Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Nice Ride!

Its a little hard to be a pirate without a ship. Really, if you're stuck on land all you are at that point is a highwayman and the end result of that profession is, it seems to me, far more severe and direct. Plus you're working by land. Land. Only lubbers enjoy that and you, my Brethren, are no lubbers. So today, let us discuss the two (three semantically, but two in point of fact) favored flavors of boat for the pirates of the Golden Age, and the privateers of the Revolution and South American liberation.

The go to ship of 18th century buccaneers and pirates was what was then referred to as a sloop. This was a small craft with one mast that could carry what amounted to an enormous press of sail when measured to the size of the hull. This ability to pack on sheets gave the sloop an advantage in speed over almost any other ship. Besides speed they had superior maneuverability and could move fast even tacking into the wind. This made escape from pesky naval vessels surprisingly easy. The ships had a shallow draught, meaning that their hulls were high and relatively flat at the bottom so that they could navigate shallow bays which larger frigates could not hope to enter. Another handy escape mechanism. A Jamaica or Bermuda built sloop, both of which were favored by buccaneers like our buddy L'Ollonais, could carry a compliment of up to 75 men and a 6 to 8 small guns. From 1700 to about 1750, this was the pirate ship of choice (Blackbeard's massive frigate Queen Anne's Revenge being a fluke of an ego as big as the ship and a reputation to match).

By 1730, a variant of the sloop was starting to show up in the Colonies. Called a schooner, this similar ship had two masts, generally speaking, and was lean and mean from a standpoint of draft and hull size. These ships, frequently made of the coveted white oak that grew in North America and was so difficult to penetrate with a cannon, were a real innovation in terms of speed and safety. The problem was that a schooner did not have the hold space available in a proper sloop, limiting the amount of stores and plunder that could be packed aboard. Once again, though, about 75 men and 8 small guns were viable on a schooner, and many American pirates found them handy for short expeditions around the Atlantic coast and the Caribbean.

In the very late 1700s and on to the 1830s, the brigantine or brig came into her own. Sloops and particularly schooners were still in use in the Gulf but the ideal ship for those waters was the hermaphrodite brig, pictured above. Hermaphrodite refers to the ship's rigging: the foremast (at the front of the ship) carried square or "ship" rigged sails while the mainmast carried fore-and-aft (literally "front and back") rigged sails. Most of the Laffite brothers' Baratarian pirates chose these ships since they were ideally suited to taking advantage of the frequently changing wind conditions in the Gulf. Brigs could also carry more men (up to 120) and arms (up to 12 cannon) than a sloop or schooner and their wider construction allowed a larger though still relatively shallow hull. More stores and booty could be brought aboard making expeditions farther afield possible. Renato Beluche sailed more than one brig from the Atlantic around Cape Horn to the Pacific.

Just remember now, pirates didn't, generally speaking, sail into the bay and haggle with the used schooner dealer. A ship was a prize just like her cargo which is why all this movie nonsense of blasting away at the prize with all guns white hot rarely happened. Freebooters tended to trade up. If the prize was more suited to your purpose than what you were sailing, you left the prize's crew on your ship and sailed off aboard theirs.

So take that prize and fair winds, Brethren. I hope your sloop comes in soon.


Timmy! said...

Another well written and informative post, Pauline... By the way, did I mention that I likes the booty?... Arr! I know... and it's drivin' me nuts.

Pauline said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! Many thanks and yeah, I know.