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You Are A Pirate: What it’s really like sailing a tall ship

The lowdown on what the movies get right – and wrong – when it comes to sailing proper tall ships.

Those fabulous old ships with sails – what many commonly call pirate ships in the Pirates of the Caribbean sense – are a type of vessel called a tall ship, which uses traditional rigging techniques. While ship design has developed so far since the 17th Century that we now use motors and sturdier materials for military and trade vessels, usually doing away with sails altogether, tall ships remain popular, and those who sail them – often in harsh conditions and with much less amenities than your average ship – get the chance to experience more closely what those in centuries past would have.

The Lord Nelson adventuring in Antarctica earlier in 2014
The Lord Nelson adventuring in Antarctica earlier in 2014. image © Holly Bagley

Old-school pirates, as a theme, are popular these days, and swashbuckler films still draw in massive audiences. Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series, for example, is ranked as the eighth highest-grossing film series of all time. But while some of the experiences do map to reality, there’s a lot of stuff in these tales of derring-do at sea that don’t quite add up, and in many cases, make sailors outright laugh. So, as a tall ship enthusiast and sailor, it’s my mission today to lay down the facts on this. This is partly because I think you all deserve to know what the real deal with this kind of sailing is, but also because I secretly crave a job as adviser for the next big swashbuckler that comes out!

Let’s start with Pirates of the Caribbean. This is arguably the most famous in the genre these days.

Drink up, me hearties, yo ho! image © Warner Bros
Drink up, me hearties, yo ho!
image © Warner Bros

One of the best things about Pirates is its exaggeration. It’s meant to be a light-hearted fantasy, and everything is overdone – the acting, the plot, the firing of cannons, you name it. It’s great fun. But the funniest thing to me is the excessive turning of the ship’s wheel. Especially when they’re travelling in a straight line. It’s actually incredibly hard to keep a ship going straight. The slightest turn of the wheel can set it off in a crazy direction, and it’s especially responsive to wind direction and speed. There’s also a slight delay between turning the wheel and the ship actually changing direction, which leads to a lot of first-timers overcompensating and wheeling about like mad. We had this great (read: embarrassing) thing happen out of Dublin port once where a small gale blew in and every attempt to manoeuvre out of port led to us spinning round in circles.

What this means is that someone like me watching Jack Sparrow over-handling the wheel, crew facing ahead stalwartly as wind buffets their faces attractively, has a very different picture in their heads than the average viewer. And I’m not gonna lie, it’s pretty funny.

On the topic of wind, there’s also not nearly enough scenes where the characters’ long, loose hair impedes their vision. Seriously, sometimes even hats just don’t cut it – you gotta tie that mess right back. However, I can see the necessity for cutting the hair-vision scenes that must have inevitably resulted from filming. It wouldn’t look very attractive at all.

Below deck, it’s quite funny to notice that there’s no ridges on any of the tables. I can only imagine the scene at dinner during a storm! In that scene where Elizabeth eats dinner with Barbossa in his cabin, you can notice some of the candlesticks moving on the table, and lanterns swinging in the background, which indicates a fairly average swell, yet strangely her wine glass remains undisturbed, and no food leaps for freedom. The reality is that stuff falls over really fast and without warning, and trust me, drink is always the first to go. But I think they can get away with it here – Elizabeth’s dress is, cunningly, the same colour as the wine.

Now, that Black Pearl ship goes very fast for a vessel with holes in its sails. The Black Pearl sort of gets away with it, owing to the fact that she drifts in and out of fog, gliding silently and magically over the water. This doesn’t excuse the scenes where her crew are tugging industrially at the defunct rigging like they’re really hard at work or something. Ain’t fooling me, slackers.

Ship maintenance really went downhill after the whole curse thing.
Ship maintenance really went downhill after the whole curse thing. image © fanpop.com

By the end of the first film, it is at least nice to see that the Black Pearl has decent sails once more.

The Lady Washington, aka The Interceptor, in a fantastic moonlit photograph by Darvin Atkeson (see footer)
The Lady Washington, aka The Interceptor, in a fantastic moonlit photograph by Darvin Atkeson (see footer)

One of the other principal ships featured, the Interceptor, is actually a modern replica of the Lady Washington, and it is pretty much what you would expect a modern tall ship to look like, down to the wooden slatwork on parts of the deck. Also, the tactic used in the first film where they drop anchor and about-face the approaching Black Pearl, which they can’t outrun, is a pretty cool and daring move, albeit happening rather quickly. Dropping an anchor aboard a ship like the Interceptor is a complex exercise that takes a lot more than a minute, so we’ll quietly assume the chase scene was dragged out a bit longer if it were real. Plus points for them putting cutlery in the cannons, too.

The initial scene where Jack and Will steal the Interceptor is perhaps the biggest goof in the entire film, however. A ship of that size just cannot be crewed by two people. You’d need at least eight, just to sort the sails. It’s not like a car, a bus or even a train. You. Need. Crew. I can sort of accept it if I imagine they’ve both temporarily gained super speed akin to The Flash due to the pure adrenaline of their adventure, or something.

Back onto the topic of sails, there’s also this great scene in Cloud Atlas where the stowaway Autua proves his seamanship by swinging on a rope from the topmast and proceeds to let loose the sails in a single, swift feat of acrobatics without getting tangled in any brace lines or anything. Now I know Cloud Atlas has a magical slant to its historical chapters, so it can sort of get away with it. Plus it would hardly be a Wachowski film if it didn’t feature some kind of crazy choreography. But the fact remains. As for what it would really be like – It’s impossible. Sorry to burst the bubble, because it is a beautifully filmed scene.

Letting loose the sails with magic acrobatics.  image © Warner Bros
Letting loose the sails with magic acrobatics.
image © Warner Bros

It’s not all doom and gloom though. The coolest thing I have witnessed though was a sailor hoisting himself up the mast via wire and harness, in the middle of a force 9 storm, to retrieve the end of a sail that had broken loose in the strong winds. I still think that guy should audition for American Ninja WarriorSo some things can be done, and are pretty damn cool, but one person attempting to release the entire row of sails from swinging by on a single rope will end one of two ways – they either cut the sails clean off the yard, destroying half the rig in the process, or they get tangled, and probably in a horrific fashion. I know this well – one wrong move up there can lead to dislocated joints, and it really hurts!

This guy is a hero. Just look at how many ropes there are. image © Skip Novak
This guy is a hero. Just look at how many ropes there are. image © Skip Novak

Easily, the best movie representation of tall ship sailing comes from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.  This fantastic 2003 movie features Russell Crowe in an adaptation of one of the best historical novel series ever written about the Golden Age of Sail. The first book in this series by Patrick O’Brien was written in 1969, and every story in the series takes its influence from real adventures and locations around the world.

Sailing - this is pretty much what it's like. image © 20th Century Fox
Sailing – this is pretty much what it’s like.
image © 20th Century Fox

In fact the only issue I have with the film (other than the disturbing lack of table ridges, as with Pirates of the Caribbean) is the fact that they sail across the Drake Passage, from East to West, instead of going through the Magellan Strait. Anyone who’s sailed across the Drake Passage knows that the waves always travel West to East, and are the highest waves on the planet, with some of the fastest currents too. It’s not impossible, but it’s certainly foolhardy to try and push against them.

I suppose these guys can get away with it, being early adventurers and all. A war going on is likely to lead to some rash and unavoidable decisions, too. And at least they made that horrific storm scene realistic. Ships really do list that much in Southern Ocean swells – I’ve witnessed people lifted off their feet and smashed into walls because of it.

Another thing that Master and Commander does well is illustrate the conditions of life on board when supplies start running thin. There’s a large portion of the film where the crew are stuck in the ‘Horse Latitudes’, areas of high pressure between 30 and 35º latitude where the waters are still and winds are nonexistent.

These days we have better berths, technology on board and motors, so getting stuck in the horse latitudes are no longer a real problem to us (unless there’s an engineering problem). However, some long voyages are still heavily subject to weather. In approaching places like Antarctica, where heavy horizontal winds blow off the continent (these are called katabatic winds and can blow at up to 100km per hour), this can stall a ship’s approach. Modern tall ships often are able to filter their own freshwater through seawater intake, but this can only occur while the ship is in motion, so if something has made it stop, you’re in trouble. In other parts of the world, for instance in the convergence zone between the South Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean, strong currents can cause drift, and in other areas, like the Pacific, shipwrecking is still an issue. When things like this happen, particularly when far from help, food and water supplies can run dangerously low, people get sick and tensions run high. There’s still a lot of superstition around sailing, but luckily these days it’s not as entrenched as that featured in Master and Commander which eventually leads to outright bullying of a crew member.

So, the takeaways:

  • Anyone who tries to sail a barque or larger with a crew of less than eight people is definitely lying – smaller schooners with less than three masts you may be able to get away with less crew, but seriously, someone has to man those sails!
  • Acrobatic sailors doing dangerous stunts are more likely to get shouted at than anything, unless the situation is so dire that the danger is necessary.
  • Anyone who doesn’t put upturned edges on their tables in the mess is basically broadcasting to the world that they’ve never sailed in heavy weather before – always an embarrassing moment for a pirate!
  • And finally, anyone who manages to pilot in a straight line while excessively turning the ship’s wheel is a pure magician and you must not trust them!

If all this talk of tall ships has put you in a piratical mood, go ahead and watch (or re-watch) the films mentioned here, or hit me up with some details of other films about sailing that you enjoyed. If your urge for adventure is still not sated, why not plan a tall ship adventure for your next holiday? There’s loads of sail training vessels that offer real-life expeditions like this, such as the UK’s Jubilee Sailing Trust (which is for all abilities – no, seriously, if you’re a wheelchair user you can still do this) or Tall Ships Adventures, or Norway’s Christian Radich.

 

The author fully encourages you to have fun! image © Mike Travis
The author fully encourages you to have fun!
image © Mike Travis

main image © fanpop.com

Interceptor photo © Darvin Atkeson on Flickr

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