Mythbusters - Pirate show

This week Mythbusters had a pirate show. One of the myths they tested was whether someone could safely descend from the top of a mast by stabbing the sail with a knife/sword and riding it down. The sail they used had ‘reef bands’, horizontal bands with eyelets used for reefing the sail, that had up to three layers of canvas (the strips’ sides were folded under). A sharp knife (they used a Main Gauche) cut the sail too quickly for a safe descent. A dull one wouldn’t cut through the reef bands. So they tried a medium sharp knife.

Buster couldn’t absorb the landing, so they tried the experiment with Tori. When the knife hit the reef band the knife popped out of the slit causing Tori to fall. Myth busted.

But wait a minute…

They showed a film clip of Douglas Fairbanks doing this in a movie. I think they missed one possibly important aspect. In the film, the sail was billowing. Fairbanks’s character’s body was sliding along the billowed part of the sail, which would have slowed his rate of descent. The movie prop sail did not have reef bands. But assuming a pirate were to slide his body along a billowed sail, could he use a sharp knife that would cut the reef bands and not cause the knife to pop out of the slit?

Actually, the reef bands were visible in the movie clip. Time to upgrade your TV! :smiley:

Tori was in a descender harness, so he wasn’t completely in free-fall.

He didn’t have the arm strength to hold the knife in the sail when it hit the first band when he was falling straight down. (And he otherwise looks like a fairly strong guy) If the sail was at say, a 5 degree angle, would that be enough to enable him to hold the knife in place?

Considering my recent travels, I watched this episode pretty closely. When they went to that real ship to see the sails, I was looking at how the ropes were hung.

I noticed that, too. The billowing sail would take some of the weight off the knife, and sliding on the sail would slow you down so there wouldn’t be as much momentum when you hit the reef band. I don’t know if it’s enough to make a difference, but it would have been an interesting test.

Of course, if the sail is billowing, once you get past halfway it’s worse than if it was just hanging.

Would twisting the knife have made any difference? I figured you might be able to control your rate of descent by turning the blade away from vertical.

And if it can’t be done, how did they do it in the movie. These days it would be CGI, or a stuntman on a safety line that was masked out in post-production; but in Fairbanks’ day they used to do some insane stunts. We see him at the top of the sail, and then at the bottom with a cut in between. It may have been two separate setups.

Mr. Fairbanks slid down most of the sail in one take, I suspect with a trampoline or other fall-softening-device at the bottom. The next cut is him landing on his feet.

The reef bands on the Fairbanks sail may have been painted on–it sure didn’t look like they slowed the knife at all.

I didn’t see the episode in question, but I’m pretty sure the scene they used was from the Black Pirate. If I recall properly I think there was a bit of behind the scenes footage, too. I might have to dig it up if it has clues how he filmed it.

Or just to watch the movie again. It’s a damn good flick.

I have vague memory of a either a book or telly show explaining how the sail stunt was done. IIRC, Fairbanks wasn’t holding a knife in the scenes where he’s sliding down the sail. Instead, he was holding onto the end of a long pole (or something) which was counter balanced.


I’m pretty sure the reef bands in the Fairbanks clip were painted on; in fact, the sail itself appeared to be something other than canvas.

Meanwhile, when they did that little scene with Kari getting tied up for the obstacle course, I found myself thinking “Man, if Evil Captor’s watching this, I bet he’s just about blowing a fuse right now.” I know I did :smiley:

If the sails were billowing, the wind would be pushing HIM as well as the sails.
This might have given him added friction and slowed him down enough to do his knife thing.

No, I hardly noticed, what with all the technical stuff about sandbag placement and such to keep me riveted. :stuck_out_tongue:

That Kari sure is a cutie, though.

What did you think about the eyepatch test?

I was fascinated that switching the patch made such a difference in their night vision. I had no idea it would work so well. And I learned a little about rods and cones. But, and this is a big but, I want some more evidence that pirates actually used their patches that way. I think they showed it was possible. Now I want something that shows it actually happened.

As for the cannonball stunt, that was interesting, too, but they acted like no one knows how cannonballs killed people – a big mystery. But surely the Royal Navy or someone in that period knew whether it was the impact of the cannonballs or the splinters or just the fact that the ships took on water and sank.

No surprise that a dark-adapted eye would be usable in the dark. I did wonder a bit about depth perception though.

But were eye patches really used for night vision? They said it’s plausible; not confirmed. A simpler answer is that since pirates (and many other people) lost limbs, and since canonfire does result in splinters, that eye patches were used to cover lost eyes.

Why did they have such trouble coming up with a cannon? Here’s a full-size (except for bore) Naval carronade. Half-scale six-pounder barrels, 3/4 scale ordinance rifle barrels, full-scale Civil War field cannon, ships’ swivel guns, and other cannons are also available.

The cannonball test confused me.

They did all that testing to see which type of wood would produce most lethal looking splinters, then made the ship section with the best on the outside and the worst on the inside. Yeah, Adam made the point that the white oak exterior planking was accurate to the period but didn’t explain why pine had been chosen for the interior.

Seems to me that the wood which threw out most splinters should have been put on the inside - unless period ships used pine for interior planking.

As it was the white oak did produce plenty of splinters but they remained inside the gap between the two sections of planking.

Well, I don’t think it would have mattered very much. In the small-scale tests, the splinters embedded into what looked like styrofoam, which I imagine is much less resistant to piercing than skin, and it was placed within a few inches of the board. The splinters are fairly low-mass, the pigs’ exteriors are tougher, and they were further away from the impact point of the cannonball. I can see this being a source of eye injuries, but fatal wounds? Unlikely.

It’s not clear from descriptive material on the linked site, but could it be that these items are designed in such a way that solid projectiles cannot be fired from them? I’m only asking because it would seem like there would be all sorts of legal hoops to jump through if someone wanted to own such a device, and wouldn’t think re-enactors would really need that capability. I don’t know one way or another, though.

ISTR that replica cannon have steel liners – at least some of them do. I’ve heard that many cannoneers use concrete-filled tin cans as projectiles, so at least some people do use solid projectiles.

The Artillery Release Form (.pdf) says this:

So this indicates that the cannons can be used to fire projectiles. Also, DGW is known for selling firing replicas of antique firearms.

A documentary I once saw explained how the Douglas Fairbanks stunt was done. Fairbanks’ knife (or the rigged prop made to look like a knife handle) was connected to a rope on a pulley; he just held on as the stagehands lowered him in a controlled descent. I was surprised and disappointed that the MBs did not reveal the movie trick somewhere in the episode.

And he was controlling his direction with a steering wheel tucked down his pants.

Arrr. It drove me nuts.

As was I. I kept expecting it, since they revealed the movie trick with the “blown away by a bullet” thing some episodes ago.

I’m as much a bondage enthusiast as the next person, but not when Kari is involved. Not since they did the Chinese water torture experiment with her restrained and she ended up freaking out. (That actually was hot, till she freaked out.) Took the hotness right out of any future Kari-bondage.

I thought the eyepatch experiment was pretty neat, but to me, the dark-adaptation explanation sounds like something people thought up after the fact, rather than the real reason pirates wore eyepatches.

I don’t get the splinter test, every naval history of the period I have read explains how lethal the wood splinters were. In battle ships would put all their boats into the water and tow them behind. Cannon fire could hit the boats on deck and produce more splinters it they were hit. Confused.

However, the mythbusters were not using 24 or 32 pounders either.