Archive for May 2nd, 2011

A lovely day to go out to sea and get shot at

The Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain are a pair of replica 18th-century merchant sailing vessels. The Lady Washington portrayed the HMS Interceptor in the film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and also appeared in Star Trek Generations. Their home port is in Aberdeen, Washington, but this weekend they were visiting Rainier, Oregon. As it happens, I’m considering setting my next novel aboard an 18th-century sailing vessel, so for research purposes Kate and I drove up to Rainier to experience one of their “Battle Sails,” in which the two ships shoot at each other with real black powder. It was a great day for a sea battle, with temperatures in the fifties, lightly overcast, and just enough wind for sailing.

There were about 40 of us passengers all told, about 10 of them small children who had come to sail on the “pirate ship.” As it happens, the Chieftain was unable to carry passengers at this time due to generator issues (though she was still able to sail and fight) so we all piled onto the Lady Washington. It was a little crowded but not unreasonably so.

The crew numbered 11: the captain decided where the ship should go, manned the tiller, and gave high-level instructions to the first mate; the first mate turned those instructions into detailed commands for the hands who actually set the sails; the engineer was in charge of the diesel engine (which we used only when docking; in the 18th century a ship like this would almost always have anchored offshore) and when under sail was the most experienced hand; the steward was in charge of herding the passengers and also acted as gunner; and seven hands clambered about and hauled on ropes as directed. This complement is fairly similar to the size of crew the ship would have had when hauling cargo in the 18th century.

I noted that there were neither NO STEP signs nor friction strips anywhere on the vessel; any approximately horizontal surface was fair game for being clambered upon.

All of the crew were dressed in a rough approximation of period costume, accessorized with safety harnesses and other modern practicalities. Several of the hands wore Vibram shoes with individual toes, which seemed a reasonable accomodation to soft modern feet. The captain and engineer were in their thirties, I’d say; all of the rest were college-age and I believe all of the hands were volunteers who were paying for the privilege of working and learning aboard. The youngest and least experienced hand had been on board for three days. Three of the hands were women, as was the first mate (who was addressed by the captain as “madam mate”) and short Mohawks were popular with both sexes.

The ship herself was also a compromise, being equipped with a diesel engine, radar, life jackets, and other modern features, as well as bunks with a lot more than eighteen inches per crew member. I’m glad we were on the Lady Washington rather than the Hawaiian Chieftain, as the latter vessel is both based on a more recent original and is less authentic in many of her appointments.

The captain, a skinny somber fellow who advised a small child to get away from the tiller because “there’s two hundred tons of ship pushing that rudder around, and I’ve seen men’s femurs get snapped right in half” and remarked “madam mate, see to it that doesn’t happen again,” was an interesting contrast to the first mate, all grin and aviator sunglasses, who said things like “awesome!” and “set the jib, question mark?”

I wish we’d been given a little more information than the basic safety drill (how to put on the life jackets and when to put your fingers in your ears). I did pick up a few words of sailor-ese, but I never got a very good understanding of how the mate’s shouted commands translated into the motions of the sails, never mind how those motions translated to the ship’s heading and velocity. The crew climbed up into the rigging to unfurl and furl the sails at the beginning and end of the voyage; the rest of the time, all but one of them spent their time running back and forth between four stations on the deck, hauling on ropes to turn the sails around the axes of the two masts. The one remaining hand was entirely responsible for all of the sails at the front of the ship, which kept her very busy; apparently this was a rite of passage. Those motions of the sails, plus the tiller, were sufficient to direct the ship into a favorable position to fire on the other ship while avoiding being fired upon. Even though the wind was quite light, only about 8 MPH, when the sails were turned to catch it, the ship gave a very perceptible lean and surge — a thrilling moment.

Combat for this type of small merchant ship does not resemble the massed broadsides you’ve seen in the movies. She was equipped with two deck guns, each about two and a half feet long and firing a three-pound ball, plus two small swivel guns at the back. Our single gunner, carrying a satchel of black power and a slow match, ran to whichever gun was closest to the enemy, loaded it, and fired at the captain’s command (which was generally “as they bear”). These little three-pounder guns (by comparison, the guns in Master and Commander were eighteen-pounders) were enough to make a noise and do a little damage — hopefully enough to scare off any seagoing predators. Our main battle tactic was to try to get directly ahead of the other ship, where she had no guns, while attempting to get into a position where we could fire a “raking” shot down the length of the other ship. It was also useful to get upwind of the other ship, stealing the wind she needed to maneuver. Between the maneuvering and the time for the gunner to prepare the guns, each ship got off a shot every five to fifteen minutes; it was a duel, not a slugfest.

The two ships were firing blanks — just black powder, no cannonballs — at each other. We were instructed to plug our ears for the shot (and it was damn loud; I can’t imagine the noise of a broadside of eighteen-pounders) and then listen for the echo. A quick echo back from the other ship was counted as a hit; a delayed echo from the far shore was a miss. There was definitely a difference in the sound between the two. When the other ship shot at us, meanwhile, we could tell when the shot was about to come because we could see and hear them preparing it. Apart from all the yelling and gunfire, sailing ships are quite quiet.

The 18th-century sailing vessel was the most complicated machine of its day. There were hundreds of different ropes, every one of them had a specific purpose, and the crew had to know the vocabulary, leap into action, and execute the commands with precision and alacrity, or else lines would foul, sails would collide, and the ship would lose way — a sitation difficult to recover from. In other words, it was a lot like square dancing.

Unlike square dancing, however, the crew was expected to repeat back every command even as they began to execute it, and also to announce changes in status such as opening hatches and returning to deck after going aloft (e.g. “back on deck, three in the fore” meaning that there were three hands still aloft on the foremast). These formalities were strictly observed even though it didn’t seem that anyone was listening. At one point, when a hand landed on the deck, he looked up and announced “back on deck… can’t tell.” I don’t think anyone other than Kate and I laughed.

Lady Washington was handicapped with several inexperienced hands, in addition to the passengers getting in the way, and when we returned to port the captain announced that “if we all had fun, then everybody won” — in other words, we lost the battle badly, and if this had been an actual emergency we would have been disabled, boarded, and taken prisoner. (The goal was never to sink the enemy ship — whether pirate or navy, there was always more money to be made by capturing it in usable condition.)

Now I have a real understanding of why the officers always stand on the elevated quarterdeck at the back of the ship. Because of its position and elevation, it has the best view of what’s going on both onboard and out on the sea. From there you can see if lines or sails are fouled, if hands are in the wrong place, and where the other ship is. The crew, on the other hand, doesn’t need this information and in fact may be better off without it. At one point, during a brief lull in the action, the engineer paused in coiling ropes and idly wondered aloud where the other ship was. I said to him “you don’t really have to know, do you?” He grinned and said “Naw, all I have to do is pull on whatever rope the guy in the funny hat tells me to.”

This little trip was nothing more than a taste of an approximation of an 18th-century sea battle, but we had fun and I got some sensory details that I can probably use in my writing. If nothing else, it provides a solid real-world structure on which we can hang the imagery when we read the Aubrey/Maturin novels.