The secret pirate

Sea fiction author Philip K Alan’s weblog is extraordinary, both for the effort and craft that goes into his posts, but also for the stories he tells.

This one describes the chilling memoirs of Able Seaman William Davidson, a man with a secret pirate past. Just right for a little shiver during the midwinter break…

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If the Bold Princess has sea-room, brave boys never fear!

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Perhaps the pre-eminent traditional British song about pirates

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The almost unbelievable galley

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Galley drawing from On the High Seas – click for a larger image

Idly reading my first edition copy of On the High Seas by E Keble Chatterton, I was astonished to find this drawing of a galley.

The book itself is a largely unstructured collection of salty yarns about mutiny, exploration, slavers, pirates and high adventure – the chapter headings themselves tell a story, for they include: Chpt 1 Deep Sea Roving, Chpt IV The Profession of Piracy, Chpt VIII St Helena and the Slavers and Chpt XI Gambling with Death.

I can’t be sure that the proportions of the tippy-looking vessel shown are truly representative, but for me at least, this drawing of a galley from the chapter on the Profession of Piracy raises some practical points. It has a rig that would normally be expected to be best in beating rather than running – but I suspect sailing upwind was not its main purpose. For one thing I imagine the rowing galleries must have been vulnerable to digging-in when heeled, causing a kind of wild reverse-broach; for another I’d guess that like one of Pete Culler’s recreational skiff users, the commanders of these craft would row upwind when it was faster than sailing.

The power question is interesting. By my count there are two galleries of 27 oars here, each with six oarsmen. If well trained and well they fed, could theoretically deliver 0.2hp each – and by my calculation hat’s 324 oarsmen who, in my calculation should be able to deliver a total of 65hp. That’s not a huge amount of grunt for a ship this size, but even this figure would have to be reduced by some factor because it must have been difficult for the oarsmen at the inner and outer extremes of each oar to deliver their theoretical maximum, either because of the lack of travel or because of too much.

Surely, the man by the gunwale must have been chosen for his massive strength and the man at the far end for his height and span?

The detail shown here is fabulous. Just look at the warlike group on the forecastle and the three guns. I’d hate to see one of these coming my way, particularly if I had no wind to escape!

Here’s what Keble-Chatterton has to say:

‘The corsairs of Tunis rarely emerged from the Mediterranean, but sailed about off the south of Sardinia, or Cape Passaro at the heel of Sicily, or that historic pirate area among the Ionian Islands. The latter was a risky sphere, for the Venetian naval galleys with sails, masts, big crews of oarsmen, and with bow-guns, wsere not infrequently to be met with. The Moors feared these Venetians as their deadliest enemies, nor was the Battle of Lepanto yet forgotten. Using handy lateen-sail feluccas, with plenty of men to row as required in light or head winds, the Tunis pirates had and endless series of bays, creeks, and islands wherein to creep for rest and recreation. Such islands as Candia, Lampedusa, Rhodes and Cyprus could be used; but Tunis itself, being an open roadstead with inadequate protection from the fort, was not for them an ideal base. Algiers, on the contrary, was protected by a mole and a citadel; and there was a light showing to enable the rovers to get home from the sea.’

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