Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Brief Primer on Ships

A: Capital Ship, B: Barque, C: Brig, D: Schooner, E: Sloop

To be a pirate you must know about ships. Pirates spent their lives on ships. They ate, drank, slept, worked, fought, and often died aboard them. In fact, it's almost impossible to be a pirate without a ship. So in this week's edition of the Pirate's Primer that is exactly what we are going to study. When we're done you'll know the difference between a boat and a ship, some common types of ships seen during the Age of Piracy, and why pirates chose the types of ships that they did. Since you can see how important this lesson is, I know that you'll be paying close attention. If you do nod off, you may wake up kissing the gunner's daughter. Now let's get to it.

The difference between a boat and a ship is a complicated question. A common definition says that a "ship is a square-rigged craft with at least three masts". The problem with this definition is that many ships from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century had only two masts. As for the "square-rigged" part, well that opens another large hole that we'll talk about in just a moment. First, let's get a pair of simple definitions that works for us: A ship can carry a boat. A boat must have a small enough hull to be carried by a ship.

This is a boat.  A ship is in the distance.

Before you can learn to tell the differences among the various types of ships, you're gonna have to climb the ratlines. Yes. It's time to learn about rigging. Rigging is the one of the most difficult things you can try to learn without actually doing it. A completely separate language exists solely to describe it. There are nouns like backstay and pendants, verbs like hoisting and heaving, and adjectives like abaft and athwart. Look up into the rigging and you'll see a maze of ropes and knots. Every one of them has a name and in an emergency a sailor must know what to call each one without hesitation. But don't be scared off. Simple Simon will help you through it. This time it's just up the masts and right back down. Think of it as an initiation. You're no landlubber, right? You're a pirate. Let's go.

Rigging a ship means attaching its sails to its masts, the tall poles that stick straight up out of the deck, so it can catch the wind and propel itself along the water. There are various ways to do this, but for right now we're only going to discuss two: Square Rigging and Fore & Aft Rigging. Both types are commonly seen on the sailing ships of the time. Both types have their own advantages and disadvantages. They were used together on some ships and separately on others. Knowing both types will help you to identify ships when it's your turn in the crow's nest.

Square Rigged

A square rigged ship has square or rectangular sails attached to the yardarms that cross the masts. This way of rigging creates the common image that most people have of sailing ships. The advantage of square rigging a ship is speed. The more large sails that you can hoist, the more wind that you will catch. This is also one of the disadvantages of square rigging, as a strong crosswind could damage the sails or capsize the ship. The second disadvantage to square rigging is the lack of maneuverability. The large square sails are not designed to be moved about to catch the wind from different angles. They are fixed in basically one position. You now see the limitations of square rigging. Head winds (winds coming from the direction you are trying to sail) and bad weather make it necessary to have another method for rigging a ship.

Fore and Aft Rigged

A fore and aft rigged ship has oddly-shaped sails attached along the masts, at the top by a gaff (a swinging pole used to extend the top of a fore and aft sail away from a mast), and at the bottom by a boom (a swinging pole used to extend the bottom of a fore and aft sail away from a mast). This way of rigging creates an image somewhat like modern sail boats. Sail boats today still use a style of fore and aft rigging, but their sails are triangular so they only need a boom. The advantages of this way of rigging are stability and maneuverability. Because the sails are smaller and moveable there is little chance that the wind will damage them and almost no chance that the wind could capsize the vessel. Additionally since the sails can swing to any angle within 180 degrees to catch the wind, the ship is quicker to respond to direction changes. The disadvantage to fore and aft rigging is the lack of speed due to the limited amount of sail that you can put up. Now you can see why both types of rigging were used. By taking note of the way that a vessel is rigged you will be able to identify its purpose.

There are many different kinds of ships. We are not even going to try to learn about them all. Be warned that the information provided herein is a summary and vast simplification of a very complicated topic. We are only going to examine five different types of ships because those five will be enough for our purposes. Being keen-eyed as you are, I'm sure that you have already seen the ships that we are going to talk about. You've probably also seen some differences among them. We are going to examine, in light detail, the Capital Ship, the Barque, the Brig, the Schooner, and the Sloop.

Capital Ship

For our purposes, the Capital Ship is a square-rigged craft with at least three masts. I see that I can't fool you. The problem here is a lack of words. Barques, Brigs, Schooners, and Sloops are all ships. However, when we discuss a capital ship we are referring to a large vessel, ranging from about 300 - 500 tons in weight and 80 - 100 feet in length, usually used to carry cargo, passengers, and/or troops that is square rigged with at least three masts. A galleon is a type of capital ship. So are naval warships and large merchantmen. A capital ship is almost always square rigged. During a storm a Ship will pull down her square sails and put up storm sails or "Trysails". These are a set of three fore and aft sails used for high winds. When the storm is over the capital ship will return to its fuller, square-rigged sails.

A Barque

The Barque or Barquentine is a three masted ship that is square rigged on both the foremast (the forward most mast) and the mainmast (the largest or main mast), but fore and aft rigged on the mizzenmast (the rear most mast). The Barque was more maneuverable than the capital ship and was sometimes seen in a military role, although mostly barques were used as merchant vessels. Barques ranged between 200 - 300 tons in weight and 70 - 80 feet in length. A Dutch fluyte, one of the most common targets of seventeenth century piracy, is a type of barque.

A Pirate Brig

The Brig or Brigantine is a two masted ship that is square rigged on the foremast, but rigged both fore and aft as well as square on the mainmast. The top section of the mainmast is rigged with square sails while the lower section is rigged with a fore and aft sail. The brig was highly maneuverable and faster than larger ships while still having room for cargo and a respectable number of cannons. The brig was sometimes used as a marauding vessel for pirates and privateers, but was most often used as a small warship by the English and French navies. Brigs were generally around 200 tons in weight and 70 - 90 feet in length. It is believed that Henry Morgan's flagship, The Satisfaction, was a brig.

A Schooner
The Schooner is a two masted ship that is rigged fore and aft. The schooner combined the best of all things for most pirates and privateers. It was small enough to hide in remote coves and navigate close to the shoreline, but big enough to carry a crew of 75 men. The schooner was a fast and very maneuverable vessel. It was most often seen as a pirate or privateer vessel. Schooners were generally around 100 tons in weight and 60 - 80 feet in length.

A boat fleeing a burning sloop
The Sloop is a single masted vessel that is rigged both fore and aft as well as square. The entire mast is rigged with square sails while the lower section is rigged with a fore and aft sail as well. Additionally, a jib, a large triangular sail, is often rigged between the mast and the bow. The sloop was the fastest and most maneuverable ship of the period. It was capable of sailing in very shallow water where other ships could not dare go for fear of running aground. Sloops were used by privateers, pirates, and pirate hunters alike. Sloops were small vessels. They weighed 100 tons at most and were 40 - 60 feet in length.

There you have it, swabs. Now you know how to tell the difference between a ship and a boat, you know a little more about the types of ships used in the early age of piracy, and you know what types of ships Pirates chose to use. You also survived your first trip into the rigging. (I promise I won't make you go back up there until much later in the column.) Next time we'll discuss the differences between pirates, privateers, buccaneers, and maroons. Until then, go get some grog, mates. You've earned it.

Copyright 2001, Mark S. Cookman

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