How do you attack a sailing ship with a fast rowing-boat?
February 27, 2008 2:22 AM   Subscribe

How do you attack a sailing ship with a fast rowing-boat?

I've just finished "The Pirate Wars" by Peter Earle. He says that one tactic used by navies against pirates was to use fast rowing boats (cutters or barges) to pursue the pirates through the shallows, often in long chases.

Pirates also sometimes used canoes to attack merchant shipping, in presumably the same way.

Unlike the Mediterranean pirate galleys with a cannon in the prow, these boats seem to have been armed only with muskets. Nor did they have the element of surprise as with a cutting-out expedition.

Why didn't they get blown to pieces with cannon-fire before they could board?

How do you go about storming a ship from a boat anyway?
posted by TheophileEscargot to Travel & Transportation (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Cannons were not very accurate - the usual method was to rely on (a) superior weaponry, and (b) better trained crews (see: "Master & Commander" for an example of drilling to increase firing rate) and take whatever damage your opponent could hit out.

So a small, fast-moving boat might be able to avoid cannon-fire. As for why they weren't shot at with personnel weapons ... well, they probably were. I assume you'd take cover, and count on your maneuverability and the inaccuracy of muskets to keep you alive until you could board.

posted by spaceman_spiff at 2:28 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Well, I do like the Aubrey/Maturin books. In "Desolation Island", the Waakzaamheid's captain tried to attack Aubrey in the Leopard with a surprise attack with boats while the ship itself distracted them.

But that again seemed to depend on the element of surprise. Once Aubrey spotted the boats, he cut them up most grievously with grapeshot.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:37 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Large ships had to drag themselves through the shallows with their anchor and take soundings along the way to ensure there was enough draft to be able to navigate and to manoeuvre- often a very trick, man-power intensive operation.

Cannon's also had limited traverse on all axis. Once under the field of fire, a small boat usually was vulnerable to musket attack- and for musket fire to be effective, it needed many gunners. This is the reason why navy ships usually had a compliment of marines on board.
posted by mattoxic at 3:08 AM on February 27, 2008

A common tactic was for the galley to move to the sailing ship's rudder and to cut the ropes controlling it. That made the sailing ship impossible to steer.
posted by Class Goat at 4:06 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here's a page discussing sailing ship armament. If the row boats, which would be more manuverable in the shallows than the larger ship, were approaching from the stern, they'd probably be subject only to the smaller cannon. Rates of fire are surprising low, on the order of a shot per minutes for well trained crews, so the row boats would probably be fired on less than you would think.

One can make a similar point about crew muskets: they're slow to fire, probably inaccurate on a pitching deck, and not effective beyond 50 yards. The row boats probably wouldn't be within any sort of kill zone for that long. I think we're used to the idea of modern firearms being able to reach out and touch someone, with accuracy and with range. They didn't have that in the age of sail. For that matter, you can see what land musket tactics looked like: basically everyone lines up, one side marches to what might be more effective range (which would be ridiculously close in modern eyes), fires and guts it out. First side to get out an effective volley and make the other side break wins.
posted by chengjih at 5:00 AM on February 27, 2008

Best answer: From the front and rear, the boats had very little fire power they could bring to bear. Not just in terms of lack of cannons pointing that way, but also because they were small and so only so many people could stand there and fire muskets - this is on top of the fact that cannons and muskets were only accurate against something very big and not very far away. The usual cannon battles were with the ships incredibly close together. Range and 'pinpointing' came much further up the weapons evolution ladder.

If the ship wasn't underway effectively (ie in shallows, as mentioned) then a fast rowing boat has a lot of advantages in terms of manoeuverability.

Besides, all they had to do was to get to the punchline before the sailing boat, and they'd have taken all the wind out of it's sails.... (arf. Sorry).
posted by Brockles at 5:17 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Muskets were not all that hot on land compared to modern weapons. I've seen estimates that less than 50% of the casualties of the American Revolution can be attributed to musket fire. And these were trained soldiers firing volleys using standardized guns and pre-measured "cartridges". British soldiers could get off three aimed shots a minute having been trained using live ammo. Four shots per minute appears to be about the best one can do. Privateers were less equipped and less trained.

In addition most pirate vessels were retrofitted merchant or whaling ships with not a high degree of at-sea combat capability.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:38 AM on February 27, 2008

From the Aubrey/ Maturin books, the other advantage a rowed vessel has is that it can move against the wind or when there is no wind. If the other ship is becalmed, it limits how much defensive maneuvering it can do.
posted by yerfatma at 6:04 AM on February 27, 2008

Forester writes about this exact scenario in Lt. Hornblower. A Spanish galley attacks a becalmed British sailing ship. The tactics used agree well with what's written above.
posted by Jorus at 8:00 AM on February 27, 2008

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