Naval warfare expert rates 9 sea battle tactics in movies and TV

  • Naval warfare expert Evan Wilson rates nine naval warfare scenes in movies and TV shows for realism.
  • Wilson discusses battle tactics in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”
  • He also outlines the risk of boarding ships in “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.

[Euron yells as he descends on the bowsprit]

Evan Wilson: You just made yourself a target, right? There’s one guy there. It’s relatively easy to defend against. Just shoot him.

Hi, my name is Evan Wilson. I’m a professor at the US Naval War College, and I’m an expert in 18th-century naval warfare. Today I’ll be looking at naval warfare scenes in movies and judging how real they are.

“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003)

So, if you’re desperate and you’re being chased by someone who you know is stronger than you, you would throw things overboard if you’re trying to speed up. But the thing that’s really going to lighten the ship is throwing the guns overboard. I mean, that’s the fastest way to lighten it. A 32-pound (15kg) cannon or something like that weighs 7,000 pounds (3,175kg). What they’re throwing overboard is like — a single cannonball isn’t going to make any difference in the speed of your ship.

[A ship drops anchor and turns around abruptly]

This is a maneuver that’s called club hauling. You drop an anchor off the side in an attempt to rapidly turn the ship in another direction. It did happen, but you did it in an emergency, when you were trying to extricate your ship from a very dangerous situation, rather than as a tactic in battle usually. You could surprise the Black Pearl, but it’s going to take many minutes for this maneuver to happen. I mean, it is a surprise, ’cause it’s really dumb.

[A chain shot breaks a mast]

So, that’s chain shot. That’s a real thing. It’s either an antipersonnel thing, ’cause it’s going to spin, or you fire it at the rigging in the hopes of cutting ropes as it spins through. I’d be surprised if you had a one-shot thing that brings the mast down like that. A good naval gun crew that’s got a lot of men on it can load and fire a cannon in a minute, but you probably couldn’t sustain that for very long. It looks like there are, like, eight people on this ship, like I said, so, you know, they could fire one gun. But not all of them. You need a lot of men.

[A pirate swings on a rope from one ship to the other]

It’s a great way to make yourself a target. Probably much more likely to end up in between the ships, which is a great way to get crushed to death. It’s very cinematic, it’s very evocative, and it looks like sort of a Tarzan-esque thing, I get that, but you’re asking for trouble. And I think when people are firing at you, doing that is not smart.

One of the things you don’t see here is that it’s actually really hard to keep two ships right next to each other. We saw these ships moving in opposite directions. Something would have needed to have happened to keep them near each other. Right now this is just, very conveniently, I guess they’ve anchored next to each other so that they can duke it out.

Like, in the “Pirates” universe, this is a 10 out of 10. It’s about as accurate as they ever get. In reality, it’s like a, I don’t know, 4 out of 10.

Rating: 4/10

“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003)

French officer: This is your last warning! Stop now! They showed a couple shots there of the crowded deck of what we know is a British frigate. That’s much more accurate. I mean, these ships are going to be crawling with men. Jack: Fire!

[cannons boom]

So, that’s a pretty risky strategy, to try to knock down the mainmast of the enemy ship, because masts are hard to hit. But firing into the rigging was a real tactic, because the masts are held up by the rigging. So the reason you’d want to knock the enemy mast down is to disable his ship. And then he couldn’t chase you anymore, and then you could just leave.

Often the British practiced firing hard and low into enemy hulls, into the enemy ship, with the idea of killing men. Not to sink the ship. It’s really hard to sink a wooden ship. Wood floats. Instead, what you’re doing is you’re trying to kill the crew. The knock-on effect of that is that you can either board them and take them, or they’ll be so disabled and so damaged that they will surrender to you and then you can go take possession.

Officer: Put out the boarding plank!

Evan Wilson: Those are ropes that they’re throwing over to try to get the ships to stay together, to solve that problem of the ships moving apart. It’s really hard to get two ships to actually get close enough together to board. Ships have something called a tumblehome. The hull is shaped so that the sides aren’t straight up and down. The sides actually turn in a little bit. Which means that when two ships are next to each other, they both have tumblehomes that are going this way, which means that to cross from one deck to the other is actually a long way. The challenge of actually getting two ships next to each other to board them is real. They do a good job in this movie of showing you that there are different ways that you can go about doing it.

I mean, they got almost everything right. This is a 10 out of 10.

Rating: 10/10

“Game of Thrones” S7E2 (2017)

[Euron yells as he descends on the bowsprit]

That’s supposed to be sort of the bowsprit. That’s the mast that sticks out the front of the ship. That’s really essential to hold up most of the rigging of a ship. If you were to put elaborate metal claws on the front of it, you’d, first of all, probably not be able to sail the ship very well; secondly, it’d be very heavy on the front of your ship and cause your ship to go like this. You can run your ship into the other ship and then board it from there. But you do that by just clambering over your own bowsprit. You don’t do it by staging an elaborate entrance in which, once again, just like with the Tarzan rope thing, you just made yourself a target, right? I mean, they stand there shocked that it’s Euron, but, like, just shoot him.

[A giant flaming arrow hits a ship’s mast]

Flaming arrows? I would say no, that’s not something that would work. Mainly because to make a flaming arrow work, you probably have to light it on your own ship, and fire is by far the biggest threat to ships. Wood, canvas, pitch, tar, this stuff is really flammable. Firing flaming arrows at someone else’s ship is much more likely to set your own ship on fire than to set the other guy’s ship on fire. The fact that they correctly identify that one of the greatest fears for a fleet would be fire and that would be the thing that would make Euron scary I think is accurate.

Rating: 4/10

“The Adventures of Tintin” (2011)

The two ships are about to be on fire. That would be very bad. That would be catastrophic. You would be much more concerned about the fire than about whatever the enemy’s doing.

Would you keep fighting in a storm? The answer is, it would affect tactics, but it wouldn’t necessarily keep you from fighting. There’s a famous example of two British frigates chasing a much larger French ship in 1797. And normally, if the weather had been calm, the two frigates probably would have run away from the bigger French ship. But because of the storm was so bad, the French ship couldn’t open its lower gunports, because the water would’ve come in too low, right? So the French ship was basically half as powerful as it would’ve been.

[A ship swings from the rigging of another ship]

I don’t feel like I need to explain that, but I can, if you want. What’s the name of the carnival ride? That’s what — they clearly saw that at a carnival and they were like, “Let’s make that happen.”

[A pirate swings from a rope and is shot]

The guy swings like Tarzan, comes around, fires a gun, and then gets shot in the face. Because of course he would. ‘Cause you see a guy swinging, and you’re like, “I’m gonna shoot you now.”

Boarding is risky, right? When you board another ship, you need to be pretty confident that you are superior to the enemy that you’re boarding. Because if you board an enemy ship and it goes poorly, then you might lose your own ship. Whereas if you hadn’t bothered to board them in the first place, you probably wouldn’t get captured. And you’d be much more likely to just obliterate them at a distance, and then once they surrender, take over the ship and say, “Well, that was better.”

A lot of movies have boarding in them because it’s very cinematic and it’s a lot more interesting than watching two ships just fire at each other for a long time.

That’s a 1. War at sea is not a carnival ride. That’s just …

Rating: 1/10

“Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” (2007)

Look at the way that the wind is blowing the sails of the British ship from behind and the sails of the other ship from that direction. I mean, that’s a really good illustration of, the wind doesn’t work like that. The wind has been disengaged from this scene so that these ships can turn however they like.

A lot of the times in the age of sail clips that we’ve been seeing, they’re turning the ship’s wheel kind of like you’re just sort of spinning it, like, “Ah, just gonna throw it this way and spin it.” Usually it took two guys. It would take two people there to really work the wheel. ‘Cause you’re turning a really large piece of wood in water. So you turn the wheel, and that that moves ropes that are connected to the tiller that are connected to the rudder, and the rudder does steer the ship. So you do need to spin the wheel, but often these ships are turning on a dime with nothing happening in the sails, and you’re expected to believe that that’s how it worked. So, you would turn the wheel to do that, but you’d also do 1,000 other things, and the wind would have to be just right, in the right place, and it would take a while.

These ships are passing each other very quickly. I mean, the combined speed there is, like, I don’t know, 15 miles (24km) an hour. The number of seconds you’d probably have in which the enemy ship was in just the right position to fire on it would be very few. And so you’d end up with them just, you know, you’d do a little bit of damage, and then the ship would just sail on.

You could double up on an enemy ship like that, and there are famous examples of it. At the Battle of the Nile in 1798, the British do this to the French. It’s a great way to do a lot of damage, ’cause it forces the enemy to fire on both sides, to figure out which way to concentrate.

They do a good job actually here of showing the splinters. And the one realistic thing about this clip is that the air gets filled with splinters, and splinters were the real danger. That was what hurt you. You’re very unlikely to be hit by an actual cannonball. It happened, of course, but the splinters are the thing here. Like, these things are coming at bullet speeds.

There are famous examples of ships exploding. They’re rare, but certainly they did happen. The magazine is where you store the powder. If the magazine catches fire, then you’d see a major explosion. An iron cannon ball doesn’t bring with it any explosive power. There’s nothing that goes boom there, it’s just a solid iron ball. So it’s unlikely that an enemy shot is going to cause a magazine to explode. It’s not something you could really aim for. It’s much more likely that some fire got started on board that then spread to the magazine. Because, remember, all the guns on that ship need sparks in order to ignite the powder to get them to fire, so there’s a lot of flames in and around powder on board a ship. And if something goes wrong, you could have that happen.

Wood floats. Right? Wood doesn’t take a nosedive and be like, “Well, I’m done floating now. See ya.” There’d be wreckage everywhere, and all that wreckage would float. You’d end up with water coming in the hull, and it would sink slowly over time. Certainly not after a single pass from two ships sailing in the opposite direction on a magical wind.

So this clip is a 2, mainly because of the splinters, and ships did explode. But all the sailing stuff is ludicrous.

Rating: 2/10

“300: Rise of an Empire” (2014)

Yeah, I don’t know what to say about that.


What happens when a ship goes downhill? I don’t know. I’d be much more concerned about the wave and the curvature of the earth there than the enemy ships, but that’s a fantasy element we can leave aside.

Rowing a ship using human power is pretty inefficient. The way to get your ship going fast enough to do any damage with the ram means that the rest of the ship needs to be pretty light, and you need a lot of rowers. They’ve done some testing on this. The answer is, an untrained crew could get a trireme going maybe 9 knots, which is like a jog. It’s like 8 miles (13km) an hour, right? So, yeah, it’s not that fast.

The way that they’re moving relatively slowly as they approach the ship is, meh, sure. And then it’s sort of accelerated at the end, and then the ship bent. You could probably poke a hole in the guy’s ship if you really were going to try to ram the guy. And you would aim for the middle of the other guy’s ship, ’cause that probably would be the weakest part, but you’re unlikely to sink him. ‘Cause, again, wood floats. It’s really hard to sink ships. What you’re more likely to do is just damage him enough that you can board him.

But what doesn’t work in this clip is that the vessels that you would expect to see here are fair-weather ships, right? So galleys, triremes, that sort of thing. These are not all-weather vessels that are going to handle a big sea. These ships would be mainly struggling to survive, rather than able to fight much.

Maybe it’s a 5. Yeah, they had triremes, they fought like this, sort of.

Rating: 5/10

“Moana” (2016)

“Their boat is turning into more boats!”

The division of the pirate ship into small ships to send them out to attack the small ship doesn’t make a ton of sense to me. You’d use the small boats on your big ship to tow you places in a flat calm, sometimes, if it were an emergency, but otherwise the little boats that you’ve got are not going to help do much. A smaller, maneuverable ship could theoretically run away from big ships in the right conditions.

The speed of a ship depends on about 1,000 different factors. You’re going to deal with the wind direction, the wind speed, which direction the ship is trying to go relative to the wind. Moana and Maui are going to be more maneuverable. They’re going to be able to change direction very quickly.

I think for realism, you know, it’s a 6. I mean, there are coconut pirates, so let’s not get too carried away.

Rating: 6/10

“Black Sails” (2016)

So, now’s probably a good time to talk about range. The guns that they’re firing in this period are not usually rifled, right, so they have smooth bore barrels, which means that the cannonball is slightly smaller than the barrel. Which means that as it fires down the barrel, it’s got windage, so it can bounce around the barrel as it goes, and then it goes off there. So they’re not particularly accurate. Think of a musket as opposed to a rifle.

That said, they can throw a ball really far. So, the muzzle velocity of a 32-pound (15kg) cannon here is, like, 1,500 feet (457.20m) per second, or I think Mach 1.3. It’s going faster than the speed of sound. And so you could hit something at maybe a mile. Whether you could hit what you were aiming at at a mile, less clear, but at a mile you could probably, if you got the pitch just right and you hit it on the roll, you could get a ball to go that far.

Unlike most movies that immediately shrink the battlefield down to right next to each other, it does a good job of sort of showing that, yeah, you could actually open up at a pretty good range and expect maybe to hit something. Ideally you’d want to be within a quarter of a mile.

[A sailor swims to another ship]

You’d only do that in very short ranges. Ships are constantly moving, right? And they’re moving faster than you can swim. So the idea that you would be able to risk swimming across to an enemy ship and then when you board it there’d be enough of you to actually do something with it is very unlikely. In a fleet battle like this it’s very rare. What they did at Trafalgar, this lieutenant swam across to a French ship and then managed to get ropes tossed to him so that they could grapple the ships together, again, to board it. But it’s within range of someone to be able to throw a rope, not, like, a mile or whatever the distance is here.

Would you do it at that range? No. Would you open up guns at that range? It looks pretty far to me, but it’s hard to judge distances here. So I’ll say 7.

Rating: 7/10

“Admiral” (2015)

That weird funnel of ships was strange. There are a lot of collisions that are about to happen in that fleet right there. So you wouldn’t get that close to each other.

But they’re basically trying to form a line of battle. Forming a line of battle was a technique developed in the middle of the 17th century, in the 1650s, roughly. And it was a defensive technique. So you form ships in a line of battle one after the other, lined up like this. Remember that ships’ guns, the most powerful ones fire sideways, but ships sail forward. You line up all the ships in your fleet, one after the other, like this in a line, so that the weakest part of every ship, the bow and the stern, is facing a friend. The most dangerous part is facing the bad guy. You form a really effective defensive barrier that means that it’s very difficult for the enemy to do anything to you, because you can keep them at bay with your massive powerful guns all lined up. And that’s called the line of battle, and it basically is the major fleet tactic for the next 150 years. If you had a solid line of battle that wouldn’t get broken, then chances are you’re weren’t going to lose the battle.

That gun sort of gently rolled back when it fired. Like, that’s not nearly violent enough. 7,000 pounds (3,175kg) moving backwards 10 to 11 feet, you wouldn’t really even see it, it would be so fast. ‘Cause the thing that’s going out the front is going out at Mach 1.3.

Now, that put out a huge amount of stress on the ship’s side, ’cause it meant that the bolts that held it to the ship’s side had 16 tons of force pulling them that way every time you fired the gun. So one of the things that they learned over time is, don’t fire every single gun on the ship at the same time. Do a rolling broadside so that you don’t exert 16 tons of power on every single bracket on every single side of your ship. So bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, not kaboom, right? It wouldn’t necessarily tear the ship to pieces, but it would certainly put more stress on it than it would if you sort of staggered the firing a little bit.

To fire these cannon, put the slow match on the touch hole. Well, all that’s doing is igniting a stream of powder fuse that’s going to go down the touch hole into the actual charge. And then sometime in the next two or three seconds, the cannon’s going to fire. But I can’t exactly predict it. Which, again, makes aiming really hard, ’cause the ship is moving in all sorts of directions. It’s going forward, it’s pitching and rolling and yawing, and all these other dimensions.

They do a good job of actually showing slow match in this clip, but the guns don’t recoil fast enough and there’s not enough uncertainty about it. This is probably an 8. You don’t normally see lines of battle in movies, and so credit where credit’s due.

Rating: 8/10

If you take nothing else away from this show, wood floats.

The views expressed in this video are his own.