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Hollywood Boarding Actions: “Alright, My Hearties, Follow Me!”

An English privateer coming alongside a Spanish galleass in The Sea Hawk (Warner Bros., 1940) starring Errol Flynn. The scene was shot in an indoor set, with partial replica ships–sets, that is–sitting in a water tank. The ships were moved together on rails hidden underwater. Author’s collection.

We may have only seen the ship-to-ship action coming alongside “board and board” in but a single film, and certainly in no more than two or three, but the Hollywood image of “Boarders away!” is indelibly impressed on our swashbuckling psyches.

I’m not going to go into the details of coming alongside, nor many of the actual boarding action afterward, which in Hollywood films the latter is usually composed of “cutlass-sharpening hack-and-slash” action. Plus, I’m lazy, or rather, in a hurry to complete longer more detailed blog posts, making this one a bit of a placeholder as I finish the remaining three “Duel on the Beach” posts. For more detail on how boarding actions actually happened, see The Sea Rover’s Practice (and also the associated pdf of additional information and comments).

A boarding action with ships pretty much equally “board and board” in The Son of Captain Blood (Paramount, 1963) starring Sean Flynn, son of Errol Flynn. The scene arrangement may be an homage to the similar scene in The Sea Hawk or simply a convenient way to shoot it. Author’s collection.

I will note the two most outstanding parts of the image. First, for reasons of simplifying the image for audience, not to mention of shooting it and for the powerful graphic image it makes, Hollywood usually shoots the scene in only one fashion: the two ships are perfectly lined up broadside to broadside, as in the images above and in the one below. However, in reality this was not the most common method. Ideally, the boarding vessel put its forecastle at the waist (basically, the center) of the ship to be boarded. This was to facilitate boarding by sending boarders aboard at the lowest part of the attacked ship. Plus, the main shrouds were located here, and this was by far the safest place to board an enemy ship.

And no, there was no swinging from one ship to another!

The usual variety of ship boarding arrangements is depicted below, with forecastle to amidships (no. 1) the most common.

Illustration from The Sea Rover’s Practice by Benerson Little (Potomac Books, 2005).

The second point to make is that boarding was generally undertaken only after the enemy’s fire was suppressed and, if possible, its decks cleared. Often, an attacked vessel’s crew would retreat to closed quarters (behind fortified bulkheads and below locked hatches) and fight from a fortified position rather than on the open decks. The point is this: boarders standing on the gunwales as the ships come alongside, as Hollywood has it, would be cut down by a hail of musketry, swivel gun fire, and great guns (as cannons are known as sea) loaded with small shot!

Two pirate ships engaged at “pistol shot,” soon to be “yardarm to yardarm” as they come alongside to board. Again, this is an easy way to shoot scenes like this, making it clear to the audience what’s going on. No, you wouldn’t see the fireballs and fiery explosions of which the film’s director was so fond! Publicity still from Cutthroat Island (MGM/UA, 1995). Author’s collection.

So, what might these boarding actions actually have looked like? Well, a minority may have looked somewhat like those above, albeit without men exposed on the rails until boarders were actually “away.”

“Slag bij Livorno” (“Battle of Livorno”) by Reinier Nooms, 1653 – 1664. Rijksmuseum.

In the painting above, three ships are yardarm-to-yardarm, with boarders attacking. All three ships are evenly alongside, as in the Hollywood images above. It is impossible to tell from the painting (accounts of the battle might provide the answer) which two ships came alongside first. A second Dutch man-of-war has come alongside in support of the first. Ideally, such support was provided by boarding across the deck of the allied vessel, but this, as the painting illustrates, was not always possible. To the right is another pair of ships equally alongside. In all these cases, boarding appears to have been intended: the sprit and sprit-topsail yards have been brought alongside the bowsprit and sprit-topmast respectively in preparation for boarding.

“Na de Zeeslag” (“After the Battle”), Reinier Nooms, 1652 – 1654. Rijksmuseum.

In the illustration above, the boarding action is more typical, if atypically backwards: facing opposite directions, that is. But the ships have their heads ideally placed amidships. This and the painting above are two of the few mid- to late seventeenth images actually showing boarders in action.

Detail from “Zeeslag met overname van een schip,” 1652 (?), Reinier Nooms, 1652 – 1654. Rijksmuseum.

Above is the classical, preferred method of boarding: ship’s had to the waist. The off-side ship has boarded the near, and boarders on the gangway from the quarterdeck to the forecastle (a common feature of many Dutch ships of this era) are attacking defenders in the waist below.

So, as with everything Hollywood, there’s usually a bit of truth at its core, but distorted for reasons of practicality of illustration, or ignorance, or sometimes even mere laziness. Even so, if nothing else, the Hollywood images do evoke the reality, at least from a distance!

*The title quote is from Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn, screenplay by Casey Robinson (Warner Bros., 1935).

Copyright Benerson Little 2021. First posted January 25, 2021. Last updated February 5, 2021.