In the War of 1812 battle between the USS Chesapeake and HMS Shannon, the Shannon outgunned the Chesapeake decisively, then closed to board the enemy ship. Hand-to-hand fighting ensued before the USS Chesapeake was taken.

Reading the account made me wonder: if the crew of the Chesapeake had won the hand-to-hand combat, the boarding attempt could easily have backfired. After all, the two ships were close enough that the Americans could've boarded the Shannon instead.

Has such an attempt to board ever backfired? If not, why not? I'm guessing that it can't be that "if one side attempts to board they have already won the fight", because if that's the case, the loser would surrender.

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    @SteveBird any period where long-range weapons would allow a ship to establish superiority before attempting to board. This excludes antiquity where boarding and hand-to-hand fighting is the only way to win, and modern warfare where boarding never happens.
    – Allure
    Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 6:39
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    @Allure, Given the difficulties associated with boarding, most ships that had established superiority due to their long-range weapons would generally avoid a boarding action. The Shannon was an exception because the out-of-control Chesapeake collided with her.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 6:53
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    @SteveBird interesting. Suggest writing that as an answer.
    – Allure
    Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 7:11
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    The most famous example of this would be Blackbeards defeat. The pirate boarded Maynards vessel, while the latter hid most of his troops below deck, causing the boarding action to fail and leading to Blackbeards death. However, I don't know whether you would count a pirate hunt as a naval battle nor whether this meets your criteria, as the boarding action wasn't exactly planned, due to both vessels being heavily damaged.
    – Dulkan
    Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 7:14
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    @Dulkan I would also suggest writing that as an answer!
    – Allure
    Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 7:19

2 Answers 2


The most famous example of this would be Blackbeard's defeat. The Wikipedia article is quite thorough, so I'll focus on the last battle. The local governor organized a pirate hunt to capture or kill Blackbeard after he started pirating again (Blackbeard was pardoned shortly before).

Two sloops found Blackbeard's vessel anchored at Ocracoke island. The whole situation was quite fortuitous for the hunters. Blackbeard didn't post a sentry, so didn't notice the enemy until they engaged and more than half his crew was at Bath (a town on the mainland, around 120km from the island).

The three vessels engaged in combat next morning. The account of what happened in the naval battle is a bit muddied. A broadside from Blackbeard's vessel heavily damaged and killed nearly 20 men on Maynard's ship and completely disabled its compatriot. Meanwhile Blackbeard ran aground on a sandbank, also taking heavy damage, it's unclear whether damage done by the British sloops caused this. Blackbeard then decided to board Maynard's vessel. Maynard kept most of his men below deck, so Blackbeard was lulled into a false sense of security seeing the many dead on deck and not expecting to see much resistance. After boarding, the pirates were surprised by Maynards men storming from below deck and while the pirates were able to inflict quite a few casualties, they were outnumbered. Eventually Blackbeard was surrounded and cut down after which the remaining pirates surrendered.

  • Eventually Blackbeard was surrounded and cut down after which the remaining pirates surrendered. That's not the only time pirates have surrendered, but whether it's with pirates or certain, specific other contexts, I wonder why people surrender in such circumstances (other than just not thinking things through or being controlled by instinct or something). They're almost definitely not escaping death by doing it, thus they clearly have nothing to lose, but some to gain by avoiding it. I wonder about a question on H.SE regarding this recurring behavior. Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 16:01
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    @Panzercrisis Well, in that specific case, one of the captured pirates actually escaped the noose and was acquitted by successfully claiming, he was only a guest at the drinking party last night, not part of Blackbeard's crew and forced into the fight. And I'd wager people see a glimmer of hope in surrendering rather than dying guaranteed.
    – Dulkan
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 6:58

Perhaps the stories of boarding raids going wrong isn't retold often. A story of 'this little ship tried to board us, but we took it' isn't very compelling.

The opposing story is very compelling. The capture of the Serapis by John Paul Jones is still famous. And Lord Thomas Cochrane's taking of the El Gamo is legendary. That story was used in O'Brians Master and Commander series and, IMO, was toned down. The true story is too much for a work of fiction.

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    While interesting, this doesn't answer the question. Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 3:34
  • Yes, unless you think about it from the standpoint of the Serapis or the El Gamo.
    – JavaGuy
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 23:56
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    There is a selection bias about what stories get told. One of my favorites is "We have met the enemy and they are ours". In a War of 1812 battle on Lake Erie, most of the U.S. fleet was in shambles, except for the Niagara which had held back and was largely intact. The British line tried to turn around to expose their undamaged side toward the Niagara, but one of the British captains had been incapacitated leaving the ship under the control of a merchant captain who was a skilled in peacetime sailor, but not used to having to operate a ship that was under fire. As a result...
    – supercat
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 15:49
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    ...his vessel crashed into another British vessel, immobilizing both and blocking the path for the remainder, thus allowing the Niagara to capture all six British vessels.
    – supercat
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 15:51
  • @supercat Pyrrhic victories are still victories!
    – Mohair
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 18:53

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