Thursday, June 30, 2011

Ships: Gallant Peacock

It was on this day in 1815 that the final battle of the War of 1812 took place at sea. This seems a fitting conclusion to a war that began over the issue of fair trade and, above all, sailors’ rights. But the U.S. ship involved in that 15 minute firefight that saw her take the East Indiaman Nautilus as prize had a long and fascinating life ahead of her. Today, the story of American sloop of war Peacock.

According to the U.S. Navy archives Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (find it online here), Peacock in her original form was built by Adam and Noah Brown at the New York Navy Yard beginning July 1813. She was a sloop of 509 tons, 117 feet in length and 31 and ½ feet at her beam. She had a relatively deep draft for a sloop at 16 feet, 4 inches. Her compliment of men was 140 and her compliment of guns was 24 in total. Peacock would doubtless have been a fast sailer, capable of giving chase to any vessel her own size and many larger than she, upon her launch in September of 1813.

Under Captain Lewis Warrington, Peacock carried supplies to Georgia and then cruised off the Florida coast. Here, in April of 1814, she engaged HMS Epervier who was escorting a convoy of merchants. Both ships sustained damage and casualties but, after 45 minutes, Epervier struck to Peacock. Not only did Peacock capture the British brig and her convoy, but $120,000 in cash was found aboard her.

After repairs, Peacock crossed the Atlantic to cruise the European coast. She returned to the Caribbean in October with fourteen prizes under her belt. She wintered over in New York and on January 23, 1815, she set out with Stephen Decatur’s squadron of four ships to raid British merchants in the Indian Ocean. Along with Warrington’s Peacock were Decatur’s frigate President, sloop Hornet and store ship Tom Bowline. The ships were separated off the coast of South America by a British man-of-war and Peacock proceeded alone to their destination.

The War of 1812 was officially ended via ratification of the now modified Treaty of Ghent in April of 1815, but in June of that same year Captain Warrington had no notion of it having remained at sea since his arrival in the Indian Ocean. On June 30th he engaged the British East Indiaman Nautilus, who refused to strike because the war was over. Warrington refused to believe it and opened fire. After only fifteen minutes, Nautilus surrendered but her captain continued to protest the illegality of Warrington’s actions. The following day, officials from nearby Java confirmed the peace and Peacock abandoned Nautilus to immediately sail home.

Warrington was cleared of any blame in the case by the Naval Department the following year. Peacock, meanwhile, was engaged in diplomatic missions to Belgium and France, followed by time on the Mediterranean station after the Second Barbary War. By the summer of 1821 she was back in New York and there was some talk of breaking her up.

Peacock was saved from the wrecking yard by the inimitable Commodore David Porter, who chose her as flagship for his pirate fighting squadron now famously known as the Mosquito Fleet. The Caribbean squadron was stationed at Key West, than Thompson’s Island, and Porter ran his operation largely from Peacock. She saw action against pirates at the Funda Bay in Cuba, and captured more than one pirate ship on the water. When yellow fever struck many of the sailors involved in the operation, including Commodore Porter, it was Peacock who saw them safely home to Virginia.

One last mission took Peacock around the Horn to the Hawaiian Islands, where an agreement of commerce and navigation was negotiated by U.S. officials. On the way home in 1827, Peacock was struck by a whale in the South Pacific, doing near fatal damage to her hull. Repairs were made in Callao but she was never the same. Returning home in October, Peacock was decommissioned and broken up at the New York Navy Yard.

Three more incarnations of Peacock would follow, the second launched in 1828, the third in 1918 and the fourth in 1953. The original is well worth remembering for all her adventures, and even if all she had done was fight that last battle for fair trade and sailors’ rights.

Header: An anonymous contemporary sketch of USS Peacock at sea via Wikimedia

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Hove to and Bespeak Us

I've had both a well known editor and a New York literary agent call me out on what they perceived as a believability issue in my historical fiction. To me, it is an interesting point to be grilled about being as it was such a common occurrence in the great age of sail. The fact that modern lubbers – bless you both but that’s what you are – can’t imagine it may hint more at the radical changes in society that have taken place relatively recently than anything else.

In a time honored tradition, ships that met in blue water would usually pull up along side one another, reef sail and begin conversation. The ships would traditionally stand bow to stern and the crews of each would shout across the water as if they were all part of one extended family. This despite the fact that they barely knew one another, if at all, and that in many cases they spoke different languages.

Even supposed enemies might set conflict aside and bespeak each other for information about the world at large and home in particular. It was not as unusual as one might imagine for naval vessels to engage in conversation with pirates. As long as nothing was obviously amiss, and the pirate wisely made herself appear as nothing more than a common merchant or fishing vessel, the interaction could be quite amicable. It would be the seafaring equivalent of a routine traffic stop on a modern highway, but much more cordial.

It seems difficult for people in the 21st century, who have every possible bit of information about the world at their fingertips in the form of hand-held devises that they can’t be troubled to look up from for even a second, to imagine life without instant info. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries a ship could cruise for weeks or even months without spotting another sail or a hint of land. Time must have taken on a completely different shape, and the slightest worry about issues back home must have become unbearable at times. A letter, even one that was six months old, would have been as dear as gold to a husband concerned about a pregnant wife or a father wondering about a sick child or son at sea. Even the most critical information – such as the end of a war – could be delayed, sometimes for years. Just seeing another ship would raise the hope that some form of information would give a little solace.

As Peter H. Spectre notes in his book A Mariner’s Miscellany, by the heyday of North American whaling this tradition was known as “the gam”. Ships would not only stop to exchange information but, if time and weather permitted, put boats over the side and do a little ship’s visiting. Captains invited their colleagues to dine and a much needed break might end in music on the foc’sul as the sun went down.

My privateers engage in this tradition quite liberally, with news of home first on the list followed by word of the War of 1812, the fall of Barataria, the siege of Cartagena and so on. It was the only way to know what was going on in those heady days of fast brigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Even the occasional trip up the river to New Orleans might not bring you any better information than a little chat over the gunnels with Dominique Youx. He always had the juiciest gossip, anyway.

Header: Ships in a Calm Sea by Velde Willem van de Il

Monday, June 27, 2011

History: Blockade Runner or Racketeer?

The area around the Island of Bermuda is full of shipwrecks, many of which can be enjoyed by divers visiting the Caribbean (for a short list of same, click here). One of the most famous is the British built Mary-Celestia. MC was a two paddlewheel steamer out of Bermuda who was chartered by the Confederacy to run blockades at ports like Charleston and Savannah. The ship brought in much needed ordinance as well as food and medicines. A recent discovery aboard her, however, may point to the carrying of contraband as well – with or without the knowledge of her officers.

This article from the Bermuda Sun online tells of a small case containing five bottle of wine found wedged up near Mary-Celestia’s bowsprit. As all of her official cargo was removed from the site years ago, this find is particularly curious. What was the wine doing in the bow, away from the cargo holds and the galley?

Some theorize that a warrant man – perhaps the bosun – stashed it away for his personal use. The fact that MC wrecked in 1864 points to another possibility, however. As the article notes, at that point in the war anything but arms and munitions would have been considered frivolous cargo for a blockade runner. But the price for such niceties would have been exorbitant in the beleaguered southern states of the era. Did someone of Mary-Celestia’s crew stow the wine with the plan to sell it at their destination, thus turning a tidy personal profit? As James Delgado, the director of the Maritime Heritage Program for U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admin points out in the article: “People have always traded illicitly when there is a profit to be made.” The Laffite brothers could not have put it more eloquently.

The next step is to bring in experts to identify the wine itself, thus determining its value. Unlike the famous French champagne found in the Baltic, however, it does not appear that anyone will be sampling the vintage any time soon. When and if they do, I’ll post an update.

Header: Paddlewheel blockade runner Lady Davis, who was similar to Mary-Celestia

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: Old Ironsides

June 24, 1833:  USS Constitution is spared from wrecking thanks in large part to popular support stirred up by Oliver Wendall Homes poem "Old Ironsides".  For more on Constitution, and to read the classic poem, see this post at Naval History Blog.

Header: USS Constitution today via Naval History Blog

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Moor

There are a hundred different ways to moor a ship or boat, which makes this a very appropriate word for a unique occasion. More on that after we talk about moor.

Moor means, of course, to secure a ship. The etymology of the word is unclear, even to our old friend Webster who says it “probably” came from Anglo-Saxon. This may only be because the word moor meaning a boggy flatland or fen comes from the Anglo-Saxon word mor meaning a wasteland, but Webster does not elaborate on that. Suffice it to say that the word carried both meanings by the end of the Dark Ages.

In broad terms, a ship is moored when she rides with both her bower anchors in the water. This form of mooring is used in good weather and in large ports, but other conditions may require other types of moorings and the variations begin.

The above form of mooring can also be known as mooring a cable each way. More often, though, the phrase refers to the use of two anchors placed equidistant from one another when the ship rides in a tidal area. In this fashion one anchor secures the ship as the tide comes in, the other as it ebbs out. In smaller tide ways a ship may moor across, securing one anchor on the far side of the river in which she sits. A similar situation is called mooring along and a compromise between the two is known as mooring a quarter shot.

Mooring rings are the large rings, frequently made of iron, bolted securely to buoys and docks to which a ship or boat may tie up. A similar mechanism is known as a mooring bridle. Mooring chocks are peculiar to large ships such as men-of-war. These are hefty pieces of hardwood drilled with holes and secured on deck with iron through which the cables for moorings can pass. Likewise mooring posts are similar hardwood blocks driven into the shore to secure ships and boats via cable and hawser. In the past, these were often called mooring palls.

Though we now think of “moorings” as generally anything that a ship or boat can tie off to, in fact they are – or were – technically buoys used in large harbors and ports for the purpose. They were called swinging moorings if ships attached to them at the bow or all fours moorings if attached at bow and stern. Generally the buoys were held relatively in place by heavy anchors and thick cable which would need to be replaced occasionally, a dirty job if ever there was one.

To moor with a spring on the cable is an old term for warping a vessel by putting an anchor out and using the capstan to pull the ship toward it, thus moving her forward in the absence of wind.

A moor can also be a swamp or bog in a cold climate that is flat, wet, and generally desolate not to mention treacherous to cross. In Britain, particularly Wales and other “west-country” areas, moor gallop is a term for a sudden, windy storm that blows across the moors.

And what more can we say about moor? A hundred things, really, but we’ll leave it at this: the post you’re reading marks Triple P’s 100th Sailor Mouth Saturday. Huzzah!

Header: Rose in her roll as HMS Surprise moored in Mexico via ~ note how she is moored; three cables in all

Friday, June 24, 2011

Booty: A Little Bird Told Me

Thanks to Triple P’s particular friend and member of the Brethren Captain John Swallow, today’s post is all about birds. Well, birds perched on the barrels of the most beautiful set of pistols ever made.

Above is a picture from Christie’s Auction House Catalogue showing a pair of famous Singing Bird Pistols. Made by the watch and jewelry making house of Les Frères Rochat in 1820, these incredible pieces went up for auction in May. The pistols are the only pair of their kind. Four similar individual pistols made by the Rochat brothers are in museums around the world, making this pair the only known Singing Bird Pistols that are privately owned.

The Rochat brothers were masters of the jeweler’s and watchmaker’s art, and they put all their considerable talent into these diminutive side arms. Their workshop in Geneva was a magnet for royals, nobles, and the wealthy of the 19th century. The kind of delicate craftsmanship that they turned out has not been seen since, and will probably never be seen again.

I could describe the amazing pistols in paragraph after paragraph, but words hardly do their intricate beauty justice. Instead, click here to watch a video from Christie’s and hear the Head of their Watch Department, Aurel Bacs, give the history of these delightful firearms. As Captain Swallow pointed out to the Pyrate Union, they probably weren’t much good in battle, but their loveliness cannot be argued.

And just in case you’re wondering what something like this would set you back, the pair sold in Hong Kong for 5.8 million U.S. dollars. A vast pirate’s treasure indeed.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

History: Tudor Pirates

In the popular imagination, the word pirate brings up the image of a flamboyantly dressed if scruffy brigand from the first half of the 18th century. He is generally garbed in the familiar heavy, long coat with a tremendous array of buttons and piping, breeches, stockings, boots and bandoliers stuffed with loaded pistols. Of course, he’s the requisite sword with its glimmering hilt and the tricorn hat sporting blood red ostrich feathers that shiver in the wind.

There can be no doubt that certain rovers dressed similarly while ashore – usually in purloined wardrobes – but these flashy fashions were meant to send a message: the wearer was a powerful man. And that message coming from motley sailors made rich by illegal exploits did not originate with men like Blackbeard and Bellamy. In fact it seems to have originated with a very different kind of pirate: the gentleman rovers of Elizabethan England.

There has always been piracy on the high seas but certain conditions at various times in history make freebooting more attractive than it might be otherwise. In Britain in the 1560s, the weather and the economy changed to such a degree that many people – men and women – who would not have considered piracy turned to it as a way to keep food on the table. Most of the problems were driven by climate change. Longer, colder winters meant crop failures and by the mid-1560s many of the relied upon salt water fish runs stopped all together. Devastated, people in coastal communities looked to the lumbering hulks and carracks that sailed past them full of saleable goods. They packed their little boats with what arms they had available, and went out sea raiding.

By the 1570s, a class of men had established themselves as successful pirate captains. They walked the streets in velvet doublets and satin breeches with gold inlay and jewels on their sword hilts and hats sporting ostrich feathers. They loaned money (at notoriously ruinous rates) and sold their spoils openly in town, laying them out on the docks for all to see.

Many of these captains were backed and funded by local nobility, who of course wanted a piece of the action. Nobles like John Piers, a sea captain whose mother was not only Lady Padstow but also a witch much feared in her shire, Lord John and Lady Mary Killigrew and even the Vice-Admiral of Devon who had dabbled in piracy himself and was the father of Sir Walter Raleigh. Given the donorship available, is it any wonder that the pirates were notorious for swaggering around Poole, the most popular piratical port, like gentlemen themselves?

Possibly the two most notorious of this rogues’ gallery were Captains Clynton and Purser. The former was probably originally a merchant captain named Atkins or Atkinson who had grown his business through cunning and cruelty to the point where he had literally no fear of the law. William Neville, in Sea Dogs: Privateers, Plunder and Piracy in the Elizabethan Age, notes that Clynton had no qualms about challenging the courts. Despite the fact that he was a wanted man, Clynton sued a ship owner who he claimed owed him over 100 pounds. He took his complaint all the way to the Admiralty Court in London. Though he was arrested there, a few well placed bribes saw him free and back at Poole within a week.

His partner in crime Captain Purser, who may have been one William Walton, was just as infamous as Clynton. A story circulated at the time that the two had been approached by an emissary of the Queen to discontinue their predations in exchange for a full pardon. The men pondered the offer, and then sent the emissary back with a firm no thank you. They appreciated “… so great a grace and mercy” but would rather “… hazard their fortunes…” at sea.

There is no documentation of further action against them. None, that is, until they crossed paths with a particularly determined merchant named Agnes Cowtie, wife of George Blak. The horrific circumstances that led to Goodwife Cowtie’s just revenge are best left for Horror on the High Seas Week. Until then, we will imagine Clynton and Purser in port, arrayed in their finest and blissfully unaware of their inevitable fate.

Header: The carrack Mary Rose from a contemporary manuscript

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ships: Unsinkable Tayleur

Before Titanic undertook the famous Arctic voyage that would make her a household word (and James Cameron rich), the White Star Line built an “unsinkable” transit that eerily foretold the fate of her future sister.

Interest in travel by sea picked up after 1830, particularly in Great Britain. With forced transportations a thing of the past, the Brits began to look upon places like Canada and Australia as rugged frontiers where a man or a family could start out new. The founders of White Star, Wilsons and Pilkington, saw an opportunity to fill the niche for ships that could offer transport to new worlds in all price ranges while also hauling merchant goods. The two men, in a notably ambitious fashion that would mark their business for decades, set out to build one of the first iron clad clipper ships.

In 1853 construction on RMS Tayleur began at Warrington, England. She would be 230 feet long, 40 feet at the beam and carry holds almost 30 feet deep. Her tonnage is usually listed around 1,750 and her hull was entirely encased in iron. According to White Star, this made her impervious and virtually unsinkable.

Problems, however, arose from the beginning. She was fitted with a “patent rudder”, in other words one that was not custom made for her unusual size and speed. On the opposite end her rigging and sails were oversized in an effort to seize all possible wind and run fast from Britain to Australia and back. These things alone made her potentially unsound but the state of her crew on her maiden voyage only added to the probability of disaster. She was crewed by only 71 men, including cooks, stewards and boys. Her captain was personally familiar with none of these men and some, according to passenger accounts, spoke no English. No sailing was undertaken by the crew prior to loading up with 581 passengers and 4,000 tons of cargo aboard and setting out from Liverpool bound for Melbourne in January of 1854.

The weather turned dirty almost immediately and Captain Noble and his men struggled with their behemoth of a vessel. As no one had bothered to adjust Tayleur’s compasses, they were thrown off by her metal hull. The ship headed north straight into a fierce gale. Two days after leaving Liverpool, Tayleur was caught by the lee at Lambay Island just south of Dublin Bay. She was dashed on the crags of the island before sinking with a loss of some 380 passengers, many of them women and children. You can find a harrowing, eye-witness account from The Illustrated London News of January 28, 1854 here.

The horrible wreck, in which so many lost their lives, prompted an inquiry. Though Captain Noble and his men were found to have done what they could to prevent the accident and save both ship and human life, the clear problems with Tayleur were identified without much trouble. The wreck of the Tayleur was sold at Liverpool in June of 1854, according to The Illustrated London News, for 480 pounds. Her original cost to build was 20,000 pounds.

Interest in Tayleur, and particularly her unfortunate passengers, may be rousing anew. According to this article from, a group of bones were found on farmland in Rush near Dublin last week. Though the initial thinking is that the bones may be those of Viking settlers from the ancient port of Lusk, there is another theory. Evidently the bodies of Tayleur’s dead washed up on shore near Rush and were hurriedly buried in mass graves that remain unidentified. Could this new found grave be the final resting place of those unfortunate souls? As with so many mysteries of the sea, only time (and a good bit of knowledgeable examination) will tell.

Header: RMS Tayleur via

Monday, June 20, 2011

People: The Quicksilver Doctor

As today is the anniversary of the birth of Errol Flynn, one of the greatest pirates ever to grace the silver screen, I’d like to tell the tale of a doctor turned privateer turned author: Thomas Dover.

Born in Britain in 1660, Dover attended Caius College, Cambridge to study medicine. According to his own book, The Ancient Physician’s Legacy to His Country, Dover was a good student who found his studies easy and graduated with honors. Dover hung out his shingle in Bristol where he practiced his art on the local sailors. He was fascinated by their tales of high adventure and particularly Spanish gold to the point where he took it into his head to go to sea. In 1708 he made the acquaintance of privateer Woodes Rogers who was soliciting backers for a voyage to the Great South Sea. Since Dover was not lacking for funds, he became Rogers’ primary backer and, despite his lack of seafaring experience, was made lieutenant aboard Rogers’ Duke.

The expedition was eye opening for Dover as Rogers cruised the Atlantic coast of South America, rounded the Horn and came up on the island of Juan Fernandez. It was here, in February of 1709, that the crew discovered that famous marooner, Alexander Selkirk. Dover would himself administer to the man who would become Rogers’ quartermaster and later inspire Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Not long after this incident, Rogers took a Spanish brig which he renamed Bachelor, putting Dover aboard her as captain. This would not be Dover’s biggest endeavor on the voyage, however.

In April, Rogers reached Guayaquil in the Spanish Provence of Quito. The city was famously sacked but, despite the wealth acquired, many of the crew fell ill with plague. Dover set to work, dosing the men with Peruvian bark and bleeding them profusely. He tells us that he took 100 ounces of blood from half as many men, to “… less their fevers and rid them of the ill humors brought on by a Tropical climate.” Dover was proud to say that most of his patients survived.

Dover turned the Bachelor homeward before Rogers followed. On the way, he took a Spanish ship full of silver which he valued at a million pounds. The good doctor returned to Bristol in 1711, considerably wealthier for his time and investment.

Thomas Dover moved his medical practice to London in 1713, where he wrote his book. In it, he recommended dosing with mercury as a virtual cure-all. The book was popular, running into seven printings, and his advice earned him the moniker “The Quicksilver Doctor”. He also developed a well regarded purge known as Dover’s powder which, according to Philip Gosse in The Pirate’s Who’s Who, was still in use in the mid-1920s.

Dr. Dover died in 1742 and is buried in London. His long life, though not much remembered now, was certainly an eventful one.

Header: Errol Flynn as Dr. Stephen Blood from IMdB

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: Alabama vs. Kearsarge

June 19, 1864: The Confederate privateer Alabama was sunk off Cherbourg, France during an engagement with USS Kearsarge.  The English yacht Deerhound rescued several of Alabama's crew including her captain, Raphael Semmes.

Header: Capt Raphael Semmes and his Lieutenant aboard Alabama via Naval History Center

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Clinch

Today's word may very well have originated at sea, as may its brother clench. Both come from the Middle English word clenchen. This word meant alternately to grasp or to fasten, depending on how it was used. It came down to us – again most probably from the sea – with both meanings in tact.

Dean King in A Sea of Words notes that clinch is “… a method of fastening large ropes…” while clench means “To make a permanent joint, as with a bolt hammered over to prevent removal.” The Sailor’s Word Book gives more detail but agrees as well. Before the mid-19th century, however, the words were basically interchangeable as far as meaning was concerned. A lot of which word a seaman used had to do with what part of the world he came from.

A clinch, as previously alluded to, is a method of fastening cable with a half hitch. It is important to note that rope proper is not clinched. This is a fastening for large rope (cable or hawser) only. It is used to secure anchors, kedges, guns and other large, moveable objects aboard ship. The saying “the cable is run out to the clinch” is used when there is no more line to let out, usually for the purpose of anchoring but also in the working of a gun.

A clench is achieved as stated above, but this word can still be used when two ropes are secured together at their ends although this is rare. Clenched bolts are those fastened to a ring or plate that is riveted through wood. Clench-nails, which were often made of copper, were used in shipyards because they would not split even soft woods when driven in or pulled out.

Clinch-built (or clincher-built) was an alternate term for clinker-built, meaning a boat built with the edges of her wood overlapping (as apposed to butted or jointed).

The word clinch developed its modern, informal meaning some time in the 18th century. Thusly to clinch a business was to finish up a task or make a final payment. A clincher, by the same token, was a reply that settled an argument or ended a discussion. Sometimes, the clincher had the tone of a tall tale or even a lie used to top everyone else’s stories around the supper table or up on the foc’sul. English speakers continue to use the word in a similar way, speaking of something ending with a “clincher” and the like.

Happy Saturday to all the Brethren; may the weather be fair and the sailing good where ever you are.

Header: American figureheads via The Peabody-Essex Museum, Salem, MA (in a clinch, a loose figurehead might have to be secured by a clinch)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Booty: Original Gangster

I imagine it goes without saying that I am perpetually in awe of the epic lives of Jean and Pierre Laffite. They have inspired me to not only write historical fiction but to pursue all the research that has culminated in the labor of love that is Triple P. Anything one does daily without monetary compensation has to be labeled as such.

Given my intimate knowledge of the subject, you can imagine my delight at finding a modern banner that equaled the awesomeness of the men in question. So I am sharing with the Brethren the above from the wonderful purveyors of t-shirts and stuff, Dirty Coast.

Located on Magazine Street in New Orleans, the folks at Dirty Coast certainly know a thing or two about their home town and her history. As the description of this tee designed by Avery Lawrence says, Monsieur Laffite was a racketeer, pimp, mob boss and gentleman about town before any other person in the brief history of America had even imagined such a combination. From the website:

Before there was Ice-T or Biggie or Scarface or Al Capone, there was Jean Lafitte. A pirate and privateer in the Gulf of Mexico in the early 19th century, he mingled with the best and the worse of them. Our salute to the one who started it all . . the O.G.

There is no arguing with that statement. Of course, one can quibble about the spelling of the name but – for a change – I won’t. From the flamboyant stance to the way our anti-hero has pimped out his pirogue with a figurehead everything here is right. The only way this design could be improved is if Pierre were standing next to his bro, giving both the Devils their due.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

History: Shackleton's Whisky

In 1907 Ernest Shackleton and a team of hearty explorers set out to find the South Pole in one of the most aptly named ships since Captain Franklin’s Terror. The Endurance made it to Antarctica but was trapped in the ice, crushed and sunk. Shackleton and his team hauled their gear back to the ocean and managed to make it to an unpopulated island aboard an ice flow. Most of Endurance’s crew made it home in 1908 thanks to their ingenuity and guts.

Since the 100 year anniversary of the voyage, the Antarctic Heritage Trust has been excavating items left behind by Shackleton and his men. One such, perhaps surprisingly, was five crates of MacKinlay whisky. Now, according to this article from BBC online, the whisky has been recreated by the original distiller and will be sold in limited addition to benefit the Heritage Trust’s ongoing research.

Whyte & Mackay (find them here), the current owners of the MacKinlay imprint, received samples of the whisky at their Invergordon distillery. Last April, they had copied it exactly and the Shackleton whisky was made available for tasting. According to the article, Dave Broom holds the coveted occupation of whisky writer and has tasted both the original whisky and the modern copy. He says:

[The Shackleton whisky] is so light, so fresh, so delicate and still in one piece – it’s a gorgeous whisky.

High praise from a gentleman who clearly knows what he’s talking about.

Whyte & Mackay have plans to sell approximately 50,000 bottles at 100 pounds (about 160 U.S. dollars) a piece. As noted, a percentage of that will go to the Antarctic Heritage Trust to fund continuing work. Something to think about while you make out your holiday shopping list; as Shackleton proved, it never hurts to plan ahead.

Header: Photo of HMS Endurance in Antarctic ice via the British Museum

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Safe at Sea

As modern Westerns in a land based society we tend to think of time aboard wooden ships, particularly from about 1492 until approximately the start of the U.S. Civil War (roughly the Second Empire in France) as full of hazard, want, disease and monotony. Unless we’re playing pirate a la Disney or imagining great naval triumphs (heavy on the imagination) it all seems bleak and scary.

Curiously, at least to most of us, this was not how the people who lived the life at sea perceived it. The average seaman was, by and large, much happier at sea than by land. The general consensus was that, aside from women and all the grog you could drink, nothing good came of spending too much time by land. Gull sharpers and sea lawyers liked nothing better than to take advantage of a seaman, and divest him of what little wealth he might actually have. Even in the women department things could get ugly. There were always wives and sweethearts and even the most gentlemanly naval officer knew they, too, had their hands out for his coin. And prayed they’d never meet. No, it was better to be at sea in a good ship where a man knew his duty and his mates and could rest easy of a night.

But don’t take my word for it. Here is a quote that sums the attitude up nicely from able seaman (and sometimes privateer) William Wood, written to a friend considering the sea life in 1634:

Whoever shall put to sea in a stout and well conditioned ship, having an honest master and loving seamen, shall not need to fear, but he shall find as good content at sea as on land. It is too common with many to fear the sea more than they need, and all such as put to sea confesses it to be less tedious than they ever feared or expected. A ship at sea may well be compared to a cradle rocked by a careful mother’s hand, which though it be moved up and down it is not in danger of falling.

High praise from an experienced voice; such insight is what makes historical research so fascinating and so much fun. Especially for a sea-geek like me.

Header: Sailing Ships via Screen Decoration (click over to find lots of lovely screen decorations featuring sailing ships at sea)

Monday, June 13, 2011

History: Spanish Silver

The prevailing thought among historians of various specialties is that once Cortes conquered Central America for Spain the economy of that country was flooded with wealth from the New World. The riches were dominated by Mexican silver, which was used to mint coinage and in turn created the jump in Spanish inflation in the 16th and particularly the 17th centuries. This has been accepted as academic fact for a number of years. All that said, a new study released last week by the Universite Lyon in Lyon, France, puts that premise into question.

According to this article in Science Daily, the study found that New World silver did not become the primary source for Spanish coinage until the 18th century.

From approximately the mid-1500s, Spain began systematically mining and minting silver in Mexico and Peru. The coins were then sent to Spain aboard the famous treasure hulks to the tune of about 300 tons per year. It goes without saying that some of this wealth never made it to Europe. Wrecks and storms took a percentage to the bottom of the ocean, while free booters of various types and nationalities took their share as well. A large amount did get to Spain, however, where it was melted down and – according to the general understanding among historians – made into Spanish coins that then circulated throughout Europe. This was thought to be the predominant cause for the so called “Price Revolution”, an era of high inflation in Europe that started around 1520 and went on until the mid-1600s.

The Lyon researchers have now been able to isolate the individual isotope ratios in Spanish coins from the medieval era through to the 18th century. What they found was that it was not until the reign of Philippe V (1700-1746) that Spanish coinage was made purely of New World silver. This does not preclude New World wealth having a hand in the “Price Revolution”, but it does give one historical pause. A rethinking of how, if not why, the balance of wealth in Spain effected the European economy appears to be in order. And while we’re at it, I’d like to know what effect the looting of privateers and buccaneers had on that same economy over all. It could be, if you think about it, that they did Europe a bit of a favor by keeping some of that booty out of her economy.

Header: Replicas of 17th century silver doubloons

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: Captain Bannister

June 12, 1686: Buccaneer Bannister's ship meets and engages two Royal Navy brigs off Hispaniola at approximately 3:00 PM.  The fire fight continues on until the next evening when, completely out of black powder, the navy ships sail away.

Header: A Pirate by N.C. Wyeth

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Gulf and Gull

A gulf, as we all know, is a vast expanse. Poets are fond of musing about “the gulf between us” but the original meaning had more to do with water than empty space. And yes, there is more to gulls than just noisy birds.

Originally a gulf was a gulph, a spacious bay which can even be a sea when it is big enough. The Black Sea, for instance, is actually a gulf, as if the Adriatic. The former was originally known as the Gulf of Constantinople while the latter was called the Gulf of Venice. Technically, the Mediterranean is the largest gulf in the world. A gulf is different from a bay in that it is larger and deeper than it is wide. As has been much noted about the Gulf of Mexico in particular, the ocean at the mouth of a gulf is usually very hazardous because of the currents being exaggerated by the closeness of the shores. It goes without saying that such confined seas are prone to vicious storms.

The Gulf Stream originates in the Gulf of Mexico, carrying warm water up through the Caribbean, along the Atlantic coast of North America to Newfoundland. Here it veers off east toward Britain where it heads south and then west back to its origin. This current was much used by merchant vessels going between the Americas and Europe. Of course, it was also a favorite of pirates and privateers.

In the center of this round is the storied Sargasso Sea, which encircles the yet more fabled Bermuda Triangle. Here the so called “gulf-weed”, Sargasso seaweed, makes a home for all manner of sea life in its yellow-orange tentacles. It is a great hazard to small craft, however, and was notorious for sticking to wooden ships which did not have the benefit of coppered bottoms.

Gulls, as even the most steadfast lubber knows, are the sea birds featured at today’s header. There are many species among the genus Larus and, though some find these scavengers noisome and off-putting, I personally enjoy their constant chatter. Sea gulls, one must admit, go a long way to keep beaches and waterways clean, which is more than can be said for clever humans with their thumbs and beer cans.

Gull is also an old sailor’s word for someone who is green, raw, or new to the sea. A gull-sharper is therefore someone who cheats such a person. A gulpin is a credulous fellow, upon whom foc’sul jokes are easily played.

A gully, or gullet, is a stream or channel worn into the land by water running off snowy mountains. Gully squalls are common around such, particularly off the Pacific coast of Central America.

And that is enough of gulfs and gulls for today. Fair winds and full tankards until next we meet. Remember to mind the sea gulls out in the gulfs; they are, after all, a weather barometer. In particular one or more landing and settling on the ship means dirty weather ahead, and no mistake.

Header: Gulls on the Gulf of Mexico (photo by Kim Newberg)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Booty: What Rome Has Done for You, A Fish Story

The bit in Monty Python’s Life of Brian about “What have the Romans ever done for us?” rings true to this day. Aqueducts and republics, taxation with representation and welfare, the list of good things goes on and on. Of course one could argue that war on a global scale, the concept of a “one world nation” and systematic genocide may also have come down to us from these Latinate heroes, but that may just be the bitter spawn of many a conquered (and enslaved) nation mewling like a two year old. If there’s one thing I think we can all agree on it’s that the Romans tended to mechanical genius.

That’s why it should not be in any way surprising that they may have overcome the hassle of transporting fish, which tend to spoil rather quickly, by simply putting fish tanks in merchant vessels. As this article from io9 indicates, a Roman shipwreck found 25 years ago with an incongruous lead pipe in its hull seems to have finally answered the technical question “How did they do that?”

Evidently the lead pipe allowed for the movement of water from the sea into the vessel and then out again. This would have made it possible for a fish tank containing four cubic meters of water to have the kind of oxygen exchange necessary to sustain live fish on any length of voyage. Pumps could have been utilized to keep the water circulating and plenty of energy to do just that would have been available in the form of slave labor.

The ship in question, which is a mere 54 feet long, would probably have been dominated by its ingenious aquarium. It must be imagined that, if the theory is correct, certain merchant vessels were designated for this purpose. Writers in Ancient Rome did mention moving live fish by boat. As the article notes, Pliny the Elder wrote of a school of parrotfish being brought from the Black Sea to Naples for release into the Mediterranean in the hope that they would multiply there. And there’s another Roman innovation: introduction of invasive species populations.

The article does mention that the researchers may be dismissing more obvious uses for the pipe – such as pumping bilge water or cleaning the ship – and the actual fish tank has not been found, but the idea is intriguing. And not all together impossible, given the things that the Romans have done for civilization. Click over to the article if you’d like to enjoy that bit from the always delightful Pythons, which someone generously added to the comments. 

Finally, many thanks to long time member of the Brethren Dwight for the link to this article!

Header: Roman shipwreck via NatGeo

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Women at Sea: Girl with the Turban

The painting above, once attributed to Johann Zoffany, may be more familiar to most than the story of the women it portrays. It is an attractive portrait with both women, obviously just out of girlhood, looking mischievous and friendly. Surely, one must think, this is a lady and her maid hamming it up for their visual biographer. Finding out that, in fact, the ladies are cousins should make one at the very least a tad more curious.

On the right is Lady Elizabeth Murray. Born into privilege in 1761 as the daughter of the Earl of Mansfield, she was orphaned in her youth and went to live with her uncle James, who inherited his brother’s estate. Elizabeth was an heiress in her own right but, because her aunt and uncle were childless, faced the prospect of a lonely, country youth. All that changed with the appearance of the woman on the left, Dido Belle Lindsey.

Around the same time in the West Indies, the son of the Earl of Mansfield’s sister was making a name for himself in the Royal Navy. John Lindsay was in command of HMS Trent, a frigate of 28 guns. While on the Jamaica station Lindsay became known as one of those typical spit and polish Royal Navy Captains that were notorious in the Caribbean. Some time in 1761 he did something else not entirely unheard-of for a British man in foreign waters: he fathered an illegitimate child by a local woman.

Dido was the daughter of the Captain and a slave or free black woman named Maria Belle. Various fantastical stories – including that she was an abused slave aboard a Havana gunship rescued by Lindsay – surround Maria. The fact of the matter, though, is that she was probably Jamaican and the Captain’s companion while he was in local waters. Though this is speculation, both fact and very well researched historical fiction (Forester and O’Brian mention these kinds of arrangements, for instance) point to this possibility.

It is probable that Maria either died in childbirth or shortly thereafter because in 1762, after Lindsay had made a name for himself at the capture of Havana, he sent little Dido home to live with his Uncle James. It appears that, in fact, Dido may have been the first little girl taken in by the childless – and at the time future – Earl and Countess of Mansfield.

While Lindsay prospered at sea (and fathered at least two other illegitimate children), Dido was raised at Kenwood House in Hampstead, England. Historians note that she had a fine, four-poster bed with chintz hangings, was given asses milk when she was ill, and learned not only to read and write but to speak French, Italian and possibly Latin. It is even reasonable to say that Dido was tutored alongside her cousin Elizabeth.

While the same historians relate that her Uncle Mansfield, a judge, would later make decisions on slavery cases based on his love of Dido, some distinct differences were at play back at home. Dido did not dine with the family when guests came to call, but only joined the ladies in the parlor after the meal was over. She did not formally come out into society as Elizabeth did, either, being considered her cousin’s “companion” by the time they were old enough to accept suitors.

On the other hand, Dido was afforded broad and in some cases unusual duties. She travelled extensively with the family and with Elizabeth in particular. She was given the oversight of both the poultry house and the dairy at Kenwood, in which case she supervised the laborers, bought and sold animals and their produce, stocked the household larder and kept the books. This would have been a typical assignment for a young woman learning the art of keeping an estate. Atypical in the extreme was one of Dido’s later duties: secretary to the Earl. She dealt with messengers, read correspondence and wrote out dictated letters and other papers. This kind of work was generally reserved for a male steward or secretary. For a woman to take up such a task in the late 18th century was virtually unheard of.

Dido was left a yearly allowance not only by the Earl of Mansfield but also by her father, who died without legitimate offspring. Some writers point to her race when comparing Dido’s annuity of 30 pounds from the Earl to the one he settled on her cousin of approximately 100 pounds. What is often overlooked in these discussions is the stigma of illegitimacy, which would have also contributed to Dido’s inability to be introduced into society. This, perhaps even more than mixed race, certainly slammed doors in the face of even the most cheerful, polished and beautiful girls of the era.

Dido married after her Uncle’s death in 1793. She and John Davinier had three sons baptized in the church of St. George on Hanover Square. Dido was buried there, in St. George’s Field, after her death in 1804.

The lovely portrait of the two happy friends who clearly charmed the anonymous gentleman on the other side of the canvas is currently owned by the present Earl of Mansfield. It hangs in Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland. One hopes that more people will learn the intimate and fascinating story of both ladies, and particularly the pretty girl with the turban.

Header: Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle Lindsay by an unknown artist c 1779

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

People: In the Great South Sea

One of those journeyman buccaneers that seems to have always been in the right place at the right time, Bartholomew Sharp is little known today. So little known, in fact, that even a fanciful latter-day representation of his likeness is nowhere to be found. The Wikipedia entry on him – all three paragraphs – doesn’t even trouble with putting up an accompanying portrait. Now that’s disappointing.

Despite this, Sharp is a fascinating character who not only learned his trade at the elbows of men like Henry Morgan but surpassed his mentors in seamanship. Unlike Morgan, who was more General than Admiral, Sharp was a capable navigator as well as leader whose final legacy would come not from sacking Spanish towns but from capturing one of that country’s dearest cartographical secrets.

Sharp was probably born in Britain some time in 1650. To imagine he came from the seafaring country of Devon is not unreasonable, nor is it absurd to think that he went to sea at an early age. Learning the tools of the trade, doubtless in the merchant service, Sharp eventually ended up in Jamaica during the heady days of Morgan and his raids on Porto Bello and Panama. Sharp was probably among the future Lieutenant Governor’s company on the march across the Darien Gap. It is also probably that he met fellow buccaneer and adventurer John Coxon on the expedition to Panama.

Sharp teamed up with Coxon in 1679 to raid the famous Spanish storehouses on the Gulf of Honduras. It was here that treasures from South and Central America such as leather, dyes, cocoa beans, tortoise shells and silver ingots known as pigs were amassed in preparation for transport to Spain. Sharp and Coxon managed to capture one of the treasure ships, half loaded in anticipation of her voyage, and relieve her of her cargo as well. Though they did not clean out the Spanish bodegas, as the storehouses were known, they put enough of a dent in the stores to enrage Spain and make selling their ill-gotten gains back in Jamaica a bit difficult.

Eventually, and for the right price, British Governor Charles Howard agreed to turn a blind eye and Sharp and his men profited handsomely. While his men spent their shares on wine, women and song, Sharp negotiated their next adventure. According to Alexander Exquemelin, Sharp was a smooth talker who was not likely to take no for an answer. He was also extremely lucky at games of chance and dice in particular. It seems reasonable to imagine that Bat Sharp, as he was known in Port Royal, managed to parlay his share of plunder into even more money in that city of sin before buying a commission to cut logwood, again in Honduras. The commission was a cover for further free booting pursuits and Sharp and Coxon rounded up men and ships late in 1679. They set out before the New Year with the plan to provision at San Blas Island and then march across Darien to the Pacific once again.

Probably the most amazing thing about Sharp’s Great South Sea raiding is that several of his companions wrote journals they later published. Much of what we know comes from first hand information that, though doubtless embroidered to some degree, is a rare glimpse into the day to day travails and triumphs of a buccaneer.

Coxon was the original leader of the expedition but along with Sharp three other buccaneers, Harris, Sawkins and Cook, commanded their own men as well. The march across to the Pacific seems to have gone relatively well. Certainly there was not the desperate starvation that plagued Morgan’s men on their way to Panama. Trouble began, though, when the buccaneers reached Santa Marta. Expecting to find wealth at this bastion on the Pacific, the buccaneers found nothing more exciting than wine and pork. Sawkins led them in a raid that afforded them provisions and two Spanish ships but the goal of booty was nowhere in sight. The men began to complain about their leadership.

Within a month Coxon, apparently fed up with accusations of cowardice, took a small boat and left the expedition with some of his men. Sawkins was put in charge, and Harris, who had been shot through both legs during the raid, died shortly thereafter. Sawkins, probably in an attempt to quell some of the grumbling among his men, mounted a raid on Puebla Nueva in May of 1680. The new leader was dispatched by local farmers with lances and shovels, doubtless a bloody business that did little for morale.

The buccaneers never did breach the little port and, back aboard ship, they put Sharp in charge. Batt decided to head south with an eye on Chile and her reputedly endless stream of silver. The problem with the plan was that the winds along the Pacific coast blew almost continually northward. Sharp set a course far out to sea. He would sail south there and double back when his ships reached Arica.

Though the plan was sound the main ship, christened Trinity by the buccaneers, was woefully under provisioned. Soon the men were down to a ball of cornmeal and half a pint of water each per day. Irritability and listlessness prevailed; insomnia drove more than one man to the brink of madness. The ship was becoming a mutinous stew set to boil over.

In mid-October, Sharp spotted Arica and made an attempt to land. Someone had tipped off the Spaniards however, and one chronicler blamed John Coxon who may have been taken prisoner after he left the buccaneers. Unable to beach at Arica, Sharp put his boats in at the smaller colony of Ilo. Here the men gorged themselves on water, wine and a veritable farmers market of fruits, nuts and vegetables. The people of Ilo had fled to the hills and the buccaneers set up shop in a local sugar factory. They managed a bit of plunder, but not enough to satisfy, and Sharp decided to ransom the sugar works. Though the Spanish promised over fifty head of cattle as payment they did not come through, stalling the ladrones while they waited for reinforcements from the Viceroy of Potosi. Sharp, probably aware within a day or two of what was going on, ordered the sugar factory and the cane fields burned and retreated to Trinity.

Sharp put out to deep water again and announced his plan to return to Jamaica. A near riot broke out as men complained that they had “… not voyage enough”. They were of the opinion that Sharp was keeping booty from them, and some grumbled that he had taken theirs at dice. Sharp relented and set a course for the Chilean town of La Serena. Meanwhile, the men ate up all their stores and were back on quarter rations within a month.

When landfall was made the Spanish were again waiting for Sharp on the beach. This time Batt and his men landed and fought, besting the Spanish with their superior musketry. They secured La Serena and locked her populace in the eleven churches for which she was famous before plundering at will. The churches alone yielded enough silver and silk to make even the most discontented among them happy but when Sharp again attempted a ransom, the Spanish again put him off. Fed up, Sharp released his prisoners, set fire to the town and sailed away with as much as his men could carry.

Sharp put his foot down and set a course for home. The men, still incouragable, voted him out of office. His replacement, John Watling, grossly bungled an attempt to take the city of Santa Clara. The buccaneers retreated and, with Watling badly injured, put Sharp in charge once again. Sharp turned around and took two Spanish ships which were carrying a fair amount of silver. Even more impressive, one had aboard her a chart book which revealed the entire Pacific coast of South America. This Wagonner of the Great South Seas would be Sharp’s most impressive plunder, and would probably save his life.

Trinity got back to Jamaica in the late spring of 1682 and Sharp was promptly arrested for piracy. As Spain and England were not a war, his actions were not sanctioned by his government. Sent to Britain for trial, it is most probably that Sharp traded the prized Spanish charts for his life. He was pardoned by Charles II the following year.

Sharp was technically not supposed to return to the Caribbean but by 1685 he was back in Jamaican waters in command of a small French merchant. Speculation had it that he stole the vessel in England. He moved on to the Leewards and managed to get a commission to hunt pirates from the islands’ governor. He did pick up a pirate or two, but for the most part he plundered French and Spanish merchantmen. By 1686, he was once again on trial for piracy but, slippery as always, was acquitted in February of 1687.

What actually became of Sharp is debatable. There is some evidence that he took a commission as a British privateer in 1689 to raid the French. Some chroniclers say he took up privateering for the Dutch thereafter and eventually settled (or was hanged) on their island of St. Thomas.

Whatever his eventual fate, there is no question that Bartholomew Sharp helped, at least in small part, to shape the modern world. Even if purely by accident, he revealed one of the most closely held secrets of his time: the configuration of the vast Pacific coast of the New World.

Header: Stand and Deliver by N.C. Wyeth

Monday, June 6, 2011

Sea Monsters: Saw

Port St. Lucie, Florida, is a relatively small town on the Atlantic coast whose major preoccupations are golf, boating, fishing and Mets baseball (the town is home to their spring training camp). Incorporated in 1961, Port St. Lucie is hardly the kind of place that one would expect to run into a sea monster. But such expectations might need to change.

As this article from points out, June 1st was “river monster” day around the Ballantrae Country Club marina down in Port St. Lucie. It was there that a pair of friends spotted something big lying just off shore. Closer inspection showed the eighteen foot creature was a now rare sawfish. “It was like seeing a prehistoric sea monster,” one of them said.

Sawfish are, in fact, gentle giants who prey on small fish and bottom-feeding shellfish in warm, subtropical waters around the world including the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Though it looks something like a shark, the sawfish is technically a ray. They can grow to as large as 25 feet, though the 18 foot creature spotted at Port St. Lucie is more typical.

The saw from which the creature gets its name is positioned rather like a nose at the front of the head. There are usually twenty sets of sharp dermal denticles on each side of the protuberance which the animal uses to catch smaller fish. The sawfish slashes back and forth among schooling fish, impaling their prey on their snout, and then they dive to the bottom and rub their meal off their saw on a rock or coral bed.

While generally mild mannered, sawfish have been known to attack humans if repeatedly provoked. They were a favorite prey of buccaneers as not only was their flesh tasty, but their saw could be put to good use for such things as cutting bark from trees, meat from the bone, as fishing hooks or even as a scalpel for unfortunately rough surgical procedures.

As of 2003, the sawfish has a place on the Endangered Species List due to overhunting and loss of habitat. Little is known about these unusual creatures and research continues to improve our knowledge of another unique sea monster.

Header: Sawfish via Wikipedia

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: Puget Sound

June 4, 1792: Captain George Vancouver claims Puget Sound in the modern state of Washington for Great Britain, naming it after Lieutenant Peter Puget.

Header: Statue of George Vancouver in Vancouver, B.C.  (go Bruins, by the way)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Over

All English speakers know it ain’t over till it’s over. Be that as it may, there’s a lot to talk over aboard ship.

Most everyone is familiar with certain seafaring words that include over. Overboard is self-explanatory, as is overtake and overlap. The last at sea usually applies to shipbuilding, and how the hatches are fastened in relation to the decking planks.

Over is often used in relation to rigging. An overhand knot is used on same in some cases, with the end of the rope passed over the rope and then through the opening thus created. The opening, by the way, is known as a bite at sea. Over and under turns are references to the passing of earings, small ropes used to attaching the upper corners of sails to their yards.

A ship is said to over-press when she is carrying too much sail and to be over-rigged when she is weighed down with too much heavy gear. Similarly, a ship can be over-masted. In such case her masts are too tall in proportion to the body of the vessel. This will make her susceptible to over-setting, or turning off on her side in danger of capsizing. Such perilous occurrence is now referred to as upsetting which is, perhaps, an understatement.

A ship that is over-gunned has too much weight of metal aboard. Stowage of too many guns can be tricky as the running of the ship will certainly suffer, and she may have a tendency to hog. A ship is said to be over-boyed when the captain and most of his officers are comparatively young.

If one’s ship is opposite another it was said to be over-anent its partner. A ship might overbear another if she is carrying more sail in a following sea. To overshoot would be to give a ship too much way. On the other hand, in a chase one might overhaul the enemy, first catching up to her and demanding she heave to, then boarding to examine her as a possible prize.

Companies that first insured merchant vessels in the late 18th and early 19th century were also the first to apply over-insurance. Known as reinsurance today, this is essentially an insurance company taking out insurance from another company on the risk they insure. Wrap your head around that twice, because it happens more frequently than you might imagine. Thanks, Lloyd’s of London.

An overfall is the historical word for what we now call a riptide. The overloft is an Elizabethan term for the top deck of a ship. A vessel is said to be over-risen when she is too high out of the water, making her susceptible to foundering in heavy weather. This situation was for all intents and purposes permanently corrected by American shipbuilders after the Revolution.

An officer was said to be overslaughed (pronounced “overslagged”) when he was passed over for promotion. Finally, our far-reaching word overwhelm comes from the language of the sea as well. The “whelm” portion was originally wylm, and Anglo-Saxon word meaning wave. To be overwhelmed was to be scuttled by high waves breaking over a ship’s deck.

Header: Fishing Boats Leaving the Harbor by Claude Monet

Friday, June 3, 2011

Booty: Follow the Fleet

In conjunction with Memorial Day, May 25 through June 1 saw Fleet Week come to the Big Apple here in the U.S. Ships from the Navy and Coast Guard as well as men and women from those services and – of course – the Marines converged on New York. Events ranged from tours of ships to community outreach and just a little time ashore for the sailors. Fleet Weeks will continue all year in port cities throughout the U.S. with San Diego’s coming in September and San Francisco looking forward to theirs in October.

Of particular interest to Triple P is the recent Fleet Week in New Orleans, which corresponded with New York’s. Here the Navy announced their intention to open four years of world wide commemorations of the War of 1812’s bicentennial next April in my favorite city. You don’t imagine it will end with a bang round about, say, January 8, 2015 in the Big Easy too? Rain or shine, I plan to be there with bells (and probably piratical attire) on. More information can be found here at

To highlight Fleet Week, did a pictorial featuring archive photos from celebrations past (including one from New Orleans and the picture featured at the header). Though Slate has not always embraced the service over the last decade, as the child of many a sailor I’d like to commend them for this brief but lovely tribute. Click here to see the slide show, and happy Friday!

Header: Marilyn Monroe at Fleet Week in 1955 with sailor Arnold Lincoln

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Wind In Her Sails

Aboard a sailing ship, knowing the language of the sea is just as important as being able to get a task done smartly. Though much of this kind of nautical knowledge seems arcane to the average person, it still applies to varying degrees. Even the most lubberly among us is missing something if he doesn’t know a couple of points of sea-speak. As one example, I can’t count the number of times I’ve had people tell me they can’t tolerate the Aubrey/Maturin novels because O’Brian is too “technical”. What an awful lot of incomparable storytelling to miss out on simply for puzzling over the difference between luffing and running.

On that note, here are a few words and phrases that relate to how the wind affects a ship’s sails. Hopefully this will be old news for many of the Brethren and a nice point of reference for others. Like any “foreign” language, once you get the hang of the cant it makes a lot more sense than one originally imagined.

Aback: the wind is blowing against the forward part of the sails. When a sudden wind shift creates this perilous situation the wind is said to be “backing”.

Backing down: similar to backing but in no way as sudden. In this instance, the ship is forced into “stern way” which is literally backing up.

Back and fill: in tight channels or canals and with a strong wind, this maneuver is similar to tacking but in this case the sails are alternately going aback and then being brought around to full again to make headway.

On the wind: here a ship is sailing as close to the wind as possible without being taken aback. The older term for this is close-hauled.

Full-and-bye: all sails filled with wind, although the ship is nearly on the wind, and the vessel moving with speed.

Sailing free: the ship is near the wind, just between full-and-bye and beam reaching.

Beam reaching: sailing with the wind directly on the beam. There is also reaching, in which the wind is nearly, but not quite, on the beam.

Broad reaching: in this case, the wind is on the vessel’s quarter.

Running: the wind is blowing from the stern of the vessel. In running free, the wind is coming almost from astern.

By the lee: the ship is not becalmed, but the wind is coming from the same quarter as her boom lies.

Luffing: the sails are only partially filled with wind. To luff up is to catch the wind out of stays when tacking or turning.

In stays: the vessel is turning directly into the wind.

In irons: as in stays, but without way to allow the sails to catch the wind; a very dangerous position in a chase or in battle.

And that’s just a few of the better used language in regard to sails and wind. No need to study; I abhor tests.

Header: The Brig Mercury Attacked by Two Turkish Ships by Ivan Aivazovsky c 1892

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

History: Chesapeake vs. Shannon

With the War of 1812 already a year old, the U.S. Navy was doing well for itself. Far better, in fact, than the Royal Navy could ever have imagined. Up to May of 1813, the U.S. had taken four British warships in single combat, which was certainly four more than the superpowers of the world would have imagined them capable of. Add to that the devastation of the British merchant service in the Atlantic and one might almost feel that Captain James Lawrence was rightfully smug as he prepared his new command to leave Boston Harbor. The Captain would have done well to remember that pride goeth before a fall.

Lawrence had taken command of the three-masted frigate of war USS Chesapeake in May and now, on June 1, 1813 he was preparing to run the British blockade of Boston and get her out into the open ocean. The beautiful ship was well armed with 48 guns and well crewed with 340 men aboard her. Everyone in Chesapeake’s compliment was ready to meet the British head-on. So much so in fact that as they caught the breeze out of the harbor they raised a flag which bore the American slogan for the War of 1812: Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights.

Lawrence was sailing with a handicap, however. Not only was Chesapeake new to him but she was new to almost every man aboard her, the majority of whom were new recruits. On top of this, her officers, aside from Lawrence, were unusually green and had not had time to work their men – particularly their gun crews – as any fighting officer would have wanted to. Though it must have seemed like a lucky meet to Lawrence, who had little respect for British warships, to immediately happen upon HMS Shannon just out of Boston that sunny afternoon was in fact a horrible omen.

Both ships were over 1,000 tons, with Shannon being the slightly lighter. Shannon carried a considerable number of guns with over 90 cannon on her gun deck and 8 swivels on her quarterdeck. Most formidably, however, she was manned by a crew of 280 veterans. Her captain, Philip Bowes Vere Broke, was a fighting commander of the first order who worked his gun crews almost ruthlessly until their speed and accuracy could hardly be bested.

Broke offered a challenge to Lawrence at 4:00 PM and Shannon took in sail well off shore to allow Chesapeake to approach. Lawrence heaved his ship to with her larboard faced Shannon’s starboard. At a little before 6:00 PM, both ships opened fire. Casualties were mutual but Chesapeake’s were almost immediately devastating; all her officers were wounded or killed within ten minutes. Lawrence was hit by sniper fire and, taken below; his final order was the now famous phrase “Do not give up the ship.” He died in Chesapeake’s sick berth.

Shortly after Lawrence’s death, Chesapeake veered into Shannon’s bow. Broke, not one to miss an opportunity, ordered an immediate boarding. By 6:15 the U.S. flag had been taken down and Chesapeake was prize to the British.

Casualties were high on both sides with Shannon suffering 30 killed and 55 wounded. Chesapeake, however, saw almost 50 dead and nearly 100 wounded. The U.S. ship was taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia and her men paroled from there. The loss, with its shocking swiftness and carnage, was a huge blow to American morale particularly at sea. It would be another year before the U.S. Navy fully recovered.

Header: Chesapeake vs. Shannon, colored lithograph by L. Haghe c 1830