It has been a little while since I have visited this topic, but now with the new book from D&D coming out, it seems like a good time to jump back into the subject. This post is going to go into more of the top level system agnostic information, and I will likely structure future posts like this until the new D&D book rolls out. I don’t want to present house rules for something that there are official rules for. So without further ado.
Duties on a Pirate Ship
Some of the important things to know about pirate ships we have already covered, but in a brief review. Most ships, unless the ship was owned by the captain, elected what their voyages would look like, they relied on their captain to take charge in fights and when giving chase to a prize, but beyond that, the crew could always vote to shift the course, or even boot the captain. Everyone on a ship is, more or less, equal. This means that everyone will get a share of the loot. The one position that may not get a full share is that of the any ‘boys’ on the ship. Those under 16 were essentially treated like apprentices on some ships, meanwhile, on others, they would get a half or even a full share for their time on board, that all depends on the generosity of the crew. Captains like Black Bart Roberts ensured all members of his crew got a full share, including the boys.
We talked a little bit about the roles on a pirate ship and what they did as part of that role, but there is some day to day basics that need to be accounted for. There is, of course, sitting in the crows nest and working as a lookout, aiding the carpenter in repair work, checking the integrity of weaponry and lifeboats, sewing and mending canvas, keeping of the ships log, and swabbing; tarring; caulking the decks. Most of these duties are carried about by the lower ranking sailors on the ship, but it was not unheard of for officers to join in with their crew.
In the Crows Nest
The first duty we are going to dive into is being the lookout. This was typically handled in 4 to 6-hour shifts and primarily held by lower-ranking shipmates. The reason – it is grueling and boring. You would be sitting in the crows nest for hours looking across the sea, with no cover from the sun, the wind, the rain. It was not a desirable task. But, it was also an important one to not mess up.
The Ships Carpenter, sometimes referred to as the ‘Chip’, in charge of the integrity of all the wood on a ship. They act as a mechanic and engineer. They would be in charge of all repairs to everything from the hull of the ship, to the mast, down to the lifeboats. They would often need assistance in their duties, and these tasks were typically handled by the more established seamen aboard the crew.
Repairing the Sheets
When there is a battle, storms, and gusts of wind, you are going to get wear and tear on the sheets, or sails. The sheets are made of canvas for the most part and it would be up to the Bo’sun of many ships to be in charge of making sure the sheets are repaired, whether they sat down with a needle and thread themselves or got a lower ranking sailor to jump on the task. Putting Three Sheets to the wind would get you out of there, but, only if there were no holes.
Swab the Deck!
Alright, swabbing the deck, the lowest of the low when it comes to duties on the ship, except maybe pumping the bilge. A clean deck means you know the condition of the wood, there’s nothing slick on the deck like blood or vomit from last nights celebrations. You want a certain level of cleanliness on the floor of your home on the ocean. The other things that are taken care of on the deck are tarring the deck.
When we talk about Tarring the deck we are talking about taking pine or wood tar and rubbing it into the wood of the deck. This serves to make it more water resistant and resistant to day to day wear and tear of having a crew running back and forth on it. This is something often thought of to do while in port or if you have careened your ship to clear the barnacles and boatworms.
Caulking is done in addition to tarring. You use rope or other strands of fabric to fill in all the cracks of the wood, you then seal it with pine tar to allow for your ship to be watertight at all times. You don’t want your ship to sink in a storm because you didn’t caulk appropriately.
Taking Care of the Hull
The hull of the ship is like the walls to your house. In fact, since most pirates called their ship home, it was the walls of your house. This brings up one of the major differences between merchant sailors to pirate sailors – most of the task associated with taking care of the hull annoyed merchant sailors. When they were with their ship they wanted to be moving cargo, when they weren’t sailing they wanted to be ashore, if they needed to clean their hull they wanted to be paid extra, which means that merchant ships often didn’t keep as good care of their hull as pirates, who loved their ship like their home, and it wasn’t just how they made money, but it was how they survived.
Taking care of a ship, especially for pirates, involved careening their ship. This was not just dangerous to the ship but also the crew. The pirates would find a relatively abandoned beach and that clear of anything large that could damage the hull. The would then, using their longboat or lifeboats, unload everything they possibly could from the ship. Once the ship was as light as possible they would wait until high tide and sail the ship as close to the beach as they could, and as the tide rolled out the ship would lay on its side. They would also sometimes use long ropes and pirate manpower to drag the ship ashore to make sure they had plenty of time and access to do their duties.
Once the ship was careened the real work would begin. They would have to check every inch of the hull to look for holes, crack, barnacles, and shipworms. It was important for the sailors to look closely and make sure to caulk and fill any holes and cracks, to knock and barnacles or other sea life off the hull, and to get rid of shipworms. You hear about barnacles, but the true enemy to a ship is shipworms, which aren’t actually worms but ‘Wood Clams’ that love to just eat and tunnel through the wood. If a ship was infested with them it was often hard to keep the ship afloat for long. Sometimes it was as simple as sanding a part of the hull other times entire planks needed to be replaced, and there was always a possibility that the ship was just doomed to sink. It wasn’t till the early 1700’s that some merchants began painting their hulls white lead-based paint to prevent the shipworms from wreaking havoc on a hull.
There are stories of pirates taking their prisoners from ships they have captured and forcing them to do the labor, but it always seemed to end up faster and better if the crew just did it themselves.
The major reason that this was done was to keep a ship a sleek as possible in the water. This is how their ships would outrun the envy and chase down merchants (who weren’t as likely to have done as good or recent a job of cleaning their hull).
And, that is just a few of the duties of the crew aboard a ship. Some duties I haven’t mentioned here may come up in future posts. So to hear more about cooking, tending to wounds, or pumping the bilge come back soon. I am also looking at doing a post on how pirates keep themselves entertained soon. If you have any aspects of pirate life you would like me to delve deeper into and how you can use it for your Dungeons and Dragons or other RPG let me know!