A Brief History of Pirate Ships


The Dawn of the Age of Sail

The carrack was a ship of such prestige that they were frequently referred to as Great Ships and Charles the Bold used a procession of 30 for his wedding ceremony in 1468. The carrack is at once a strikingly beautiful and amazingly ungainly looking vessel. Like the great cathedrals of the time the carrack seems designed to rise as high as possible. She was truly the first of the “tall ships”.

The mainmast was extended higher to make room for a newly added topsail above the gargantuan mainsail. The use of the term “main mast” is important here for the carrack was the first truly three

masted ship. A forward mast carried another square sail to help propel the huge (by comparison) vessel, and the aft mast sported a lateen rig for superior sailing quality close to the wind. This aft

mast would become known after 1420 as the mizzen mast, an English corruption of the Italian and Spanish word mesan, which referred to the kind of sail it carried.

The carrack appears to have its origin in Genoa in the 1300s with the design of big three decked Mediterranean vessels intended to sail north through the Atlantic to trade in the Bay of Biscay. These ships adopted some features of the cog and were called coch baonesche, or Biscayne Cogs. The Moorish influence in the Iberian Peninsula seems to have corrupted this into a slang word which later came to be spelled as it was pronounced, “carrack”. This ship had only 2 masts, a single square sailed main mast and a large lateen mizzen. Bowsprits were added after 1350. In comparison to early cogs which rated 80 tons and later cogs which rated 240, these early two masted carracks rated as much as 600 tons. These ships were almost exclusively carvel built, a type of construction that saw use in both skin and frame built ships. In a carvel design, the planks of the strakes are butted edge to edge rather than overlapping as in traditional clinker design. That this word (a bastardization of caravela which first appeared in a Portuguese manuscript in 1255) should enter the English lexicon, is a testament to how revolutionary this type of design was on English ship building. The carracks, saw the first full skeletal design with planking framed on ribs all the way to the keel.

The topsail was added to the main mast in the middle of the 1400s. And about the same time the square rigged fore mast was added. To fit this extra mast, the huge aft lateen sail was reduced drastically in size. This was actually the reason for the change because large lateen sails required far more crew to man them then large square sails did.

Soon after, a fourth mast, called the bonaventure, was added with a second small lateen sail, aft of the mizzen. By 1500, all four masts carried top sails and the main and fore mast added a third sail called a top gallant. This rapid proliferation of sails results in the first evidence of crew actually being stationed in the rigging, rather than working the sails entirely from the deck. Throughout this evolution, the size of the castles continuously increased to seemingly absurd heights, with the stern castle becoming an ever rising multi-tiered structure, and the fore castle a near vertical tower. Artists renditions of carracks show a characteristic “U” shape to the hull when seen from the side.. Meanwhile, in England, things were taking a slightly different turn. England’s first attempt at designing large ships resulted in the 540 ton Trinity Royal and the 760 ton Holigost which were the largest clinker hulled ships ever built (predecessors of which had simply foundered and sunk). Following the capture of 8 Genoese carracks in the service of King Charles of France in 1416, the English began their own carrack building program. One recovered example of English Carracks is the Mary Rose. The details of this ship provide a fair picture of a period carrack.

Built in 1510, she was extensively refitted in 1536 before sinking in 1545. She was 105 feet long with a 37 foot beam (width) and a draft of 14.8 feet (distance below the water line) Records indicate that she was regarded as a huge ship in her time of about 1500 tons. The masts and most of the superstructure did not survive intact; but it is likely that her main mast was around 114 feet high with a 9 foot circumference, the yard holding the mainsail some 31 feet long, with a forecastle that rose about 52 feet above the waterline. She was pierced for cannon below decks, and the wreckage sight revealed a “bewildering array of guns of different sizes and calibers”. Some were iron, others bronze, and some seem to have been bored as scatter guns. Also recovered were bows and arrows indicating that even by 1545, gunpowder had not entirely replaced those ancient naval mainstays. While a typical carrack carried 1 crew for every 5-8 tons of burthen (cargo capacity), English ships carried more. When the Mary Rose sank, she went down with 500 hands aboard, about 1 man for every 3 tons. The cost of ships similar to the Mary Rose, was in the neighborhood of 1650 pounds with annual costs of 100 pounds or more.

Carrack: The carrack was a culmination of both northern and Mediterranean ship building arts. They were among the first ships where evidence is seen of specialization in design 6 for war or trade and they dominated the seas, politics, and budgets of their day. But for all of that they were slow, ponderous, and poor handlers. The carracks were the Great Ships of the day, but in the days before naval standardization there were literally dozens of different types and sizes of small craft.

Ballinger: A distinctly English craft, the ballinger was a small clinker built double ended ship capable of being rowed or sailed with a single mast and square sail. A contemporary of the cog, by the late 1400s they were used as scouting and raiding ships attached to the fleet.

Barque: Bearing little resemblance to the nineteenth century vessel of the same name, the barque of this period was a Mediterranean, and particularly Iberian craft mounting three lateen rigged masts and noted for speed.

Galliot (Galiote): In the Mediterranean a Galliot referred to a small single masted, single sailed galley type vessel with 20 oars. Northern Europe (and particularly Dutch usage) refers to a small 1 or 2 masted ship with main and mizzen mast lateen rigged and a square topsail and possibly a top gallant on the main.

Balener (Baleinier): A predominately Mediterranean ship, the balener was a shallow draft vessel equipped with oars as well as 1 or 2 lateen masts. In the late 1400s it was listed as being larger than galliots, barques, or caravels.

Caravel: Deserving greater attention here, as being a ship as important as if not as large as the carrack, is the caravel. A direct descendent of a line of ships that includes the thirteenth century caravela (an open decked fishing boat) and the smaller barque, the caravel was the outstanding wind-ward sailing ship of the period. As a comparison in size, Columbus’ beloved Nina was a caravel rated 60 tons. The hull of the caravel was distinctive and elegant by comparison to the clumsier carrack design. Her lines swept back from a very bluff but sharp bow to a revolutionary stern design. Rather than a single stern post at which the side strakes would meet, the stern was transom built. It had two stern posts, one at each side resulting in the squared off aft characteristic of later ships. The stern castle was long and low, and overhung the aft of the ship in a graceful poop deck.

This configuration owed much to Moorish ships such as the dhow, and proved very buoyant and resistant to leeway. While the hull of the caravel was a defining feature, the rigging showed much variety. The caravela latina was an early design having 2 or three masts, all rigged with large lateen sails. She had less draft than the barque and generally better performance to windward. But the large lateen sails required a large crew and were dangerous to work in rough seas. The caravela redonda was a much more stable and flexible rig. The first versions mounted square sails on the fore mast, and when this proved successful square rigged the main mast too. This rigging became very popular and most carracks would adopt redonda rigging as well.

When Columbus sailed on his first voyage, the Pinta was a redonda rigged caravel, and the Nina a lateen rigged caravel. While the redonda rig could not sail as closely to the wind, the Pinta’s better all around performance prompted him to change the Nina’s rigging for future voyages. As an interesting side note: No one is sure exactly what type of ship the Santa Maria was. The best guess is that she was a small carrack.

The caravela da armada was a sixteenth century refinement of the caravel’s rigging. It consisted of a forward raked (leaning) foremast with two large square sails, the lower one anchored to the upper above and the bowsprit below, called a spritsail (an innovation of the late fifteenth century). The main, mizzen, and (most often) bonaventure masts were all rigged with progressively smaller lateen sails. The caravel was the original pathfinder of European ship design. It was caravels that first doubled the Cape of Good Hope, and first sailed to the West Indies. But as voyages of exploration became longer her small size became a liability. By the end of the sixteenth century the caravel had lost its place as an internationally recognized symbol of naval achievement. But for all that, the design was so successful, and so perfectly suited to certain uses, that the caravel and its descendants would survive for centuries as fishing boats, small cargo carriers and escort craft.

In fact, small, fast, seaworthy caravels were often used as scouts and messengers for the fleet. It is interesting to note, that a direct descendent of the caravel, the Portuguese Frigata, would eventually lend its name to British and French ships specifically designed for just that purpose. By the late sixteenth century, the early Portuguese naval lead had been surrendered to Spain. Spain was not interested in exploration for the sake of exploration, Spain was interested in loot. The small caravels were limited in the amount of plunder and raw materials they could carry from the new world. So in 1552, Spain banned any ship smaller than 100 tons from sailing to the West Indies. In 1587 this ban was increased to 300 tons. By the mid 1500s a new larger vessel was replacing both the caravel and the carrack, the galleon.

Galleon: The first reference to a galleon comes from a Venetian document in 1550, which mentions a “galleon moved by oars”. The term probably derived from the Italian gallioni which was a traditional galley that had particularly superior (for a galley) sailing qualities (for a galley). One thing is certain, however, the term never had any standardized meaning. Although it would come to be applied most closely to the Spanish Treasure Galleons, the term, like caravel, carrack, and cog before it was actually a generic label applied to a wide range of craft bearing certain similarities.

The galleons had a lower profile than the carrack. Gone was the towering forecastle to be replaced by a much lower structure which included a beak projecting out under the bowsprit. This development was likely a direct result of the sprit sail becoming standard and the need for amore effective means of handling it. The ship was also slimmer. The proportion of the length of hull to keel, to beam was 3:2:1 in the carrack but only 4:3:1 in the Galleon. The long low stern castle of the caravel became an integrated raised section of deck called the quarterdeck. The stern itself was transom built and above were often several overhanging decks, culminating in the high, sloping, narrow tiers of the characteristic galleon poop deck. This feature led to another innovation of the Galleon. With the ship’s upper decks so high above the rudder, the tiller was actually inside the ship. In order to steer from the upper deck, the tiller was extended by means of whipstaff and tackle to the quarter deck. It would still be some years before ships mounted an actual wheel.

Like the caravel the galleon had a largely flat bottom which curved outward up the sides. But, the galleon’s side continued up, curving sharply back in to a much narrower deck. This bulge, called a tumblehome (a term still used by auto makers to describe similar bulges in cars and particularly SUVs) created a very low center of gravity. This low center of gravity made the galleons a superior gun platform, and enabled them to carry guns in multiple decks increasingly higher on the ship. Galleons typically mounted two 8 continuous gun decks below, with lighter cannon set on the raised castles on the upper deck.

The larger galleons were almost universally four masted. The fore mast was set well forward, close to the bowsprit. It was square rigged with a square topsail. Unlike the caravela da armada, the lower sail was not anchored to the bowsprit which now carried its own spritsail. The main mast was very tall and rigged with square main sail, top sail, and top gallant. These upper sails were “wide footed, and narrow headed” meaning they were wide but narrow. It is important to note that they were not a very efficient design, and the main courses provided most of the driving power for the ship. The short mizzen mast, set on the quarter deck, and the very short bonaventure, set on the poop deck, were both lateen rigged. There is some evidence of lateen topsails on both of these masts, but the unlikely sailing qualities of such sails probably limited them to being flamboyant displays. Despite the seeming preciseness of this description it is important to mention again that there was really no such thing as a “standard galleon”. Ships were never built to plan or with any sense of engineering principles. “What looked right, was right”.

Ships floated because they were made of wood. An enormous galleon built in 1514, by King Henry Viii of England, founder of the Royal Navy, still maintained the towering forecastle of the earlier carrack. After her refit in 1536, the Henri Grace a Dieu, or Great Henry, carried 21 heavy bronze guns, and 130 small iron guns. She was the first ship known from records to have an orlop deck, i.e. a deck below the lowest gun deck. The orlop was essentially the ceiling of the ship’s hold. Pictures of the Great Henry show grappling hooks at the ends of her yards, if accurate they were likely intended to aid in fouling an enemy vessel prior to boarding action.

The Great Henry is typical of an English ship that would have fought the Spanish Armada in 1588. While the English never referred to their ships as galleons, they were as much galleons as those of their Spanish enemies. It is interesting to note that out of the 130 ships in the Armada, only 20 were true galleons.