Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: The Perils of Boarding

Rene Duguay-Trouin, the French privateer from Saint-Malo who was certainly the successor to the greatness of Jean Bart, got a taste of how awful boarding a prize could be early in his career. As described in his Memoires written in 1741, he had "not yet found [his] sea legs" when the privateer he was aboard grappled an enemy and prepared for the bloody melee of hand-to-hand fighting on deck. When it was the young man's turn to make the leap, a mate next to him slipped, fell between the two ships and had his head crushed. Duguay-Trouin is graphic about the man's brains splattering him and honest about his own hesitation at the thought that he might be dealt a similar fate. In the end, the French took their prize - a Dutch merchantman - but only after three attempts to board her.

The final, usually messy, act of boarding was not the rope-swinging, teeth-clutching-knife, "Who wants some of this!" action-adventure that Hollywood would have us believe. Boarding was a last resort in almost all cases for privateers and pirates. Unless the merchant in question could be easily surprised, was at her most disorganized and, with the luck, very much undermanned, it was far better to get an across the water surrender. The boarding of a warship or - Lord help you - a man-of-war was right out of the question.

When it did come down to grappling your enemy, finesse and seamanship frequently had more to do with success than brute force. Knowing which way the wind was blowing was the first and often most critical factor. The prize should, if at all possible, be downwind or on your lee. This would give the attacker the weather gage and make any movement by the prey more difficult. Attempting to board in a heavy tide was ill advised. The prey could throw out her anchor at the last minute and wave at you as you drifted by. Tide and strong wind could also tug at the ropes of your grapnels, even breaking them and sending men tumbling into the sea or stranding them aboard the enemy. Boarding in dirty weather was a bad idea and only the truly insane attempted to board in a gale.

Three positions were favorable to the attacker with regard to their ship versus the prey's. Having a good leadsman and master, with stout men at the wheel, would be critical for getting you quickly to the right place at the right time. Remember, by the point of a decision to board your prize is doubtless on the run and preparing for attack. First was boarding amidships. Here the corsair placed his bow alongside the middle, or waist, of the prey. The second tack was to board at the bow, with the forecastles of the two ships as close together as possible. Finally, failing these options, boarding alongside would do. In this case both ships were literally lined up next to each other.

But wind and tide are unpredictable even for experts, and a freebooter might find herself across the enemy's bow or stern. Both of these situations were next to impossible for boarding, particularly if the prey was a larger ship. Her forecastle and quarterdeck would be taller than your waist. If she had swivels or other small arms, firing down on you would be like shooting fish in a barrel. Better to veer off and try again, or live to fight another day.

Of course, a thousand subtle combinations of the above ship-to-ship positions are possible on any given day. Knowledge and experience, along with a good deal of discipline and courage, would usually win the day. What happened after the grapples were set and the small arms were in hand is a subject for another post, but the seemingly simple act of maneuvering next to the prey could be half the battle in itself.

Mind the weather gage, Brethren, and watch your footing. A successful boarding could mean the difference between a fine share of prize money and a sadly empty stomach.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! "Mind the weather gage and watch your footing..." Good advice, Pirate Queen. I shall certainly try.

Or, in the immortal words of Mr. Blakeney, "They mean to sink us! We must board her!"

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Alternatively, we could just say watch your head but - aboard ship anyway - that turns into a whole different thing entirely...

Regan said...

Pauline, do you have a contact form or email? I'd love to ask you about some research I am doing for French pirates/privateers and English privateers who would have still been sailing when the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783. Thanks.

Pauline said...

Regan; absolutely. Contact me at ladypfb at gmail dot com. I'll look forward to hearing from you. Your project sounds awfully interesting!