Of Ships and Shapes

In previous posts, we’ve been looking at possible designs for Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR), at how Disney’s fanciful design probably didn’t work, and had a discussion how ships were measured in the Golden Age of Pirates.

Something else came out of looking at Disney’s QAR – a question about freeboard.

Here’s a cool test: throw a baseball bat into your bathtub. Oh, uh, fill the tub with water first. See how, even though the bat is made out of wood, she sits low in the water like a submarine. You could blow wind at that thing all day long and have no effect on how it moves in the water. Go ahead and try it. We’ll wait… Now, splash some waves around her. They wash right over – there is no dry place to stand.

Now take an empty shoebox and drop it into the tub so that it floats like a boat. Give her a blow, and off she goes, skittering across the water like a dry leaf. The slightest breeze tells the shoebox where to go. Give her some waves – even big ones, and she stays dry as a pirate’s bones.

Was you a sea cap’n in Blackbeard’s day, the ship you’d be looking for would have properties of both the shoebox and the bat. You’d want her to sit low in the water, where wind and wave would have no effect. But you’d want to sit high above the water, too, so that you could fit cargo, crew, and guns up where it’s dry.

The shapes of ships in the sailing days, then, were just that mix: cut the baseball bat in half width-wise, and you get a nice, semi-circular cylinder. Cut the shoebox in half height-wise, and you get a nice, dry box that sits upon the seas. Now, scale them so that they are the same width and length, and connect one to the other, and there, you have a nice, dry hull that has good seakeeping capabilities.

 

The challenge lay in the mix between the above-water box and the below-water bat: too low and she wallowed like a pig in mud, but too high and the wind pushed her sideways. It’s a problem of too much freeboard – the sides of the ship actually act like a sail, making it extremely difficult to steer on a windy day. Worse, too much freeboard can be deadly, as the Swedish found out with the Vasa in 1628 – the richest, most powerful warship in the world in her day. The Vasa took a sudden random breeze against her high, high sides, and over she went, upside down and sinking in just ten minutes with all hands.

That brings us back to Disney’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, and that enormous, enormous stern castle. It makes for great film making inside, with that cool window and all that headroom. But it would make for dreadful and dangerous sailing. Her stern would sit low in the water, pushing her bow up like a motor boat. And any wind other than dead over the stern would push sideways against that beautiful stern castle, making her sail sideways. Worst of all, she has a very shallow draft, the baseball bat part of the hull, which means she’d roll like a beach ball.

In our search for the true Queen Anne’s Revenge, we have to remember that Concord, the original ship, must have been a well-designed merchant ship, drafted with a steady and wise hand.

The search continues!

 

Of Tons and Guns

Sometimes you goof things up. You give the dog the cat’s food – he loves that! You unthinkingly dip your cracker into the jar of pasta sauce, assuming it’s the Nutella.

I goofed up. In my novel Marigold’s End, a Phineas Caswell Adventure, I refer to the Kathryn B, really the star of the book, as about a hundred feet long.

By today’s standards, that’s how we think. It’s because ships and boats are so specialized, and so standardized, that their length is the most logical way to categorize them. I have a friend that owns a 35 foot sailboat. A modern destroyer is about 550 long.

In the Golden Age of Pirates, between about 1680 and 1730, the luxury of such standardized descriptions just wasn’t available.  In those days, the times of the pirates of the Caribbean, a ship had to be a jack of all trades.

A good example is Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge (I’m dying to get actual dimensions on her and have therefore been researching her quite a bit). She began life in 1710 as English merchant ship, was captured by the French and converted into a slave ship, and then was taken by Blackbeard and made into a pirate ship.

First and foremost, ships of this time were built as merchant ships.  If you had a hundred tons of molasses to ship to Jamaica, you wouldn’t care how long a ship was, you’d care about how many tons she could hold.

Here’s a funny thing: when you think of a ton, you think about 2000 pounds. In ships, a ton is a measurement of cubic footage, not weight. You look at the available space into which you can cram cargo, run some math on it, and boom, there’s your tonnage.

Queen Anne’s Revenge, therefore, was considered a ship of about 200 tons. Not her weight, of course, but the amount of cargo she could carry. The Kathryn B, being a little 100-foot long brig, could probably manage 150.

In the Golden Age of Pirates, most countries could not afford the expense of building and maintaining fleets of warships. Instead, they relied on merchant ships, commandeering them and mounting extra guns in time of war.

Later, in the Golden Age of Sail (all these Golden Ages makes you think there should be some Little Golden Books about them), in the second half of the 18th Century, warships became specialized, and were identified by their guns. For example, Lord Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, the Victory, was a first-rate, 100 gun ship of the line. Captain Jack Aubrey’s first frigate, the Surprise, was a fifth-rate, 28 gun ship. Captain Isaac Hull’s Old Ironsides, the American ship U.S.S. Constitution, is rated as a 44 gun frigate.

Although the specific length of each type of ship wasn’t an identifying feature, it made sense that a 100-gun ship would be longer than a 28-gun ship. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th Century that a ship’s external dimensions gained importance.

So, you go swap out the dog’s food and put away the pasta sauce, and I’ll seriously figure out the gross tonnage of the little Kathryn B and the actual size of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Hey, how’d you get the easy job?

Davy Jones is Mad About his Locker

You’ve seen Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Pirates abound, of course, and sea monsters, and that poor devil with a squiddy face. I wonder if he likes sushi…

And there’s the Queen Anne’s Revenge, as pictured above. Ah, the QAR, with that enormous cathedral-style window in the transom, and those soaring balconies. Let’s not even talk about the skeleton figurehead, and all those carvings. Someone must have taken years to carve all that awesome stuff.

Remember, Queen Anne’s Revenge is the name Blackbeard gave to the French slaver La Concorde, after he captured her. National Geographic argues that he took her specifically because she was a slaver, and her crew was depleted by disease, and only half her gunports had cannons behind them. How he could have known all this in advance of meeting her…

While she looks menacing and theatrical and creepy, I often wonder who did all that work on her? This would have been around 1718, so the only power tools available were those that you powered yourself. Perhaps those are all real skeletons, wired together and mounted out on the forepeak. That’s really creepy, and would take an immense amount of medical work and craftsmanship to get them to stay together, but it might be easier to accomplish then carving them out of wood.  As our Mr. Beard had the QAR for less than a year, he must have had quite a contingent of artists and craftsmen in his crew.

Of course, ships in the Golden Age of Pirates, around 1680-1730, were only powered by the wind. Shipwrights of the day focused on designing long, straight lines, from a ship’s stem to her stern. She was as carefully balanced above and below the waterline as she was from her cutwater to her rudder. The goal was to make it easy for the sails to move the ship, and, through thoughtful symmetry, to make it easy for the crew to sail her.

A great example is the Sovereign of the Seas, the very largest, gaudiest ship of her day – launched in 1637. She was built to intimidate every other ship on the sea (if you’ve ever built a model of her, you were probably intimated by all that gold work: she’s the most tedious thing in the world, all guns and gold leaf. Oh, and some rigging). If you put your finger where it seems like her center of gravity would be, you find yourself at the main mast, near the center of the ship.

Compare her  with the Queen Anne’s Revenge, and you’ll see how much more balanced, fore and aft and above and below, she is.  Queen Anne’s high, high stern would be heavy, and would push her bow up out of the water. Put your finger on the place you think her center of gravity will be – not quite the center of the ship!

While her shallow draught below the waterline would allow her to sail into places most other ships could not go, she has very little compensation against the weight of her masts and sails, and the pressure of the winds. Sadly, she would be very difficult to sail on a nice day, and would find herself extremely challenged to stay upright on anything more than a slight breeze.

But, she accomplishes her mission in the Disney films: she is menacing and awe-inspiring.  As the Queen of Creepy Ships, she ranks right up there!

In our search for a correct interpretation of Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, however, I’m afraid we’re going to have to take a pass on the squiddy-faced fellow’s ride.

 

Pirate Terms Gone Awry

Researching pirates from the “Golden Age of Piracy”, about 1680 to 1730, is a difficult business. While there are scores of books and movies to draw from, you find that they themselves mostly draw from Cap’t Charles Johnson’s book, A General History…of…Pirates. The link on his title takes you to our Further Reading page, which features the full title of the book.

My most recent novel, Marigold’s End, A Phineas Caswell Adventure, puts the young protagonist in the midst of the worst of the worst. The novel I’m working on now requires even more research – sadly, most of it comes out from Cap’t Johnson!

What makes Johnson’s book so compelling is that it is the only one. Period. It was written in 1724, and it describes all of the nasty fellows of the day.  Beyond his book, there is simply no other organized documentation. There are the records kept by the colonial governors, by the courts, and by the shipping companies. But those generally detail specific events, and don’t tell the story. And they’re not literary in the least, making it very difficult for we 21st century pirate hunters.

I had planned to write this post about how the word “long” got into Long John Silver’s name. But, in my research, I hit a rather blank wall. I’ll tell you what I know:

Pirates did not wear earrings as fashion. They wore earrings, like every other sailor of the day, to denote their survival of a shipwreck.

Pirates did not wear fake eyepatches to be able to see better in the dark.

Pirates didn’t wear hooks or wooden legs because they wanted to.

And, pirates did not get the word “long” added to their name because they consumed human flesh.

If you look it up on many of the blogs out there devoted to pirate stories and legends,  you’ll see that the term “long pig” is cannibal reference to human flesh. Imagine your ship has been becalmed, without a breath of wind, for a month straight. All your food supplies are gone. No fish are biting. No bird can reach you because you’re in the middle of the Atlantic under a hot, broiling sun.

Maybe the topman Simpson has a fall, breaking his neck. You and your shipmates are literally starving to death – you’ve even eaten your leather belts. And then here’s Simpson.

Come on, lad. It ain’t like you’re doin’ him no harm – he’s already in heaven. What point is there in starvin’? God knows when you’ll eat again… just close your eyes, boyo. It tastes just like pork.

So, like the rest of the survivors, you choose to stay alive and eat the long pig. When finally a breeze comes and you finally sail out of the doldrums, you vow you’ll never tell anyone about it.

But then start the rumors, once you’re ship’s in port and paid off. You know about John Silver, don’t ye? They say he’s Long John Silver, if ye catch my meaning…

It’s a compelling story, but it’s just not correct. The phrase “long pig” was first used in print in 1847 – well over a hundred years after the likes of Long John Silver and Blackbeard.

The term appears to be a translation of a Polynesian word for human flesh. While it can be used in reference to a crew – they ate long pig – it doesn’t belong in the lexicon of the Golden Age of Piracy.

I went to Chapman’s The Sailor Lexicon, by Admiral W. H. Smyth. It’s a lexicon. It has 15,000 slang and professional sailor terms. There’s no mention of long pig in it.

So, my friend, be careful what you confer to our piratical brethren. They were rough, nasty folk, and they were the scourge of the seas, and they very probably were forced into cannibalism upon rare occasions.

And, while the Long in Long John Silver, a fictional creation of Robert Louis Stevenson in 1881, may have been meant to include Silver in that group, it was most likely applied because it was a popular and fanciful term in Stevenson’s day, not Silver’s.

 

The Smithsonian Weighs in on Queen Anne’s Image

Just so you know, I think this computer-generated ship image from the Smithsonian Institute is a little suspect. There, I said it.

She appears to be based on the Hispaniola from the 1950 film Treasure Island. Correct for her size, this ship has three masts, and a well found shape. That squares with Queen Anne’s Revenge, but this ship, from a video called “How Blackbeard Tricked Out His Ship,” on the resources page at si.edu, seems a tad too undefined to accurately represent the Queen.

As we’ll recall from previous posts, Queen Anne’s Revenge was built in England in 1710 as Concord, a 200-ton merchant ship. She was taken by the French and renamed La Concorde de Nantes. She worked the slave trade between the French Caribbean plantations and Guinea.

Benjamin Hornigold, a privateer turned pirate, had used his small fleet of piraguas (sailing canoes) to attack and overwhelm the small sloop, Happy Return.  With that sloop and his canoes he attacked and overwhelmed a heavily-armed merchantman named Ranger. Once he was in command of that powerful ship, he let go of the piraguas, and put his second-in-command, a fellow named Edward Thatch, in charge of the Happy Return.  With Happy Return and Ranger, Hornigold took the 26-gun Concorde de Nantes, and gave her as a reward to Thatch.

Thatch decided to part company with Hornigold, and began his solo career as the pirate Blackbeard. The first thing he did was change the ship’s name to Queen Anne’s Revenge, and then mounted as many guns in her as she could carry.

That’s where the Smithsonian’s interesting model comes in – the orange guns are those they feel would have been added to her. It’s sort of funny that Blackbeard would have added so many guns to what was already a well-found ship. The British of that period wanted as many guns as they could cram aboard, hoping  to find a competitive edge of French and Spanish warships of similar tonnage. In fact, the guns invariable ended up on the foredeck and quarterdeck, adding enormous weight far above the waterline, making the ships harder to sail and somewhat crank. The lesson: hardware can never stand in for good seamanship.

So, here at PhineasCaswell.com, you know we’re on a quest to find an accurate image of this ship. Here’s the question: is this Queen Anne’s Revenge?

I think we’re voting no on this one. For size, yes, for accommodation of the guns, probably. But, is this what Queen Anne’s Revenge actually looked like? I think not.

Let me know what you think – and certainly let me know if you have an image of the QAR you’d like to share.

For more about Blackbeard from the Smithsonian Institute, visit here.

A Step Closer to Queen Anne’s Revenge

One of the things I love most about writing is the marvelous places you visit – some in person, some in your head, and some on the Internet.

As you may have surmised, I’ve been piecing together Blackbeard’s story. Some parts are very hard to fit together – his ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR) being among the hardest.

She went hard aground off of Beaufort, North Carolina, in November of 1718, and all traces of her were lost. We know she was a British ship first, and was taken by the French and used as a slaver named Concorde. Blackbeard took her and renamed her Queen Anne’s Revenge. Her skeletal remains have been found, and many artifacts have been taken from her. But, no one knows what she looked like.

Archaeologists at the Smithsonian, however, believe she resembled the ship in the image, Le Mercure, of 1730. She’s only twenty or so years newer than QAR,  which is very close in terms of ship design from that era. Technological leaps were still relatively slow in coming.

We have to remember that, at this time, purpose-built warships seldom fell into the hands of pirates. They instead modified merchant ships to their purpose. Le Mercure appears to be pierced for 20 guns – Blackbeard would have up-gunned her to 40, which appears plausible if he used the quarter- and fore-decks.

Although she’s not Queen Anne’s Revenge, she’s in the ballpark.