Monday, June 20, 2016

Storm at Sea

(Warning - linked videos are frightening)

Merchant ships feared pirates, and pirates did not fear much at all. But everyone during the Golden Age of Piracy feared storms at sea. Ships that sank usually took all their crews down with them, and with no public weather service to reveal how much storm was coming or how long it would last, storms of the era had not only danger but also a terrifying mystique.

The first rule in a storm says that the ship is sturdier than the crew. Today sailors protect themselves with harnesses and sophisticated gear. During the Golden Age, sailors did their best with a rope around their waists… Anything was better than nothing, and a man overboard was a man lost forever.



A fully-loaded ship was safer than an empty one. The heavy weight in the bottom of the ship prevented rolling by counteracting the force of wind on the sails. An upright ship was a ship that had a chance. If a ship of the era Broached (rolled on its side) it would be lost, probably with all hands.

The forces acting on a ship in a storm were tremendous. Running directly before the wind brought the danger that waves would break over the stern (back) of the ship, This could cause damage due to the weight of water - up to the possibility of crushing the ship’s structure.  It could also simply dump so much water aboard that the vessel would sink under the water’s weight.


Usually, the best plan of action was to sail the ship at an angle to the wind, as close as possible to directly into the oncoming waves. The prow of the ship was the sturdiest part, and so was the most likely to survived tons of water falling on it.

Even as the crew was doing this, the sails and masts needed to be protected. Very high winds could rip a sail to shreds, leaving the vessel with no forward momentum and therefore at the mercy of the sea. (Fact of the day: The sea has no mercy.)

If there was enough time, a crew might be able to put up “storm sails” These were stronger than average, and could withstand more pressure. But many ships did not carry storm sails, or did not have time to put them up, since this might take a full day.



Additionally, sails fully extended could put so much pressure on the wooden masts and yardarms that they simply snapped off. This not only caused the ship to lose power and momentum, but posed a danger to sailors working below. And if masts or yards broke while men were working on them, those men had no chance of survival.

The trick, then, was to keep the ship moving into the waves, while not placing too much strain on the sails and masts. In addition, the ship needed to keep enough speed to move up the sides and over the top of oncoming waves, and also keep its rudder in the water, so it could steer. All this without any weather reports, or any way to measure the speed of the wind or the height of the waves.

Wave height added yet another layer of danger. Waves at sea are enormous, often taller than the ship sailing into them. If a ship was between two very tall waves, those waves might cut it off from the wind, its only form of power. Momentum might carry the vessel forward strongly enough to carry it up the wave to a point high enough to catch the wind again…. Or it might not.



The first sails taken down were those at the back of the ship. Pressure on this area tended to cause the ship to slew sideways at any time, and in a storm this could be deadly. Next the lower courses were furled. The last two sails left up would be the fore (front) top sail, and a jib or headsail, the sail on the very front of the ship.

And, as all these sails were furled of adjusted, men needed to be up on the masts, perhaps a hundred feet in the air, working on rain slick wooden yardarms with heavy, water-soaked canvas.

But worse, far worse, than any of this was for the ship to strike land. “A lee shore” is was called, the sailors’ worst nightmare. With wind and water both driving the boat toward solid ground, the vessel’s bottom might be ripped out, or worse. It is likely that more pirates perished in storms than were ever killed by the Royal Navy.



Perhaps the most famous pirate death by storm was the gigantic pirate vessel Whydah Galley captained by the Prince of Pirates, Black Sam Bellamy. Sam sailed up the Atlantic coast of North America during what should have been a reasonably safe time of year. But he and his men were caught by an enormous storm. It drove the Whydah onto a sandbar. The sudden stop caused all the masts to break off at once, while the retreating wave rolled the huge ship onto its side. The following wave actually picked up the 300 ton vessel, rolled it farther, and dropped it upside down into shallow water. Of the 150 pirates aboard, only two men (Welshman Thomas Davis and 18-year-old Central American Moskito Indian John Julian) made it to shore alive.

Wreck of the Whydah by Donatoarts

So thank your lucky stars, and the National Weather Service, that storms are better tracked today. But the sea still has no mercy, and sailors still need their courage at sea.  

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