Monday, July 30, 2007

Who Let the Cat Out?

"The Cat's out of the Bag now, Mr. Turner", Davey Jones, Dead Man's Chest.

Where did that phrase come from? Several pirate web sites and even a few books on pirates say that it refers to the cat o' nine tails being taken out of its canvas bag.

I disagree.

One reason I don't believe this is that it is not the explanation I grew up with. When I was in grade school I heard that this expression was paired with "pig in a poke". According to this explanation, someone would show up on market day with a piglet in a "poke bag" (an old expression for a bag). The buyer was cautioned not to open the bag or the piglet would get loose, thus a "pig in a poke" meant buying something unseen.

Sometimes the contents of the bag got loose and turned out to be a cat instead of a piglet. That "let the cat out of the bag" - it revealed a secret too soon.

The general usage of the phrase agrees with the pig in the poke version. The first recorded use was in 1760 in the London magazine:
"We could have wished that the author... had not let the cat out of the bag."

This has nothing to do with punishment and the cat o' nine tails version doesn't have anything to do with revealing surprises.

I'm even skeptical about the cat o' nine tails being stored in a bag. If you keep leather in a bag it develops curves, especially if it is put away wet. For best results you would want it straight. This is best done by hanging it by the handle.

As further confirmation, the French have their own version of the pig-in-a-poke/cat-out-of-the-bag saying:
"acheter chat en poche" (="buy a cat in a bag").

So where did the cat o' nine tails version come from? This message board attributes it to
CANOE (the Campaign to Attribute Naval Origins to Everything).

Another example of CANOE - the "square meal'. This is often attributed to the Royal Navy serving meals on a square trencher. Actually, it means a "fair meal". "Fair and square" were used together and interchangeably for some time. Look at FDR's "Square deal". This may have come from cockney rhyming slang.

I also saw the phrase "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" attributed to being flogged with the cat o' nine tails. The idea was that if you go easy on me, I'll go easy on you when your turn comes.

I don't accept that one either. The phrase needs no further explanation. The middle of the back is hard to reach and a really bad itch requires someone else to scratch it. The phrase means "If you do something for me, I'll do something for you." Common usage does not agree with the flogging version.

While I'm on the subject, "rule of thumb" isn't quite a nautical phrase but you would expect a ship's carpenter to use it. It means a rough measure. In the 1970s, a feminist invented a new meaning - that a husband could beat his wife with a stick as long as it wasn't thicker than his thumb. In this usage, the word "rule" changes meaning. Again, it does not agree with how people actually use the phrase.

While I'm talking about cats, I should mention the phrase "not enough room to swing a cat."

The actual derivation of this phrase is lost. It is often attributed to swinging a cat o' nine tails but this cannot be correct. Flogging was done in public as a lesson to the rest of the crew. The sailor was tied to the main mast on the open deck where there was always enough room to swing a cat o' nine tails.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A new sail

Jennie took some pictures while I was trying to sail over the weekend. After looking at them I decided to make a new sail. I knew that the first one was a bit small but I worried about tipping the boat with a larger one. Now that I have tried it, it is time to go with a bigger one.

I considered getting a new mast but I don't want one that is too big for the van. Also, I've read descriptions of sprit-rigged boats where the mast and sprit will fit in the boat.

The solution is to move the sprit up the mast a bit. This takes more strain so I couldn't just lash it to the mast and hope it holds. I drilled a hole in the mast and ran the snotter (I still love that word) through the hole and down to a cleat I had previously attached. I also slotted the base of the sprit so that the snotter holds it closer to the mast.

I haven't tried any math but I suspect that the new sail is twice the area of the old one. I'm not sure if this will make sailing easier or more difficult. I will be able to sit on the rear seat and handle both the sail and the tiller but that shifts too much weight back.

Yesterday I modified the daggerboard so that I can sit on the middle seat with it in. This distributes the weight better but I may have to lean back to keep the sail taut. We will see.

I'm still using a canvas drop-cloth. This is cheap but it might be letting too much wind through. I may paint it to seal it better.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

So long Pirate Master

CBS has canceled Pirate Master. People who care about the show will still be able to watch the remaining five episodes on streaming video from the official web site with one new episode posted each Tuesday.

I'm not surprised. The show missed its real market by a full year. Last year was the Summer of the pirate. This is the Summer of Harry Potter.

Also, the show was kind of boring. Each episode started with a race to find the treasure with two randomly chosen crews. The rest of the show was devoted to politics and who would be given the "black spot". Three contestants were given the black spot and the remaining crew voted on which of them would be "cut adrift" (eliminated from show).

The show had thing to do with pirates except for the backstory on the treasure. Somehow the crew with the current captain and officers kept winning week after week which made it even more monotonous. Also, the format seems self-limiting. At some point there will not be enough crew to go around - the format calls for three officers, three people with the black spot, and someone to vote. Maybe that's why there are eight contestants left but only five episodes.

Regardless, I don't care for all of the back-biting and politics.

My idea of a good reality sow starts this week - Stan Lee's Who Wants to be a Superhero? There was no backbiting or politics in the first series. Everyone was making a serious effort to act like a superhero and there was little money at stake. People were eliminated according to tests, both formal and informal. Not all of the tests were what the heroes thought they were.

But the big networks know better than the cable channels how to run a reality show. That's why Superhero is back for a second season and PM is off the air.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Testing the Boat II

I made a few adjustments in my sailing rig. I added a line for taking in the top of the sprit and I redesigned the rudder mount. Originally I made it so that the rudder could swing back if I hit bottom. This was based on the official version. The new version has a block which attaches to the boat in the slot meant for an outboard motor. There are three eyebolts which hold a dowel. The rudder is then attached to the dowel at four places. This gives it a lot more support.

Everything worked fine. I was able to sail around the lake. My biggest problem is that the wind gave out once I got a ways from the dock. I spent a while waiting for gusts strong enough to sail with but eventually I got bored and rowed back.

It is possible that the sail is letting too much wind through. It is a wide weave. I may paint it to give it more body. I'm considering painting it black with a skull and crossbones but I may just go for white.

After I tired of sailing I stashed the sailing gear and t Jennie out for a row. I had trouble with the cross-wind wanting to point the boat in a different direction but otherwise, it went fine. Jennie stayed in the boat this time. She is having trouble with her knees being stiff so climbing into the boat was difficult for her. I beached it and let her climb out the front which worked much better.

Conclusion - I will be able sail at the pirate event in three weeks but I will have to be by myself. If there is any sort of water-battle then I will be rowing.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Boarding Ship

Nearly every pirate movie ever made has a scene with the pirates swinging from one ship to the other.

What are those ropes attached to?

Pirate ships normally had 1-3 masts. You can't swing from these. You would be too high by the time you got to the other ship.

If the ship is square-rigged then it has one or more yards - horizontal spars that hold up the sail. There might be more than one on a mast but you can only swing from the lowest. Use a higher yard and you will run into the lower one with comical results. You also have to be careful not to run into the sail that hangs from the yard.

So we have at most three pirates swinging onto an opposing ship at a time. Not very effective.

The movies get around this by attaching the ropes to something off-camera.

In a later post I will describe how a real pirate battle was fought.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Last year Mythbusters did a pirate episode. One of the myths they explored was "Do the splinters caused by a cannon ball kill more pirates than the cannon ball itself?" They decided that this was a myth. I disagree.

First, I will grant that a cannon ball striking you is more likely to cause death than a splinter - even a juge splinter. That's assuming that it hits you. A cannon ball is pretty small - a few inches across. Unless you are unlucky enough to be standing in the path of a cannon ball you are not going to be hit.

On the other hand, if a cannon ball strikes the hull or a mast near you then splinters are going to fly everywhere.

My other point of disagreement - they heard the myth wrong. More people were injured by splinters than cannon balls. If they had phrased it that way then there would be no doubt.

Do not underestimate splinters. I just read an account in Under the Black Flag which describes someone being hit in the foot with a splinter. It pierced his foot and tore off part of his heel bone. That's a pretty good splinter.

Plus, once a dirty piece of wood has stabbed you, you might die a lingering death anyway. Many pirate ships did not have a doctor.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Testing the Boat

First - what is the best small boat for a pirate? I've been reading Under the Black Flag and it is clear that dug-out canoes were almost universal in the Americas. They were used as general open coastal and river craft, as tenders for merchant ships, and as small attack crafts by pirates. In a few cases, pirate attacks were made exclusively by canoes.

There are good reasons for their popularity. A small boat takes a lot of skilled effort to make. Someone has to cut the wood, saw it into planks, let it dry (possibly), plane it and finally make it into a boat. These all required skilled craftsmen.

On the other hand, making a dug-put canoe mainly requires a large tree and some time. You cut down the tree, cut it to length, then slowly use a smoldering fire to hollow out the canoe.

There are a lot of draw-backs to a dug-out. They could be quite wide but were always narrow. More important for modern pirates, they tipped over easily. This is especially important to my wife who has no small boat experience.

So we went with a plastic rowboat which looks like it was traditionally made.

It came ready to row but it took me a few weeks to get it ready to sail. The sail itself was easy but I also had to make a rudder and dagger board. Note - Dagger boards were not period. The technology needed to make a hole in the bottom of the boat and seal it to a guide is pretty modern. I half considered using leeboards which are attached on each side. You drop the one on the lee side (away from the wind). I didn't because the rowboat is really too small to accommodate the leeboards and the oars.

So we finally got ready to try the boat.

Getting the boat on top of the van is tough because Jennie can't help much. That means that I have to push a 100+ pound boat myself.

We went to a park with a small boat launch. Since we don't have a trailer we parked and I took the boat down to the water by hand. This wasn't difficult. The "wheel in the keel" helps a lot.

I launched it and Jennie got in. I rowed around a bit. It rowed fairly well. I had a bit of trouble steering because of a side-wind.

So we decided to try it with the sail.

For rowing, I sat in the middle seat and Jennie sat in the rear. In order to sail, I would have to be in the back and Jennie in the middle. I pulled the boat up to the dock and got out to get the sail and other equipment.

Having Jennie move was a bit of a disaster. She fell out in a classic Funniest Home Videos move. It seems that he knees are too weak to simply turn around so she had to stand up and lost her balance.

That's why she was wearing a life jacket.

So there she was, holding to the dock and unable to climb out. At someone else's suggestion, she held on to the boat and we pulled her to shallow water.

BTW, what would happen if Jennie tipped the boat over and spilled both of us out? Simple - I would climb back in then the the oars to tow her to land. Two years ago I was able to climb into the Pilgrim Shallop and it has higher sides.

New plan - I would test the sail by myself.

It worked. A moderate breeze moved the boat and I could change direction. I was testing to see how close I could sail to the wind when I had a problem. I had mounted the tiller using a wooden dowel and it wasn't string enough. Suddenly I was at the mercy of the wind. I tried to take the sail in but the sprit was harder to take in from the boat than I had hoped. I unloosed the snotter (isn't that a great term) but the sail was still catching the wind. I took the sail down completely which solved that problem but was more involved than I want.

Improvements for next time:

Obviously I need to come up with a better rudder mount. I think I will redesign the tiller, making it longer so that I can reach it from the middle seat easier. I also want it to pivot up so that I don't have to move around it when I am on the rear seat.

I also want to put in an extra line for taking in the sprit. That part should not be difficult.

So sailing time was much too short but it showed that I am on the right track.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Cutthoat Island

There wasn't anything on tv so we pulled out Cutthroat Island. It was the first time we watched it since it came out in 1995. Along with Hook (1991), this was the main pirate movie from the 1990s and it was a box office bomb. What happened?

The movie itself isn't bad. The plot moves along. The acting is ok. Geena Davis is believable as a woman pirate. She is around six feet tall and an Olympic athlete (in archery). The sets, costumes, and ships all look great. The action sequences are a bit over-the-top with exploding cannon balls but they aren't laugh-out-loud bad.

Probably the concept itself was flawed. Davis had just married action director, Renny Harlin and they wanted to do a movie together.

I don't know why they chose a costume piece. Neither one had done one before. Davis was a minor box office draw. She had been in several movies that made money but she never had top billing and she was usually overshadowed by her co-stars. Harlin's career was pretty limited at the time with a flop or two (The Adventures of Ford Fairlane) and a couple of razzies.

Put it all together - little-known stars and director and a genre that hadn't produced a hit since the 1950s along with a big budget and you have a spectacular failure in the making.

No wonder people expected Pirates of the Caribbean to flop.

Regardless, it is a watchable movie. Several bits were lifted from the PotC ride. There is a treasure in a cave with skulls scattered around and a city reminiscent of Pirate's version of Tortuga.

If you need a pirate fix this will satisfy you.

Monday, July 9, 2007

On the Santa Maria

Jennie and I provided some color for a party on the Santa Maria. It was an interesting experience. The hosts originally figured that we would just be some people in costume that the ship rounded up. Instead, we literally wrote the book on the Santa Maria (specifically, we wrote the interpretive manual).

Everyone wanted to pose for a picture with the pirates. Here's one of me with the birthday girl (her 30th) and one of Jennie. The older attendees wanted to know about maritime life. It was a little confusing - should I answer based on the ship or based on being an 18th century pirate? I ended up doing a bit of both.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Monkey Island

Undead pirates! Monkeys! A young man who becomes a pirate and wows the pretty governor!  Cannibals who tie the hero to a stake! A voodoo priestess who gives advice. Sounds like a rip-off of Pirated of the Caribbean. In fact, all of this came from the Monkey Island series of computer games which premiered in 1990.

The hero of the games is Guybrush Threepwood, a young man who wants to be a pirate. He meets the pirate council who give him three tests. Along the way he meets some unusual characters including the governor of the Melee Island (it takes a while before they actually get to Monkey Island). The gameplay was mouse driven. There are several duels but, as it is revealed to Guybrush, the secret is not how you use your sword, it is your witty rejoinders. Guybrush also learns a little about the backstory - there is a treasure on Monkey Island guarded by LeChuck the undead Pirate and his skeletal crew. There is also a ship that went looking for Monkey Island. When it returned it was crewed entirely by monkeys/

By the time Threepwood solves the tests and becomes a pirate, LeChuck has kidnapped the governor. Threepwood must assemble a crew and acquire a ship (from Stan the used ship salesman). Like all good pirate destinations, there is no map to Monkey Island. Instead there is a recipe for soup. When the soup is made, it releases a cloud that causes everyone on the ship to fall asleep. When they wake up they are on Monkey Island.

The game is full of puzzles and jokes, many of them in-jokes referring to other games.

Of course, Threepwood manages to rescue the Governor and "kill" LeChuck. He has a brief fling with the Governor but they break up in time for the second game.

In all, there are four games. The first two are low-res 320x200 graphics. The next one uses much better graphics and is animated cartoon-style. The third one uses 3-D graphics and abandons the mouse in favor of the keyboard.

The end of the second game and parts of the third game have a parody of Disney-land. In his spare time, LeChuck built a theme park complete with a ride showing key scenes in the continuing fight between himself and Guybrush.

There is an open-source version of the SCUMM gaming system that the LucasArts games used prior to 1998 and fans have created a new game around Herman Toothrot, one of the minor characters.

Game creator Ron Gilbert credited the Pirates of the Caribbean ride as one of his inspirations. The game itself seems to have inspired parts of the movies, especially the voodoo lady. All of this was in the family. The games were produced by LucasArts entertainment which is owned by George Lucas whose company Industrial Light and Magic did most of the special effects for PotC.

Check it out - it's the most fun a pirate can have on dry land without sacking a city.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Aarr - Now THAT's a tall ship

The biggest yacht ever built - just under 300 feet long with masts 192 feet tall. And it sails without sending a crew aloft! Don't forget to look at the slideshow.

No word on how much treasure this beauty hauls. Just as well. No ordinary ship could catch her.