Playing Pirate Does Not a Sailor Make

Mario Vittone
Total Views: 63
April 2, 2015

Liana’s Ransom – motoring under sail – (Liana’s Ransom Facebook Page Image)

When I first read of the rescue of the tall ship Liana’s Ransom, I contacted friends in the tall ship community to express my sadness at the loss of the vessel, and relief that the crew survived the ordeal. “Liana who?” was the common response. “That’s not a ‘tall ship,’ Mario,” they said. “It’s probably one of those wanna-be pirate ships, a tourist-attraction powerboat. The sails are just there to make it look cool.”

Embarrassed (again) for not knowing much about “real” sailing, I dug in a little to the incident and the vessel and instantly understood the true nature of the distress and what really caused the call for rescue.


“Ahoy Mates!  …Are you looking for a swashbuckling adventure? Sail back in time aboard the replica pirate ship Liana’s Ransom. Fire the cannons, swing from the yardarm, hoist the sails, or walk the plank.”

Then I see that Liana’s Ransom was built in 2005, and it all comes together.

Liana’s Ransom Wasn’t a Real Tall Ship

Here’s what happened:

In 2003, Disney releases Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s a wildly popular movie with sequel after sequel, and “replica pirate ships” start getting built to “sail” as tourist attractions in beach towns all over North America. They almost always operate with a crew of deckhands who dress and act like pirates as part of the “attraction” so kids can act like pirates, shoot cannons, and be Captain Jack Sparrow, savvy?

(The video on the ship’s website – complete with (pirated) Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack – is… something.)

These vessels aren’t built to rely on sail power, and their certification to carry passengers relies (fully) on installed engine and generator power. While they often have approved sail plans, they are almost never certified to sail with passengers offshore any farther than just a few miles, and are almost always restricted to good weather. To keep costs reasonable, builders didn’t put their money into rigging and masts, as they are intended to act primarily as props, not propulsion. That Liana’s Ransom lost an original mast just 10 years after it was set is evidence enough of its construction integrity.

Then, as fads do, the appeal dries up along with the money and these commercial ventures operate with less and less cash. When that happens, maintenance takes a back seat to commercial survival – always. So, when Liana’s Ransom put out to sea last weekend and her port engine quit 12 hours later, then the starboard engine failed, then the generator died, co-owner/captain Ryan Tilley may have been dismayed, but I doubt he was truly surprised.

Without her engines in full and reliable operation, Liana’s Ransom wasn’t certified to do anything. She wasn’t a “sailboat.” Being able to sail and being able to fully rely on sails for power are two very different things and the U.S. Coast Guard (and Transport Canada) knows this and hands out “certification” accordingly.

When Tilley and his crew finally decided to “try sail power,” in some pretty primo sailing weather for a real tall ship, it was an all-or-nothing attempt. They were trying to use their ship in a way that it was not designed to be used. Why do I think that? Well, because in just 30 knots of wind, all of the sails ripped. Now they were in a mess and needed rescue.

Alone, this condition of being a fake sailing ship isn’t the problem. The purpose of their construction was to carry kids out on day sails no more than a few miles from the dock, shoot off some fake cannons, swing from the fake yardarms and have a “swashbuckling adventure.”  Take it out to sea – you know, the real sea – and things get serious in a hurry. To effectively do that you need a real boat, well-maintained and in good condition, and you need a real crew, not people who pretend to be pirates.

Kids Who Act Like Pirates Aren’t Sailors

Now, I could write a bunch of stuff about the difference between being a trained and experienced mate, and being a deckhand. I could point out regulatory differences between a commercial passenger ship, and one of these wanna-be pirate “schooners,” and I could describe the difference between the experience of being a qualified member of the watch on a true historic tall ship, and the requirements one must possess to wear a pirate hat and name off the parts of the rigging to ten-year-olds. Instead, just go ahead and watch this video of the crew of Liana’s Ransom recalling their rescue. You won’t need to go to the end to understand.

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The crew’s qualifications as listed on the vessel website were,

“...crewed by a colorful pirate crew in period costumes complete with cutlass’ and flintlock pistols.

Salty, indeed.

To be fair, I don’t have any idea who these kids are and what their experience at sea really is, and I don’t know young Captain Tilley. What I do know is that engines fail for a reason, sails rip for a reason, and that weather that is beyond your ability to manage doesn’t sneak up on you without warning a day out from port.

My position on abandoning ship hasn’t changed. Too early is still better than too late, and I will never agree that mariners should be required to pay for rescue when they need it – and Tilley and his crew definitely needed it. But I also think that the real reason they needed to be rescued was because they had no business going that far out to sea in the first place.

Liana’s Ransom has been recovered and is currently tied up in Eliot, Maine. I hope that before they “set sail” for the big water again (and you know they will), the owners get themselves some real sails, hire some real sailors, and safely make way as the vessel-maker intended, staying very close to shore.

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