Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Showing posts with label sailing ships. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sailing ships. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Ghost Ship Octavius

The vast oceans of our planet are equally wondrous and dangerous. There are so many unknowns out there on the endless horizon where the sea and sky meet. Even today, the ocean is a mysterious place. It is no wonder sailors are a superstitious lot, especially mariners of the past. And why not? Phenomena and strange sightings were not easily dismissed as they are now with our scientific knowledge and understanding. Still, there are inexplicable occurrences that happen routinely. Just in the last few decades there have been missing air and sea crafts in the Bermuda Triangle, the discovery of underwater crop circles and temple-like structures, and strange aquatic sounds loud enough to be heard on hydrophones between Greenland and the United Kingdom. The ocean is shrouded in secrets we have yet to unlock and fuels our imagination.

Visualize how scary it might be to come upon a ghost ship floating in the middle of nowhere. Now imagine finding something even more terrifying on board.

That is what happened in 1775 when the crew of a whaling ship discovered the Octavius.

The story begins fourteen years earlier. The Octavius left London, England bound for the Orient with a belly full of trade cargo, more than two dozen crewmen, the captain, and his wife and son. The trip was a success, landing on the Far Eastern shores the following year. With new freight, the three-masted schooner set out to return to England. But this time the captain made a fateful decision based on unseasonably warm. He plotted a course through the brutal, relatively uncharted Northern Passage. That was the last anyone had heard of the Octavius, the ship was declared lost at sea.

That is until the whaling ship Herald happened upon the vessel west of Greenland. No one was on the deck which prompted a boarding party to search the ship. Below deck, the found all twenty-eight crewmen frozen to death. In the captain’s quarters, the captain sat at his desk with his logbook in front of him, pen still in his hand. He was not alone. A woman and a young boy were wrapped in blankets upon the bunk.

The spooked boarding party high-tailed it off the schooner, but not before grabbing the logbook. Because the book was frozen solid, parts of the middle broke away from its binding as they fled. What pages were left was enough for the captain of the Herald to piece together the crew’s probable fate. The last position recorded in the book placed Octavius roughly 250 miles north of Alaska’s northernmost point. And the last entry was November 11, 1762—thirteen years earlier. It is speculated that Octavius had become trapped in the sea ice. At some point, the ice broke and the ship continued on its journey successfully through the passage, but without her passengers.

Fearing Octavius cursed, the Herald left her to drift, never to been seen again.

About the Author      

Jennifer is the award-winning author of the Romancing the Pirate series. Visit her at www.jbrayweber.com or join her mailing list for sneak peeks, excerpts, and giveaways.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Navigation During the Age of Sail

Back in the days of sail, seamen didn’t have the state of the art satellite-based navigational systems, also known as global position systems (GPS), to cross the seas. They relied on mariner knowledge, the horizon, the stars, the currents, and nautical instruments to help plot their courses and guide them on their journeys.

Here is an alphabetical list of some of those tools. 

Astrolabe - ancient inclinometer which calculates the altitude of the sun and stars to determine
Astrolabe, cross staff, and sextant
latitude. Elaborate astrolabes have etchings of how the sky looks at any given time or season. Moving components to what the user sees will tell them their location, as well as the date and time. For sailors, the astrolabe was a much simpler graduated ring with an alidade and often made of brass for longevity at sea.

Backstaff - users of this instrument have their backs to the sun and marks the angle of the sun by measuring its shadow with the help of three vanes—horizon vane, sight vane, and shadow vane.

Compass - one of the oldest nautical tools is comprised of a magnetic lodestone which uses the earth’s magnetic field. The compass, showing the cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), always points north. Handy when there is nothing on the horizon but water and more water.

Lead line
Chronometer - a timepiece used to establish longitude and/or an exact measurement of time that evolved from counter-oscillating beams and springs to a beating balance wheel.

Cross staff - the basic predecessor of the backstaff to determine latitude.  Users faced the sun, or Polaris (the North Star), to measure its angle to the horizon by sliding a cross piece up and down the main staff marked with measurements.

Lead line - a long rope with a lead weight at the end and knotted at various lengths used to measure depth. The lead weight also had a hollowed bottom filled with tallow or animal fat. This sticky substance would bring up the make-up of the seabed (sandy, rocky, clay, shells, pebbles) providing important information on anchoring or piloting a ship.

Log line - a long rope on a spool with a board (log) at the end used to measure a vessel’s speed. Knots were tied along the rope at six feet intervals. Six feet equaled one fathom. When the log line is thrown overboard, the number of knots passing over the railing in thirty seconds were counted, thus giving the sailors a rough estimate of how fast they were going in knots—the nautical measurement much like how fast a car goes in miles per hour.

Nocturnal - based on the time of year to ascertain the time of night using the location of the stars such as Polaris, Ursa Minor, and Ursa Major. It uses a set of dials—months, hours, and the location of stars—and has a pointer. Important when calculating tides.

Quadrant - measures at 90o angles how high the sun or Polaris is above the horizon. To use, sight in on the right side of the edge of the angle. The plumb bob (a weight tied to a rope) will cross the scale along the bottom to give the angular height of the celestial body.

Traverse board
Reflecting circle - a circular instrument which uses mirrors to measure the angular distance between two diverging objects sat once. Mostly used for finding longitude.

Sextant - measures the angle between a celestial object and the horizon to determine latitudes and longitudes. This instrument, which can be used day or night, is the culmination of its navigational predecessors and, due to its precision, has been used well into the twentieth century.

Telescope - also called a spyglass or “bring ’em near”, an optical tool that uses lenses or mirrors to make distance object appear closer

Traverse board - a wooden board with holes and pegs used to record the ship’s speed and direction during a given watch (the shift which crewmen worked). At the end of each watch, the navigator collected the information and figure up the vessel’s progress and projected track.

All these instruments aided mariners in creating one of their most valued navigational tools, their sea charts. Daunting, isn't it? Thank goodness for today's GPS.

About the Author                                                

Jennifer is the award-winning author of the Romancing the Pirate series. Visit her at www.jbrayweber.com or join her mailing list for sneak peeks, excerpts, and giveaways.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Rachel Wall - The American-born Female Pirate

Rachel Schmidt was born in Carlisle, in the Province of Pennsylvania, around 1760. At the age of sixteen, her family visited Harrisburg. She wasn’t much for farmland, but she loved the waterfront. And so she was drawn to the docks along the Susquehanna River. It was there she was harassed and attacked by a group of girls. A man by the name of George Wall, a fisherman that had been a privateer during the Revolutionary War, came to her rescue. It wasn’t long before she fell in love and eloped with her hero.

The couple moved to Boston where Rachel took a job as a servant. George was gone for stretches of time as he worked on a fishing boat. Life was rough and the lure of easy money had become too much. George had a taste for plunder and he convinced her to join him in piracy.

Together they devised a plan. George, Rachel, and several cohorts borrowed a schooner and set out to make a living off fishing. That is until the weather turned stormy. Then they set a unique trap. They dropped anchor off the Massachusetts coast in the Isle of Shoals to weather the squalls and then set their boat adrift feigning trouble. Once they spotted a passing ship, Rachel would stand on the deck send distress signals, luring would-be saviors to a ghastly fate. They boarded the vessels, killed the sailors, and pillaged everything of value. The aiding ship was then sunk, a tactic which made it appear as if the sailors perished at sea during the storm.

Their trickery worked well for many months between 1781 through 1782. Some reports estimate they took twelve boats, killed up to twenty-four crewmen, and amassed about $6,000 worth of loot.

But like all good things, it came to an end. The sea is an unpredictable mistress. And whether by surprise or faulty seafaring calculations, a particularly nasty tempest waylaid the little band of pirates. George and another crewman were washed overboard and their vessel had been badly battered.  Rachel and the rest of the survivors were picked up and returned to Boston.

Now widowed, Rachel returned to working as a servant. Her story didn’t end there. She’d become accustomed to the wealth of pirating. While she no longer prowled the coastline, she did return to stealing, although on a smaller scale as a petty thief along the docks. Seven years later, she attempted to snatch a bonnet off seventeen-year-old Margaret Bender’s head and reportedly tried to rip out the girl’s tongue. She was caught and arrested.

Rachel’s request to be tried as a pirate was denied. At her trial, while she confessed to piracy and theft, she maintained her innocence that she had never killed a man. This did not sway the judge and she was found guilty. On October 8, 1789, she was hung.

Rachel Wall was purportedly the first American-born female pirate and the decidedly last woman to be hanged in Massachusetts. And over a bonnet!

About the Author                                                

Jennifer is the award-winning author of the Romancing the Pirate series. Visit her at www.jbrayweber.com or join her mailing list for sneak peeks, excerpts, and giveaways.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Hardtack – Vital Vittles of the Sea

Pirates spent long weeks, months, and even years at sea. Not only was the ship outfitted with plenty of rope and canvas, arms and gunpowder, carpentry tools and wood, navigational equipment, and cooking utensils, but the essential stores of food and drink. The business of feeding the ship’s crew was a serious one. Oftentimes, the length of the voyage was governed by how much food and drink could be carried on board. There would be no crossing an ocean if there was only enough room for two weeks of provisions. All food and drink were carefully rationed. Anyone caught with more than their fair share faced punishment. Yup, serious business.

When a ship set sail, it was usually well-stocked with live hens for eggs and sometimes goats for milk. There was also items such as salted pork, beef, and fish, rounds of cheese, dried potatoes, corn, vinegary cabbage, spices, ale and more. Aye, pirates ate like kings. Better than their sailor counterparts in the navies. But the fresh or perishable food did not last long. Even water went bad. The humid, dank conditions hastened spoiling and bred insects. Feasts could turn into famine. Malnutrition, disease, and starvation were very real concerns for seafarers. Ports of call weren’t always close and ships to plunder not always on the horizon. But when a ship was spotted, they were often just as prized for their food supply as a Spanish galleon sailing low from treasure. Have you ever met a hangry pirate? *shivers*

One staple found on a pirate ship was sea biscuits. Sea biscuits, more commonly known as hardtack (but also called pilot bread, ship biscuit, sheet iron, molar breakers, among other endearments), are hard, dry, heavy, crackers that were inexpensive to make, filled the stomach, and provided some measure of sustenance. To make them more edible, they were dipped in ale, coffee, soups, water, or fried in animal fat when possible. These bricks, when kept dry, can last years. YEARS! This was why they were a must-have for sea voyages, during military warfare, and lengthy land migrations. Never mind those weevils. Given the storage, they eventually found their way into the hard tack. Pirates just knocked the biscuit on a solid surface and waited for the bugs to crawl out before eating. Ewww. But it was either that or starve.

Knowing that the biscuit was such a big part of a pirate’s diet, I just had to try some for myself. There are many slightly varying recipes but they all have the same basics—flour, salt, and water. Below is the recipe I used. With pictures! Huzzah! 

Hard Tack


Rolling pin
Cookie sheet
Something to make holes with – skewer, nail, dowel


2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup water


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix flour and salt together.
Add water and knead into dough. Add more water or flour as needed to get the right consistency.


Use a rolling pin to flatten and shape in a ½ thick square.
Cut into 9 smaller squares.

Use any implement to poke holes into squares to allow even baking.
Bake for 30 minutes. Be careful not to burn them.

As I’m making these things, I’m reminded of the doughy Christmas ornaments we used to make as kids. Now I’m certain these things will taste gross. But you know what? It wasn’t bad at all. The hardtack tasted like, well, unleavened bread dough. It would taste even better dipped in soup or drizzled with honey.

So why would you want to make hardtack today? To impress your pirate friends, of course. Never hurts to be prepared for an apocalypse, either.


About the Author                                                

Jennifer is the award-winning author of the Romancing the Pirate series. Visit her at www.jbrayweber.com or join her mailing list for sneak peeks, excerpts, and giveaways.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Pirate Time

One might think time would be irrelevant for pirates and sailors. Let’s face it, there is nothing but water as far as the eye can see. Sailing ships are dependent on winds and currents. The sun comes up on the sea’s horizon and it goes down on the sea’s horizon. A three-hour tour might take three months instead. Sure, time is relative. (I’m not talking about physics because my eyes would most certainly glaze over and I’ll be hitting the rum bottle hard in a matter of minutes.) Time is relative for pirates in that they live by measures of time. Think work shifts, high and low tides, or how fast they can load and reload shipboard guns. Heck, even whether they could chase a quarry or escape a man of war was calibrated in their ways. How fast they could be might have been the difference between life and death. Yup, time was marked and adhered to.

Here are some key terms of time and how they were used by pirates and seamen alike.

Tide. When referencing time, a tide is calculated from high tide to high tide and roughly twelve and a half hours.  Salty Sam had been in his cups at the tavern for a tide before he staggered back to the docks.

Tide’s time. This is like a tide only it’s multiplied by a specified number of tides. It would take the Rissa six tide’s time to reach Port Royal. Meaning it would take the ship a little more than three days to reach its destination.

Fortnight. Two weeks or fourteen days. It had been a fortnight before a passing ship rescued Billy off that deserted spit of land.

Glass. This one sometimes confuses landlubbers. A glass is one hour or increments of sixty minutes, not how fast you can guzzle a beverage. If our guest does not present herself to me in five minutes’ glass, I’ll have her thrown overboard.

Half-glass. You guessed it, half an hour. Jack spent a half-glass in the company of that sharp-tongued wench.

Shipboard days are divided into shifts, or watches. There are seven watches in a twenty-four hour period.

  • middle watch — midnight to 4 a.m.
  • morning watch — 4 a.m. to 8 a.m.
  • forenoon watch — 8 a.m. to noon
  • afternoon watch — noon to 4 p.m.
  • first dog watch — 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
  • second dog watch — 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
  • first watch — 8 p.m. to midnight

Notice the dog watches are shorter than the other watches. This allows for all crewmen to have the time for traditional evening meal.

All watches are marked by the ring of the ship’s bell every half hour. At the start of the watch, the bell rings once. Another bell would be added each half hour. By the time a watch is over (and when both dog watches are combined) the ship’s bell would ring eight times. As an example, depending on the watch and time of day, four bells could mean 2 a.m., 6 a.m., 10 a.m., 2 p.m., 6 p.m., and 10 p.m.

When writing about pirates, I make a conscious effort to weave authenticity of shipboard life into my stories. It’s both fun and educating! Below is an excerpt and example from The Siren’s Song.

The ship’s bell struck and Gilly counted the rings. It was time to pay her debt to the captain. Two bells. Her chest tightened. Mixed emotions churned in her stomach. Four bells. She wanted to kiss him, didn’t she? Of course she did. Six bells. Was she supposed to go to him? Where would he be waiting? In his cabin? She glanced at Willie and Henri. They didn’t seem to know of her quandary. She couldn’t ask them for an opinion. How mortifying to think of it. Seven bells. Would she be good at it, good enough for him? How would she compare to others he had kissed? Eight bells. Lord help her, she surely was going to faint.
She’d been tallying the bells as they struck every half hour all throughout the watch.
Before the final peal of the bell faded into the winds, Captain Drake appeared at the top of the ladder. Time slowed as he glided toward her. She slid off her perch and met him halfway.
“Eight bells, milady.”
“I’m ready,” she said. Closing her eyes, she puckered, waiting for his lips to descend upon her. Waiting to inhale his delicious musk. Waiting for his hands to roam across her back and his fingers to thread through her hair. Waiting. Why hadn’t he kissed her yet?
“What’s the lass doin’?” Henri asked. “Is she alright?”
“Maybe the heat’s done gotten to her,” Willie answered.
She popped open one eye. Gone was the captain’s mask of steely austerity. His amusement beamed brighter than the unforgiving sun. The heat couldn’t compare to her swill of embarrassment. Sweat beaded on her brow and she wished with all her heart she could disappear. Why didn’t he kiss her? How idiotic she must look. She huffed, angry now. Mustering up a scrap of dignity, she confronted the cur.
“What’s wrong? Why won’t you kiss me?” She propped her hands on her hips. “Have you gone back on our accord?”
His smug laugh indicated he had not. “I never renege on a deal, Miss McCoy.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You have misinterpreted the terms. Our agreement stated that you kiss me. Not the other way around.”
“Oh.” Won’t death spare me this humiliation?
She was helpless. She had never kissed a man, only been kissed. This changed everything. It simply was not proper. Come now, Gilly. You haven’t been proper since the day Hyde laid eyes upon you. And besides, you want to kiss him.
“All right, Captain Drake. I shall play by your rules.”
She rose to her tiptoes and, quick as a rabbit dashing into a briar patch, she pecked him on his mouth.
“There,” she said. “It’s done. I kissed you.” She grinned a self-satisfied smile. “Come back at the next eight bells. I shall be ready.”
“Uh-uh. Not quite, lass. That’s not at all how I want you to kiss me.”
“A kiss is a kiss.”
“Nay, lass. That is how you kiss a codfish.”
She gasped and her hand flew to her bosom at the insult. “And just how am I supposed to kiss you, Captain? There were no stipulations on the manner of kiss.”
“Kiss me as you did last night.”
She poked him in his chest. “You kissed me.”
“At first, yes. But then you lost your chaste modesty and your voracious appetite took over.”
If she could get her hands on his cutlass, she would end her suffering. Gilly glanced over her shoulder. Both Henri and Willie quickly, but not quickly enough, became occupied, pretending miserably not to have been listening in on their exchange. Henri fiddled with his vest pocket and Willie tapped at the compass he kept fixed to his wheel.
“You need not let shamefulness get the better of you, Miss McCoy. You’ve nothing to be embarrassed about,” Captain Drake said.
She frowned. He did not make things any easier by calling her on her discomfiture.
“Well? I’m waiting.”
What a wicked, wicked man. The only way to wipe that smirk from his face was to give him the best kiss he ever had in his wretched life.
Gilly grabbed the back of his neck with both hands and smothered his lips. Long and hard, she pressed against him. He tensed under her grip. His arms reached out, as if to hold her. But he didn’t. Nevertheless, she felt his smile. And that pleased her.
She broke free of him. Excitement coursed through her veins. Liberation was hers. She could do that again. Eight more times, in fact.
“’Twas a very nice start,” he said. “Now don’t look so troubled. I am happy with your kiss. It is my hope that you will work yourself up to last night’s performance.”

Want more?

About the Author                                                
Jennifer is the award-winning author of the Romancing the Pirate series. Visit her at www.jbrayweber.com or join her mailing list for sneak peeks, excerpts, and giveaways.