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<   No. 1494   2007-02-28   >

Comic #1494

1 {scene: The port of Port Royal. Captain Ponsonby strides along the dock towards the gangplank of a proud British ship of the line.}
1 Ponsonby: Cast off! Weigh anchor! Set sail! We're off in pursuit of Captain Long Tom Short and his band of ne'er-do-wells!
2 Ponsonby: {climbing the gangplank} Get a move on or I'll have the lot of you flogged!
3 Sailor 1: {muttering} "Join the navy," they said. "You can sail the seven seas," they said...
4 Sailor 2: Who said that?
4 Sailor 1: Some people from my village.

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"In the Navy, you can sail the seven seas!"

Reader Kjetil Dimmen writes:
As your webcomic is usually well researched, I am sure that the inconsistencies in Captain Ponsonby's remarks in panel 1 of #1494 were intentional and used for comic effect.

This is of course in no way going to stop me from commenting in great detail.

First of all, a ship being alongside instead of at anchor was an extremely rare occurrence. (This also occurred in #1438.) In his book Seamanship in the Age of Sail (subtitled An account of the shiphandling of the sailing Man-of-War 1600-1860, based on contemporary sources), John Harland devotes 49 pages to the description of the techniques involved in anchoring and mooring. Going alongside is not mentioned at all, not even to the extent of saying that it was not done.

It is possible for a sailing ship to sail right up to the dock. All you need is a well trained crew and favourable conditions, including, but not limited to, general layout, tide, current and wind. Unfortunately, once docked you are then dependent on the conditions to change in order for you to be able to sail off the dock again. Towing the ship against wind and/or current by means of rowing boat(s) is not exactly a happy solution. At anchor, the captain would have more options to manoeuvre, and would be able to leave the harbour under conditions where a docked ship would be stuck.

With that out of the way, let us look at the situation at hand and the orders given.

Regarding having an anchor out while at dock: This involves a lot of work, using the ship's boats to get the anchor to where you want it. (In those days the anchor cable was made of rope and thus buoyant, so to move the anchor you would secure it to one or two of the ship's boats and transport it to the desired location before cutting it loose.) You would really only do this in a couple of circumstances; if you are going to stay docked for a long time and/or are expecting heavy weather. Another option will be outlined below.

In order for Captain Ponsonby's orders to work, I've constructed the following scenario: Upon receiving the governor's urgent summons, Captain Ponsonby, being highly skilled and experienced, foresees the possibility of having to make a hasty departure. He immediately orders his XO [DMM: Executive officer, I presume] to make the ship ready to sail, then goes to see the governor. With tide/current/wind being of the unfavourable kind, the XO orders the anchor to be dropped as far away from the dock as possible. Thus, when the anchor is hauled back in, the ship will be pulled away from the dock. He also makes sure the appropriate sails are loosed and ready to set. Captain Ponsonby, knowing his capable XO will have done all this in his absence, then confidently issues his three orders upon his return. Hopefully someone will remember to get the gangway on their own accord...

Bonus: How to sail a square rigged ship off the dock.

The pictures show Captain Ponsonby's ship starboard side to, and having at least two masts. It is not clear that it's a square rigger, but it is a fair assumption. (Square rigged ships were invariably bigger, and thus more heavily armed, than fore-and-aft rigged ships. It is unlikely that Captain Ponsonby is off to chase pirates in an inferior vessel, and the pirate ship has already been shown to be square rigged.)

Some of these steps need not be executed in this exact order. In fact several will be done simultaneously if there is enough crew.

Wind coming from astern:

  1. Loose whatever square sail appropriate for the conditions.
  2. Brace up on a starboard tack.
  3. Single up to a headline and a sternline.
  4. Set sail.
  5. Cast off.

Wind coming from abeam, or forward of abeam:

  1. Loose whatever square sail appropriate for the conditions.
  2. Loose headsails.
  3. Brace the foreyards on a port tack.
  4. Single up to a headline and a forward leading stern spring.
  5. Set headsails and fore topsail, cast off headline.
  6. Once the bow has been pushed away from the dock, cast off stern spring, brace around foreyards on a starboard tack.
  7. Set other sails as needed.

Wind coming from the port side:

  1. You're screwed.
  2. At least if it comes from abeam.
  3. If only slightly from port, one of the two techniques outlined above might still work.

This is somewhat simplified and far from exhaustive, but should give some idea of the process involved.

Well. I'm glad he didn't describe my relative ignorance of matters nautical in any sort of detail. That might have been embarrassing.
2016-12-03 Rerun commentary: The other option, not already mentioned, is that Captain Ponsonby is an idiot and doesn't know his nautical jargon from a hole in the ground.

Oh, and nowadays I can link to YouTube. (That wasn't uploaded until a year and a half after this comic was originally published.)

Reader Paul Tomblin contributes:
Admittedly I get most of my information about this from the Aubrey-Maturin series of books, the Hornblower series of books, and the biography of the real life person both those characters were based on, Lord Thomas Cochrane. But all three contain numerous descriptions of "warping" out of harbour, which is the process your source Kjetil thinks is so unthinkable.

Basically the ship's boats carried anchors out ahead of the ship and dropped them, and then the ship was winched to the anchor and then the process repeated. It's not like they didn't have a lot of manpower just standing around when there were no guns to fire or sails to handle.

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