Fighting From the Stern Castle

Venturing out to sea on boats during the bad old days of Viking culture was tantamount to suicide.

Their longboats were marvels of engineering. Shallow draft so they could travel up rivers, yet also able to operate in the open ocean, they were the perfect craft for lightning commando raids. They were also fast enough that they could catch any ship the Vikings could see, using oars for propulsion while larger ships were at the mercy of the wind.

If a band of Vikings set their sights on taking a ship, there wasn’t anything the merchant skippers of the day could do to prevent a screaming group of northmen from swarming aboard.

But then some nameless genius, or more likely a group of geniuses, came up with a brilliant idea. If it was impossible to prevent the Vikings from boarding, why not build ships where the crew could fight them after the pirates were on deck?

This simple concept led to a ship known as the Cog, or cog-built ships.

Ironically, the general design was adapted from the Vikings own merchant vessels, but there were two changes that proved to make all the difference. The European ship builders constructed little wooden forts in the front and rear of the ship. They called these wooden castles the “stern castle” for the one in back, and the “forward castle”, or “fo’c’sle”. Quaint names that echo with past blood and terror.

The idea was to let the Vikings come aboard if they so chose, while the crew retreated to their forts. The pirates would be out in the open, vulnerable to any sort of attack, while the crew fought from relative safety.

These new tactics by their former prey created problems for the Vikings that they never did manage to overcome. The best they could do was tie a bunch of longships together, forming a sort of floating roadblock to the merchant ship, and using the combined Viking crews to try and overwhelm the defenders through sheer numbers. The increased casualties that came from assaulting prepared defenses meant that going a-viking was nevermore as much fun as it used to be.

The merchant crews, even if faced with overwhelming numbers, would often refuse to surrender, and fight to the death. Word had gotten around from the few survivors and escaped sailors that managed to make their way back home that slavery, misery, and painful death awaited anyone who was captured alive by the Vikings. There just wasn’t any reason to give up.

I’m going over ancient history with you because I saw a post at that strongly reminded me of those long gone days. It seems that the same tactics first developed to deal with berserk Norsemen coming over the side also apply when faced with modern day pirates.

The crew of a Chinese merchant ship named the Zhenhua 4 managed to keep some pirates off the coast of Aden from taking their ship last December. When beset by armed gunmen in speedboats, the modern equivalent of Vikings in a longship, they took action.

“The resolute crew retreated to their living quarters and called for help. As the pirates came aboard, the crew fought back with fire bombs and fire hoses, and refused to come out of the living quarters. The pirates fired at the crew, and were apparently perplexed at what to do. Meanwhile, a nearby Malaysian warship dispatched a helicopter, which shot at the pirates and caused them to flee in their speedboats. The crew of the Zhenhua 4 patched up the bullet holes and resumed their voyage. “

Ships are still built with raised areas to the rear, leaving an area of open deck. This is to make it easier to load and unload cargo, as well as for open air storage while the ship is under weigh. But it also leaves the pirates with little cover if the crew decides to barricade themselves in the stern castle and fight back.

The weapons were most assuredly different from those used by the sailors manning the Medieval cogs, with fire hoses and fire bombs instead of arrows and boat hooks, but the result was the same.

It is ironic that the old ways, the ancient tactics, have been rediscovered in this age of high tech marvels. The main difference seems to be that communications have become essentially instantaneous, with the skipper of the Zhenhua 4 using the radio to call for assistance. It seems that the Internet is also taking a role, informing other crews that are at risk as to their options.

“The Internet have proved an invaluable tool for ships planning for the Aden run. Everyone knows of the measures used by the Zhenhua 4 and the North Koreans, but there are many more ideas that have not gotten much coverage in the mass media. For example, crews now make more use of the fire hoses, and collect large objects (sheets of metal, junked furniture and empty boxes) to be heaved overboard onto the pirate boats. Poles are fabricated for pushing away ladders pirates often use to get aboard. The captains and crew members on the Internet exchange techniques for training crews, and preparing “repel boarders” drills.”

Notice, if you will, that even the lowly boat hook is enjoying a renewed popularity as an anti-piracy tool. Besides steel hulls and firearms, I really doubt that a 10th Century sailor would be all that out of sorts if they were called upon to repel boarders.

The crews of modern merchant vessels are held for ransom by the pirates, so they are not made into slaves like in days of old. But, even so, most find that coming under the control of armed pirates to be less than a happy experience, and the sailors who went through that ordeal are eager to spread the word.

“Sailors that have been aboard captured ships, and spent months in captivity, relate what that experience was like, and let other sailors know what to expect. This encourages the merchant ship sailors to pay closer attention to the drills and techniques to be used to avoid capture in the first place. “

The biggest value of resisting is to buy time so a warship can intervene.

“These efforts by the crews have led to nearly 250 pirates being captured, in the past six months, by warships that often show up.”

As Alphonse Karr once said, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

(Cross posted at Hell in a Handbasket.)

7 thoughts on “Fighting From the Stern Castle”

  1. On solution to the piracy problem would be to put remotely controlled weapons on merchant ships. The weapons would be controlled by military personal based anywhere in the world. If the pirates attacked, the military would defend the ship with the remotely controlled weapons. The military would assume liability and responsibility for the defense instead of a private entity.

    Of course, its the internet that would make something like this possible.

  2. Shannon, that’s way more high tech than is required. Shipping vessels just need a few Ma Deuce’s on board, along with the real need–some kind of maritime law/treaty (enforced by guess who?) preventing countries from interfering with shippers’ self-defense armaments.

  3. I tend to agree with Kirk Parker when he says that no more than a couple of Ma Deuce’s would do the trick. The problem is training the crews to move them to where they are needed, setting them up and accurately firing them. It ain’t a cheap date no matter how you slice it. Although the training, I would think, outweigh the rising insurance costs, and would certainly help crew morale.

    If I were in charge, I would have each crew member trained in small arms (preferably AK’s) fighting and practice running to the raised areas in the rear and have some semblance of interlocking fields of fire. But this is only if I couldn’t afford good M2 training to keep the pirates off the ship in the first place.

  4. If I were in charge, I would have each crew member trained in small arms fighting and practice running to the raised areas in the rear and have some semblance of interlocking fields of fire.

  5. The fore and after castles became incorporated into naval warfare strategy as well; warships developed bigger and bigger castles by the sixteenth century. The downside of the castles is that they catch the wind and make the vessels much harder to handle. The Spanish carried this to the extreme; by the time of the Armada, war galleons could only make four knots under the best of conditions; with fouled bottoms, it was more like two. And they could not sail into the wind at all. The English mastered the sixtenth-century naval revolution in military affairs first; they developed powerful iron cannon that could be fired in a broadside battery, and took the daring step of cutting the big castles away, realizing that with the big gun batteries, better handling was more important than post-boarding protection, since they could batter apart an enemy ship before it could close and board. This was all tested for the first time in the Armada battles. The Spanish were incredibly frustrated that their ships full of crack infantry could not close for boarding; their cannons were land artillery tied down on the deck, almost impossible to reload quickly. They were reduced to standing at the rails, firing their muskets at the English, and calling them chicken (literally, memoirs record them yelling gallinas ingleses — “English chickens” — at Drake’s ships). Since they couldn’t turn against the prevailing wind, they were basically shepherded down the Channel by Drake; once past the landing areas, they had no choice but to make the long, long trip around Scotland for which they were totally unprepared.

    Castles were a great idea, until a better system came along. Ironic that they are making a return today, but it’s entirely a regulatory artifact, as stupid laws make it hard to use proper weapons which would make mincemeat of the priates in short order.

    They might try something that steamships on the Chinese rivers in the early Twentieth Century found effective against river pirates — steam hoses spraying high-pressure superheated steam from the boilers. It was apparently quite effective.

  6. Kirk Parker,

    Shannon, that’s way more high tech than is required.

    But far more easier to implement legally under maritime law. There is nothing preventing nations from putting weapons on civilian ships as long as those weapons are under the control of uniformed military personnel. We did put marines onboard tankers when the Iranians were attacking them back in the 80’s.

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