Even Our Favorite Naval Authors Aren't Always Perfect

Every writer of nautical fiction dreads error. Nothing blows willing suspension of disbelief quicker than a glaring factual error. Yet virtually every author has made one at some point -- even the greatest. They are unavoidable -- there are so many details to track, that occassionally something is going to slip through.

Sometimes the errors are so minor that you wonder why anyone -- even the author -- worries about them. James Nelson in the first edition of By Force Of Arms has an American sailor say "OK" The anachronism was removed in later editions. Others are more significant -- and prove that even the best storyteller can drop the ball as a historian. Or occassionally that even a historian can drop the ball as a historian.

Minor or major, errors are fun to collect. Rather like collecting postal error stamps, they even add to the entertainment provided, so long as the errors are not too common. Herewith presented are my favorite gaffs, each from a notable tall ships author.

Ship types occasionally trip up an author. C. S. Forester centers the action in Commodore Hornblower around a squadron that contains two bomb ketches. The ketches, Moth and Harvey are also described as having a mainstay made from chain -- to absorb the shock of the mortars when fired. The problem? The Royal Navy stopped making ketch-rigged bombs -- ships rigged with a main and mizzen mast -- during the Seven Years War, in the 1760s. After that, Royal Navy bombs were ship rigged -- three masted vessels.

Some bomb ketches may have survived through the end of the Wars of American Revolution. All would have yielded to decay by 1812. The Moth and Harvey should have been ship-rigged bombs, not the ketches described in the novels. And the stays, including the mainstay would have been cordage.

Songs can be tricky, too. The Black Cockade, a novel by Victor Suthren set in 1742, has a British warship beat to quarters to the tune of To Glory We Steer. The only problem is that To Glory We Steer was written to commemorate a year of British victories during the Seven Years War -- fifteen years AFTER the events described in The Black Cockade.

Armament is another rich source of error. Harry Haislip begins his novel A Sailor Named Jones with a description of the captains cabin in the Ranger. Haislip furnishes it with a pair of squat carronades. The problem? The scene occurs in January 1778, and the Carron company did not put the carronade into commercial production until early 1779!

Weaponry is Alexander Kent's (Douglas Reeman's) achilles heel, too. In To Glory We Steer he equips the Phalarope with a pair of forecastle 68-lbr carronades. Unfortunately no Royal Navy frigate employed 68-lbr carronades from its invention through the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Indeed, only four Royal Navy ships were EVER equiped with 68-lbr carronades on the forecastle, and they were ships-of-the-line.

Kent makes a similar gaff in Enemy in Sight! In that book he describes the Hyperion as having a main deck battery of 24-lbr long guns. Unfortunately the Hyperion is a 74-gun ship-of-the-line. Those were equipped with a main battery of 32-lbr long guns. While some 74s had 24-lbrs as their second gun deck, these ships were either French prizes or build after 1790 -- catagories into which the "old" Hyperion does not belong. When the Hyperion reappears in Honour This Day its 32-lbrs have been restored.

In Master and Commander Patrick O'Brian has Dr. Maturin peering through the elm-tree pump into the upper reaches of the Mediterranean. Unfortunately it would not work. O'Brian fell victim to a widely reported myth that the elm tree pumps drew water from the sea bottom. They do not. The pumps end inside the hull, and Dr. Maturin would be studying the fauna of the ships bilges.

Do these any of these errors detract from a fine story? Hardly. Instead they serve to remind us that even the masters put their pants on one leg at a time -- and occassionally slip while doing so.

Mark Lardas
Palestine, TX

Copyright 1996 by Mark N. Lardas
Commercial reproduction prohibited without written consent of the author.

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