Development of Modern Western Sailing Warships

Sea warfare has existed for many centuries and, until the 1600s, ships fought primarily by ramming or boarding the enemy. Guns first appeared on fighting ships as early as 1340, but were used primarily to defeat boarders until the invention of the gunport, and the increase in the power of the artillery. These advancements allowed ships to fire cannon from a broadside battery to disable or sink an enemy ship from a distance.

The first large sailing warship design was the carrack with at least three masts, containing square sails on the first two. The square rig, dating from 1420-1436, added greatly to the ship’s maneuverability and sailing qualities which increased its effectiveness as a warship. The carrack was distinguished by a length to breadth ratio of 2.5 – 2.8 and large structures, or castles, in the front and back to repel boarders. One example of a carrack at the HMM is the model of the Great Harry.

The next stage of warship development was the galleon, dating from the middle of the sixteenth century. Compared to carracks, galleons had much smaller stern- and forecastles, heavier artillery with gun decks specially designed to carry the large armament, and a long projecting “beakhead” forward of the bow. The length to breadth ratio increased to 3 or more which provided greater speed. This very successful design was common for almost 100 years and reached its pinnacle with the Sovereign of the Seas of 1637, the largest most elaborately decorated ship of its time boasting 90 guns. At HMM, the models of Santiago de Compostella, which was not an actual ship, and the Wasa also depict typical galleons.

As improvements in naval artillery continued, ships were designed primarily as gun platforms with steadily increasing numbers of guns. The stern- and forecastles gradually disappeared, their size increased, and ships become longer, narrower, and carried increased numbers of sails for better speed. Compared to the Sovereign of the Seas of 1637, which was 127 feet long and displaced 1522 tons, the Victory of 1765 was 186 feet long and displaced 2142 tons. The largest ships carried 100-120 guns on two to three decks. Vessels with 74 or more guns were referred to as “ships of the line” since they were sturdy and powerful enough to withstand broadsides from an enemy ship as fleets sailed past each other in long lines to do battle, the favored tactic of the 1700’s. In addition to ships of the line, smaller naval vessels ranging from about 12 to 60 guns, including frigates with 24 – 36 guns, were built for convoy duty, scouting, pirate suppression, and other purposes.

Although sailing warships remained in the world’s navies through the first half of the 19th century, their construction essentially came to an end in the 1840’s as steam propulsion and armor cladding became the standard for warships.

Henry Grace a Dieu (Great Harry) – Carrack

Henry Grace a Dieu (“Henry Grace of God”), popularly known as the Great Harry, was an English carrack launched in 1514. Ordered by Henry VIII in response to the Scottish ship Michael, both ships were meant to symbolize royal power and prestige. When launched she was the largest and most heavily armed warship in Europe. No details have survived about her dimensions but the overall appearance is known from a contemporary painting from 1545. She had a large forecastle with four decks, and a sterncastle with two decks. It is estimated she was roughly 165 feet long, 48 feet wide, and displaced 1,000 tons, with a crew of 700, 400 of whom were soldiers. She was one of the first vessels to feature gunports, allowing for a broadside battery, and she mounted 43 large guns and 141 smaller guns. However, at the time naval artillery was relatively weak, and the primary strategy in naval warfare was still to board the enemy. Thus the large number of soldiers in the crew and the large fore- and sterncastles were for defensive purposes to thwart boarders.

Great Harry saw little action. Extremely expensive to operate, she spent most of her career in port, only sailing once every 3-5 years. Her fate is uncertain; she may have been destroyed by fire at Woolwich in 1553 or ended up as a discarded hulk on the bank of the River Thames.

Confederacy – Frigate

The Continental frigate Confederacy was launched November 8, 1778 at Chatham, Connecticut. She was 153 feet long, 35.5 feet wide, carried a crew of 260 men, and boasted 28 twelve-pound cannon and 8 six pound cannon. While escorting a fleet of merchantmen on June 6, 1779, she and the frigate Deane captured three prizes, drove off two British frigates, and brought the convoy safely into Philadelphia. On September 17, 1779, the Confederacy traveled to France carrying the French Minister and John Jay, the first American Minister to Spain, as passengers. During the voyage, Confederacy was completely dismasted and almost lost in a storm, but she managed to reach port in Martinique for repairs and finished the journey, later returning to convoy duty. While homeward bound from the West Indies with military supplies in 1781, Confederacy was captured by the British ships Roebuck and Orpheus. She was taken into the British service as the Confederate, and the British Admiralty recorded her plans.

Royal Caroline – Royal Yacht

The Royal Caroline, built in 1749 in Deptford, England as a new royal yacht for King George II, was named after his wife, Queen Caroline. The ship remained the primary royal yacht during the reign of George III as well and continued in this role until 1806. However in 1761, the name Royal Caroline was changed to Royal Charlotte in honor of George III’s intended bride. The ship was used to ferry the King on trips to Europe as well as for sailing holidays. The Royal Caroline was arguably the most beautiful royal yacht ever built. Only 90 feet long and 24 feet wide, she cost an impressive (for the time) £12,930. In comparison, a large 80 gun, 3-decked war ship, completely fitted out, cost about £38,000. No expense was spared on decoration and £2,600 of the total was spent on sculpture, painting, and gilding. A 1761 refit cost an additional £5,200, almost half the original expense. The royal family stopped using the ship in 1806, and it sat at anchor until eventually being scrapped.

Lynx – Privateer

Built at Fell’s Point, Baltimore early in the War of 1812, the top-sail schooner was 97 feet long, 24.4 feet wide, and displaced 225 tons. Her crew of 40 manned six 12-pounder long guns that helped accomplish the captain’s goal of breaking the Royal Navy blockade lines. The Lynx made one successful trading trip to France and delivered luxury items to the United States, but before she had even served a full year she was captured by the British and renamed the Mosquidobit. She blockaded the Chesapeake Bay for the British and was later transferred to Nova Scotia followed by Deptford, England and the Mediterranean, but her ultimate disposition is unknown due to the destruction of records during World War II.

A second Lynx was built based on her original plans in 1814, and this schooner went on to sail in the Mediterranean to enforce treaties and the Gulf of Mexico, where she captured three pirate ships. In 1820 the second Lynx was lost in a hurricane off the coast of Jamaica. In 2001, the Lynx Educational Foundation rebuilt the original schooner with only slight modifications and she is currently used to teach sailing and living history to California school children.

Friesland – Second Rank Vessel

Built in 1663, the Friesland was part of the Fleet of the United Provinces of the Netherlands and flew the flag of West Friesland. She boasted 80 guns and was known for her refined structure and decorations.

Santiago de Compostela – Galleon

The Santiago was a Spanish Galleon from the early sixteenth century. She displaced 800 tons, was 81 feet long, and carried 38 cannons that could fire 9, 12, and 18 pound shot.

Vasa (Wasa) – Galleon

On a sunny day with a mild breeze in 1628, the Vasa was preparing for her maiden voyage across Stockholm harbor. It took 1,000 oak trees and 3 years of labor to build this large 158 feet long, 38 feet wide, 1,210 ton vessel armed with 64 cannon. As she cast off, she carried 100 crew along with family members and dignitaries. The ship left the wharf with sails set, flags flying, and crowds cheering. As the wind filled her sails, she heeled over and traveled less than 4,000 yards before water rushed into the open gunports and the recently launched pride of the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus capsized and sank. Her sinking was due to a long and shallow hull, proportions reputedly set by the King himself, which did not permit proper ballasting to counter the weight of the guns. As a result the Vasa was extraordinarily top heavy and unstable.

Forgotten over time, on August 25, 1956, a 38 year old engineer searching for ship wrecks in Stockholm harbor discovered the Vasa. Because the Baltic is so cold, the wreck was amazing well preserved despite 328 years under water. After five years of preparation work by divers and salvage crews, the Vasa was raised to the surface on April 24, 1961.

She represented a time capsule of seventeenth century history, yielding a treasure trove of knowledge and providing information on everything from ship construction to every day objects such as butter casks, backgammon game boards, and combs from a sailor’s chest. In total over 14,000 objects have been catalogued. The Swedish government erected a museum, the Vasa Musset, around the vessel, which is now the most popular tourist attraction in Stockholm.

Prince de Neufchâtel – Privateer

Built at New York in 1813 by the prominent New York ship builders, Adam and Noah Brown, the Prince de Neufchatel was one of the fastest and most successful American privateers of the War of 1812. A large two-masted schooner, she was 111 feet long, 25 feet wide, and carried 18 guns. Owned by an American woman, Madame Flory Charreton, Prince de Neufchatel set sail for France soon after completion under Captain J. Ordronaux to prey on British shipping.

She captured a number of prizes during 1814 and outran pursuit by 17 British warships at various times. On returning to American waters, Prince De Neufchatel was chased by the British frigate Endymion. With both ships stopped by a lack of wind, the British attacked with five boats holding 110 men. Despite fierce defense, the British succeeded in boarding and were driving back the Americans when Captain Ordronaux seized a lighted match and threatened to blowup the ship if his men retreated further. The outnumbered crew responded by killing or wounding most of the attackers, and she escaped once again. In honor of his heroism during this fight, the Navy named a WWII destroyer after Captain Ordronaux. During a second cruise to British waters, she was damaged in a gale and had to surrender to a British frigate squadron. Impressed by her sailing qualities, the British made a copy of her plans and built a replica for the British navy.

HMS Victory – Ship of the Line

HMS Victory, the most famous ship of the Royal Navy, is best known as Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. Today, Victory is docked at Portsmouth and is the oldest commissioned warship in the world. Begun in 1759, Victory was the most powerful type of ship of her day with three gun decks mounting 100 guns. Requiring roughly 6000 trees to build, she was 186 feet long, 51 feet wide, displaced 2142 tons and had a crew of 821 men. Victory was launched in 1765 but was not commissioned until 1778. In service for almost forty years, she was well known for her excellent sailing qualities and could reach a speed of 9 knots. She participated in a number of battles during the Napoleonic Wars including the Battle of Trafalgar, where she and the 27 British ships-of-the-line under Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated 33 ships of the combined French and Spanish fleet. Nelson won an overwhelming British victory, but was killed by a French marine marksman. His men were determined to return the body of England’s greatest naval hero home, but Victory was so badly damaged she had to be towed to Gibraltar for 3 months of repairs before sailing back to England. During this period, Nelson’s body was sealed in a cask of brandy to preserve it.

Victory was put into reserve in 1812 in Portsmouth and became the flagship of the Port Admiral in 1824. She became flagship of the Commander-in-Chief in 1889 and entered her present dock in Portsmouth in 1922, where she is now a museum ship.

Wappen Von Hamburg – Galleon

The Wappen Von Hamburg, “Flag of Hamburg,” was built in Hamburg, Germany by unknown Dutch shipbuilders and entered into service in 1669. Typical for large ships of the period, she was decorated with elaborate wooden carvings, especially on the stern. From 1669 until 1683, the ship acted as escort vessel for the German merchant ships traveling both north to Scandinavia and south to Spain. On October 10, 1683, while off the Spanish coast, a fire started in the forecastle and rapidly spread. The fire soon reached the gunpowder room and caused a terrible explosion that destroyed the ship, killing almost all of the crew.

Sovereign of the Seas – Galleon

In 1634, Charles I of England ordered the construction of a “Great Ship” to be the most impressive warship afloat, carrying 90 cannon and extravagant decorations. He wished to impress all the crowns of Europe with his might as well as his wealth. Built by the skilled father and son ship builders, Peter and Phineas Pett, this 3-decker was 160 feet long, 46 feet wide, and drew 19 feet of water. Thirteen hundred trees went into her construction and she was crewed by 450 men. At a time when ships were expected to last only 20 years Sovereign of the Seas was 63 years old when she was destroyed by fire while at anchor in port.

Covered with gilded carvings from stem to stern, the ornamentation alone cost as much as an average warship. The building cost, many times the original estimate, broke the government treasury. A “Ship Money” tax imposed upon the English people to pay for her without the consent of Parliament was a principal cause of the English Civil Wars. Charles I was tried for High Treason and beheaded in 1649.

Sovereign of the Seas participated in many battles during the three Anglo-Dutch wars between 1652 and 1674 and set a new design standard for sailing warships in which a powerful broadside was the major weapon. There are no plans existing of the Sovereign, but a good estimate of her appearance can be obtained from several contemporary paintings.

U.S. Sailing Navy

Ship building had a long history in the American Colonies based on the availability of excellent timber. New England pines produced strong masts and spars. There were over seventy-five species of oak, which offered the greatest strength and damage resistance for wooden vessels. The southern live oak naturally grew in useful shapes and was fantastically strong. A number of ships for the British navy were built in American yards in the early 1700’s.

Thus at the start of the Revolutionary War, experienced American shipwrights were available to rapidly construct warships for the fledgling Continental Navy. In 1775, the Continental Congress authorized construction of twelve frigates of 24, 28, and 32 guns and additional men of war, including two 74 gun ships. By all accounts these were fast sailing, successful designs, however, due to difficulties manning, supplying, and organizing the American Navy, all of the American ships fell victim to the British without accomplishing a great deal. However, after the capture of several of our frigates by the British, their plans were made and can be seen today in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England. American privateers did much more damage than the American Navy. Hundreds of privateers preyed on British merchantmen on both sides of the Atlantic and caused significant damage to the British economy.

Following the Revolutionary War, Congress authorized the construction of six frigates in 1794, three with 44 guns and three with 36 guns, primarily to protect American merchantmen. This marked the founding of the United States Navy. The ships were larger, longer, and more strongly built than previous frigate designs, and were designed to be fast sailers. These frigates were tested during the wars against the Barbary pirates in the early 1800’s and found to be very effective men-of-war, or armed ships. At the start of the War of 1812, the navy consisted of only 17 ships, the largest being the six frigates, including the Constitution and Constellation, and the smallest a number of 12 gun sloops. In comparison, the British navy had over 1,000 ships, 85 of which were in American waters at the start of the war. Nevertheless, the American navy was very successful, especially in frigate-to-frigate single ship engagements in which the superiority of the American’s new design was apparent. Privateering again played an important role in American naval success. As compared to the 17 warships, 517 privateers were active and captured 1300 British merchant ships during the war. In the years following the War of 1812, the American Navy grew in both number of ships and the size of ships but, except for minor improvements, the designs stayed essentially the same. The last two wooden sailing frigates, Sabine and Sanatee, were completed in 1854 but they were obsolete when launched and were replaced by steam powered men-of-war.

Constitution – Frigate

Designed by Joshua Humphreys, the frigate USS Constitution was launched in Boston on October 21, 1797. She carried a crew of over 450 men, measured 204 feet in length with a beam of 43.5 feet and displaced 2,200 tons of water. Eventually armed with over 50 cannon, she put to sea on July 23, 1798, fought several battles at the end of the Revolutionary War, and then participated in the War against the Barbary Pirates from 1803 to 1807. The USS Constitution’s greatest accomplishment came during the War of 1812 when it fought and defeated four British frigates including the Guerriere, a fast British frigate mounting 49 guns. Guerriere started the action, firing broadsides which glanced ineffectively from the hull of Constitution inspiring the crew to give her the famous nickname, “Old Ironsides.” As the ships drew closer, Constitution opened fire and did serious damage to Guerriere. After Guerriere’s foremast and mainmast fell, she was left a helpless hulk and surrendered. This victory, in a battle of only 30 minutes, gave the country fresh confidence following a number of losses to British forces.

The USS Constitution returned to Boston in 1815 for six years before serving again in the Mediterranean from 1821 to 1828. In 1829, the vessel was regarded as unseaworthy and recommended for scrapping. However, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ popular poem entitled, “Old Ironsides” inspired public support that led to the ship’s restoration. During the remainder of the 19th century, the Constitution carried out a variety of duties including service as both barracks and a training ship. Restored again in 1927, Constitution was recommissioned on July 1, 1931 and immediately began a tour of 90 United States’ ports along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf Coasts, including Houston. Constitution remains in commission today, moored at the Boston Naval Shipyard, the oldest ship on the Navy List.

Rattlesnake – Privateer

The Revolutionary War privateer Rattlesnake was built in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1780 for a group of merchants in Salem. Privateers were privately owned ships that received a license from a government called a Letter of Marque permitting them to attack enemy shipping during a war. Since the ship owners got to keep the value of any prizes, privateering could be a profitable business.

Little is known of her career except that it was brief. Late in 1781, she was captured by the British frigate Assurance and taken into the Royal Navy as the Cormorant . The vessel was unusually fast, and her hull lines were recorded by the British Admiralty after her capture which provides us today with knowledge of her design. Rattlesnake was only 90 feet long and displaced 200 tons, but resembled a miniature frigate in style with a raised quarterdeck and forecastle. These features were rather unusual as most small privateers had only a single flush deck. She carried up to 20 guns and had a complement of 85 men.

USS Osage – Monitor

USS Osage, a 523-ton Neosho class single-turret ironclad river monitor, was built at Carondelet, Missouri. She is representative of the new class of iron hulled steam ships developed by John Ericsson during the Civil War, which featured a revolving gun turret mounted on a very low hull. Commissioned in July 1863, she operated on the Mississippi River in 1863 and 1864. In February 1865, Osage was transferred to the blockade of Mobile Bay. While taking part in an attack on Spanish Fort near Mobile, Alabama, Osage struck a Confederate “torpedo” and was sunk in the Blakely River. Her hulk was later raised and sold in November 1867.

USS Michigan – Gunboat

Launched in 1843, USS Michigan was the United States Navy’s first iron-hulled warship, built to counter armed British steamers on Lake Erie. Michigan was fabricated in pieces at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1842, hauled overland, and assembled in Erie. During her launch, she slipped down the ways some 50 feet but got stuck before reaching water. Unable to move the ship further, the shipwrights retired for the night. On returning to the shipyard the next morning, they found Michigan floating easily in Lake Erie, having launched herself during the night.

During the Civil War, Michigan provided security on the Great Lakes and continued her patrols even after the war. She was renamed Wolverine in 1905 to free the name Michigan for use on a new battleship. Wolverine was decommissioned on May 6, 1912 and was turned over to the Pennsylvania Naval Militia where she made training cruises over the next 11 years for the U.S. Naval Reserve to complete a career of 80 years.

Ictineo II – Spanish Submarine

This interesting submarine, inspired by subs of the American Civil War, was invented and built by Spanish chemist Narcis Monturiol i Estarriol. It was 46 feet long, 6.5 feet wide, and 10 feet high and was made of olive and oak wood clad with copper. The sub was driven by a conventional coal burning steam engine when on the surface but used an innovative engine when submerged. It’s unique engine was fired by a mixture of 53% Zinc, 16% Manganese Oxide, and 31% Potassium Chlorate which produced heat and oxygen – but no carbon dioxide and no smoke! This provided the steam necessary to propel the engine and breathable air for the passengers but produced no sign of the submarine’s presence. Unfortunately, the inventor failed to interest the Spanish Government in his design and he went bankrupt trying to promote his invention.

USS Monitor – Ironclad

Constructed in pieces at several different navy yards, the USS Monitor was brought together and completed at the Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint, New York in 1862. The Monitor became the first warship to successfully mount a revolving turret amidships, which was controlled by its own steam engine and featured eight-inch armor around its twenty foot diameter. At nine-feet high, the turret housed 11” smooth-bore guns that could fire 180 pound shot from her two barrels. A second unique feature of the ironclad was her low hull design with only eighteen inches of water above the waterline removing all possible targets except the turret and the small iron pilot house.

At her sea trials in March 1862, the Monitor is found to have several problems related to the influx of water allowed by the low profile, but she continues to sail and is engaged in battle with fellow ironclad, the CSS Virginia within just three days of her first launch. After surviving her battle, the Monitor remained inactive for several weeks before moving up the James River towards Richmond, Virginia. Though she proved successful at bombarding ships and shore batteries, she was not well suited to the humid Virginia summers. Temperatures below decks reached 150 degrees and she is in need of an overhaul, but rather than return to dry dock, she sails back down the river to resume blockade duty in the Hampton Roads area. Finally, at the end of September she returned to the Washington Navy Yard where she was refit with a telescoping smoke stack, taller ventilator boxes, and cranes for the newly added ship’s boats. Her battle scars are repaired and labeled as to their origin and a rifle screen is added to the top of the turret to offer protection from musket fire. She returned to the blockade in November and set sail for North Carolina on December 29, 1862, but despite her recent upgrades, she sank in a severe storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina on December 31, losing four officers and sixteen crewmembers.

CSS Virginia – Confederate Ironclad

Originally built as the USS Merrimac at the Boston Navy Yard in 1855, the Virginia began her life as the namesake of the Merrimac class of frigates and perhaps the most modern naval vessel in existence at the time. She was heavily armed with 40 cannon and was both steam-driven and a fully rigged sailing warship. At 275 feet long and 38 feet at the beam, she could generate 972 horsepower burning 2,800 pounds of coal each hour. In addition, she marked the transition from paddlewheels to modern screw propellers and was far more maneuverable than earlier ships, though not very fast at only 8 knots.

Despite her unique and progressive design, her sea trials revealed many mechanical problems that would continue to cause problems throughout her life. She was forced back to dry dock almost immediately but returned to sea again in 1857 when she sailed to Europe to show off the latest US naval technology. When she returned from Europe, she was assigned to the Pacific until 1860 when engine problems forced her to return to the Gosport Navy Yard, which is now the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. When this region became part of the Confederacy in April 1861, Union forces burned much of the repair facilities along with the Merrimack, whose burnt hull later sunk in the Elizabeth River.

While the Confederacy created their Navy primarily from captured Union ships, they also sought to incorporate the latest technologies of steam-propulsion, screw propellers, and ironclad warships. In 1861, plans were drafted for a ship featuring a raised casemate with a broadside battery set on an ironclad hull. The Confederates salvaged the hull, power plant, and engines of the Merrimack and began the conversion adding armor plate of four inches. After facing delays brought on by a lack of materials in the wartime south and unexpected design problems, she was finally completed in January 1862.

Christened the CSS Virginina, she was 270 long with her entire hull submerged below the water line leaving only the armored casemate visible above water. In addition to the four inches of iron armor plate, the casemate was backed by 24 inches of oak and pine, which enclosed ten guns. She also featured a 1,500 pound ram on her bow to crush the hulls of opposing ships as older warships had done prior to the broadside battery. Though she was a formidable enemy, her major weakness turned out to be her engines, which had already been condemned by the navy in 1860 before they spend weeks submerged under water. Her steering was also sluggish, causing problems when she needed maneuverability to engage her stationary broadside guns.

When she engaged the Monitor in the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 8-9, 1862, she still had workmen aboard trying to complete her, but she still successfully sunk or damaged several ships before withdrawing. For the next two months, the Virginia attempted to entice the Monitor into another battle, but the ironclads never faced one another again. When the Union captured Norfolk, the Virginia was trapped between the shallow waters of the James River and the powerful waves of the ocean so she was sunk on May 11, 1862 to avoid capture.