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The Captain's Curse

In the collections of Lancaster Maritime Museum, there is a beautiful and puzzling object. Crafted by an old Lancaster sea captain in the 1890s, its rotating wooden discs were designed to track the transits of the moon but its exact function and purpose remains mysterious.

I served on old Greenwood’s ship for four and twenty years. I was just a ship’s boy when I started, all scrubbing and clambering around and getting sworn at by anyone bigger than me (which was every blessed crewman for the first three o’ them years). He took us round the Cape seven times and once steered us through the tail end of a monsoon off the coast of Kerala. I saw mighty strange lands and stranger beasts than a boy from Bridge Street in Lancaster ever expected to see but I never heard of no curse. Not til much later.

Some says it were a far-off girl he promised to marry who wound a lock of his hair around the tooth of a shark and damned his immortal soul. Others blame his soft-heart for pardoning a sea-crazed crewman who’d shot a blameless dolphin with a rusty flintlock. Or mayhaps in the heart of some cursed storm as his beloved clipper threatened to tear herself in two, he made an unholy deal with the Evil One. All them who speculates through their rums and their beards at The Three Mariners knows no more than your worthy self for he took that secret to his grave with many more for company.

All I knows starts and ends with that cursed contraption. Greenwood’s Device they called it. That part they got right as he poured his blood soaked soul into its carved wood.  It may be no mystery that a man of the sea, a harbour master no less, should spend his last years studying the moons and the tides. But Greenwood was obsessed. By day, locked away in the Customs House he pored over figures, star maps and tide charts. By night, he strode out across the dark mud, measuring and scribbling in his leather bound notebook. Though, when the moon waxed full, he was never seen. Neither on the Quay nor the river bank nor within the panes of the Customs House windows. Yet rumours and stories swirled like the turning tide. Weathered sailors spoke of great shaggy dogs seen loping across the foreshore. Farmers told of sheep poached and savaged by beasts unknown. And the howling. Every soul dwelling by the quayside in those days knew those howls well.

No-one knows if Greenwood’s Device ever achieved its purpose. Perhaps, the Captain discovered the secrets of the moon and the tides and freed himself of the foul curse. Perhaps, his discoveries only strengthened the moon’s power over his tormented soul. Some say the old Captain died and was buried along with the curse. But the tales of shaggy dogs and moonlit nights endured and perhaps the Captain’s Curse lived on too. When the moon shines silver upon the Lune, look for shaggy dogs on the quayside. And listen. Listen for the howls.


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