February 13, 2011

Blasts from the Past

"A galleon," growled Smithy between outbursts. The sound of cannons seemed to ricochet from the stars."


A deep explosion echoes across the surface of the water. You feel the vibration rattle your vitals from the inside out. Cannon fire at sea was the sound of the Age of Sail. It was feared by some and adored by others. Of all the topics I enjoyed researching for my historical adventure, THE PRIVATEER, those blistering cannons echoing over the horizon are among my favorite.

Studying pirates sounds like fun and it is, but throw in the British Navy and all the heavily rated man-of-war and it's time to get down to serious business. Long guns, carronades, rockets and even bombs, sailors at sea had one primary weapon for attack and defense and that was gun powder.

Under the supervision of the Powder Room, little powder monkeys (usually small boys who could dodge the melee of a gun deck), ran the supplies back and forth from storage to gun crews. Gunpowder at that time was a mixture of saltpeter, sulphur and charcoal. The powder was kept in flannel bags and it had to stay dry.

Gun crews worked the cannons in and out. These unbelievably heavy guns got very hot. Men not only had to worry about being crushed by the ricochet of the cannon as it bounced back after firing, they had to worry about burns and explosions, too. A talented and experienced officer was necessary to coordinate the activities of the gun crews with the captain’s orders--a true ballet of destruction.

Besides cannons shooting from side to side (broadsides), some ships also had chasers, smaller artillery at either the bow or stern, or both. After these avenues were exhausted, it was down to muskets and small arms. Can you imagine? Two ships brushing up against each another in jerky thrusts as the sea heaved them up and down, the air thick with acrid smoke and the screams of men.

Not a pretty picture, warfare, even in the age of gentleman officers and the occasional gentleman pirate. But studying ships and Age of Sail warfare can add a lot of color to historical prose. For me it brought to life my hero's ship, the Specter, in my Caribbean pirating novel, THE PRIVATEER:

The reign of piracy is over in the Caribbean, or so it’s believed, until diamonds are discovered in Brazil. Despite the cover-up, Captain Julius Bertrand begins to hear whispers. The Spanish guardacostas are dumping log books, and a new French pirate is on the prowl. Distracted by an avaricious woman he could never love and the beautiful Kate O’Connell who doesn’t need him, he tries to untangle the web of mysterious cargo someone in the New World wants kept secret. When Bertrand’s pirating past returns with the explosive force of a sweeping broadside, he finds he must sacrifice everything his respectable life has brought him, in order to save what matters most.

To learn more about the Age of Sail and battle, I highly recommend the Master and Commander series by Patrick O’Brian. May I suggest you begin with the second volume, POST CAPTAIN? And don’t forget the superb lexicon for Age of Sail vocabulary, A SEA OF WORDS. You might also check out the Thomas Kydd series and the classic, HORATIO HORNBLOWER. Reading and enjoying Age of Sail fiction can not only be a satisfying and exciting way to learn about battle at sea--it may just blow your mind!

Danielle Thorne


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Desert Breeze Publishing

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