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


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I'm not sure why this is so hard to believe... I'm a modern lubber and I get it. Sound carries better over water than on land and it's not like there would be any engines or other mechanical noise to drown out the conversation. Plus, it's not like these guys were on a tight schedule and had to get to their destination on time or anything... Am I not correct in saying that?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy and yes, I think every point you make is accurate. The only exception with regard to time issues might be a navy packet delivering orders or the like. In such a case, she would probably stop for nothing so the point is moot.