Although I love learning about tall ships and how they could be severely damaged in sea battles and miraculously been repaired by their ship’s carpenters, frankly, I never thought much about how they managed to work on parts of the ship under the water line. Then a few years ago I was visiting the Naval History Museum inVenice, Italy. Situated near the Arsenale in the eastern Castello district of Venice, Museo Storico Navale is considered to be one of the best museums of its kind.
There amid vintage gondolas, gilded barges, and fascinating maritime artifacts, I came upon a tabletop model demonstrating how ships were careened in the days before steam engines and dry docks.
Careening was important to pirates because a hull could accumulate tons of barnacles, shell and marine growth. This grow could actually cut the normal speed of the vessel in half.
The pirates of old were famous for “heaving down” or careening their ships on beaches that were safe havens and favored the purpose they called a “careenage.” It involved floating the ship onto a beach where, when the tide went out the ship was nestled safely on the sand and the crew went to work repairing leaks, sealing seams and if there was damage from a battle at sea, repair the holes from cannon balls. Gun ports and any other openings had to be sealed on the side of the ship that lay down on the beach so that when the incoming tide would not flood the ship. The pirates of old have favorite careening places, which were protected, uninhabited Caribbean islands. They usually chose a selected beach in a remote hidden harbor where, when their ship was careened, they could easily find fresh water, fruit and wild game to re-provision their ship. The group of islands known as the Tres Marias, became popular after Francis Drake had sailed there in 1579, and they quickly became a popular place for piracy. Sir Francis Drake was an English sea captain, privateer, slave trader, naval officer and explorer of the Elizabethan era. He was buried at sea in full armor in a lead lined coffin.
Various methods were used to scrap the bottom clean. Barnacles and marine growth along with woodworms were scraped off in addition to heavy growth of grassy type vegetation on the hull. The incentive to careen a wooden ship was clearly to get at the woodworms, which are more clams than they are worms. Teredo navalis has an elongated, reddish, wormlike body which is completely enclosed in a tunnel it has dug in the hull of a wooden ship or in floating or submerged timber. The replica of the HMS Bounty suffered extensive damage from woodworms.
At the very front end of the animal are two triangular, calcareous plates similar to a digging tool. These are up to 2 cm (0.8 in) long and correspond to the valves of other bivalve mollusks. They are white, with a covering of pale brown periostracum, and have rough ridges. The mollusk uses them to grasp the wood and slowly enlarges the burrow in which it lives. As it borrows it grows in size. It has retractable inhalant and exhalant siphons, which project through a small hole in the horny septum, which blocks the opening of the burrow. When the animal is threatened, the siphons can be drawn inside the burrow and protected by a pair of calcareous oar-like pallets. The tunnel the woodworms dig is circular in cross-section and is lined with calcareous material extruded by the mollusk. It can be up to 60 cm (24 in) long and 1 cm (0.4 in) in diameter. Strangely enough, in the Philippines woodworms are considered a delicacy. Brave souls who have eaten them say they taste like oysters. Raw woodworms or Tamilok are prepared in a way that isn't too dissimilar from Peruvian ceviche. The dish is said to taste like creamy, slimy oysters with a jelly-like consistency, but saltier.
Once clean, the bottom was sometimes tarred to make it water tight. In some cases, new copper plates were applied to the hull. Pirates generally careened their ship every six months because the nature of their business required them to move as quickly as possible.
A more complicated way to accomplish cleaning and repair the bottom was done by shifting the weight on board including heavy cannons, cannon balls and ballast until the ship heeled over to one side making it possible for crew to reach the hull. Once one side was done the weight was shifted again to make the other side of the hull accessible. This process was known as a Parliamentary heel which could be tricky if the seas suddenly turned rough. The HMS Royal George was lost in 1782 in the middle of a Parliamentary heel.
A safer way to careen was at the dock. To accomplish this process in addition to weight transfer, ropes were attached to the masts with the ship broad side to the wharf. The ropes were then pulled by winches on barges and on land causing the ship to heel over making it possible to reach the hull. This is the process is shown in the photos herein of a table top model at the Museo Storico Navale in Venice.
While careening was quite common among early sailors and pirates and is a time-honored way of cleaning the bottom of even the largest sailing vessels, the chances are you will never see a tall ship being careened in any of the developed countries of the world. However, there are still some primitive countries where it is done. You are more likely to see a cruising sailor, the owner of a full-keeled small sailing vessel careened; sometimes the careening is involuntary due to a navigational error. Fin keel hull shapes are more difficult to successfully careen.
Should you be careening your boat intentionally or by accident, veteran careeners advise that you need to prepare. In either case the time is limited. Use quick drying bottom paint and make sure you have means of getting off the boat once she is on the hard. Don’t try to balance the boat between two anchors but, do lie out the anchors to be ready when the boat is re-floated. If laying the boat against a grid or bulkhead, be sure to allow about 18 inches between the grid and the widest part of your beam. Fender it well and secure the boat in position. If a grid is not available, you can use a beech with a steep edge, which will provide something for your boat to lean against as the water recedes. Check the weather before you careen.
Stormy seas can get you into all sorts of trouble even on a beach or up against a grid.
There is no reason you have to finish your careening in one day. In fact, pirates often partied while their ships were careened or immediately after a careening that might have lasted for several weeks.