Aug 062008

Filling big, expensive ships with ill-trained mariners from the third world with but a smattering of English is nothing new, if recent research into the sinking of the, brief, pride of Henry VIII’s fleet in 1545 if Professor Hugh Montgomery, a medical researcher at University College London is to be believed.

Mary Rose, named after Henry’s daughter and the rose symbol of the house of Tudor, took on a bunch of grenouille-scoffing Frenchmen in battle in the Solent, off of England’s south coast. She suddenly sank, without the help of the French, with the loss of nearly 400 crew and remained in the mud until the early 1980’s when her starboard side was recovered and taken ashore for preservation by the Mary Rose Trust.

Rescuers come to the aid of the Mary Rose survivors, about 30 out of some 400

Artifacts from the wreck give a fascinating, and human, insight into seafaring of those time, from longbows to medical kits to haunting personal items from the lost sailors.

Unanswered so far is why she sank. It is generally thought that she heeled over in a turn and took on water through her open gunports with her commander, Admiral George Carew cursing the crew as “Knaves I cannot rule”. The high death toll might in part be due to the rapidity of her sinking, the net placed over the deck to deter boarders and also to a belief by seafarers of the time that learning to swim was tempting fate.

MAC suspects that water on the gundeck would have invoked a free-surface effect that made in all but impossible for the vessel to recover stability once water entered. It a familiar phenomenon on ro-ro ferries that lose integrity.

In those days ships were built to rule-of-thumb formulae tested by tradition. However, Mary Rose was of an unusual size and it may be that the dynamics were significantly different on that scale.

Built around 1509-1510, she was 32 metres long with an 11.7 metres beam . Over the next few years she underwent two refits which increased her tonnage from 500 tonnes to 700 tonnes, added an extra deck and more and heavier guns. Thus her draught was increased, bringing her gunports closer to the waterline.

Tests with a scale model showed that, with the gunports open a sudden unexpected wind during the turn, reported at the time, could have put those gunports underwater and caused her to flood and sink. The same tests showed that her sinking wasn’t inevitable: had the ports been closed she would have survived.

Many skeletal remains have been recovered and have been studied by Professor Montgomery who discovered, based on skull shape, that around 60 per cent of the crew came from the Mediterranean, probably as mercenaries.

His theory is that most of the crew didn’t understand Carew’s orders because they didn’t know English and thus failed too close the gunports swiftly as the ship turned.

Language issues are not uncommon even today in maritime accidents, as The Case Of The Tongues Of Fire shows. Incomprehension of an officer’s orders has a number of effects – orders may not be understood and therefore not followed, or followed too late or, even worse, his subordinates do what they think is right rather than what the officer intended.

In a way more important, however, is that an officer who is not understood is unlikely to be able to impose the sort of discipline needed to remain in effective command. Which may be behind Carew’s inability to rule his knaves.

MAC somehow finds Professor Montgomery’s theory a little unsatisfactory. In those centuries explorers were travelling the world with multinational crews and had few language problems . Multinational crews were common on warships of the period and MAC has yet to come across many incidents in which ships were lost because of language problems aboard.

What we today call mercenaries were hired not merely because they were warm bodies but they knew their business. a ship in battle needs a well drilled crew that knows what it’s doing. One cannot know how ‘fresh’ this particular crew were but the Mary Rose had been in action several times during her career. These may well have been seasoned professionals.

Let’s start with the ship turning. Why was she turning? As a ship of this type turns at speed, the side on the outside of the curve will effectively elevate the cannon, which could result in longer range, but will also increase the angle of heel.

It cannot have been particularly unusual for gun ports in the side of the ship inside the curve to go close to, or even under the water, so closing those ports in time would have been critical, and equally critical to open them rapidly afterwards to have the cannon in position to take advantage of the increased elevation as the ship recovered then heeled in the other direction.

Imagine an S-shaped course in which the gun on the lower side of the heel are being prepared for firing while those on the high side are firing. The ship could keep up an almost continuous fire against the enemy while, at the same time, it’s maneouvers would make it difficult to get a fix.

Whether or not that was Carew’s strategy, the crew on the lowest gun deck would still have had to go through a well-drilled routine – close the ports, load the the guns, open the ports, fire at the right time and begin the cycle all over again.

MAC has already used the term ‘drilled’ twice. Professor Montgomery is quoted in the Daily Mail: ‘In the chaos of battle, with all the shouting and guns going off, it would have taken a very clear chain of command and a very disciplined, well-rehearsed crew to close the gun port lids in time.’

Therein may lay the answer to the mystery of the sinking of the Mary Rose. Carew’s knaves simply weren’t drilled enough and it cost almost 400 lives and the ship. True, they may have had experience but if there’s insufficient re-enforcement through drilling that experience may ceaseto be effective.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?

There may, indeed, be another factor – Carew had only taken command of the ship the previous day. A commander unused to his ship and the crew with little ‘shakedown’ time might well explain Carew’s dying words, but since he was a fine Englishman I suppose it’s not surprising that those pesky furrigners get the blame for not understanding his commands.

Mary Rose Trust

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