How Did Pirates Board Ships?


Movies and reality are sometimes far from similar–this is especially true with pirate movies. Though many viewers know the beasts and lore from these movies are fictional, some may be surprised that much of the pirate life depicted in films is also inaccurate. For example, pirates rarely boarded an enemy ship via strategic means.

Pirates used grappling hooks to board enemy ships or simply board the ship via the bow or stern. Typically enemy ships were ready to surrender before the pirates had even boarded the ship, so too much of a fight wasn’t necessary–though Hollywood movies would portray it differently. 

This article will explore the typical tactics of pirates and give a walk-through of what it was like from start to finish being seized by a pirate ship.

How Did Pirates Board Enemy Ships? 

Pirates boarded enemy ships by simply walking on, via the bow or the stern, when the ship had surrendered. If there was an attack that required the pirates to go onto the enemy ship and fight, they might use smaller boats and grappling hooks to get on, though this was rare.

More often than not, though, no boarding actually happened by the pirate ship. Pirate ships were, in a sense, businessmen. Pirates would intimidate their enemy until the opposing ship surrendered. 

Once a ship was close enough, pirates might shoot a cannonball at the ship as a warning shot. This could be directed at either the ship or its crew. If aimed at the crew, it would mean that they wanted to board and fight with swords; if aimed at the ship itself, it meant that they only wanted to take valuables from within it and not damage or sink it entirely.

The captain of that ship would join the pirate ship for a negotiation–whether or not they would get any loot, whether or not they would get any of the members, etc.

Flags were a big part of this process. The use of flags on pirate ships was more than just a way to show off the colors. Pirates would also use their flags to warn opposing ships, which they are, letting them know that they were not going to be easily intimidated. 

The flag of the Jolly Roger was used by pirates as a symbol of strength and dominance. If this was the flag flying on a ship approaching a different ship, it meant that no business or dealings should happen with either because there was already business taking place between a pirate captain and a different captain. 

If things didn’t go well with negotiation, or the captain of another ship didn’t surrender, it went a little more violently.

Boarding a ship had to be done quickly, as you wouldn’t want to lose your crew or spend an extended period of time in rough waters if there were other ships nearby. Pirates would typically use grappling hooks and ropes to pull themselves up onto the decks of their targets.

Once aboard, pirates would take control of the deck before any crew could react and then push them back below deck with their weapons (such as pikes).

When boarding a ship, several things must be considered by the captain of a pirate ship: how many pirates will board (in general, more is better), how much space is available for boarding equipment like grappling hooks and ladders/ropes, and what they were willing to lose in negotiations. 

These factors can determine whether or not it was possible to board successfully without losing too many men in battle or getting caught by another passing vessel while trying to get away from theirs. 

Additionally, it can be assumed that there was some sort of fighting involved in boarding a ship. The weapons used were likely swords or pistols (as shown in contemporary illustrations). However, we have no concrete evidence about what happened when these weapons were fired at point-blank range at other people who were standing nearby. 

When Did Pirates Attack?

Pirates attacked enemy ships when they weren’t surrendered to. On the open sea, it was important to use opportunity more than anything. Sometimes, a pirate may have been able to board a ship in the middle of the night by taking advantage of a surprise attack. 

The majority of pirates were not well-trained naval personnel and were often outmatched when it came to firepower and manpower compared to their targets.

Some pirates would wait until conditions were favorable for them: when the sea was rough, when their target had already sustained damage from another attack, or even if they knew they would be outnumbered on deck. 

Pirates also rarely attacked during storms, even though it made it harder for sailors to spot them coming up on either side of their prey’s vessel–it was often too dangerous to do any real negotiations and might give the other ship an advantage. 

What Did Pirates Do on Enemy Ships?

Once pirates boarded enemy ships, it was possible there would be a violent confrontation.

When the ship was completely seized, there was more bartering than anything else about the crew and the goods on the ship. Pirates would either sell crew members of the seized ship, kill them, or might even leave them on an island to die. 

Pirates were often sent to negotiate with the opposing ship’s captain. If the pirate quartermaster was able to convince the other captain that he was a man of honor and would not violate his word (which he would always do), then negotiations could begin.

The pirates would ask for things like supplies and money or members of the opposing ship’s crew.

If there wasn’t a  direct confrontation, they could come to an amicable understanding–that is, save for some stolen loot.

Or, if the other ship had reacted with violence, then there was usually no room for negotiation. In this case, sometimes, they’d just take what they wanted by force after boarding the ship of their own volition. 

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