Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Ship or Fort

Ok, a pirate ship is attacking a town which is guarded by a fort. Which has the advantage?

This gets complicated fast. A small pirate ship will have the disadvantage, especially if it has smaller cannons. The fort will also have an advantage if it is high on a hill since the elevation will rob the ship's cannon balls of their momentum while aiding the fort's cannons.

But let's assume that the fort is a guarded with stone walls on modest rise but not really up in the air. Let's also assume that the pirate ship has several good-sized cannons. Who would win?

The answer is counter-intuitive. At first glance it seems like a wooden ship is going to be a sitting duck against a stone fort.

Here's an experiment to try. Take a sledge hammer and go hit a stone wall a few times. Chances are pretty good that you will damage it. Now, take the same hammer and go hit a tree. Chances are really good that you will not do much damage. Stone is brittle so it doesn't react well to cannon fire. A wood ship, on the other hand, is difficult to sink with cannon fire. If the ship is made from live oak then it is nearly impossible to sink (Old Ironsides earned her name because cannon balls bounced off).

Of course, a fort has to have stone walls. If it has timber walls then the pirates can storm the walls on foot and cut a hole. If it has earthen walls then they can climb them. The best forts had earthen walls faced with stone. These were expensive and took up a lot of land. They are also bigger and require more people to defend.

A ship has some other advantages. A fort often has cannons facing the wrong direction. Moving them takes time. A ship can bring all of its cannon to bear by simply turning.

A fort's cannons are difficult to aim at a moving target. The best thing is to wait for the ship to come in range and try to hit it then. This is harder if the ship is turning or changing speed. Again, the ship can turn so the gunners can wait until their guns are aimed properly before firing. This takes talent.

The ship does not even need to fight. The easiest way past a fort is to slip past in the dark, carried by the tide. Once the ship is past the fort, the town can be taken and the residents held hostage until the fort is surrendered.

Morgan came up with a new twist. After slipping past a fort, he found it strongly manned when he went to leave. He spent the next day rowing men to shore for a land assault. The commander of the fort repositioned the cannons to cover the land instead of the bay. It turned out that Morgan tricked them. The boat had taken the same load of men back and forth all day. They would row to shore then hide beside the boat and be towed back to the ship. In the dark of the night, Morgan's fleet raised anchor and let the tide carry them past the fort. This was so clever that Sabatini had Captain Blood do the same thing.

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