Q&A: Ship to Ship Combat

Hi, I don’t know if you answered this ask already, but how would you write a ship fight? Like a navy and pirate ship are fighting and people are also fighting on the decks? Thank you!

I’d take some time to brush up on the appropriate terminology, and the contemporary strategies. With ship combat, I’d also take some time to familiarize myself with the kinds of damage combat inflicted on ships of that era. I’m guessing you mean golden age of piracy, which runs from 1650 to 1730 (roughly), but pirates have been a factor in sea trade for as long as humans have been transporting goods by sea.

One bit of trivia that’s probably knowing is the difference between a pirate and a privateer.

Pirates are the bandits of the seas. They harass shipping lanes, stealing whatever cargo they can obtain, and commandeering ships. They may kill the crews, or bring them into their service. Worth knowing that during the golden age of piracy, pirate ships were mini-democracies, their captains were voted in, and could be replaced by vote. Additionally, the ship’s quartermaster had the authority to countermand the captain’s orders.

Privateers harassed shipping lanes, stealing cargo and capturing ships. However, they acted as proxies for a government. A privateer would carry a letter of marque from one of the European powers. These letters of marque protected the crew from prosecution (read: execution) by that power, so long as they were not acting against them.

Also worth remembering that, while the majority of pirates were men, many women became pirates, and even rose to command their own ships or fleets. Some disguised their gender, while others did not. There’s nothing anachronistic about a woman commanding a pirate ship. Notably, this includes Cheng I Sao, who, at her height, commanded somewhere around 70k pirates, across 1200 ships.

That should cue you into a major consideration. Is this a pair of lone ships dueling on the seas, or is it a full fleet action?

If it’s a duel, you’re looking at, roughly, Three phases. Encounter, Open Combat and Boarding.

The Encounter phase can shift dramatically depending on circumstances, and what the commanders choose to do. The pirate’s goal is, probably, to close into range without coming under fire. They may use landmasses or other natural phenomena to mask their presence, or they may fly a false flag in order to trick the other ship into believing they’re friendly.

Open combat is going to depend heavily on the classes of the ships. This is something you’re going to familiarize yourself with when you’re writing about naval engagements. There’s a world of difference between a sloop, and a frigate. This can also result in design limitations. For example, some first rate ships could not fire on small ships at point blank range because their cannons were too far above the water line. The trade off was, they could deliver that firepower at superior ranges. Suddenly the reason a pirate might want to get in close, should become apparent.

In the simplest sense, the open combat phase only applies when dealing with armed opponents, and prioritizes firing arcs, and broadside fire. If you’re in line with your foe’s guns, you’re in for a bad time unless your hull can take the hit.

Given the pirate’s goal is to take the ship’s cargo, they’re not going to want to stay in open combat any longer than necessary. They’ll want to close to board. At this point, the pirates will move to engage the hostile ship’s crew. How they get over may vary. Also worth remembering that most sailors in the Golden Age did not know how to swim. It simply wasn’t a skill they learned. So, they’d be going directly from their ship to the enemy. In the case of larger capital ships, they may be doing via smaller launches, or they may be grappling onto the ship and pulling along side it and boarding directly.

Let’s talk about crew for a second. If you’re worried about being boarded, and you have the option, you’ll include a contingent of marines on your ship. In the naval sense, any infantry fighter attached to a ship’s crew is a marine. It doesn’t matter if they’re fighting to defend the ship, fighting to board an enemy vessel, or if they’re being sent from the ship, on a combat mission elsewhere. If they’re part of the crew, they’re a marine. (I don’t usually think of applying this term to pirates, because of how their crews were structured.)

Once you’re talking about pirates getting on deck, it’s going to be a messy close quarters melee.

If you’re talking about a larger fleet action, during the Golden Age of Piracy, the dominant combat doctrine was to line up Ship of the Line class vessels in two columns, and unload on each others broadsides. You wouldn’t usually see Ships of the Line operating independently, because they were too valuable. Though, pirates might deliberately try to subvert that doctrine, or are more likely to avoid these kinds of engagements to being with.

The introduction of powered drive and ironside frigates would completely alter large fleet engagements, and the kinds of ships that nations favored for fleet operations.

Obviously, if you’re deviating off the real world with fantasy elements, some of this stuff might change dramatically. A lot of this might translate to science fiction settings, with adjustments.

Also, worth remembering, piracy is still a thing. Granted, now it’s more about small motorboats and small arms boarding super-freighters with small arms and RPGs. There’s no real ship to ship combat, just straight to the boarding actions.

So, like I said, some more research is probably warranted. This is a fun topic, and there is a lot of literature on the Golden Age of Piracy. It’s an interesting time, with a lot of weird quirks you probably will benefit from investigating.


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