When stealing a ship, pirates looked for the two things that they needed, speed and power. Due to the nature of their ‘trade,’ very few pirates had ships built for them. However, they used many types of vessels but western pirates favoured the three masted square rigged ship, the brigantine or the schooner.
A 350 ton square rigger, although relatively slow, was favoured for long voyages, there being enough space on board for 200 crew, ample hold space for loot and it could carry 20 cannons.
The brigantine was the favourite of many of the pirate captains as it was a very versatile vessel with two masts and carried up to 100 men and 10 cannon. This vessel was some 80 feet long and about 150 tons and considerably faster than the square rigger.
Enabling the pirates to navigate shallow waters only five feet or so deep, where they could hide in shallow watered coves or bays, the two masted schooners were fast and could sail at 11 knots in a good breeze. This allowed the pirates to escape when being chased. The schooner, at about 100 tons, could accommodate about 75 men and was also big enough to carry eight cannon.
An interesting ship was that of Captain Kidd which was a fully rigged ship named ‘Adventure Galley,’ so named because she had her sides pierced to carry 23 pairs of long oars. Built in England in 1695 she carried a crew of 150 men and weighed 287 tons with an armament of 34 cannon. The ‘Adventure Galley’ could, despite her size and weight, sail at 14 knots (about 16 miles per hour) and could even make three knots when being rowed in a dead calm.
She was one of most up to date ships of her day, with 3,200 square yards of canvas under full sail and had an anchor weighing 3,000 pounds with 6,000 pounds of cable. (Even on modern ships, the anchor is only there to hold the cable which is what actually moors the vessel.) The difference is that on the ‘Adventure Galley,’ the anchor and cable had to be heaved in by man power, one of the reasons why these old vessels had to have a large crew. Today, everything is done by machinery, obviously necessary. To give an example, one of the ships I sailed on had 25 ton anchors backed up with about 400 tons of cable.
Pirate ships usually far outclassed the heavily laden merchant ships as their owners would not foot the expense of fitting them out with many, if any, guns. Consequently the pirates were very pleased when they found one of these lumbering vessels on the high seas and could take them and their cargoes at will.
Conversely, they were usually outclassed by the Royal Navy’s men-of-war, heavily armed frigates and sloops, and could only hope to outrun these very well built vessels with their well trained crews.
Few pirates had long careers at their chosen trade when the Navy had them in their sights.
by Terry Took © 2014
Terry Took was born in Yorkshire but has lived in Tynemouth for over 50 years. He spent 45 years in the Merchant Navy which included 27 years as North Sea Pilot. He then spent five years as a lecturer at the Marine Department of South Tyneside College.
He is now an Elder Brother in Trinity House and Marine Director.
If you have any comments or would like to contact Terry then please e-mail him at email@example.com.