Monday, November 12, 2012

Mythbusters and Cannons

The November 11, 2012 Mythbusters probably elevated what must have been an obscure myth (I never heard it before) into common knowledge. They have done this before. Their pirates wearing an eyepatch to see in the dark is the most infamous example. They also repeated the idea that you never use the edge of a sword to parry a cut (this rule is pretty much limited to 15th century two-handed swords).

In this case the idea is that in the 15th century they used stone cannon balls so that the enemy could not gather up spent balls and return fire with them. Their testing showed that a granite ball will do comparable damage to a steel ball but will shatter so that it cannot be reused. There are numerous problems with their testing and methodology.

They did their testing against "castles". That means that we are talking about siege pieces instead of field pieces. They did their testing with "Old Moses", a field piece. This is important.

Cannons were rare in the 15th century. Siege pieces were often made specifically for the siege. They shot large balls. One of the surviving 15th century siege pieces, the Great Turkish Bombard, fired balls that were nearly two feet in diameter.

Think about this. There was no standard bore since all of the cannons were custom-made for the occasion and they were used as siege pieces meaning that they were fired at the walls of a castle or city. But the myth assumes that the defenders just happen to have a cannon that uses the same size ball, that they have plenty of powder but have run out of cannon balls, and that they are willing and able to open the gates and rummage around looking for 2-foot balls of iron that they can carry inside. Plus there is the assumption that the iron balls would still be usable and retrievable.

Every part of this myth is preposterous. Even during the Spanish Armada in the 1580s, Spanish cannons were so unique that some ships had to quit firing before they ran out of powder because the only cannon balls left were for the wrong side's cannons.

During a siege, gunpowder, not balls, were normally what was in short supply. Since the attackers were normally entrenched, there was little for a siege gun to fire at, anyway.

Stone balls were used because:

  1. Siege pieces like the Great Turkish Bombard were not well made and needed to launch a lighter projectile or risk exploding.
  2. Stone was cheaper than iron. Iron casting technology was still in its infancy. The best cannons were made from bronze or brass but these metals were too expensive to use for ammunition. The Great Turkish Bombard is bronze.
  3. Siege engineers were used to launching stone balls since they had been used for centuries in trebuchets.

This episode made the news when a stray cannon ball bounced off of a backstop, went through three houses, and landed in a car. This happened when they added extra powder to a short, home-made cannon to see if they could get it to shoot at the same speed as Old Moses. The footage of the short cannon being fired shows that the muzzle was elevated even though it should have been firing point blank (no elevation). This probably contributed to the accident.

At times the team congratulated themselves for being the first people in five hundred years to fire a stone cannon ball. Actually, they were not even the first ones on the show to fire one. A stone ball was used when they made a cannon from a tree. Jamie retrieved the ball and used it again.

None of this has anything to do with the the Golden Age of Piracy but I know I am going to hear about it every time I bring out my cannon. It is going to be worse on the Santa Maria where we have stone balls to reduce breech pressure.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Bounty Abandoned

The crew of the HMS Bounty had to abandon ship during Hurricane Sandy. Of the 16 member crew, 14 have been picked up by the Coast Guard after taking to the lifeboats. Two are still missing. Earlier reports had said that there were 17 crew members.

The ship had been on route from Connecticut to St. Petersburg, Florida and had tried to go around the storm.

The last anyone knows, the ship was still intact and floating.

The ship was built for the 1962 movie Mutiny on the Bounty. It was supposed to have been burned at the end of production, just as the original was, but star, Marlin Brando, refused to finish the movie unless the ship was preserved.

It has been in a number of other movies since then including PoTC: Dead Man's Chest.

I went through it last Summer when it participated in Opsail 2012. A crew member admitted to me that the copy is a bit bigger than the original in order to accommodate the film crew.

UPDATE: The 15th member of the crew was found but did not survive. She was Claudene Christian, age 42 and a relative of Fletcher Christian from the original Bounty.

Captain Robin Walbridge has not been recovered yet.

The ship itself sank in 18 feet of water and its masts are still visible. Hopefully it can be raised.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Navigation and the Parallel Ruler

One thing that I seldom see in navigational displays (including mine) is a parallel ruler. This was indispensable.

The parallel ruler is a pair of rulers connected by a pair of bars. The bars let you move the rulers apart but always keep them parallel.

In order to get from one place to another you need to know what course to use. One way to do this would be to use a protractor but period mapmakers usually provided ways of figuring your course without this. These require a parallel ruler.

One way was to include a compass rose on the map. You would mark the direction you need to follow then walk the ruler up to the compass rose to see what heading that corresponds with.

Period navigation was known as "loxodronic". Lines known as "loxodrons" would be drawn on the maps, usually in open spaces. These were conveniences and corresponded to headings. You lined up the course you needed to take then walked the parallel ruler across the map until you hit a corresponding loxodron. You then took your heading from the loxodron. These are longer than a compass rose and easier to match with.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Skull and Bones by John Drake

John Drake set himself the task of writing the backstory of Treasure Island, answering such questions as "who was Captain Flint?" and "Where did the treasure come from and why is it buried on Treasure Island?" This was spread over three books: Flint and Silver, Pieces of Eight, and Skull and Bones.

Flint and Silver introduces us to the characters. By the end, Long John Silver is marooned on the island along with a crew. In Pieces of Eight, Silver's crew fortifies the island for Flint's inevitable return. By the end of the book, Silver is in possession of some of the treasure, the ship the Walrus, and his beloved wife Selena. Flint is in custody of the Royal Navy.

Skull and Bones picks up from there. The book has many twists as Flint, Silver, and Selena take separate journeys that all lead to London then to Annapolis and Savannah. It is the weakest of the three with no strong plot. It is more like one thing after another. It also lacks any exciting battles. There is a battle at the end but the lead characters are more spectators that participants.

Of the three books, Pieces of Eight (the middle one) is the strongest. While it has many twists and turns, it also builds to the inevitable confrontation on the Island. It is possible to read this one separately from the others.

All three books are well-researched and written in a style that sounds both old-timey and nautical. They are eminently readable. I recommend all three.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Navigation in the Golden Age of Piracy

I've been doing presentations on navigation for twenty years but I seldom have enough time to get into the details. It has been a while since I have posted more here than just even write-ups so I am overdue for something with some meat on it.

Navigation breaks down into three parts - figuring where you are going, recording where you have gone, and computing where you are. All of this applies to open water navigation. Simply following the coast does not require any special skills or knowledge.

The first part of navigation is known as "loxodromic navigation". This consists of figuring the proper heading to get from one point to another. To sail from New York to London you sail at 73 degrees. Since period compasses had 32 points instead of 360 degrees, this meant sailing East-northeast.

Loxodromes are also known as rhumb lines.

Because maps are a flat projection of a round surface, getting the rhumb line correct can be difficult. Also, maps of the period were not particularly accurate so you might sail to the proper place on the map and discover that you are still in the wrong place. My navigation display includes a map of the Atlantic in which Florida is too small and at the wrong angle. Anyone sailing for Florida using this map would hit land far east of where it shows.

In general, large scale maps were worse than small scale ones.

In addition to these problems, the wind seldom cooperates. Chances are that you will not be able to sail a direct course to your destination. That means that you have to keep track of where you have gone in order to figure where you are. This is known as "dead reckoning".

There are special tools used for dead reckoning navigation. The first is the sand glass. This is a half-hour glass. Every half hour it is turned and the current speed and heading are marked. A board called a "traverse board" was used for this. It had a face that looked like a compass with eight concentric circles of 32 holes (256 holes total). The first time the glass is turned a pin will be placed in the innermost hole corresponding to the current heading. The second ring of holes is used for the next reading and so on for eight turnings of the glass.

At the same time the ship's speed would be measured by throwing the end of a knotted line overboard and timing it with a small sand glass. When the glass ran out you would count the knots that had unspooled. Nautical speed is still called "knots" because for centuries it was measured by knots in a string. There was a scale for recording this at the bottom of the traverse board (to save space it was usually two scales of four hours each). At the end of a four hour shift the board would have eight measurements. These would be recorded for the navigator. He would then plot out the position on a chart.

The navigator would also have to estimate drift. This was done by dropping a weighted line in clear water and seeing how much it bowed away from straight. There were no tools to help with this. It had to be done by eye and experience.

All of this gave crude approximations and in heavy storm sailors often stopped measuring speed or direction. A navigator could check his calculations using the sun and the stars. There were several tools that could be used for this including the quadrant, the astrolabe, the cross staff, and the backstaff (which was only suitable for measuring the sun). None of these could give longitude (east and west), only latitude (north and south).

Sighting the North Star was the easiest. Whatever angle it is at is your latitude. But it is a star and harder to see in clouds or a haze. Also, as Columbus noted, the North Star moves slightly during the night.

Finding the latitude with the sun requires several sightings taken around noon. The highest one is local noon. This angle is subtracted from 90 (because it is relative to the equator instead of the north pole). The high point of the sun moves from one day to the next as the Earth tilts on its axis. Twice a year on the equinox the sun is directly above the equator and no other measurements need to be taken. The rest of the year the navigator needs an almanack. This gives the correction for the date but it requires the navigator to know the approximate latitude. After this correction has been applied then the navigator has his latitude.

It was notoriously difficult to get a good reading on the sun or the north star while on a moving ship. Because of the crudity of the instruments, latitude figured on dry land could be off as much as 80 miles. On a ship that could be 300 miles.

There were other ways of checking your location. Islands often have clouds hanging over them that can be seen even when the island itself is below the horizon.

The sea bottom can be a source of information if it is shallow enough to measure. Depth was measured with a sounding lead. This was a long piece of lead attached to a long rope. The rope was marked at six foot intervals with standard markings. The first fathom was normally a leather strip with two ends. The second one had a leather strip with three ends. The third one had a white rag. The fourth had a red rag. Etc.

The bottom of the sounding lead had a hollow spot that was filled with brown tallow (meat fat). Just before the lead was dropped a fresh coat of white tallow would be applied. This is soft and sticky enough to bring up the soil from the bottom.

A detailed chart would indicate what sort of bottom was in different areas and indicate the depth.

Even if you were out of sight of land you might discover some useful information. Rivers will deposit silt miles from land so they can be detected while in open ocean.

Even with all of these tools, navigation was a hit-and-miss art. Some navigators would play it safe by going to the correct latitude first then sailing east or west to their destination. This was an opportunity for pirates. They could increase their chances of finding prey by cruising back on forth along well-traveled latitudes.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Michigan Pirate Festival

The Michigan Pirate Festival was last week. It is actually multiple events. The first happens at the public library and runs Monday through Friday. This was a highly successful, kids-oriented event. There were long lines each day and thousands attended. Late Friday afternoon has a "pirate sail-in". The sail-in had to be cancelled this year because of bad weather. Waves ranged from 4' close to shore to 5'-7' further out. It was also raining much of the day.

On Saturday and Sunday the festival moved and expanded to Harbor Island. This is the part that we participated in.

The festival was set up as a large square. A timeline of historic pirates was on one side. The far side featured ren-fair pirates. The isles in-between had vendors. The middle of the square was devoted to entertainment, much of it kid-oriented.

We were set up beside the Forsaken. We brought my boat the Firefly which was mounted with my swivel gun. I also brought my cannon, a navigation display, and some weapons. Beside us was Mission the Pirate-Surgeon with his ever-popular display of early 18th century medical equipment. The Forsaken had a large set-up with a tavern, their gibbet and pillory, and a couple of other tents.

Across from us was Shenanigans in Leather with SOS Boss doing their own kids' activities.

Further down in the other direction was a different pirate display, some Civil War "pirates", a viking, a Corsair, and some Romans. The Romans brought some siege equipment and a cross. They were big on crucifying people. They even crucified Tinkerbell a couple of times.

The kids area included some famous literary pirates such as Captain Hook who was accompanied by Peter Pan and Tinkerbell and the Dread Pirate Roberts who was accompanied by Princess Buttercup. There was also story-telling, a puppet show, and a trio of mermaids in kiddy pools. There was also a pair of Captain Jack Sparrows (not counting the Jack Sparrow puppet).

Beyond that was a stage that featured fire dancers and an abbreviated Romeo and Juliet. The dancers were accompanied by a couple of electric guitars and a drum set.

Over in the corner was a tavern with what sounded like a decent Irish band. I was too busy to go over and listen to them.

Saturday was cool, sunny, and windy. We brought a shade fly for Mission but the wind pulled the stakes out of the ground (which was still soft from the previous day's rain) and we gave up. We did get the fly to stay up on Sunday which was a little warmer but overcast with less wind.

There was a rather confused battle both days. This involved some of the pirates taking Caesar captive and his being saved by the Forsaken. We were on the same side as the forsaken so we hauled the cannon and the boat to one end of the field (the swivel gun was still mounted on the boat). The other side had a Civil War cannon.

The battle started with Tinkerbell delivering a message to Caesar who had her crucified for her efforts. She probably gave some kids nightmares on Saturday with her acting although once she was up on the cross she said, "I can see my house from here."

After the end of the battle on Saturday the Romans demonstrated their siege equipment. The "Medieval" trebuchet was less than impressive although a different weapons whose name escapes me was able to send an arrow an impressive distance.

On Sunday they fine-tuned the trebuchet and launched some mellons. One wild shot nearly dropped a mellon of Mad d'Dogg. The final one went straight up and almost hit the trebuchet.

We had a stead stream of people although the festival never seemed crowded. We heard on Sunday that 4,000 people had attended on Saturday. I'm sure that the Sunday attendance was at over 2,000.

The festival itself was enjoyable and most of the people who had been at Put-in-Bay were there so we had plenty of friends with us.

Monday, July 23, 2012


I watched Pirates of the Caribbean 4 - On Stranger Tides again last week. That and some news articles on the popularity of mermaid tails got me to thinking about these creatures.

These days we think of mermaids as friendly and human-like. Disney's Little Mermaid acts just like any teen-age girl.

The mermaids in PoTC/OST are different. Grown men throw themselves into the sea rather than face the mermaids. It turns out that they have good reason for this behavior. With the exception of Barbossa and a small landing party, the entire crew is killed by the mermaids.

The mermaids of legend were not much better. They were not as direct but they were often sirens, luring ships into shallow waters where the ship would run aground and its crew would drown.

Other times they were simply a bad omen. Seeing a mermaid meant that you were in danger (possibly because they liked the shallows). Blackbeard seems to have believed this. According to Wikipedia:

The logbook of Blackbeard, an English pirate, records that he instructed his crew on several voyages to steer away from charted waters which he called "enchanted" for fear of merfolk or mermaids, which Blackbeard and members of his crew reported seeing.

Anything that Blackbeard was wary of was dangerous, indeed.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

It's Great to be a Pirate

Facebook is still full of posts about the Put-In-Bay Pirate Fest. The same thing happened after the last pirate event on the Santa Maria - people were excited about it for days. I'm thinking about how this compares with the 17th century colonial and English Civil War events I spent decades going to.

The numbers were similar. Except for a very few anniversary events, 17th century events were never huge and have been shrinking for the last 15-20 years. We had around 20 at Put-in-bay and close to 40 at the Santa Maria. This is more than I have seen at a 17th century event in years.

People mixed more. Most 17th century events are military events with participants coming as part of specific units. The units tend to keep to themselves. When events were bigger, some units took the distinction between officers and common soldiers a little too seriously. I remember seeing officers watch as soldiers pitched their pavilions for them. These same officers got steak while the common men got stew.

I don't see much of that in pirate reenacting. There are different crews but at the last couple of events no one cared. Even at larger pirate events the crews mix a lot more than at military events.

All of this is good. There is less friction and everyone gets along better. The end result is that everyone enjoys themselves more and wants to do more with that group of people.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Put-in-Bay Pirate Fest 2012

PIB Pirate Fest IV, the Revenge is over and was a success. This was the third one we have been officially involved with.

I think that we had a few more people than last year although not everyone from last year came. We had several new faces this year. All of them were at the spring Pirate Event at the Santa Maria and were still enthusiastic.\

Our display area was bigger this year with around eight display areas. As with the Santa Maria, the biggest attraction was the gibbet and pillory that the Beach Brothers brought.

The Festival made it worth their while - Billy Beach won the costume contest along with a trip to the Cayman Islands. His younger brother Clint won it a couple of years ago.

Since the event is on an island, most of us met on the mainland and transferred belongings to a few of vehicles that the festival provided ferry passes for. Several of us arrived between noon and 1:30 so we ended up with two vehicles and nine pirates crossing at once - most of us in pirate garb. This was enough to earn Thomas and Ed free beers from some ferry passengers.

The opening ceremony involves a "pirate fleet" attacking the the town. The fleet consists of a couple of decorated boats and a barge full of cannons. This time we joined in. Originally we were going to take both boats out but the seams of the Firefly were too dry and it took on too much water. After bailing it out, we transferred into the Black Sheep and attacked from there. We had ten people in the Black Sheep at once.

Afterwards we set up camp and went to a local restaurant for dinner. Eventually we ended up at Hooligan's Irish Pub to listen to the band.

The "pirate village" (that is our display plus some vendors) officially opened at 11:00 which let us eat a leisurely breakfast before setting up. Saturday was significantly cooler than previous years with a cool breeze.

In addition to the display and the costume contest, we also had a battle at the area fenced off for cannons. It was a quick affair with the surviving attackers killed by cannon fire but I still had enough time to get off around a dozen rounds.

We had dinner at Pasquale which is owned by the event organizer and put in an appearance at The Boat House which was pushing the pirate theme hard, then back to Hooligans.

Sunday had much lighter crowds. There was an antique car parade. After that we repeated the battle and began breaking down camp.

Most of us went back on the same ferry. While waiting for the ferry, most of the people still in costume posed in knee-deep water. Once on the ferry, Clint managed to get nearly everyone on the ferry to put up their hands for a picture. I guess he was pirating the ferry.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Nautical Phrase Myths

While at Opsail 2012, I heard three completely different mistakes about the origins of words or phrases. There is a lesson to be learned here.

The first one came from a group representing the "World of 1812". There was a display of military items and someone asked if a piece was a carbine? A costumed boy in his late teens said, 'no, it was a musket.'

I looked at the piece and pointed out that it was carbine length. This was easy to verify because the display included a full musket. The boy confidently claimed that they called everything a musket, regardless of the length and that carbines did not exist until rifles were invented.

It so happens that I had looked up carbines recently and I know that the word goes back 200 years before 1812 (1590 to be exact). I mentioned that I have a 1640s carbine and I think he got the idea that I knew what I was talking about. At least he stopped arguing.

There were two problems here. The first is that you have to be very careful about your source material when you start arguing with the public. They have the world at their fingertips. I could easily have used my smartphone to show him that the gun in question is sold as a "1809 marine carbine" or have shown him the Wikipedia entry on carbines.

The other problem is that you should not assume that wearing a costume makes you an expert.

The next myth was much worse because of its source. The Bounty had a display of the mess area with signs above that offered information. One of them said that sailors used their elbows to keep their food from sliding around. Sailors were prime candidates for press gangs on shore so anyone who ate with his elbows on the table was at risk of being pressed.

It doesn't take a minute to debunk this. Just try eating while holding your plate still with your elbows. You can't do it.

The admonition against elbows on the table was referring to people who bent over their food, supporting themselves with their elbows and shoveled the food into their mouths. The idea is that you should sit up straight, supported by your back instead of your elbows. This is an example of trying to attribute a nautical explanation to everyday things.

Since this was on an official sign, the Bounty has no excuse.

The last example has nothing to do with Opsail. It just happened to come at the same time. A trivia slide on Pawn Stars said that "Mind your Ps and Qs" refers to the tab that a sailor would have with the ship and referred to quarts and pints.

I have heard the quarts and pints explanation before. Attributing it to ships is new.

The expression itself should be taken at face value. The letters P and Q look similar and "Mind your Ps and Qs" is a warning to be extra careful. The part about the bar tab just adds a little to the explanation. It is still based on the two looking alike. This is making a simple explanation more complicated. The part about it being the tab on a ship is an example of attributing everything to a nautical origin.

Note, you can make a strong case for it coming from printers since type is backwards which makes it easy to mix up the two.

The moral of all of this is to check your sources, don't needlessly complicate things, and remember that a story that is too good to be true probably is false.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Pirates on the Santa Maria - Spring 2012

The Spring Pirate event on the Columbus Santa Maria was a rousing success. The ship saw a record-breaking number of visitors and pirates.

The battle between pirates in boats and the ship was the biggest ever. We had four boats including the Persephone. After loading the Black Sheep up with two people on a bench, it was able to hold seven. In all, we had 18 attackers on Saturday and 16 on Sunday. That is in addition to the defenders on the quarter deck, the mortar crew on the stern castle, and the howitzer crew on shore.

Saturday also had a singing duo and a set of stocks and a gibbet for hoisting pirates in. Sunday had a performance by the Hard Tackers.

A few things helped the event. One was weather. It was hot but clear. Last year, Sunday was pretty much rained out (although it was still the second biggest weekend of the year) and the event would have been cancelled due to flooding if it had been scheduled a week later.

The event is getting a lot of publicity. We were written up in the Columbus Dispatch's Weekender the previous Thursday and several kid and family-oriented web sites listed the event. This showed in the attendance with most visitors being families with kids. We had some activities just for them including certificates for them after they toured the ship.

Three years ago the ship's Director told me that she would be thrilled if the weekend brought in $2,000 (it was $2,500). This year we brought in $3,900.

Visitors missed one of the best parts after hours Saturday when various singers performed past midnight.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Review - Pirate Hunter

I just finished Pirate Hunter by Tom Morrisey and I strongly recommend it. The book has an interesting structure. It follows two people living 30 years apart. The first one is an English-speaking African who was freed from a slave ship and given a place among a pirate crew. The second is a modern underwater archeologist who signed on with a salvage operation (treasure hunters). The two plots run in parallel as the young men establish their place, find romance, resolve their father issues, and face adversity.

The book is very well researched. The portrayals of the pirates are very good and the first couple of chapters in the present drop a lot of facts casually. The author writes with authority on sich diverse subjects as the inspiration for Shakespeare's The Tempest and the best place to get a hamburger in Key West.

I do have one quibble. Both characters have a mentor and, as an in joke, the author named them after historic pirates. That is fine for the present but it is confusing that the 18th century pirate with a long black beard, going by "Thatch" is not the Blackbeard (not that anyone ever calls him that).

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Francis Drake

Today is the anniversary of Francis Drake's knighting, 431 years ago. Wires has a recap of Drake's voyage that earned him the honor.

Technically, Drake was a privateer instead of a pirate although the Spanish wanted him hung as a pirate. It was not circumnavigating the Earth that won Drake his knighthood, it was the huge return he brought on Queen Elizabeth's investment. Drake's hold not only held Spanish gold, it also held tons of spices which were worth their weight in gold.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Pilgrims and Pirates

Years ago, when Disney was still designing Epcot, they asked Plimoth Plantation for some costume information on the Pilgrims. After looking at the material, they said, "We can't use that. They look like pirates!" (This was probably back when Plimoth dressed all of the men in bucket-top boots).

I ran into the opposite at Searle's Raid this year. We were on the trolly, headed for the beginning of the battle and someone thought that we were a bunch of Pilgrims.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Searle's 2012

The 2012 reenactment of Searle's Raid on Saint Augusting was held March 2-3. This is an expanding event. The organizers said that they had ten more participants than last year.

Searle's isn't quite a pirate event. Searle was a privateer and one of Henry Morgan's lieutenants. This event predates the skull and crossbones and most other symbols of the Golden Age or Piracy.

Saint Augustine in the 1660s was hardly a rich city. Florida had no gold or silver so there was little of value passing through. On the other hand, it was isolated since it was Spain's most northern outpost. At the time it was only guarded by a wooden stockade.

Searle's men spent two days taking the town and besieging the fort. By that time they had a number of the town's women held hostage. Eventually the town paid Searle in cattle and flour to leave.

The reenactment started Friday evening with a parade through St. George Street, the oldest street in the city. There was some exercise of arms as the Spanish showed that they were ready for the English invaders (actually, on Friday everyone was Spanish). Afterward we had dinner in the 18th century taverna (home to the best sangria in St. Augustine).

The troops were camped on the grounds of the Fountain of Youth which was the site of the original colony for its first year or so. During Saturday the troops drilled with pikes and practiced firing.

Around 4:30 a trolly took the combatants to the town. The English retired a couple of blocks away until the appointed time (our permit was for 5-6 pm). The initial battle took place in Cathedral Square. The Spanish broke and retired in good order through St. George Street, pursued by the English. There was a final battle at the fort (in a small field beside the old cemetery). The whole thing took most of an hour with designated firing positions along the way.

There were 60+ participants including musketeers, pikemen, skirmishers with swords, officers, drummers, ensigns, and crew for a couple of small cannon. This may not be large by the standard of other periods but it is the biggest 17th century battle that I know of.

The weather was good with highs in the 80s. It was windy on Saturday ahead of a major storm front. Several people had to chaise their hats because of the wind. The front came through quickly overnight and the weather was clear for people to break camp on Sunday.

Last year was my first year. This time I brought my wife. She was properly impressed and will be returning. Maybe we can bring some more people next year.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Pirates of Penzance

Today is the 29th of February, Leap Day. That is an important plot point in Pirates of Penznace. The lead character, Frederic was supposed to be apprenticed to a "pilot" until 21 but his nurse was hard of hearing and apprenticed him to some pirates. To make things worse, she apprenticed him until his 21st birthday. Frederic was born on February 29th so, even though he had been born 21 years before, his 21st birthday was still decades away.

The opera begins on Frederic's birthday which means that it is the end of February. As soon as he goes ashore, he sees a group of the Major-General's daughters out for a swim.

In February!

They grow them tough in Penzance.

Gilbert and Sullivan probably chose Penzance for its alliteration. It is a port on the far south-western tip of Cornwall. In the 19th century it was a seaside resort but in previous centuries its isolation had made it a frequent target for "Turkish pirates" - the Corsairs from the Barbary Coast. It was also sacked and burned by the Spanish in 1595.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin is an adventure movie set in the 1930s but it contains a rousing back story involving pirates.

The movie itself is Steven Spielburg's first animated movie and his most entertaining movie since Raiders of the Lost Ark.

According to IMDB, Spielburg has wanted to do a movie based on the Belgium comic strip character, Tintin, since the 1980s. A few years ago he called Steve Jackson to see if Jackson's Weta special effects unit was available to do a live-action version of Tintin. Jackson convinced Spielburg that the movie should be done as an animated movie instead of live-action.

The result is a gorgeously animated movie that never seems to hit the Uncanny Valley. Among other things it features an amazing chase after the clues to the pirate treasure. Most of the chase was done as a continuous take with the camera constantly shifting as it moved from one character to another.

Pirate fans will be glad to know that a good bit of the action takes place at sea - either on a 1930s freighter or on the 17thc century Unicorn.

I suspect that Spielburg had more fun making this movie than he has had in years.

Tintin is not well-known in the US and the movie did not do well here but it was a huge hit overseas and grossed over $300 million. A sequel is planned with Jackson directing and Spielburg producing.