A fat merchant ship is in sight. The pirate vessel sets sails, bears down on it, and within minutes the merchant captain is signaling his surrender… Now the pirate plunder can begin!
Well, not quite. Visibility at sea is measured in miles, and sailing ships don’t travel all that fast. In addition, the merchant ship, while often slower than the pirate ship, wasn’t that much slower. In fact, a pirate attack was much different than the stereotypical version from the movies.
To begin with, the pirates had to sight their prey. One way to do this was to simply hang out in a known shipping lane, or near to a port city. Pirate ships didn’t have what we would now call a crow’s nest. Pirates trying to spot prey ships simply hung out in the rigging and watched the horizon.
A ship on the horizon might or might not have also seen the pirates. They wouldn’t be flying a Jolly Roger. Ships at sea didn’t show any flags, since there was mostly no one to see them. A merchant captain might be suspicious simply because the newcomer was an unknown. Or he might be in the mood to share information or break up the monotony of his voyage by visiting. If the pirates were lucky, and managed to look innocent, the merchants might approach them.
If the merchant was not so extremely accommodating, the pirates might help things along by offering a friendly hail of their own. They might ask for news, or for help finding their position at sea. This would work better or worse depending on the nature of the pirate ship and the accent of the captain. A battered vessel with sails torn by cannon balls would not represent well. A pirate captain with a lower-class accent could not pass himself as a gentleman.
Stede Bonnet, one of the worst pirates to ever sail, was especially good at this particular ruse, as he was actually from a good family.
If the merchant captain didn’t like the look of the pirate ship, he might do one of several things. He might ignore the hail and continue on his way. He might alter course to have the advantage of the pirate ship. He might change course in such a way as to make it harder for the pirate ship to catch him. He might stand and fight. Or he might “show his heels” in other words, run for it.
It all depended on the wind, the state of both ships, any nearby land, and even the time of day. And no matter what happened, the issue would not be resolved for several hours.
If the pirate ship was much faster, it might run down the merchant in as little as four hours. If they were more evenly matched, it might take even longer. Chases were known to last for days.
It was a given that the pirate ship was faster and more weatherly. Pirates chose their vessels for their sailing characteristics (as opposed to the merchant, who wanted a solid ship that would carry a large load). Pirates also continually worked on their ships, like young men tinkering with a sports car.
Pirates kept the bottoms of their vessels clean, dragging the entire ship onto land as often as every six weeks to clean marine growth off the bottom. When they could not do this, they worked from above the water, cleaning as far down the sides as they were able.
The pirates also continually worked on the ballasting their ship, moving cargo in the hold to keep it sailing at the best possible angle. They adjusted the masts and sails, trying different angles, different rigging and combinations. Some went so far as cutting away unnecessary parts of the vessel to lighten it.
What the merchant captain was hoping for was to make the chase last until dark. Neither ship would use any sort of lights. With a little luck, the merchant would be able to lose the pirates in the dark. Then the merchant would take down all his sails – the most noticeable part of the ship – and lie to in the troughs between the waves. A ship in this position was nearly impossible to see.
But these ploys weren’t always successful. Maybe the wave-troughs weren’t deep enough to hide the ship. Maybe a light flashed –someone forgot to shield a lantern, the pirates spotted the glow of a sailor’s pipe. Maybe the moon was full. Maybe the pirates just got lucky.
Actual chases often want on for days, sometimes as long as a week. Sometimes the merchants got away. Occasionally, unable to escape, the merchant would turn and fight. This rarely worked out, especially later in the age of piracy. Pirates “punished” merchants who stood against them, and sailors were neither hired for not trained for ship-to-ship battles.
The end usually came simply when the pirate ship was close enough to fire a single shot across the merchant’s bow, or for the pirate captain to be seen brandishing his sword. Either was a sign for the merchant ship to be boarded.
THAT was when the looting could begin.