Of Ships and Shapes, Part II

One more thing about the shapes of ships – we’ve talked about this before: try to keep up. You’ll remember that I’m trying to figure out the shape of Blackbeard the Pirate’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge.

You’ll also recall how we talked about tonnage being available space, not weight, and how sailing ships had a specific balance between fore and aft, wind and water, to make ’em easy to sail.

One thing we forgot to discuss was, well, the shape of the ship.

Here are some details that teach us about ship shapes:

1778: HMS Pandora, 114 feet long, 32 feet wide, 3.5/1 length to width

1779: USS Constitution, 175 feet long, 43 feet wide, 4/1 length to width

1869: Cutty Sark, 212 feet long, 36 feet wide, 6/1 length to width

1991: USS Arleigh Burke, 505 feet long, 31 feet wide, 16/1 length to width

What does this tell us? We’ll start at the top: Pandora was a frigate, fast and efficient for her day. More than that, she was a stable ship, carrying 26 guns.  Constitution was designed to outsail anything the Royal Navy had to offer, which she did. Cutty Sark was designed to quickly haul tea around the Horn from China. In her day, she was the fastest ship afloat. Arleigh Burke is a modern destroyer, built to cut through the water quickly, which she does.

Do you see the trend? As ships get more modern, they go faster and faster. But so does the ratio of length to width. We can assume, and it’s true, that a narrower ship will sail faster than a broader ship.

So, why build broad ships? Because wider hulls carry more cargo, and more cargo means more money per voyage.

Since Queen Anne’s Revenge was built to haul cargo, we can assume she had a length-to-breadth ratio in the range of 3 to 1. Kevin Duffus, in his book The Last Days of Black Beard, felt she had a length on only 104 feet. We know, then, that her breadth was about 30 feet.

See? All this math pays off. Kind of.

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.


A 1/72nd Scale Ship of Dreams

If you visit the Seriousness Aside page, you’ll see a link to the itty-bitty ship-shaped paper model in the bottom of this image. That’s a 1/300th scale model of the U.S.S. Enterprise, the first ship in the United States Navy to bear the name. She was a tiny, 50-or so foot long gunboat that served on the Great Lakes during the War of 1812.

The little model comes from a site called WarArtisan.com, a site devoted to miniature naval war games. The games themselves are not miniature, but involve movements of fleets of tiny sailing ships. It’s rather more involved than I can quite follow, but the people in the pictures seem to be enjoying themselves.

Anyway, I prefer to model in 1/72nd scale – that dusty ship in the picture on the Useful Sailing Terms page is in that scale. If you do the math, 1/72nd scale works out to one of our inches equaling  6 scale feet – a six foot guy is just one inch tall. And there are lots and lots of 1/72nd scale figures commercially available.

So, as I was falling asleep at work, I mean, one night, I had the brainiac idea that if I simply scaled up the WarArtisan model by 400%, I would get a ship that was 1/75th scale, which is remarkably close to 1/72nd. So I did it, and the graphics… well, the graphics didn’t scale up so nicely.

It didn’t take long in Adobe Illustrator to trace over the original art to create the outline of the ship.  There’s a lot of graphic work to make it as nice as the WarArtisan model, but you can see how it would work. The guns are leftovers from Zvezda’s 1/72 Black Swan kit, and the figures are pirates from a company called Mars.

So, what do you think? I think she looks awfully beamy – kinda mondo wide. There is so much to do to get that thing to look even close to the picture at the head of this article, I’m not sure I want to do it.

However, however, how about this: in the instructions for the WarArtisan model, you’re supposed to shave a piece of balsa wood to form the structure of the hull. What if, stay with me here, what if you used the scaled-up templates for the tiny balsa hull and shaved up a big piece of balsa wood to make it the same shape, but, like, bigger? Then you’d have a big piece of balsa that was approximately correct upon which to glue the scaled-up paper graphics.

Except that the graphics don’t scale up so well, and have no dimension. So, instead of scaling those up, why not just make ’em out of wood and stuff? In the end, you’d end up with a wooden model ship!

And yet, and yet, wouldn’t it be cool to make a hybrid wood/paper/plastic model ship in 1/72nd scale? I mean, I have the guns and the pirates… how hard could the rest be?