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13 February 2018

Tuesday Talk with Helen Hollick: What pirates needed was a...

... Book of Boat Names!

We've all heard of the more notorious pirates: Blackbeard, Charles Vane, Callico Jack Rackham - along with his female sidekicks, Anne Bonney and Mary Read. Then there's Henry Avery, Black Sam Bellamy, Stede Bonnet... (Jesamiah Acorne!)  and a good few more.

But what about their essential requirement to be a pirate?
not a plank...
not a treasure chest of gold...
not a bottle of rum...
not a cutlass...
not a parrot...

A ship. 

Every pirate had to have a ship (otherwise he would be a mere thief or a highwayman, although for the latter he would need a horse.)

Pirates usually stole the ships they needed, although the technical term is 'commandeer'. Stede Bonnet is the exception along with William Kidd, both of whom legally obtained their first ships.

A ship was more than just a wooden hulk to sail about in. To the men aboard it (she!) was home, the community where they lived and worked all with the same purpose: to survive whatever the sea and the weather threw at you. Or in the case of pirates, to get rich quick with as little effort as possible. The best ships to acquire were sloops, schooners and brigantines, although in the pre-1700s galleys were also favoured because they had oars as well as sails.

So what is the difference between a ship and a boat? Simple. A boat has one or two masts, a ship has more than two, but this only applied to sailing vessels pre-mid-1800s, for modern ships/boats it gets more complicated: ‘the difference is about the way  a vessel heels (tips to the side) when going around a corner. A vessel is turning to port, and you are standing on deck facing the bow. If it heels outward during the turn (i.e. leans so your right foot is lower than your left) it's a ship. If the opposite is true, it's a boat.’ Or at least, that is what my engineer nephew tells me, but I think the 'two or more masts' rule is easier to work out and remember (sorry Tom!)

 Most pirates preferred smaller boats because they were easy to handle – not so many sails and less men required, which in turn meant more profit per person. The disadvantage being that it was more difficult to attack larger vessels, there were less men available in a fight and not so many guns could be used (it took more than one man to load and fire, then reload a cannon.)

More often than not a Prize did not suit the pirates who had captured her. They would head for the nearest careening place, or a safe harbour like Nassau, and customise her by removing unwanted decks, particularly the raised quarter or poop decks, shortening masts and removing bulkheads (inner timber walls/partitions) and cabins. Extra gunports and gun mounts would be added, then Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt … you have a fully-functioning pirate ship.

She is made of wood, well-seasoned oak being preferred by the English: note that the English oak tree is different to the American, ours is the familiar broad-trunked, wide canopied monarch of the forest, the American oak is taller and narrower. Then there are the tall masts stretching upwards and another pointing forwards. She has decks, and a hull, and a keel. A pointy bit at the front, a blunt end at the back. There are acres of canvas sail and a lot – a lot – of rope for the rigging. She is powered by the wind, or by oars as well, and the tall ships we are familiar with, such as the Cutty Sark and HMS Victory that are seen in dry dock as visitor attractions are steered by a steering wheel – the helm.

So why is a ship called a ‘she’? The legend goes that She is capricious, likes to do as She pleases and often has ideas of her own. She has a waist and stays, and it needs a lot of paint to keep her looking good. There is always a gang of men around her and it takes experience to handle her whims. She proudly shows her topsides, demurely hides her bottom, and when entering harbour She heads straight for the buoys. Very 'sexist' but now you know.

Nearly all the larger pirate vessels had a main deck with below it the living space and the cargo hold – the larger the vessel the more decks it would have. Space, particularly height, was limited with sturdy beams supporting the overhead deck, often with less than five feet of headspace. Light was provided through gratings and hatchways which were battened down in stormy weather and covered by tarpaulins or oiled sailcloth. For the Great Cabin at the rear (the captain’s quarters) there would be windows across the stern and sometimes at the sides for small quarter cabins, which would house a bed on one side and a latrine, which was nothing more than a hole leading to the outside, with a wooden surround, in the other. For the men the latrine, the Head, would be up towards the bow, and again, mere holes cut in a plank suspended over the sea. More often than not they would simply  urinate over the side – which side depended on which way the wind was blowing. The crew, especially on merchant ships lived mostly towards the front of the vessel at the forecastle (pronounced fo’c’sle). Here they would eat, sleep and pass the day when not needed on deck. The captain and officers aboard a merchantman would have wooden box-beds slung on ropes at each corner from the overhead beams. The crew had hammocks which would be taken down during the day, or they slept on the open deck.

Some of the vessels had a galley, a kitchen, which would have a secure brick-built oven set on a flagstone floor. Gunpowder would be stored below deck away from here, and usually protected by a wetted canvas curtain instead of a door. 

Conditions below deck would be dark, cramped, damp at best, wet at worst, would smell of mildew and mould and be infested with rats, lice and fleas. In heat it would be sweltering, in cold weather, freezing. The hold was amidships, supplies, sails, cargo, or treasure if there was any, would be stored here, with beneath this deck the bilge, a space filled with ballast which could be stones, rocks, gravel or sometimes timber if this was part of the cargo. It was always damp and stank; the anchor cable was also stored here.

Related image
Below Deck HMS Victory
Cannons would be placed according to the size of the vessel, and fired round-shot, grapeshot, langrage and chain-shot. The size of a gun was measured by the size of the round shot, so a four-pounder ball to a twelve or eighteen pounder meant bigger and heavier guns. Swivel guns mounted on the rail were of about two-pounder range and could, as the name implies be swivelled around to take aim or reload.

During action, the decks would be cleared of everything movable, the bulkheads below deck, that is, the inner walls, were taken down, and the stern windows swung up to be secured on the ceiling above. The galley fire would be doused and the lower sails on a square-rigged vessel ‘clewed’ up, that is furled away, to give a clear view along the deck and as a precaution to avoid the spread of fire. Sand would be scattered around the guns to prevent the men slipping.

Lady Washington firing her guns
The masts – vertical poles, or for the bowsprit at the front, a horizontal pole – were not one, long solid piece of wood, but had several sections that fitted neatly together, the lower section supporting the topmast, which in turn supported the topgallant. In bad weather these top two sections could be taken down – struck. The sails hung from wooden poles called ‘yards’, which could be hoisted up and down or turned back and forth by means of hauling on ropes. To ‘know the ropes’ meant to know what all the various ropes and pulleys did, where they went to and came from. The yardarms were the end of the yards and each yard was known by where it was situated with the fore yardarm being the least popular as it was from here that men were hanged. The sails themselves, made from canvas by sailmakers, with the canvas coming from flax, were hung either in a fore-and-aft vertical line along the deck, or at right angles for a square-rigged vessel. Even on a square-rigged ship sails were not square but tapered or rectangular, and the bigger the ship, the larger the area of sail. HMS Victory, seen now in dry-dock at Portsmouth, had about four acres of sail in total, although smaller ships such as those used by pirates were more likely to be nearer one acre. 

Rigging consisted of running or standing, running being rope that passed through blocks and tackles for moving the yards around, and hauling and lifting, while the standing rigging of shrouds and stays were ropes of various widths and lengths that were in a permanent fixed position to support the masts and yards. There could be about forty miles of rope on board with over 1,000 pulleys.

The topmen were those who went aloft to the highest yards, were usually the young, agile men, were the elite of the crew and valued their position. Working aloft meant they were out of sight of the officers for one thing, and they were left alone to get on with their job. They often had their own mess groups, and thought very little of the waisters, the non-sailors such as marines, sea-based soldiers. Until standard uniforms were introduced, they preferred colourful clothes and jewellery and wore different hairstyles. To be a topman also required courage. To go aloft to manhandle the sails and work dangling from the yards in not just bad weather but storms and gales, often in the dark, required a touch of madness as well as bravery.

Dangers to ships were shallows, rocks, and storms which could snap a mast in two or be so severe that waves would swamp the below decks, despite all hatches being battened down. Lightning was an unpredictable danger, especially if it were to strike near to where the powder magazine was situated. The lightning rod, or conductor, was invented by Benjamin Franklin  in 1749, and proved to be most useful for ships with tall masts, except too many conductors were fitted incorrectly and caused more damage than necessary. 

As if all that was not enough, you had managed to cross the Atlantic in one piece, with only a little water and food left. Your masts are just about intact despite the lightning, your keel is scraped for getting too close to the shallows and rocks, the hull is covered in barnacles and the sails are worn and patched from the rage of the wind. You have survived all that – only to come face to face with a damn pirate!


Howell Davies 
Sloop Rover 32 cannon 
Sloop Adventure 10 cannon

Edward Teach –Blackbeard,
Frigate  Queen Anne’s Revenge 40 cannon

Charles Vane
Sloop Ranger 10 cannon
Brigantine Ranger unknown

Bartholomew Roberts 
Brigantine Good Fortune 32 cannon
Frigate         Royal Fortune 32 cannon
Brigantine Sea King 32 cannon

Samuel Bellamy
Sloop Mary Anne 8 cannon
Galley Whydah Gally 28 cannon

Stede Bonnet 
Sloop Revenge 10 cannon

Jack Rackham 
Sloop William 6 cannon


Galley, or Gally, both versions are correct. Built in London in 1715 and launched a year later she was captured by Sam Bellamy in February 1717 and wrecked on 26th April 1717 off Cape Cod, Massachusetts Bay Colony. She was a Galley of 300 tons, 110 ft in length, carrying twenty-eight guns, fully rigged with three masts, she had a possible speed of thirteen knots (15 mph), and could carry a complement of 150 souls, but went down with 145 men and one boy. Her wreck was discovered in 1984, buried beneath the sand between sixteen to thirty feet under water.


Frigate, launched 1710, England, 200 tons, 103 ft, complement, 125 souls. Captured by the French and renamed La Concorde de Nantes, then captured by Benjamin Hornigold on 28th November 1717, near the island of Martinique, but commanded by Edward Teach who renamed her Queen Anne’s Revenge. She ran aground in 1718 near Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina. Intersal Inc., a private research firm, discovered the wreck in 1996, located by director of operations, Mike Daniel in twenty-eight feet of water, one mile of Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. Thirty-one cannons of different origins have been identified, and more than 250,000 artefacts recovered which support that the wreck is that of Queen Anne's Revenge


Lady Washington Commencement Bay2.jpg

Not herself a pirate ship, but as HMS Interceptor she was commandeered by pirate Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. 
The original trade ship, Lady Washington, was a ninety ton brig, she left Boston Harbour in October 1787 and sailed around Cape Horn the first vessel carrying an American flag to do so. Named for Martha Washington, she was the first American vessel to reach Japan. She foundered in the Philippines in 1797. 
The replica was built in 1989, and designed by John Fitzhugh Millar of Newport House B & B, Williamsburg, Virginia. She has appeared in several films in addition to Pirates of the Caribbean as the brig Enterprise, a namesake of Starship Enterprise, in Star Trek Generations, in the IMAX film The Great American West and in the TV mini-series Blackbeard.


Again, not a pirate ship but, for me, a pirate connection as in her new guise as HMS Surprise, from the movie Master and Commander, I commandeered her as the template for Sea Witch. The movie is adapted from the novels HMS Surprise and The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’Brian, the screenplay co-written and directed by Peter Weir and starring Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey, with Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin and was  released by 20th Century Fox, Miramax Films and Universal Studios. For an almost authentic feel of what life was like aboard a ship in the eighteenth century watch this movie.

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Her specifications are: 500 tons, full rigged ship; overall length, 179 feet; length on deck, 135 feet. Height of main mast, 130 feet. 13,000 sq feet area of sail; draught, 13 feet, beam, 32 feet.
My original intention had been to model Sea Witch on the Whydah or Queen Anne’s Revenge, but the plan never gelled. Rose/Surprise fitted my imagination like a glove, except she was built several years after the period that the Sea Witch Voyages are set – 1715 to about 1725, but then my series is part fantasy and it is not meant to be taken seriously, so I bent the facts a little.

Moored in San Diego, California, Surprise is a beautiful ship, originally built as a replica of HMS Rose, an 18th century Royal Navy vessel that was, in part, responsible for the outbreak of the American War of Independence and cruised the American coast during the Revolutionary War.

The replica was originally built in Nova Scotia in 1970 by John Fitzhugh Millar, using construction drawings from 1757. The real Rose was built in Hull, England in 1757 and her duty was to be a scout ship for the British fleet and to patrol the coasts of any enemy country during the time of war. In 1768 she was sent to America to patrol the eastern coastline where high taxes were causing unrest – and in 1774, commanded by James Wallace, she sailed to Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island to put an end to the extensive smuggling.

On 4th May 1776 Rhode Island initiated the Declaration of Independence from Britain, two full months before the rest of the Colonies. It is often believed, especially here in the UK that the Boston Tea Party, where a cargo of tea was thrown overboard into Boston Harbour as a protest against the payment of taxes started the American War of Independence. In fact, it was the petitioning to Congress to form a Continental Navy in order to rid Narragansett Bay of the highly efficient Rose which fanned the flames of unrest among the Colonies.

But why my suggestion that pirates would have benefitted from a book of boat names?

Well, as you can see from the list of names above, many pirates called their ships by the same name - Revenge and Fancy being great favourites.

Maybe pirates didn't have much of an imagination...?

© Helen Hollick

article based on
Pirates Truth and Tales

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