re back home, Rogelio. Are you glad?’

‘I just want to see Papa again,’ replied Rogelio. (And never go to sea again he muttered under his breath)

© James Skinner. 2001.

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