Why Pirates Couldn’t Swim

pirates couldn't swim


We all seem to romanticize the pirate lifestyle. Heck right now, as I write this, I am wearing an eyepatch and swilling a jug of grog. Okay, in all honesty the eyepatch is a toy I bought last Halloween and my jug of grog is actually a glass of iced-tea, but my heart is on the open seas and I’ve been calling the Wife “Arrg Matey” all day.

Pirates for Life
Pirates used to get a bad rap just because they did their own thing. I mean, you sack a few dozen ships, taking all their gold, women, and grog and before you know it, you have a bad reputation. They may have been thieves, scoundrels, scallywags, and sometimes murderers but they did have their code. Once you were on a ship, you were expected to stay with that crew and loyalty was prized. Of course, it was also forced and that is how we will eventually get to the real reason why pirates couldn’t swim.

Unless you lived on the ocean or by a lake, you never really had any opportunity nor inclination to learn to swim. People were susceptible to believing anything in those days, unlike know where we all know everything thanks to the internet. Back then there were mermaids, sea monsters, and all kinds of scary things that managed to keep most people out of the water. Also, there was no YMCA, or city pools with instructors so even if you wanted to learn to swim, there were not many swim coaches around.

An Exercise in Futility
Sailing ships in the pirate era, which only ran from the late 1600s to maybe the middle 1700s, didn’t have lifeboats. Lifeboats didn’t show up until sometime in the 1800s, well past the romanticized pirate period. It seems they weren’t too big on safety. Think about it; look at all the pirates with one eye and one leg and you can figure that out for yourself.

Also, if you fell overboard, they weren’t coming back for you. Ships were big, bulky, and slow; turning them around took way more effort than they were willing to expend. Chances were if you fell overboard or sank, it wasn’t worth the agony to prolong the inevitable—so not learning to swim and drowning quickly was actually nicer than struggling for hours.

Pirate Tales
There is a tale which an old pirate told me while we sailed around the Virgin Islands. Okay, it was a powerboat trip to go to lunch and snorkeling and the old pirate was a 29 year old tour guide from Wisconsin, but it sounds way better my way. The tale goes that Blackbeard marooned a couple of his men on a little spit of rock known as Deadchest Island, which is only a hundred or so yards off of the adjacent Peter Island. Some say they drowned trying to swim to Peter Island and that’s why the bay is named Dead Man’s Bay. Others, including the old pirate (or tour guide, whatever), say they starved on the island because they were afraid of the water, couldn’t swim and wouldn’t chance it. This is where I learned the real reason pirates couldn’t swim.

I’m Out Of Here
Imagine you have been sailing for months on end on a wooden vessel, populated by a hundred or so of the nastiest, gnarliest, and meanest collection of human rejects around. Now imagine how they must smell. Besides the fact you’ve been eating gruel which consisted of, well who knows what—but it sure wasn’t tasty or healthy. If you collected enough rain water you might have a tiny amount to ration, and add in the fact you ran out of rum weeks ago, now I bet you are mighty fed up.

Now, all of a sudden you drop anchor in the Virgin Islands or some other tropical paradise with women, fresh water, and fruit. Well, the first thing most self-respecting pirates, if you could call them that, would do is jump off ship and swim ashore. That is: if they could swim. Well there’s the rub. Luckily for the captain, most people couldn’t swim in those days, for precisely the reasons mentioned before. Besides that, if you were caught teaching a fellow pirate how to swim, you would be keel-hauled, whipped, or if you were lucky, just shot. So the few pirates who could swim kept their mouths shut and you could bet more than a few shillings they would never, ever teach another pirate to swim.


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