Monday, April 18, 2011

Time Travelling Pirates

Two recent books involved a teenager being mysteriously transported to the Golden Age of Pirates and becoming a pirate.

The first one, Pirate Freedom by Gene Wolfe is the better of the two. In it, a young American named Christopher leaves a monastery in post-Castro Cuba and finds himself in the 17th century. He signs on as a sailor, eventually becoming a pirate and working his way up to captain. The mechanics of time travel are never explained, they just happen. The book is very well researched, even if Christopher manages to attract more pirate women than Calico Jack (who had the only two known). The plot covers all aspects of piracy, even the cow killers. It has a couple of sub-plots that only become obvious over time. It is a good read.

The new one, Steel by Carrie Vaughn, just came out. In it, a 16-year-old girl named Jill goes on vacation to the Caribbean after a major fencing match. Jill finds the broken tip of a magic rapier and is transported back in time to the Golden Age of Pirates. She end up on a ship commanded by a woman pirate who is the arch enemy of the pirate who owns the rapier.

The book is ok and probably aimed at teenagers although Vaughn is best known for a series of books aimed at adults about a werewolf named Kitty. The book is a quick read and feels 50-100 pages too short. It has several missed opportunities leaving me wondering if Vaughn was trying to get it onto the stands before Pirates 4 comes out.

Vaughn went to some effort to research her pirates but I do have some complaints. The first one is central to the story - the use of rapiers. I am sure that she used rapiers because they have the closest modern equivalent, the epee. The modern foil and saber are so much lighter than their historic counterparts that the skills needed are completely different between them. The problem is that rapiers were weapons for private duels and nearly useless on a ship in a crowd.

My other complaint is Vaughn's use of women. Jill's captain is a woman and the book says that other members of the crew were also women but dressed like men. None of them are given names or personalities.

While Vaughn tries to present her pirates as historically accurate, they are not very effective. They spend very little time in actual piracy and they set free the slaves that they capture. Note that I have the same complaint about the Disney movies - the pirates spend very little time engaging in acts of piracy.

While the book could stand a rewrite, it is still worth reading as is.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Could Pirates Swim?

By tradition, most sailors cannot swim. I've checked around and I can find quotes saying this from the 16th century to the 20th century. Some could but most could not. I find this puzzling.

Swimming is a very useful talent if you are working in and around the water. Sometime things have to be retrieved from divable depths. Some emergency repairs at sea can only be done from the outside by divers.

I can understand why sailors who frequent northern Europe and New England would not know much about swimming. Even in the Summer the water in these latitudes is too cold for swimming and in other seasons it would quickly become fatal. But what about the Caribbean and other warm latitudes?

In some centuries swimming in general was thought to be unhealthy. These were periods when washing was thought to remove needed oils from the hair and skin.

There is also the theory that sailors did not want to know how to swim because it would just prolong their suffering if they fell overboard. There might be something to this. Even sailors who could swim never got in the water unless the ship was at anchor or becalmed. A moving ship would leave them behind quickly and they would be hard to spot in high seas. Then there is the problem with the cold that I already mentioned. In most months someone who fell overboard in the northern Atlantic would be dead from the cold before he could be saved.

The problem is finding a period quote to document this. Sometimes when "everyone knows" something, no one thinks to write it down until it is too late.