Death by Cannonball
July 30, 2007 2:45 PM   Subscribe

Cannonball suicides?

In the movie, Master and Commander, one of the characters commits suicide by grabbing a cannonball and jumping over the side. I'm not clear how this suicide method is supposed to work....is he supposed to be holding on until he's so deep that letting go won't matter because it's too far up to the surface before he runs out of air, or is he supposed to be descending fast enough to crush himself from the depth before he runs out of air? Was such a suicide method common on ships of the timeframe?
posted by nomisxid to Science & Nature (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I suspect that the fictional character who committed suicide didn't think it out in terms of the complicated physics of his death, but simply figured that sinking in the ocean with the aid of a weight would hasten his death one way or the other.
posted by The World Famous at 2:48 PM on July 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Was swimming a common skill among sailors of the depicted era? Probably not. If you can't swim, you're going to be sucking water soon enough, no matter how deep that cannonball takes you.
posted by found missing at 3:01 PM on July 30, 2007


Was swimming a common skill among sailors of the depicted era? Probably not. If you can't swim, you're going to be sucking water soon enough, no matter how deep that cannonball takes you.

Not in Patrick O'Brian's universe, anyway (and probably not in real life). Jack Aubrey can swim and it's a rare enough trait that people remark on it. He saved one of his long-serving crewmen (I think it's Awkward Davies but it might be Joe Plaice) twice.

In Master and Commander two Greek fishermen on the Sophie's crew are among the very few that can swim (of a crew of about sixty). They clean the bottom of the ship to clear the trailing seaweed and speed it up, and everyone is amazed and thankful.

Hollum's grabbing the cannonball echoes the traditional (for the Aubrey/Maturin series, at least) burial at sea for dead crewmen-- they get sewn up in their hammock with a cannonball at their feet. Hollum would have been dead even if he didn't grab the shot because presumably he couldn't swim, no one else on deck at the time could either and it would have taken a long time to lower the boats, get back to his spot and find him. The cannonball just made it quicker.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:12 PM on July 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


I would imagine the intense pain before you're actually fatally crushed would prevent you from holding on to the cannonball for the required length of time for the "crush" method. The idea is probably just to run out of air.
posted by 0xFCAF at 3:12 PM on July 30, 2007


Also, we should probably presume that Mr. Hollum wasn't as well-versed in what would happen if he just held a cannonball (remember, he was so slow witted that he was stuck as a midshipman because he couldn't pass the lieutenants' exam). All he knew was that shot sinks quickly, he wasn't smart or in a proper frame of mind to figure out that he might drop the shot after a few feet, and probably didn't know that he would likely bob to the surface if he were already under the water.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:31 PM on July 30, 2007


The cannonball suicide is not how Hollum dies in the book The Far Side of the World. BTW. I won't spoil the book, but the cannonball grab doesn't happen in any of the books, as far as I remember. The crew would be pissed if some grass-combing bugger grabbed a ball that they had spent time carefully chipping away to ensure it's roundness, and then leapt into the ocean with it.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:50 PM on July 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think it's just a Hollywood way of killing oneself in a tragic and ironic fashion that looks good on camera.

But let's say you did it -- let's say you jumped overboard holding onto a weight sufficient to drag you under somewhat rapidly, and you held on for as long as you could.

The thing that'd probably kill you is deep-water blackout and drowning. Human with a lungful of air are pretty buoyant, as any scuba diver will tell you. It'd take quite some time to reach "crush depth." Free diving records have taken people down hundreds of feet.

Your breathing reflex would take over at some point -- sooner than you probably expect, because you're not exactly calm when killing yourself and using up oxygen. You'd panic and probably release the weight. Even as you were clawing to the surface, if you could (remember, you're wearing heavy clothes), you'd blackout and drown.

Sorry, Jonah.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:29 PM on July 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Wow, are you really sure that these sailors could for the most part not swim? That seems insane given the job they perform and how easy it is to learn how to swim. Are there any good references on this subject. I find it fascinating.
posted by caddis at 6:30 PM on July 30, 2007


My thoughts exactly, caddis. If I ever come across a time machine I'm going to make my living as a provider of swimming lessons to sailors.
posted by BaxterG4 at 7:21 PM on July 30, 2007


Google is failing me right now, but I'll confirm the portrayal in the novel that they weren't swimmers. If you think about it, it makes a little sense. There's not much you can do in the 18th century navy in the water. It would be rare for a ship to get into trouble in such a way that it had to be fixed by a swimmer. They didn't have wetsuits and fins, just heavy woolen clothes. They operated in many cold-water environments, so falling overboard usually meant death no matter how good a swimmer you were (and just try to turn a ship on a dime to go back and pick someone up). There wasn't a local recreational pool in the neighborhood offering swimming lessons. There was no surfing, skimboarding, wakeboarding, etc -- really not much recreational exercise in the way we've come to think about it. It just wasn't as terribly valuable as one might think.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:30 PM on July 30, 2007


There wasn't a local recreational pool in the neighborhood offering swimming lessons. There was no surfing, skimboarding, wakeboarding, etc -- really not much recreational exercise in the way we've come to think about it. It just wasn't as terribly valuable as one might think.

Well, and the fact that most of us learn to swim through formalized lessons or, failing that, parents with enough idle time to teach us.* For people of the 18th and 19th centuries, learning to swim is a mark of being of the leisure class like Jack Aubrey or trade-related like the Greek fishermen.

Yes, yes, this is the Internet so someone was taught to swim by their coal-mining dad who worked 120 hours a week. You're the exception.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:38 PM on July 30, 2007


n.b., AFAIK there is no "crush depth" for the human body, since we are essentially bags of water that equalizes the pressures reasonably well.

(modulo sinus, inner ear, and other air cavities natch)
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 9:23 PM on July 30, 2007



Wow, are you really sure that these sailors could for the most part not swim?

There was no formal Naval Academy or Sailor's College or anything like that. Nor did you have to pass any sort of test to get a job as a Merchant Marine ( far more more desirable than the Navy, as it paid better and you could go home any time), which was the main source for most of the pressed men in the British Navy at that time.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:01 PM on July 30, 2007


(modulo sinus, inner ear, and other air cavities natch)

Air cavities like, say, the lungs? (Yes, I know it's moot - by the time you got down that far in a scenario like we're talking about, anyway. Still ...)
posted by spaceman_spiff at 10:48 PM on July 30, 2007


You don't really crush at depth, and the bends is not an issue. It's only when you start introducing pressurised air into the mix that you have problems. If you didn't pressurise your eardrums it would hurt like hell, though. Your lungs compress like deflated balloons, but the air is still in there, and if you surface again they reinflate.

I have read or been told that sailors thought learning to swim was a bad idea, because it would prolong your agony if you fell overboard. Better to drown in five minutes than splash around for a couple of days.

I watched this film a couple of days ago, and thought about this method for drowning. If you took a cannonball and just clung onto it for as long as you could, by the time you ran out of air it would be way too late to get back to the surface, particularly fully clothed.
posted by tomble at 11:16 PM on July 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Even in WW2 swimming skills in the U.S. Navy weren't universal. My great-grandfather commanded a few ships during that time and would occasionally stop the ship and make everyone get out and swim. People who couldn't were taught how to do so. At least one sailor contacted him later and thanked him for it as it had saved his life when his ship sunk.
posted by ericales at 4:30 AM on July 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


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