Seek out and hire a first mate as soon as possible.
With him onboard, you can take prize ships, which you
can use to bolster your fleet or, more important early
on, your gold coffers. If you're fast, you can get in a couple of slashes at
the very start of a duel. As soon as the screen starts
to appear, hit the strike keys. You should be able to
get in two or three hits before your opponent reacts. When you begin the game, Spain is your enemy and France
and England are both neutral. Keep it this way for a
while, as things are tough enough with just the Spanish
and Pirates to worry about. Get letters of marque from
both France and England, and you will be able to get work
from both. Make sure not to attack their ships for a while.
Prey upon Pirate and Spanish shipping until you've built
up your ship and crew enough to afford making France and/or
England your enemy