Monday, February 28, 2011

Ships: The Faithful Snow

Certain ships during the great age of sail tended to lend themselves to only one specific task: the man-of-war, the bomb ketch, the coal barge. Their names even tell you what they are up to. But today’s ship, the origin of whose name is anyone’s guess, could just about do it all. The snow worked hard in the merchant service for more than four hundred years beginning in the 16th century with the last of her kind retiring in 1909. But her talents were such that she found herself working for more than one master.

By the 18th century the general type of the snow had been perfected. She was a two-masted brig-type ship, usually of no more than 1,000 tons. Her hold was not remarkably large but, if her cargo was stowed correctly, she could carry a lot of merchandise and deliver it quickly. Merchants also favored her for her economy; she could be manned by a very sparse crew of as few as 35 hands. Her speed and ease of handling was due in large part to her slim lines, relatively shallow draft (about 10 feet) and the unusual set of her masts and sails.

The snow carried square rigging on both of her masts with a trysail on her main. Originally this last was loose-footed but around 1800 the trysail was routinely fitted with a boom at the bottom, allowing for a larger sail and more speed. Another unique feature of the snow was the bracings of her mainmast. These were led forward and made fast to her foremast rather than backward as in most brigs. Finally, and perhaps most unique of all, the snow had a smaller third mast which became known as a “snow mast”.

This mast, also called a trysail mast, can be seen in the picture at the header. It rose only to the maintop and was blocked and bolted there. The trysail would be the only sail carried by this “mini-mast”. In some cases, particularly later in the snow’s history, the snow mast would be replaced by a jackstay on the mainmast. This was often the case when the snow found herself in the service of the navy.

This ship was popular with the French Navy, coming into service during the Revolution and continuing through the Napoleonic Wars. The Royal Navy made good use of the snow, as did the U.S. Navy, but she was especially loved by the French on both sides of the Atlantic who called her a corvette. This is a good place to note that the snow’s speed also made her a favorite of pirates and privateers. In the Gulf of Mexico during the early 19th century she would often be rerigged to resemble a hermaphrodite brig. The Laffite brothers’ ships Dos Hermanos and Dorada as well as Renato Beluche’s La Popa and Dominique Youx’s Tigre were probably all originally merchant snows.

As with most sailing vessels, rebuilt snows – or corvettes – can be found to this day. They handle remarkably well and are a joy to sail. If you ever get the chance to take a cruise on one, don’t hesitate. You’ll find it a delightful experience.

Header: Thane of Fife, a snow in Royal Navy service c 1810

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: Huzzah for Lord Nelson!

February 20, 1797: Horatio Nelson, the son of a clergyman, is Knighted and promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue in the Royal Navy.

Header: Horatio Lord Nelson by William Beechey

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Butt

Butt at sea does indeed refer to the part a sailor sits on but that terminology in the English language may very well have come from the usages we are about discuss and not the other way around.

By and large a butt is the terminal end of something. The most usual reference being a plank of wood. The Sailor’s Word Book describes butt as “the joining of two timbers or planks endways.” In other words the planks butt up against one another and are in no way overlapped. This is common carpentry in shipbuilding with the pressure of the ship’s planking holding the ends tight against one another to form seams which would then be caulked. In very large ships, men-of-war and the like, these butt ends are bolted to one another as their separation could potentially create a gushing leak which would in turn be difficult to repair. The instance of two planks coming apart in such a manner is known as springing or springing a butt from whence the more familiar landsman’s phrase “springing a leak”.

Butt-and-butt is the name for the kind of joinery that causes two butt ends to meet but not overlap. The opposite type is said to hook a butt, meaning overlap, and is sometimes called hook-scarph. Interestingly, the butt end of a plank in the language of ship’s carpentry is the same as its butt head.

A butt might also refer to the terminus of a firearm. The butt of a blunderbuss or musket is the part tucked against the musketeer’s shoulder when firing. There are also butt-shafts in archery. These are arrows, known in Medieval times as butt-bolts, which have a heavy tip but no barb and were used by peasants exclusively for target practice – “shooting a butt” – or to stun small game such as rabbits. Anyone familiar with the story of Robin Hood will recall that part of his initial trouble with the Sheriff of Nottingham was being discovered with hind barbs (for killing deer) rather than butt-bolts. These weapons marked him as a poacher of the King’s elk.

Buttock is also a familiar term at sea and, since ships are generally thought of as female, it should surprise no one that the word often refers to the back end of a vessel. A fine buttock shows well as she sails away, and does not drag her down. A lumpy or wide buttock is a sad failure of the dockyard and the ship’s carpenter will labor tirelessly to correct such a problem. No one likes a lumpy buttock, after all.

Though it has nothing to do with the end, terminus, or behind of anything, I’ll include this interesting and very old English sailor’s term. To make buttons is a saying that probably originated on or before Elizabeth I’s seadogs and refers to a person being suddenly anxious. It may be an early way of describing what modern psychology would call a “panic attack”. The phrase has nothing to do with butts, but it’s curious all the same.

And there I shall end, and get up off my butt to fetch a mug of grog. Join me, Brethren?

Header: Ship’s planking via

Friday, February 25, 2011

Booty: Clicquot and Yo Ho Ho!

Triple P’s good and true mates over at Under The Black Flag recently posted the 1950s vintage ad above and I felt honor bound to share it with the rest of the Brethren. If you’re at all like me, you remember “playing pirate” at some point during your childhood too. We were never as fancy as these young buccaneers – Mom was a nurse and would never have tolerated makeshift cutlasses much less slingshots – and of course it was a few decades later than the ‘50s but you know what I mean. The interesting thing about this ad, beside the piratical bent of course, is the company that produced it.

Clicquot Club Company, or Beverages, had no affiliation with the Veuve-Clicquot Champagne consortium and was an entirely American business. Founded in 1881 by Henry Millis in the town of Millis, Massachusetts, Clicquot was originally a sparkling cider company. In 1885 a town sprang up around the manufacturing plant – Millis, which eventually became Millis-Clicquot and is now just Millis again. About that time Clicquot changed its focus from bottled cider to ginger ale. Henry Millis insisted on only the best ingredients, importing ginger from Jamaica and sugar from Cuba and, because of this attention to detail, Clicquot became the premiere manufacturer in the new “soft drink” industry.

It goes without saying that others were working on the same idea and by the end of the 19th century bottlers like Coca-Cola were outstripping Clicquot in sales. It didn’t help that Millis clung tenaciously to his “only the best ingredients” policy. He finally threw up his hands and quietly sold the company in 1901. The new owners stuck with the name but mounted an aggressive advertising campaign that rivaled Coke’s. By the 1920s they even had a radio show featuring a musical group called The Clicquot Club Eskimos. In 1938, Clicquot became the first soft drink to be sold in cans and by the ‘50s their ginger ale was sold all over the U.S. and Canada, in the Caribbean, the Philippines and throughout South America.

Coke never left the scene, of course, but its new competitor Pepsi edged Clicquot out in sales by the late ‘50s. Colt Beverages bought Clicquot and was in turn purchased by Canada Dry who closed all the Clicquot plants, including the immense factory in Millis which at one time had its own train station. An era in soft drink history ended in 1965.

Clicquot bottles and cans are quite collectible as you might imagine and websites devoted to them can be found. This
one is particularly informative. And then there’s this guy, who for a resident of Alaska is kind of interesting.
I'll go out on a limb and say we will surely see young pirates in ads in the future, but the Eskimo Boy is probably a thing of the past.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

People: Monsieur le Filibustier

The stories surrounding today’s buccaneer are as colorful as any that might be told about, or by, a sea rover. He was a gentleman of Paris until creditors forced him into piracy for money. He had a winning way with the ladies and left the Spanish Senoras of towns he sacked in love with him. He retired to a chateau along the Seine a wealthy and much sought after adventurer. He wrote about his experiences and left his journal for the entire world to witness.

The list could fill a page or two but the truth of the matter is no one knows any of it for sure. Raveneau de Lussan surely could have done all those things for he handily documented all in the thrice-published tome The Filibusters of the South Sea which first appeared in 1689. But we’re not sure he wrote that book, or that his name was actually Raveneau de Lussan, or where he came from. The sparse information we do have, however, makes the entire story even more tantalizing.

Much like many of the great pirates and privateers, de Lussan appears in a hotbed of freebooters, seemingly out of nowhere. He turns up as an indentured servant in Sante Domingue in 1679. How old he was at the time is unknown but one can assume he was relatively young as his master was evidently a grower of sugar cane and a sadist to boot. Much like the real Francois L’Olonnais and the fictional Captain Blood, de Lussan and his fellows suffered mightily at the hands of their master. Some hints indicated that the man may have himself been a boucanier from the old days and therefore quite possibly a runaway indentured servant himself. Whatever the actual circumstance, de Lussan turned to that sure-fire occupation for indentures denied their promised piece of land: piracy.

It seems that de Lussan was a well educated and even refined man. His prose in Filibusters rivals that of Exquemelin, who was a trained doctor. Though there is no real “story arc” per ce the entire experience of being a buccaneer and attacking prey by land and at sea is documented, probably with a good deal of accuracy. Much like Exquemelin and Pere Labat, de Lussan leaves nothing out. He even goes so far as to quote letters left behind by the enemy he most distrusted: the Spanish. Here is part of one:

… advance within the shot of your arquebusses, let not your men fire but by twenties, to the end your firing may not be in vain. And when you find them weakened, raise a shout to frighten them, and fall in with your swords…

This snippet says a lot about Spanish fire power – or lack thereof – in the face of the buccaneers. Fearing rebellion, the Spanish governments would not allow even their soldiers in the New World the more technologically advanced muskets so favored by the French. The Spanish were forced in these cases to advance within twenty paces of the threatening ladrones while the French, expert shots, picked them off.

At sea de Lussan notes similar tactics. He indicates that captains would order those deadly muskets fired at will, killing officers and cutting rigging more capably than cannon. He notes in one case that “Using our fusils, we made so great a fire upon them that they were forced to close their port holes and bear up to the wind.”

De Lussan is also in no way shy about the buccaneers’ use of torture. He consistently refers to “persuasion” of any kind as le chevalet – the “little horse” – meaning the rack. There is very little discrimination as to who will be put on the little horse, with a few noted exceptions. De Lussan is clear that he would never allow a woman, child or member of the clergy to be tortured or even threatened if he could help it at all. He goes out of his way to note that at every city sacked from the Panama Coast to Guayaquil in Peru he, at the very least, would take the time to hear Mass in the local church before even thinking of plunder.

And really, it is the ladies upon whom de Lussan most dwells. While he repeats vehemently his distrust of all the Spanish time and again, he seems rather taken by their elite Donas. He is personally mortified when, while escorting a young and particularly lovely noblewoman to safe haven in a church, she begins to weep uncontrollably. He enquired more than once as to her obvious apprehension until she finally blurted: “Oh please Senor; do not you eat me!” To his dismay he would later learn that the Spanish told their children stories of monkey-like buccaneers descending from the dark forests to cannibalize the unsuspecting – and one assumes naughty – young person.

The finest story involving the fairer sex in de Lussan’s catalogue involves the young widow of the Spanish Treasurer at the city of Guayaquil. De Lussan took part in sacking the city in 1684 and does not seem ashamed to say he was involved in a good deal of the carnage there. He stops short of saying he himself killed the widow’s husband but tells us that he went to pay a call upon the Treasurer’s house all unaware that he had been a married man. He found the widow “… dissolved in tears and most disheveled” and excused himself immediately “… with all gallantry”. The widow evidently thought quite a bit of de Lussan, calling him back to her house the next day and virtually throwing herself at him. She promised her husband’s position and all his wealth if de Lussan would elope with her into the woods and hide there until his mates had gone. She even went so far as to remove her dainty shoes and silk stockings, baring her feet to the buccaneer as proof of her love.

Raveneau de Lussan, for all his courtly gestures, could not be tempted and returned to his ship to sail back to Tortuga. Five years later his book was available in France but what had become of the dandy filibuster is still a mystery. The book was republished in 1690 and again in 1695 with revisions but whether or not those were done by Monsieur de Lussan is up for debate. Like so many other free booters, Raveneau de Lussan simply disappeared leaving more than most but very little to hold on to nonetheless. But a good story is always worth while, and a good pirate story is so much more.

Header: Engraving of a French musketeer c 1685

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

History: The Unseen Tenant

Venereal disease has probably been with human beings since the dawn of time. It is known that monkeys and apes can be troubled by forms of the disease. In fact it has been postulated that a form of syphilis has been infecting New World monkeys for centuries. Its not surprising then that the big two – syphilis and gonorrhea – were, as Dean King so aptly puts it in A Sea of Words, “… almost an occupational hazard for sailors” and particularly so on any prize-taking vessel.

The old “sailors in port with money to spend” story is very close to the truth. The more tied to each voyage that money to spend was the greater the truth. In other words, buccaneers, pirates and privateers were particularly prone to hitting the streets of any given port and drinking, gambling and wenching until the gold was gone. While drinking would hurt you, and gambling would empty your pockets that much faster, wenching could actually kill you.

Prostitution was ubiquitous to port towns, from bawdy London whose stews have been spoken of here before to the less famous ports of the West and East Indies, sex was for sale, just name your price. James Yonge wrote of it in his journal of seafaring experiences published in the early 18th century. He speaks of small bawdy houses in Tortuga and Barbados and of going to “mount Whoredom” in Lisbon, Portugal:

… a street up a hill and when you go through it they call Englishmen and pull up their coats in the door of the street.

They, of course, being the ladies within. Yonge, who was a surgeon, goes on to note that 35 percent of his fellows came back to their ship “clapt”. As witnessed in both nautical fact and fiction, things were largely the same in naval vessels of the era where prize-taking was its own incentive.

The problem was the “clap” in question. Both men and women would develop sores with syphilis, making it fairly obvious to even the most raw of doctors what was going on. Gonorrhea, rather frighteningly, rarely manifested itself until things had gone horribly wrong. Professional ladies treated symptoms with homemade ointments, some containing alarming ingredients like deadly nightshade and earth from a new grave, and douched with alum or sulphate of zinc. Generally speaking, the sailor had access to (slightly) better care.

The accepted treatment for both diseases was heavy metals in general and mercury in particular. The use of the metal in oral purges like calomel was long standing by the time Yonge wrote of his mates’ distress. The other options were ointments made with mercurial chloride applied to the sores several times a day. The idea was that all that purging, via vomit, urination and defecation, would eliminate the contagion from the sufferer’s body. A physician knew he was on the right track when the patient complained of a metallic taste in his mouth and began to salivate uncontrollably.

For gonorrhea, men would be given urethral injections of mercury based irrigations. As noted above, women did not show much in the way of symptoms so it would not be until pelvic inflammatory disease either made them sterile or killed them that anyone would know about their infection. This, of course, made it possible for one woman to infect a number of men and the old tales of killer ladies come rushing to mind.

Did these treatments help the sailor and/or his lady overcome the unfortunate aftermath of love? Though most historians, even those with a medical background, will admit that they probably alleviated symptoms and therefore, at least in the case of syphilis, prevented transmission to some degree, the clear answer is no. Until the introduction of penicillin in the 1940s there really was no cure for venereal disease.

In the modern age, of course, there are plenty of STDs that cannot be cured but only contained. In our long walk to modernity, it seems, we have come back around to where we were. But it may be that one of our old foes is trying to keep up with us – even to become a little like us – to make their stay as our unwelcome tenant more agreeable for them and troublesome for us. Read this article about a study on gonorrhea from Northwestern University that notes the little bacteria has managed to pick up some human DNA. If that doesn’t make you use the available precautions your ancestors didn’t have easy access to, nothing will.

Header: Officer and Prostitute at Backgammon from

Monday, February 21, 2011

Tools Of The Trade: Eat Hearty

"You see those weevils, Stephen?” said Jack solemnly.

“I do.”

“Which would you choose?”

“There is not a scrap of difference. Arcades ambo. They are the same species of curculio, and there is nothing to choose between them.”

“But suppose you had to choose.”

“Then I should choose the right-hand weevil; it has a perceptible advantage in both length and breadth.”

“There I have you,” cried Jack. “You are bit – you are completely dished. Don’t you know that in the Navy you must always choose the lesser of two weevils? Oh ha, ha, ha!”

~ Patrick O’Brian, The Fortune of War book 6 in the Aubrey/Maturin series

Of course weevilly hard tack, or ship’s biscuit, is part and parcel of the mythology of the Great Age of Sail. My mother has been known to quip something about extra protein but the problem was the weevils were pervasive and grew to be enormous beetles. O’Brian has one of these popping up in a soup at Jack’s table during an important dinner, much to the Captain’s chagrin.
The stuff was essential on any long voyage as it would keep quite literally for years, weevils not withstanding. It was an important element in ship’s cooking as well, being used as a thickener in both sweet and savory dishes. The usual recipe for lobscouse, for instance, calls for about three cups of ship’s biscuit ground into crumbs. Hard tack was also found in Dogsbody, Brews and Dunderfunk just to name a few. It was easy to make in bulk and the ingredients were almost embarrassingly cheap. Then there was the fact that it was a good source of fiber in an otherwise largely carnivorous diet. No wonder it turned up at just about every meal a sailor of any persuasion – merchant or pirate, Navy or privateer – would sit down to at sea.

Here then is an authentic recipe for ship’s biscuit from Britain’s Chamber’s Encyclopedia of 1882, virtually unchanged from the 18th century. For those of you who crave the authentic, it might be worth giving it a try. By land, though, I’ll stick to soft tack and butter; might as well get it while you can.

Sea biscuit, or common ship’s bread, is made from wheaten flour (retaining some of the bran), water and common salt. The materials are kneaded together, either by manual labor – that is, by the hands and feet of the workmen – or by introducing the materials into a long trough or box, with a central shaft to which a series of knives are attched, and made to revolve rapidly by machinery.

The mass of dough so obtained is then kneaded and thinned out into a sheet the proper thickness of the bread, by being passed and repassed between heavy rollers. The sheet is placed below a roller with knife-edged shapes, is readily cut into hexagonal or round shapes: the cuts are not complete but are indentations, and the slab remains in one piece. These slabs are placed in an oven for about 15 minutes and are then placed in a warm room for 2 to 3 days to dry thoroughly. The more modern ovens are fitted for continuous baking, the bread being drawn through in sheets on endless chains. These ovens have a capacity of 2,000 pound of bread a day.

Header: Study from Master and Commander by Munin of Munin’s Sketch Blog

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: Daring Decatur

February 16, 1804: In perhaps the most daring raid in U.S. Navy history, a force led by Stephen Decatur burns the USS Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor. The ship had been taken as prize by Barbary pirates the previous autumn.

Header: Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli by Edward Moran c 1897

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Haul

The word haul, as the Sailor’s Word Book notes, is “an expression peculiar to seamen”. In general shipboard parlance it means to pull on a rope which is not attached to block and tackle. The order to “haul” can be used in numerous ways depending on the situation.

Most orders using the word haul apply to a ship’s sails. One may haul aft a sheet, in which case a sail is trimmed more toward the wind. Haul aboard the fore and main tacks: trim the sails mentioned down and forward on the weather side. Haul of all: brace around all the yards at once. This last is a tricky maneuver used on a sudden change in wind as in dirty weather and sometimes in tacking. In a large ship it is a significant event and requires a seasoned, capable crew.

Haul can also refer to the wind and the ship and her sails in relation to it. A ship hauls her wind by trimming the yards and sails so that she may sail nearer to said wind. In such cases the ship and sails are turned to that her head is closer to the wind. To haul in is to sail close to the wind so that the ship can approach another ship or other object. To haul off is the opposite; sailing closer to the wind to get away from something. Haul round is mentioned when the wind is shifting, or it may be an order to skirt or go around a particular danger such as a rock, iceberg, etc. Hauls aft indicates the wind direction changing to stern while hauls forward means the wind changed to the fore.

Of course, as is usual with any seagoing term, sailors use haul in some fairly creative ways. Hauling sharp indicates the crew is sailing on a half allowance of food. A sailor who walks away from a fight or other problem is said to be hauling his wind. Hauling down vacancy is a reference to an admiral leaving a ship – and in the action hauling down his flag – usually leading to the promotion of a flag-lieutenant and thus leaving a post vacant. The very old term haul-bowlings was used for an able seaman in Drake’s England. At the same time a hawser, a middle grade large rope, might be called a haulser and halliards, the ropes and tackles used for hauling sails on their yards, would be known as haulyards.

Haul away then, Brethren, and a happy Saturday to the entire crew!

Header: USS Constellation by Antoine Roux c 1805

Friday, February 18, 2011

Booty: Ladies And Sailors

During the Belle Époque it became quite the rage in wealthy and “decadent” circles for ladies to dress as men. As witnessed by one of the first female photojournalists in America, Frances Johnston, in the photo above, it could indeed be quite titillating in a time when the lower half of a woman’s body was usually covered with layer upon layer of fabric. Ms. Johnston even drew on a nice moustache.

Of course bicyclists were not the only subject of the cross dressing craze and the occasional lady sailor will pop up while I’m off searching for pictures to decorate Triple P. Women cross dressing in order to go to sea has a long history, so this really should come as no surprise. In fact, those old tales may have been at least some of the inspiration for the craze. So today, short and sweet, a gentleman and “his” lady out on a fishing trip find they’ve caught each other instead of any potential meal. Happy Friday, Brethren. See you tomorrow for Sailor Mouth Saturday.
Header: Frances Johnston photographic self-portrait c 1890 via GoMeansGo and Portrait of two women in a boat c 1892 via Photoseeum

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lady Pirates: Colonel Tangier's Lady

It may surprise some people to know that almost as soon as the coastal areas of New England were developed by European settlers (and certainly prior to that by the Native people) whales were big business and even bigger business for smugglers. By as early as 1650 enterprising men, and some even more enterprising women, were involved in what they knew as a “whaling design”. Essentially they negotiated with the local Montauk, who regularly harvested whale carcasses from local beaches, for a share of the spoils. The Europeans would be given the blubber to boil down for salable oil in return for assistance with butchering the enormous beasts. This went on for about fifty years with one Reverend James Southampton being among the most prominent “designers”.

By the early 1660s, others had gotten in on the action and the market was so good that actual whaling expeditions needed to be mounted. Again the Natives, both men and women, were recruited to put out to sea in cedar boats provided by their European employers. They were also given iron harpoons and their skill brought in even more valuable whale oil. To such a degree in fact that the heads of these new whaling conglomerates decided they were tired of paying English taxes on their goods before they were shipped back to England (direct trade with any Continental country being banned) and they took to the equally ancient art of smuggling.

Enter Colonel William Smith, who would become known locally – and perhaps derisively – as Tangier. Smith seems to have been an adventurer who fought Barbary pirates at one point (thus his nickname) and told tales of being made English Governor in Tangiers despite the fact that he had probably been no more than a prisoner of war in Barbary. He came to New York on the coat tails of another soldier, Thomas Dongan, who was made Governor of the colony in 1682. Dongan granted Smith extensive land which Tangier parlayed into a massive estate stretching from the current site of JFK International Airport to Little Neck Bay. He called his holding St. George’s Manor and, to top off his good fortune, he married a local woman who was already involved in a “whaling design”.

Martha Tunstall was probably a native of New York. The year of her birth and circumstances of her youth are lost to us, but some interesting facts have survived. Her family name is one of those listed in a complaint made by the afore mentioned Reverend James about the poaching, not of whales, but of “ye Indians” who were hunting those whales. Evidently the Tunstall family, or one or more of its members, was working on a “whaling design” of their own.

It has also come down to us that, by the time Martha married Smith some time prior to 1679, she was a well known and sought after “wise woman” in the greater New York area. Some of her recipes, written in a journal marked “Receipts”, have come down to us. They cover diverse ailments from simple blood blisters (apply the fat of a lamb and wrap in gauze) to more troublesome pains like broken bones, deafness and this concoction to bring down a fever:

Dry and pulverize ye lungs and liver of a frog. Mix ye powder in rum and drink it down. If fever does not subside repeat a second & third time.

Martha may have been a midwife as well as she notes the names of mothers and children with dates and times in her book of “receipts”. She herself was giving birth to children almost immediately after her marriage to Tangier but this did not stop her work on her “whaling design” or her estate. Smith’s vast holdings allowed him to live like a virtual Lord and it seems that his wife (and possibly her family) no longer had to recruit Natives from other whalers. Since their estate had, at least in part, been purchased from local tribes there were plenty of “ye Indians” available to go about the mistress’ business. The oil was boiled down, barreled and shipped via smuggling craft to the West Indies where it was traded not only for coin but for rum, cocoa, sugar and tropical fruit.

The bottom fell out of the Smith’s boat, so to say, when Governor Dongan was replaced by Sir Edmund Andros. The new Governor moved his capitol to Boston and put New York colony under the charge of Lieutenant Governor Nicholson. He was an extremely unpopular leader, imposing further taxes and harsh penalties for non-payment on the working class. In 1689, when James II was ousted by his daughter and son-in-law back in England, local New Yorkers also staged a coup. They appointed Captain James Leiser of Fort James as their leader and marched out against the holders of large estates, like Colonel Tangier and his lady.

Nicholson turned to these landowners for help and some of them responded. The result was a lot of burning and ransacking. Smith had the good sense to stay out of it, sending word to the Lieutenant Governor that he could not help in any way. Nicholson finally threw up his hands and returned to England. Uprisings of one sort or another continued until the new Governor, the aptly named Henry Sloughter, arrived and put things in order with brutal efficiency. Leiser and many of his associates were summarily hanged.

Meanwhile the landowners had suffered losses in revenue and property but Martha Tunstall Smith seems to have kept her family afloat without much trouble. By now her sons – how many there were we do not know – were old enough to help in her “whaling design” and smuggling business. Despite the death of Colonel Smith some time in late 1691 or early 1692, Martha continued to record profits in the vicinity of 300 pounds per year as late as 1707.

This is the last year we have word of Martha and her operation, interestingly in the form of a notation in a tax collector’s ledger which lists her having paid “… Nathan Simon, ye sume of fifteen pounds, fifteen shillings for act of Madam Martha Smith, it being ye 20th part of all…” What became of Martha, her business and her boys is a question for further research but what we know of Martha Tunstall Smith and her hard headed Yankee work ethic is remarkable and inspiring, at least to me.

Header: An Unknown Lady of New York c 1690 attributed to G. Duykinck

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tools Of The Trade: Getting The Point

The compass is a device that has been in use for hundreds of years. It most probably made its debut at sea, although there is some ongoing debate about that, and has always been a somewhat suspicious item aboard ship. Sailors of old found the mystery of its magnetism akin to magick; they liked their compass stowed neatly in a brass binnacle not just to keep it safe from the elements but to keep them safe from it.

A compass works on the relatively simple principle of the magnetism of Earth’s poles. That may be where “simple” ends as far as a compass, however, at least when one hears it spoken of. Today, let us look at some of the terminology surrounding the compass as it is used for navigation at sea.

The card is the familiar surface of the compass on which the points and degrees are marked as exampled above in the beautifully preserved compass card by Samuel Thaxter and Co. circa 1792. In the center the needle, usually in that familiar arrow shape would rest on the pin. The card itself is free spinning and the needle magnetized to constantly point toward magnetic North.

The points are the 32 divisions on the card. Each one is a standard eleven and one half degrees apart. The degrees, then, are the 360 divisions on a modern compass card. They start at 000 degrees at the North. South is 180 degrees with East being 090 and West 270. A full rotation of 360 degrees brings you back to North.

The cardinal points on a compass are North, South, East and West. The intercardinal points are Northeast, Southeast, Northwest and Southwest. Sometimes these are referred to as the half-cardinal points.

Since the accuracy of a compass varies depending on a number of factors – particularly at sea – variations and deviations have to be taken into account and then corrected for.

Variation is the angle of difference between true and magnetic direction in degrees East or West. Deviation are similarly expressed East or West but are the angle of difference caused by metal objects in the ship itself. The sum, in algebraic terms, of variation and deviation is known as compass error.

The process of determining deviations as they relate to the ship’s course, which needs to be done with some regularity, is known as swinging the compass. A log book, known as a deviation card, is kept to list deviations as determined in this manner.

Once variation and deviation have been taken into account, it’s time for correcting or uncorrecting as the case may be. Correcting is the process of converting the magnetic direction indicated by the compass to the true direction needed to stay on course. Accomplish this by subtracting westerly errors and adding errors to the east.

Uncorrecting, obviously, works the opposite way. In this case one is correcting to magnetic direction from true direction. There is a humorous mnemonic device for this: Timid Virgins Make Dull Company, Add Whiskey (as Jack explained to Stephen on one particular Seafaring Sunday). In this case the westerly errors are added to the true direction to determine magnetic direction.

All of the above, which are relatively simple to the seasoned navigator, seem mind boggling (and perhaps migraine-inducing) to the landsman or new seaman. It is absolutely no wonder that a long apprenticeship was necessary before one could be trusted at the wheel to take correct action in any kind of tense situation. “Come about,” sounds simple, but “Come about two points north-northwest and see to deviation” would take years of practice to accomplish quickly.

Of course now a ship has every kind of imaginable gadget to take care of these issues for it. But some of us are still fond of our magickal, mysterious compass.

Header: As noted above; available for purchase from

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

History: More Evolutionary Seafaring

About a year ago I wrote about an amazing, seafaring find on the Greek island of Crete. In that post I discussed the possibility of people in some form of seafaring craft landing on the island as long as 130,000 years ago. At the time, this seemed almost miraculous. The anthropologist in me fairly sang. You see, she wanted to say; our ancestors weren’t knuckle dragging grub eaters. They made tools and boats and sailed away to parts unknown, a feat as brave as any in history. I shouldn’t have gotten so excited.

Not until now that is. According to this Associated Press
article, an archaeological team made up of professionals from the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and the Greek Culture Ministry has found tools, including axes, which appear to be between 130,000 and 700,000 years old. The tools were found on the southern side of the island in cave overhangs and rock shelters near the village of Plakias.

Putting the numbers into perspective, accepted anthropological thought states that humans, most probably in the form of Homo Erectus, walked out of Africa across existing land bridges to the Middle East. From there they split off, some heading for Asia, others for Europe. While this migration certainly began to take place before the earliest possible date of the tools found on Crete, even the most debated theories of sea travel don’t start their postulation for people afloat in their own craft prior to 60,000 years ago. However, since Crete has been an island for roughly five million years, it looks like a few perceptions might need to change.

Judging from the dating of the tools, the archaeologists speculate that the very early mariners on Crete were either Homo Erectus or possibly Heidelberg Man, an artist’s rendering of whom is shown at the header. Both early human groups were good with tools but, until actual human fossils are found, it’s all speculation. What isn’t speculation is that tools from a much earlier date than anyone thought possible have been found on an island that was at least forty miles from any shore at that time. Unless our hominid ancestors merrily flew around with jet packs strapped to their probably hairy backs, that’s pretty good evidence for sailors.

According to the article, the combined archaeological team has applied to the Greek authorities for permission to excavate in the areas where the tools were found. They hope to have a positive response later this year. With luck, perhaps we’ll know more – maybe even a lot more – by this time next year. For now it seems safe to say that humans are natural explores and that where ever they have met water, someone spoke up and said: “I know, let’s build a boat and see what’s on the other side.” Or something to that effect.

Header: Heidelberg Man via

Monday, February 14, 2011

People: Carolina's Son

How little most Americans know about our second war for independence, the War of 1812, never ceases to amaze me. Despite that, it was with very little surprise that I found I knew nothing of today’s privateer until very recently. Though he was vastly successful at sea, taking upwards of 4 million American dollars in British prizes between 1812 and 1814, this daring sailor is only a regional hero in this day and age. If you don’t come from Swansboro, Burnsville or Beaufort in North Carolina, you probably don’t know him at all.

Otway Burns was born in the soon-to-be State of North Carolina in 1775. Little is known of his childhood in the port town of Swansboro but it is a certainty that he went to sea young, probably aboard merchant vessels. Like so many other pirates and privateers before him, Burns had a knack for sailing and he spent most of his youth at sea. He did stay by land long enough to marry his cousin, Joanna Grant, in July of 1809. The marriage was contentious from the start – Joanna required a prenuptial agreement – and produced only one child, a son named Owen. Disagreements would eventually lead to the couple splitting up, with Joanna taking Owen to live with her family and Otway gaining custody of his son only after Joanna’s death and a protracted legal case.

The lack of conjugal bliss aside, Burns was lucky at sea. Already wealthy enough to own his own ship by 1812, Burns and his partner Edward Pasteur decided to apply for an American letter of marque when war broke out with Britain. The two men went looking for a fast topsail schooner and found her in New York City. The Zephyr was a 147 ton, two masted vessel laid down in 1808 and perfectly suited to privateering. The men purchased her for $8,000, renamed her Snap Dragon (she would be known to her crew as “The Snap”) and Pasteur sailed her to New Bern, North Carolina to fit her out for their first cruise.

Once she was ready, carrying eight guns and a crew of around 100 men, Snap Dragon left port in October to begin hunting British merchantmen. Pasteur is listed as captain on this cruise, but according to more than one account Burns would take command in an engagement or other dangerous situation. One biographer describes him as “…impetuous, recklessly brave, always right in his instinct for action over the more timid counsel of other officers, and uncannily able to see through the ruses used by the British in an effort to decoy the ship into a trap.” Just everything a privateer needs in a captain.

Examples of Burns’ reckless bravery abound. His crew was largely literate and many of them left memoirs of their time aboard The Snap. There are recollections of Burns staying up all night in dirty weather to see his ship through “…for she wanted watching by such a man as he was…”. Repeated chases by British frigates and men-of-war were evaded with Burns at the helm, largely due to both excellent handling of Snap Dragon and her innate ability for speed. In one particularly impressive instance, a daring escape from the Spanish port of Santa Marta, Columbia, created the need to leave men ashore behind. Burns solved the problem of their incarceration – and potential hanging as pirates despite Spain’s neutrality – by capturing a Spanish military transport and returning to port with her as prize then threatening to hang every man aboard if his men were not safely returned. The Spanish flinched, the Snap Dragons were returned to their ship and Burns sailed away without a scratch.

Burns did not brook any resistance from his crew, either. When his marine sergeant and a few other men refused to return to Snap Dragon after liberty on New Providence in the Bahamas, sending word that they had “… not got their frolic out”, Burns flew into a rage. He took up a sword and went ashore, marching to the ale house where the men were partying by himself. The sergeant rose to defy him and Burns killed him on the spot before turning on the others and cutting each of them up sufficiently that no further argument was forthcoming. Those still alive returned to their ship immediately.

Snap Dragon sailed through three U.S. commissions, with Burns officially her captain for the last two. She covered the Atlantic coast from Venezuela to Newfoundland and brought in prize after prize, including British warships. On the final cruise, The Snap met a British man-of-war off the Orinoco River in Venezuela. Hours of fighting tore Snap Dragon up, dismasting her at the fore and breaking her bowsprit. She managed to evade her unnamed foe but it was only through a fortuitous meeting with another U.S. privateer, the Saratoga, that she limped back to Beaufort.

Burns days at sea were done after that. He was suffering from rheumatism and, though he continued as owner of The Snap, he did not take her out again. She was captured by HMS Martin off Halifax in June of 1814. Burns, now a widower, turned his attention to business and family. He built a house on Front Street in Beaufort, out of which he ran a taproom. He married again, twenty year old Jane Hall, and was set in his new home and marriage by January of 1815.

Otway Burns later life was one of industry and politics. He became a devoted follower of Andrew Jackson and joined his Democratic party, serving in the North Carolina legislature for eleven terms. In 1835 he suffered defeat over reform of the state constitution (Burns championed allowing education for slaves as well as the right to assemble for free blacks and slaves) and, in an example of bad luck and bad timing, lost his fortune to speculation. He was appointed to the post of keeper of the Brant Island Shoal Lightboat but this position brought contention as well, with Burns griping about the size and capabilities of his vessel. He was brought up on charges of withholding wages from the lightboat’s crew, but was cleared in 1843.

Jane Hall Burns died childless in 1839 and though Burns would marry and outlive a third wife, Jane Smith, Owen would be his only child. Otway Burns died in October of 1850, leaving nothing of his previous fortune behind, and was buried next to his second wife in Beaufort. Statues of the great privateer now stand in Swansboro and Burnsville, the town named after him. And there his memory lives on, which would probably be more than enough for a sailor like Burns.

Header: Otway Burns and Snap Dragon via Burns Financial

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: Defined

Ought to be a day of rest at sea as well as on shore, when religious services might generally be performed. Though called the negro's holiday, it often brings but little cessation from work in some merchantmen; they sail on a Sunday, not because of exigency, but because it is otherwise a leisure day, and thereby gained to the owners.

~ From The Sailor's Word Book of 1867: Entry under "Sunday"

Header: Fishing Boats Entering Port by JMW Turner c 1803

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Ordinary

All English speakers have a clear understanding of what “ordinary” means: average, typical, generic. At sea, as usual, things are a little different.

Webster tells us that the word comes from the Latin ordinarius whose root word is ordo meaning an order, through the Middle English word ordinarie. Webster also notes, as number nine out of twelve meanings, “… out of commission: applied to ships of war.”

This is the most common use of the word when applied to ships, both in navies and in more loosely ordered groups such as privateers, pirates and merchant vessels. A ship is said to be “in ordinary” when she is at anchor with all sails reefed and tied. Sometimes, her spars and even her masts are knocked down indicating that she may be in ordinary a very long time. In such cases the unfortunate ship is perhaps being prepared to be rebuilt as a “hulk”, a floating house used for training, as a headquarters or – most unfortunate of all – as a prison.

Historically, in both the Royal and the U.S. Navy, an “ordinary” was one of many men who looked after ships in ordinary at any given dockyard or port. Most ships, at least those that would sail again at some point, had crew aboard but those that did not were taken care of by these ordinaries. The men in question should not, however, be confused with ordinary seamen.

Ordinary seaman is a rating in most navies from at least the 18th century. It indicates a man who is capable of performing most types of work aboard, including going aloft and taking a place in the tops. He is not yet a “complete” sailor, however, as he still has a thing or two to master.

That complete sailor would be an able seaman. Termed an A.B. in most muster roles, he is described as follows in the Sailor’s Word Book:

He must be equal to all the duties required of a seaman in a ship – not only as regards the saying to “hand, reef, and steer,” but also to strop a block, splice, knot, turn in rigging, raise a mouse on the main-stay, and be an example to the ordinary seamen and landsmen.

Of course the landsman is the idler who gawps about, good for very little besides applying holy stones and prayer books to the deck in the morning and certainly too incapable to be trusted even halfway into the rigging.

Any of these three ratings may also be a supernumerary. That is, a man over the established complement of a ship. These men would be entered into the muster book separately for purposes of victuals and pay.

And that, dear Brethren, is enough for another Saturday. May your evening be far from ordinary.

Header: The whaler Charles W. Morga in ordinary via NYT

Friday, February 11, 2011

Booty: Nancy Dawson

Music has always been an important part of the sailing experience. In the 17th, 18th and well into the 19th centuries, men and women brought their own music aboard ship. As noted in the side bar, freebooters prized their musicians as bringers of joy, celebration and relief of stress. Naval ships of all nations also kept musicians aboard, although informally. The songs they played and sang often reflected the plight of the seaman, over-worked, under-paid, far from home. But just as often the songs were about the fairer sex who was missed as much at sea as home cooking. One of these was a now famous air named after an actual woman.

Nancy Dawson was an actress and singer in London in the mid-1700s. That’s her at the header in a contemporary lithograph from around 1760. She made a name for herself with her strong, lovely voice but, as with so many of her sisters on stage, she became famous for her free and easy way with the gentlemen. Find more details on Miss Dawson here at The Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide to the 18th Century.

The eponymous song was a particular favorite with sailors and may even have originated dockside along the Thames. It is most often played on the fiddle and by 1800 there was a dance to accompany it known as “The Faithless Nancy Dawson”. The tune has not lost its beauty or charm over the last two hundred plus years by any means. It has been included in more than one movie soundtrack, most recently the “Traditional Medley” from Master and Commander (find that here on YouTube), so it is still familiar to many.

For those who know it and those who don’t, and as a special Friday treat, Triple P offers a piece of our seafaring heritage in song: Isham Monday delivers an enchanting rendition of “Nancy Dawson”. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Books: The Short List

It flatters me somewhat to have had more than one request to have a list of nautical books I would recommend posted here at Triple P. Being of the writing persuasion myself, I’d hope that someone in my shoes would recommend my book (when it comes out that is) and I’m heartened to know that someone wants my opinion on such a very dear subject.

In the interest of simplicity, here’s the short list in three categories. A brief explanation of the book’s inclusion on the list accompanies the title (hopefully I can keep it brief; I want very much to sing about some of these).


These are books I use for research for my novels and for my fact-based writing including Triple P:

The Searover’s Practice, The Buccaneers Realm, The Pirate Hunters, all three by Benerson Little and published by Potomac Books. Little is not only an accomplished writer and researcher but a former Navy Seal as well. His insight into pirating is superb although his descriptions of much of the technical end of sailing and weaponry could be a little hard to follow without some background knowledge of both. While the first two books are personal favorites the last one was a bit disappointing for me. Any book about pirate hunting that 1) calls the Laffite brothers and their associates sorry excuses for freebooters, writing them off in one paragraph and 2) does not even bother to mention David Porter and his Mosquito Fleet is missing the boat. Pun intended.

The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf by William C. Davis published by Harcourt. I’ve said it before: this is far and away the best book ever published on the Laffite brothers. If there is a fault here it’s Davis’ overt “pro Pierre” stance by which he almost turns Jean into a knuckle-dragging thug good only for keeping the riff raff in line, but that may be a symptom of how very little attention history has given Pierre. Well written, exhaustively researched and a must for anyone interested in the Baratarians.

Under A Black Flag by David Cordingly published by Harcourt Brace. Cordingly’s book is the final word on Golden Age piracy, easily separating fact from fiction. The only drawback here is the author’s clear contempt for the rogues he’s writing about.

The History of Pirates by Angus Konstam published by The Lyons Press. There’s a lot of information here so the individual profiles of pirates are necessarily short but Konstam is an excellent writer and knowledgeable historian and his book is a great jumping off point for further research. As an added bonus, it is full of wonderful illustrations.

She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea by Joan Druett published by Touchstone. Druett is a sailor of the first order and her book is crammed with interesting historical tidbits about women at sea, from pirates to lighthouse keepers to prostitutes.

Jack Aubrey Commands: An Historical Companion to the Naval World of Patrick O’Brian by Brian Lavery published by Naval Institute Press. This is the definitive book on the Royal Navy of the Napoleonic wars and it is written without the unnecessary use of “sailor speak”. The illustrations are also gorgeous.

Empire of Blue Water by Stephan Talty published by Crown. The book that changed my mind about Henry Morgan, Talty’s biography is part history, part imagination and all swashbuckling good time. Excellent reading for any fan of adventure, history, buccaneers and/or the sea.


The Matty Graves novels by Broos Campbell published by McBooks Press. Written in the spirit of Marryat, Forester and O’Brian, but translated to America. Campbell’s novels follow the adventures of their narrator, Lieutenant Matthew Graves, USN, beginning around 1802. These are stay-up-all-night novels with strong characters, gripping action and accurate detail.

Anything by Frederick Marryat, C.S. Forester and in particular Patrick O’Brian. Marryat is, of course, the original. He entered the Royal Navy in 1806 under then Captain Thomas Cochrane and wrote of his adventures in a number of novels with great names like Mr. Midshipman Easy and Peter Simple. Forester created Horatio Hornblower and followed his exploits through 11 books. O’Brian, it goes without saying, wrote the Aubrey/Maturin novels and, in my humble opinion, nothing has matched them since.

The Pirates Own Book by Charles Ellms published by The Marine Research Society and online via Guttenberg. Rip roaring, old time pirate action full of spice and bloodshed. A book to lose yourself in.

For Kids and Parents:

What If You Met a Pirate? written and illustrated by Jan Adkins and published by Roaring Book Press. I love this book for the illustrations alone but the history is accurate, easy to understand and great for preschoolers as well as younger readers. The sketch of the guy on the head always makes me chuckle.

Eyewitness Pirate from Dorling Kindersley. As with all the Eyewitness books, great illustrations, good information and an easy to use format. My daughters have used this and other Eyewitness books for reports and papers more than once to great success.

Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stephenson available from various publishers. Seriously, if you and your children haven’t read this one it’s time for a trip to the bookstore. Like now.

Looking back on this list it is obvious to me that it is lacking, but that’s enough for now. Remember, real books with pages are not without benefit. Libraries and local bookstores and shelves in homes with real books in them lead to a life long love of reading and a memory of history. Those are two things the whole World could use, I reckon.

Header: Illustration by Howard Pyle for his Book of Pirates c 1896

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

History: Rebel Raiders

While piracy is alive and well on planet Earth even as we speak, the privateer has gone by the wayside to such a degree that a lot of people don’t know he ever existed. The idea of a government condoning sea raiding, which in any other situation would indeed be piracy, is alien to the general populace. I personally find that curious considering that the last great moment of privateering was the Civil War. For Americans, who seem overwrought with that war to the point of obsession, you would think that memory would serve a bit better.

Confederate privateering had some interesting quirks, however, which are very much worth considering. If privateering ever does return to vogue, this last gasp of greatness may have some effect on how it’s done.

Essentially, the Civil War proper began with the April 12, 1861 bombardment of Fort Sumter. Lincoln declared not war but a need to put down rebellion and promptly raised troops. He also goosed Gideon Welles, then Secretary of the Navy, into action to begin blockades against the largest Confederate ports. The problem for the Confederates was their complete lack of a navy. Enter the privateer.

On April 17 Jefferson Davis put out the call for not only troops but the issuance of letters of marque. One of Commodore Welles’ early concerns, aside from the number of his ships that were laid up in ordinary (almost half, leaving him with only 40 warships at the beginning of hostility), was the surprisingly high number of ship owners that answered the Confederate call. He went to Lincoln with this concern and the President turned to Europe. In 1856 the Declaration of Paris had outlawed privateering. The U.S. was asked if they wanted to join the Declaration as a signatory but then President Franklin Pierce declined. Lincoln tried to have the U.S. added to the Declaration in order to make the Confederate privateers pirates in European eyes but Europe would have none of it. With the war now official, none of the European powers wanted to take sides. They would wait and see and, although they would not libel Confederate prizes in their ports, they would turn a blind eye to their activities.

The embarrassment of riches that came in the form of an initial rush to take the Confederate States up on their offer of commissions made it possible for Davis to be picky. The Confederate Constitution used the language of its parent country’s own Constitution regarding privateering and letters of marque and reprisal, but Davis’ government added some stringent requirements on top of that. Only a ship’s owner would be granted a commission. In other times, for instance during the South American wars for independence in the early 19th century, an individual representing other ship’s captains might be handed a stack of commissions with the names of ships, owners and captains left blank. A good example of this was the Cartagenan commissions held by Laffite privateers out of Barataria. These letters of marque were most often collected by Renato Beluche, given to Jean Laffite and then the bos of Barataria would dole them out as he saw fit. The Confederate States were not going to put up with that kind of shenanigans, which could – and in the Laffites’ case did – lead to speculation for profit. They also required steep deposits from ship owners which would also deter that kind of thing.

The Confederate privateers were a daring bunch, regardless of your sympathies one way or another. They ran the Union blockades on an almost daily basis sometimes with a prize or prizes in tow. They caused a large number of Union merchant ships to change their registries from the U.S. to Britain or France, taking at least some of their trade away from the Union and out to the Caribbean or South America. Then too, the raiders’ unparalleled success in the Cape Hatteras area led the Union to its first substantial victory of the war, taking two forts off Hatteras Inlet in an effort to stop the privateers’ harassment of New England shipping.

Perhaps the most interesting point about Confederate commissions, and what set them far apart from any that had come before, was that they specifically provided for the capture or destruction of Union navy vessels. Since no cargo would be eligible for libel in such cases, which incidentally never happened, specific monetary values were assigned to vessels of war based on their size, their number of guns and their crew. These would be paid to the privateer by the government. The only privately owned ship that came close to effecting this provision was CSS Manassas, an armored ship out of New Orleans which engaged Union ships at the Battle of the Southwest Pass where she disable USS Richmond. Unfortunately that was only after she had been official commandeered by the Confederate States. Her owner, Captain John Stevenson, was not paid out as per his original letter of marque.

The individual privateers, particularly the schooner Savannah whose capture resulted in a famous court case that may have affected the outcome of the Civil War, at least in part, are worth discussing in future posts. I’d like to give them their proper due, after all. Suffice it to say that the last days of privateering surrounded the American Civil War, and an interesting chapter in history was made a little bit more swashbuckling because of that largely forgotten fact.

Header: Manassas at the Battle of the Southwest Pass

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tools Of The Trade: Feeling Ill

In crossing Saginaw Bay there was a good deal of motion, which I withstood most manfully for some time, but all in vain, being obliged, as I always am where there is the least motion in a vessel, to render up all my delicacies without reserve.

Thus wrote G. W. Featherstonhaugh of his experience aboard Marengo on Lake Huron in 1835. He goes on to note such seasickness cures as he was advised to try by fellow passengers (whiskey with water, sucking uncooked salt fish) and crew (chewing tobacco), none of which he tried. Mr. Featherstonhaugh’s situation is one that is all too familiar to a large portion of the population, including pirates and privateers, who had their own set of ideas about how to avoid this most uncomfortable seagoing illness.

The buccaneers of old believed that tying a kerchief tightly around the head, so that it put marked pressure on the forehead, would alleviate seasickness. Though this sounds as useless as sucking fish on the face of it, there may actually be some efficacy to the idea. The discomfort in the stomach is actually caused by a conflict between the inner ear, that solid home of our stability, and the eyes. Particularly below decks, the eyes see firm, seemingly unmoving surroundings, while the inner ear feels the motion that so upset Mr. Featherstonhaugh. Because your brain can’t reconcile this discrepancy it makes you sick to your stomach as a defense. Thanks, evolution. A constant distraction from this conflict, such as pressure on the head, may actually draw the brain’s attention away from the motion that’s bugging it and toward the other discomfort. Just a theory.

Some more time tested cures are as follows:

Do not concentrate, if at all possible, on your illness. Try to stay busy.
Don’t stay busy with small work like reading, writing, etc. That will make it worse.
Get up on deck and focus on the horizon. This allows your eyes to see the motion your ears are feeling.
Stay near the center of the ship where motion is minimized.
Avoid others who are seasick if possible. It’s almost contagious.
If you must lie down, do so on deck if you can and lie on your back.
Avoid caffeine, alcohol, strong odors, people smoking and the galley.
Keep your gastronomic experience simple; hardtack was famously the meal of the seasick. Today, saltines are a nice substitute.
Stay hydrated with plenty of water. In the Great Age of Sail, the seasick had first dibs on ale and ginger beer because the bubbles helped the stomach.

Because long sea voyages are virtually a thing of the past for the average person, most are unaware that seasickness usually wears off. After 24 to 48 hours, most people are fine and can handle the rest of a cruise as if they were on land. There are a few exceptions, of course. O’Brian fans will recall that Mr. Stanhope died of seasickness in HMS Surprise and I recall a “Deadliest Catch” episode where a cameraman had to be airlifted to Anchorage after becoming dangerously dehydrated due to seasickness. Some people really should steer clear of the sea all together. Just remember, as those clever buccaneers used to say while tying on their do-rags, seasickness belongs to the brain more than the stomach.

Header: Making Harbor by William Bradford c 1862

Monday, February 7, 2011

History: Ghost Stories

Late one night in October, 1864, a Confederate blockade runner slipped by some Union gunboats at the entrance to Galveston Bay in Texas and made it safely to port with its cargo of food and other necessities.

Louis Billings, the master of the sailing vessel, was getting ready to weigh anchor when he was startled by a shriek from one of the crew.

“A strange, old-fashioned schooner with a big black flag was rushing down at us,” Billings said later. “She was a fire with a sort of weird, pale-blue light that lighted up every nook and cranny of her.

“The crew was pulling at the ropes and doing other work, and they paid us no attention, didn’t even glance our way. They all had ghastly bleeding wounds, but their faces and eyes were those of dead men.

“The man who had shrieked had fallen to his knees, his teeth chattering as he gasped out a prayer. Overcoming my own terror, that was chilling the very marrow of my bones, I rushed forward, shouting to the others as I ran. Suddenly the schooner vanished before my eyes.”

Some say that it was the ghost of Jean Lafitte’s pirate ship
that sank off Galveston Island in 1821 or 1822. She was seen again in 1892 in the same waters with the same crew.

~ From Scary Stories Treasury, Three Books to Chill Your Bones, collected from folklore and retold by Alvin Schwartz and published by HarperCollins 1981

Of course Pride, which may or may not have existed, did not sink off Galveston and the fate of Jean Laffite was commemorated in yesterday’s post. All that said, what a lovely, spine-tingling tale this one is, and it persists in the Galveston area to this day.

Header: Ghost Ship by NooA at

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: Laffite Remembered

February 5, 1823: Jean Laffite dies aboard his ship General Santander after being struck in a firefight with an unknown vessel or vessels and lingering, possibly for as long as a day. He was burried at sea in the Gulf of Honduras.

Header: Sketch allegedly of Jean Laffite by a man named Lacassinier who claimed to have worked for the Laffites at Galveston in 1819

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: False

Sailing under false colors, that old trick of running up a “friendly flag” to draw a prize in closer and then demanding surrender under threat of fire just as they’ve reached the height of their comfort level, is a tactic we’ve spoken about before here at Triple P. Though pirates and even privateers did this with impunity, international maritime laws stated – as early as the 16th century – that an aggressor must hoist her own colors before engaging in any belligerence. I can almost see Jean Laffite giving a Creole shrug and saying: “Pardon, Messieurs. We forgot, you understand.”

Be that as it may, there are quite a number of uses for the word false at sea as witnessed by its frequent use in shipbuilding and refitting alone. There are false keels which are added to the main keel to protect it should the ship strike ground. False rails, planks of wood fitted to the head rails or gunnels to strengthen them. False stems, sometimes known as cutwaters, which are fitted to the stem with the tail covering the fore end or front of the keel. False sterns and false stern posts are also sometimes fitted to ships, particularly large yachts such as King George III’s Queen Charlotte. The false stern gives more length to the existing stern, improving the appearance of the vessel. The false stern post is added to improve steerage, a virtual necessity on a ship that is grandiosely ornamented so as to become top-heavy aft. This was also frequently added to the impossibly detailed Spanish treasure galleons of the 17th century that were invariably named Nuestra Senora de fill-in-the-blank.

Aside from false colors there is also the false attack, a feigned assault on one ship or group of ships that will cause a diversion so that the actual target might be caught off guard. Pirates approaching one of those treasure galleons are a good example as they would frequently bait her escort so as to separate the very slow sailing and hard to maneuver Nuestra Senora de … and claim her as prize.

Either as a signal to friend or as a deception to enemy false fire, also known as blue flame, was frequently employed from the late 18th century on. This was a combination of combustible agents packed into a wooden tube. The whole was lighted causing a blue flame to burn for several minutes. This must have looked eerie on the black water at night and may have been the origin of at least some of the “ghost ship” stories still told today.

Of course false papers, in the form of faked letters of marque or other commissions, could be carried by any ship that chose to take that risk. Discovery of these attempts at legitimacy would surely lead to trial – and possibly hanging – for piracy. Likewise in the navies of more than one country false muster was not unheard of. In this case a man – or in particular a boy – would be entered into a ship’s muster books so that he may accrue “book time” at sea. While safe at home the boy would appear to be accumulating valuable experience at sea, making him eligible earlier for a Lieutenancy and the opportunities that would come thereafter. A captain caught in this fraud could be prosecuted and struck from the list, a dire fate for anyone with an ambition to hirer rank.

And there we have it for today, falsehoods black, white and gray. Hey, that rhymed. Maybe all the pondering of Poe yesterday has inspired me to poetry. But probably not. Happy Saturday, Brethren!

Header: Lithograph of a Spanish treasure galleon of the 17th century

Friday, February 4, 2011

Booty: Coincidence... Or Something

As anyone who follows a creative path (which is to say, everyone) knows, inspiration can strike anywhere. Like lightening, it is indiscriminate and seems to delight in taking us by surprise. For me, three things are sure fire inspiration: all things nautical, the Baratarians of old Louisiana, and Edgar A. Poe.

Though on the face of it this may appear an odd mash up, it’s actually not. Of course the Baratarians were a great bunch of sailing men but Poe spent at least a little time at sea (as a boy he travelled to and from Britain). He also liked to tell people that he had been a sailor in his youth. As one of my mentors once confided to me: good writers are liars.

All those issues and more are probably the reason that I was so taken by this
article sent to me by the First Mate. It’s from none other than the good folks at who have an unparalleled way of making history hilarious. The article discusses historical coincidences that most of us are unaware of and it starts off with an interesting factoid about Poe and his single novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

The novel, which yes I have read along with every other thing Poe ever wrote if it’s still available for reading, is an all-over-the-map story about young Pym who stows away aboard the Nantucket whaler Grampus. Everything imaginable occurs to our hero, from hostile natives to shipwreck, mutiny, Hollow Earth adventures at the pole and gruesome cannibalism. None of this is probably surprising given that it comes from a man who imagined a guy hacking his wife to death with an ax and then walling her up in the cellar (damn that cat!), but what is interesting is not the eating of humans, but who got eaten.

In Poe’s tale the survivors of the wreck of Grampus draw lots to see who will end up as their only hope for survival. The loser is a cabin boy “… of no more than seventeen” named Richard Parker. The kid is devoured and the men survive but, of course, Pym is dogged by guilt over this necessary evil.

Fast forward to 1884. History notes that a crew of four men aboard the pleasure yacht Mignonette sailed from Southampton, England to Sydney, Australia to deliver her to her owner. The yacht, which was evidently poorly built, foundered in a light gale and the four crewmen managed to escape in a leaky dinghy. Hundreds of miles from shore, and without any water at all, the men suffer for 25 days before at least one of their number begins to drink seawater and slowly succumbs to the effects. The others decided that eating one of their number was the only way to keep themselves alive and they discussed drawing lots but, as the 17-year-old cabin boy Richard Parker slipped into a coma, they decided he was their only hope.

The crew of Mignonette, just like Poe’s fictional whalers, killed Richard Parker and ate him. Five days after this desperate attempt at self-preservation, the three remaining men were rescued by a German merchant.

It’s a grim tale, of course, and a curious coincidence. Something to ponder as you go about your Friday routine. Pop over to Cracked to read the rest of the surreal offerings in the article. Find more on the Mignonette affair
here and read the novel by Poe here. Finally, for all things factual about Poe I highly recommend the best source on the web, my particular friend Undine’s blog. Enjoy!

Update: I completely neglected to mention that this is Triple P's 500th post, y'all. I am just rubbish at shameless self-promotion.

Header: Contemporary daguerreotype of Edgar A. Poe

Thursday, February 3, 2011

History: Rebels Down Under

In the spring of 1865 Confederate States Ship Shenandoah, a frigate of war in service to her “country” in the Pacific, pulled into the harbor of Williamstown, Victoria in South Western Australia. The sight of the ship itself was enough to cause a stir but when it was discovered that she was a Confederate warship looking to dock for repairs, tongues really began to wag. Technically, Britain, whose colony Australia was, was neutral with regard to the American Civil War which meant that a Confederate ship docking for repairs – and nothing else including provisions or men – was acceptable. But there were many local Confederate sympathizers, particularly in the nearby township of Ballarat, who saw this as a chance to aid a ship full of freedom fighters even if that meant stepping outside the technicalities of international law.

Shenandoah was in the Pacific for one reason only, to sink, burn or take as prize any Union whaling ship she came across. Much like David Porter’s Essex, on the same mission against the British during the War of 1812, she was remarkably successful. According to contemporary pundits it was Shenandoah, Captained by James Waddell, that had single handedly seen to it that whale oil cost three times as much at the end of the war as it had at its beginning. The pundits were probably right given that Waddell and his crew captured upwards of 40 ships and took over 1,000 men prisoner. One point of honor later in life, for Waddell and his officer, was that none of the prisoners were ever killed or harmed. Records show that all were paroled back to New England prior to Shenandoah’s surrender.

The ship stayed in Williamstown port for 24 days, getting not only the repairs she needed but supplies and 42 hands from among local sailors and adventure seekers. The ship became an attraction, with people coming from outlying towns and farms to see her at dockside. The crew was treated to special prices at local saloons and dance halls which extended beyond a glass or two of whiskey. The officers were feted as well; in particular an extravagant dinner was held in their honor at the Melbourne Club and those Confederate sympathizers at Ballarat threw a fancy dress ball for them as well.

Seemingly a lone voice in the crowd, the U.S. Ambassador to Melbourne fumed and ranted, calling Shenandoah a freebooter and her crew pirates. The Embassy even formally threatening the British with a demand for reparations for violating the neutrality agreement (the U.S. was in fact paid 1.5 million dollars in reparations by Britain after the war for just such violations).

Pirates or no Union outrage didn’t stop the party, but Shenandoah sailing away did. Things got back to normal in the port of Williamstown. It was probably well after Shenandoah finally surrendered at Liverpool, England in November – making Waddell the last Confederate commander to do so – that anyone heard more of her. Even later still, though, a few of the men that sailed off illegally to adventure on the high seas began to return home. One of these was William Kenyon, a supernumerary, who later became a publican at Port Melbourne and was buried in that city’s cemetery.

A short exhibit focusing on Shenandoah's Australian visit put together by the Williamstown Maritime Association and entitled “The Rebels Down Under” starts today at Seaworks at Williamstown. Local historians will be on had as well as Sam Craghead from the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia where Shenandoah’s flag, ship’s logs and articles as well as journals and drawings made by the crew are on display. The exhibit runs only through Sunday and includes artifacts, models and talks and discussion groups this weekend. More information can be found at and

Being of both southern descent and mixed race, I have a lot of personal conflict around the Civil War. That said, a sailor is a sailor whether navy man or pirate, and an angry sea will never discriminate. Plus, an interesting tidbit of maritime history is always worth looking into, don’t you think?

Header: Destruction of Whale Ships by CSS Shenandoah by B. Russell

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ships: From Barbary To The Arctic

As long as men have committed robbery on the high seas, the war on piracy has been an inspiration to improve weapons and ways to use them. What we know today as the bomb ketch or bomb vessel, which saw its heyday in the 18th and early 19th centuries, is no exception.

The bomb ketch was designed at a French dockyard in the last quarter of the 17th century as a solution to the problem of battling Barbary corsairs in their own ports. Built specifically to hold and fire large mortars, the bomb ketch made it possible for naval ships to sit at anchor outside a large mole or wall and bombard the city or port beyond.

The vessel was essentially built on the lines of a three-masted ketch, a vessel slightly smaller than the standard frigate. The bomb ketch would be built or refit specifically without a foremast and her main mast would be stepped back toward her mizzen. This would allow a large foredeck with room for mortars and cannon. The ketch usually carried two mortars in her center, stepped down into areas of the ship reinforced with heavy timber. By the mid-18th century the entire vessel was exceptionally sturdy, with large beam bridges throughout to support the recoil of the mortars.

Because of the lack of foremast, the ship had to carry a long bowsprit to which standing rigging for the mainmast could be attached. The bowsprit would also carry large headsails and jibs to try and balance the square sails on her main and mizzen. Unfortunately, however, the bomb ketch was never much of a sailor with a probable top speed of only five to seven knots. She averaged around 270 tons, 205 feet in length, 28 feet at the beam and about a 14 inch draft. Despite her size she bristled with guns: one 13 inch and one 10 inch mortar plus eight 24 pound cannon was a reasonable compliment although some ketches carried more. She usually shipped about 70 hands.

The mortars themselves were large in caliber with remarkably short barrels. They fired an explosive-filled shell whose detonation was determined by the length of its fuse. Precise estimations had to be accomplished to ensure that the shell would in fact blow up where it landed rather than in the air, near the ketch or – most horrible of all – within its own mortar. The expertise needed to handle the mortars on a bomb ketch narrowed the number of men capable of working them. By the early 19th century, these mortars were worked in both the Royal Navy and the American Navy by specifically trained Marine Artillery units. Until the decline of mortars, though, when they were replaced by the more indulgent monitor, the true geniuses of their handling were the French on both sides of the Atlantic.

Because of the new technology, bomb ketches faded from use by the mid-19th century, at least as far as mortar bombardments were concerned. The ships found a new occupation in exploration, however. Because of their heavy construction they were perfectly suited to the icy conditions at both poles. Unlike other ships, they could plow through all but the thickest pack ice and winter over in frozen conditions that would have crushed better sailors as if they were made of toothpicks.

Reproductions of ketch and bomb ketch-type vessels are still being built today. An example is the lovely Royaliste sailing in San Francisco Bay, and flying the jolie rouge, in the picture at the header (via Now that looks a lot more enjoyable than a deafening bombardment or a winter at the Antarctic, if you ask me.