Of seas and ships

My fictional character Thomas Clarady is the son of a privateer, Captain Valentine Clarady. I wanted Tom to have money but not be a gentleman, so we could watch him climb the Elizabethan social ladder. I don’t know much about sailing, however, apart from the little I retain from Patrick O’Brian’s novels. (I admire his work ‘this side idolatry,’ but can never remember which is a mizzenmast and which a spar, or even if those two things belong to the same class.)

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16-century Venetian galleon, Wikimedia Commons


Luckily, one of the members of my critique group is a military history buff: the inimitable Will Chandler, who may one day be persuaded to publish some of his fine stories. I got to the point where I needed to know what kind of ship Captain Clarady sails and he gave me a neat introduction to Elizabethan ships and arms, using Martin Frobisher’s flagship the Ayde as an exemplar.

A race-built galleon

Will wrote, “There are different ways to type a ship — by rigging, hull, and number of guns. So you can have a brig, sloop, square-rigger, etc. Or, hulls — galleon, pinnace, frigate, etc. Or an 18 gunner, 24 gunner, etc.”

No wonder I was so confused! I’d always conflated these orthogonal sets of terms. Will said, “I’d suggest Clarady captains an 18 gun race-built galleon (with lateen-rigged mizzenmasts).” I can’t begin to tell you how much I love the idea of a lateen-rigged mizzenmast, even though I know it can’t be anything at all like a satin-trimmed negligee.

Race-built is English for razée, a sailing ship that has been cut down to reduce the number of decks. That makes it lower and therefore more maneuverable. The sails, which you can adjust, catch the wind, not the big fat body of your big ship. The English used race-built ships to win the battle with the Spanish armada.

Wikipedia says the English cut off the fore and aft castles, the built-up habitations that made Spanishdrakes cabin 1 galleons so tall and unwieldy. The Golden Hind, the ship Drake sailed around the world, can be clambered through at its mooring on the Thames. It’s tiny! I tend to imagine it when I need to imagine Captain Clarady at work. The photo shows Drake’s cabin, which was small, but plush by the standards of the day.

The mighty orlops

I wanted to blow up a ship in a harbor (fictionally), making it look like an accident caused by poor storage of too much gunpowder. First, Will figured out that my captain could be carrying 5-7 tons of powder. But where would it be?

A large, three-decked ship had the hold in the bottom of the hull, which was divided into ‘rooms’ using bulkheads. The hold held ship’s stores, victuals and cargo. In a three-decked ship, the two decks above the hold might be called ‘orlops’.

(In ships built by Dr.Seuss, one supposes. The orlops has large, floppy ears and a thin, inquisitive nose. It lives in dense forest habitat, where it thrives on the abundant supply of…. No! Bad brain! Bad, bad! Go back to the real topic!)

The word derives from the Middle Dutch, ‘overloop,’ which is far less delightful. The orlops could be used for stowage, but also served for accommodation.

The deck where the pirates do their dancing

The ship’s superstructure stood on the third deck and consisted of a forecastle at the bow, and a half deck, running from the mainmast to the stern. (This third deck must be the one I would call ‘the outside’ or ‘the top.’ This is the only place you can stand up on the Golden Hind. Also, the audience couldn’t see you if you were dancing in the hold.)

The mainmast provided the age-old demarcation line between the boatswain and common sailors, who lived before the mast, and the master and other officers, who lived aft of it. (Aft means ‘in back of,’ for those of you as directionally challenged as I am. Apparently the stern is also aft, another source of confusion.)

The steersman’s station would be on the half-deck, along with the master’s cabin. The master’s cabin was normally under the poop deck, the highest point of the superstructure. Access to the hold was via a hatchway in front of the mainmast, but smaller hatches, called scuttles, also gave access to all decks for the crew.

So the English sliced off that forecastle at the bow, but left a lowish structure for the master’s cabin under that back part, which must be the poop deck. (Not that kind of poop, you unruly children! This poop derives from the Middle French, ultimately perhaps from classical Latin, puppis, poop or stern. If it were the other kind, the pirates wouldn’t be dancing up there, now would they?)

Boom goes London, or wherever

There’s a great picture of a wooden ship exploding at the Merseyside Maritime museum website, which I don’t have permission to scavenge. Click over and have a look. That’s the Lotty Sleigh in 1864, result of 11 tons of gunpowder. So if my crew stored their 5 tons of gunpowder in the hold under the orlops under the master’s cabin, that part of the ship would be blown to smithereens. And that delightful word comes to us in the early nineteenth century from the Irish smidirín.

Now I leave you with those pirates dancing on the poop deck, with a cast of hundreds and a few pet orlops.

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