A Brief History of Pirate Sailing Ships

 

A Brief History of Wind Powered Pirate Ships continued ...


The Great Henry was the first ship built for the sole purpose of being a political instrument of intimidation. This trend was continued in later centuries with several interesting results. First warships continued to become larger and larger and carry increasing numbers of guns. Second, warship and merchant ship design parted ways as merchants were too practical to get caught up in the grandiose inefficiencies of monarchal whim, and true warship design began to have specialized requirements of its own. Third many fortunes were spent on singular awe inspiring monstrous vessels, that rarely lived up to their reputation.


During this period, the first standardizations of ship construction were seen. As early as 1400, Venetian galley building had begun to be codified and precise proportions for the most efficient combination of speed and size were laid down in “rules”. Italian experts became sought after in other courts and in 1587 the first manual for ocean going ship design was written in Mexico City, followed up by more comprehensive documents in 1611 in Seville, and 1616 in Portugal. These manuals concentrated on galleons and naos (a term literally meaning ship and used to refer to any ocean crossing vessel that was not a galleon), and agreed that the proper proportion for hull to keel to beam for a nao was 3:2:1. From 1629 through 1646 similar works were appearing in France, Germany, and 9 Italy. While England continued to rely on the “rule of thumb” for ship design, France in 1663 began to develop the “rule of measure”. As a result, French ships began to recognized as superior sailors, riding higher in the water as the result of a greater beam.


This made them more nimble and more stable gun platforms. British advances in galleon design came largely from copying captured French ships, much as their advances in carrack design came from copying captured Genoese ships. These manuals were primarily concerned with military ships and aimed at the growing bureaucracy surrounding the navy. Merchants were left to their own devices Portugal and Italy were not the only places in Europe where revolutions in ship design were taking place. The Dutch had hit upon several innovations which had previously been confined to the Baltic trade but which soon would become standard the world over. The Boyer (boeijers) was a small vessel of under 100 tons used to ply the Baltic and coastal waterways of the north. In such an environment, the ability to sail to windward was crucial, but the cumbersome, capricious, and difficult to control lateen sail was not the ideal solution. Their innovation would revolutionize sail rigging.


Rather than hanging a lateen sail from a yard beside the mast, where it was difficult to bring around for tacking, a tall square sail was hung from a spar set behind the mast. The Dutch called this spar a sprit and hence the sail a sprit sail. To avoid confusion with the spritsails hung from the bowsprit, I herein use the term gaff sail, based on a more common term for this type of spar. This gaff sail, projecting behind the mast like a fin could swing freely to either the right or left tack and so could be handled with a minimal number of crew. It could be easily furled by simply drawing it towards the mast like a curtain. This arrangement freed up a lot of space in front of the mast. Already there were a series of lines, called stays anchoring the mast, and now, from those stay lines, stay sails were set. On the main forestay, running from fore mast to bowsprit, a large triangular staysail called a jib was set.


Buss: The Buss was a fishing boat which had the useful feature of allowing its main and foremast to be lowered towards the stern. This reduced leeway and rolling while working the nets. It also called for ships to be designed with a very long hull with a hull to beam ratio of 4:1 and more. This was to become a defining feature of Dutch ships. A particularly successful merchant design, was the Dutch Flute (or Fluit). The flute represents perhaps the first application of design by specification in the history of sail. The Dutch, who were still embroiled with their never ending conflict with Spain, relied on overseas trade to fund their war effort. They sought a ship that was reliable, and safe, cheap to build, cheap to rig, and cheap to operate. It had to have ample cargo space.


That cargo space had to be well protected from the weather, and easily carry any form of cargo. The original flute design is attributed to Pieter Jansz Liorne in 1595. The original flute had a hull to beam ration of 5:1 making her long and slender like the wine glass from which she takes her name. Like a galleon she had a low forecastle and high and narrow stern resulting in half, quarter, and poop decks Unlike the galleon or caravel which carried a transom stern, the flute returned to a single crossing vessel that was not a galleon), and agreed that the proper proportion for hull to keel to beam for a nao was 3:2:1. From 1629 through 1646 similar works were appearing in France, Germany, and 9 Italy. While England continued to rely on the “rule of thumb” for ship design, France in 1663 began to develop the “rule of measure”. As a result, French ships began to recognized as superior

sailors, riding higher in the water as the result of a greater beam. This made them more nimble and more stable gun platforms. British advances in galleon design came largely from copying captured French ships, much as their advances in carrack design came from copying captured Genoese ships.


These manuals were primarily concerned with military ships and aimed at the growing bureaucracy surrounding the navy. Merchants were left to their own devices Portugal and Italy were not the only places in Europe where revolutions in ship design were taking place. The Dutch had hit upon several innovations which had previously been confined to the Baltic trade but which soon would become standard the world over.


The Boyer (boeijers): The Boyer (boeijers) was a small vessel of under 100 tons used to ply the Baltic and coastal waterways of the north. In such an environment, the ability to sail to windward was crucial, but the cumbersome, capricious, and difficult to control lateen sail was not the ideal solution. Their innovation would revolutionize sail rigging. Rather than hanging a lateen sail from a yard beside the mast, where it was difficult to bring around for tacking, a tall square sail was hung from a spar set behind the mast. The Dutch called this spar a sprit and hence the sail a sprit sail. To avoid confusion with the spritsails hung from the bowsprit, I herein use the term gaff sail, based on a more common term for this type of spar. This gaff sail, projecting behind the mast like a fin could swing freely to either the right or left tack and so could be handled with a minimal number of crew. It could be easily furled by simply drawing it towards the mast like a curtain. This arrangement freed up a lot of space in front of the mast. Already there were a series of lines, called stays anchoring the mast, and now, from those stay lines, stay sails were set. On the main forestay, running from fore mast to bowsprit, a large triangular staysail called a jib was set. 


A particularly successful merchant design, was the Dutch Flute (or Fluit). The flute represents perhaps the first application of design by specification in the history of sail. The Dutch, who were still embroiled with their never ending conflict with Spain, relied on overseas trade to fund their war effort. They sought a ship that was reliable, and safe, cheap to build, cheap to rig, and cheap to operate. It had to have ample cargo space. That cargo space had to be well protected from the weather, and easily carry any form of cargo. The original flute design is attributed to Pieter Jansz Liorne in 1595. The original flute had a hull to beam ration of 5:1 making her long and slender like the wine glass from which she takes her name. Like a galleon she had a low forecastle and high and narrow stern resulting in half, quarter, and poop decks Unlike the galleon or caravel which carried a transom stern, the flute returned to a single stern to allow the excess length of the timber to project out. This was a common end for many older ship nearing the end of their useful life.



Katchip (ketch) : A smaller flute with a gaff sail mizzen mast and no topsails.


Hekboot (hack boat) : A larger flute with a gaff sail mizzen mast and no topsails.



Straetsvaeder: More heavily constructed and armed against Barbary Corsairs for passing through the Straights of Gibralter, the Straetsvaeder had a projecting beak and a more complex rig including main and fore top gallants, a mizzen topsail and a second spritsail at the bow. This was the only flute design to carry heavy armament with its resulting greater cost in crew and maintenance. Even so the ship could bring northern trade goods to the Mediterranean cheaper than the Italians. The United Provinces of the Netherlands also provided escort craft for their flutes in the form of the fast, armed, full rigged single deck pinnas (or pinnace in England). The pinnace served the role of a light frigate or corvette and was built like a miniature galleon. An even lighter warship used to pursue small enemy vessels was the jachtschip, or hunting ship. A particularly lavish and well appointed jacht was presented to King Charles II, and ensured that the term jacht, which comes to us today as yacht would ever after refer primarily to a pleasure craft.


England during this period was undergoing a civil war. One of the root causes of that war was King Charles I highly unpopular ship tax. While several effective English men-of-war were built as the result of this tax, it is interesting to note that, in the spirit of the monstrous great ship discussed at the open of this section, King Charles’ dream was to build the “largest ship in the world”. The Sovereign of the Seas was launched in 1637 with a tonnage of over 1500, and some of the most extravagant decorative carvings to date. The ship’s rigging was to carry royals above the top gallants on main and foremast, and a top sail and top gallant above the lateen mizzen course. With 100 guns on three decks, she truly was the largest ship afloat. Where a typical 40-50 gun galleon cost some 6- 7000 pounds (including 1,000 pounds worth of decoration), the Sovereign of the Seas (renamed Royal Sovereign in 1660) cost over 65,000. An interesting historical note. As a result of the excessiveness of the Sovereign and the role it played in inciting the puritanical revolution, British ships thereafter carried far fewer decorative carvings, forcing the entire industry of ship carvers to turn to carving country churches.


The French answer to the Sovereign was the La Couronne of 1636. While larger at 2000 tons, she boasted only 2 gun decks and hence only 72 guns. Even so, she was the more effective warship. In fact, so effective was La Couronne’s basic design, that the most successful wooden warship of the nineteenth century would be the 2 deck, 74-gun ship of the line. One of the key problems with such experimentation lay with the stability of the ship once built. The Mary Rose discussed earlier was one of the first English ships to be outfitted with cannon. As a result of the builder’s inexperience at this sort of thing, the lower gun ports were cut too close to the water line, and the ship flooded and sank when heaved over by a strong wind.


In 1628, the Swedish monster ship Vasa met the same fate on her maiden voyage. She was to be an 800 ton 2 decked galleon. In order to carry more guns in her broadside she was lengthened to the dimensions of a flute. But such experiments continued. While some were more successful than others, all were a result of how naval ships came to represent royal prestige, and the effort of monarchs to claim the sea as they claimed territory. The Dutch claimed the Helsingor Sound and levied taxes on ships passing through it (since the tax was based on a formula using the ship’s beam, the narrow Dutch flute paid far less than its foreign competitors).


To keep her southern coast secure, the English king required foreign ships in the channel to lower their topsails when confronted with an English vessel (thus reducing their ability to fight or run considerably). This act was preserved in the Royal Navy tradition of dipping the ensign (flag) as a show of respect. Naval tactics also evolved greatly during this period. The medieval fleet battle was an action of boarding, a land battle fought at sea. The engagement of the Armada proved the effectiveness of gunfire over boarding. It also proved the effectiveness of harassing large ponderous ships with many smaller more nimble ones. In something of a follow-up to the Armada, the English ship Revenge in 1591 held off 53 Spanish ships until she ran 12 out of powder (sinking two of them) in a battle that decisively proved the superiority of gunnery over boarding.


The hundred years from 1590 to 1690 can be seen as the gradual evolution of the line of battle; where ships would line up stem to stern “following the motions of the admiral”. This formation brought the most guns to bear on the enemy and helped protect a fleet from being picked apart piecemeal. Many battles of the Dutch Wars were still chaotic running fights of individual ship duels; but others, like the Battle of the Gabard in 1653, were fought broadside to broadside. The Battle of Beachy Head involved a line of battle of 56 Anglo-Dutch ships opposing a line of 84 French ships in an engagement over twice as large as the famed battle of Trafalgar (60 ships total) 115 years later.

The line took 100 years to adopt because it required ship design and standardization to catch up with tactical application. To stay in a close line formation without falling behind or becoming entangled requires a fleet of ships of approximately equivalent sailing characteristics. Like the proverb about a chain’s weakest link, ships in a line of battle had to be able to dish out enough punishment to harm the enemy and to withstand the same. Throughout this period a national fleet consisted of some royal ships at the core and a number of commandeered merchantmen. It was soon discovered that this mixture proved inadequate to the maintaining of an effective line formation. The tactical needs of the line of battle would give rise to national navies of dedicated warships rated by their ability to stand in such a line. The number of guns was the most convenient and most accurate way of rating such ships. The number of guns served as a proxy not only for firepower, but also size, and crew complement. The ever increasing size of ships of war can be seen in the constant revision of this rating system:


In 1651:

First Rate: 60 guns and more

Second Rate: 50-60 guns

Third Rate: 40-50 guns

Fourth Rate: 30-40 guns

 

In 1680:

First Rate: 80 guns and more

Second Rate: 60-70 guns

Third Rate: 50-60 guns

Fourth Rate: 40-50 guns

 

In 1700:

First Rate: 100 guns

Second Rate: 80-100 guns

Third Rate: 70-80 guns

Fourth Rate: 50-60 guns


Original version of this article was written by Ralph A. Mazza, on August 14th, 1999


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