Reply To: Napoleonic Era Ship Manoeuvrability

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Malcolm Lewis

    There is no doubt that British naval ships manoeuvrability had greatly improved by the end of the 18th century. This was due to a number of factors including better hull design introduced by Sir Thomas Slade when he became Surveyor of the Navy in 1756 along with William Bately. As Deputy Surveyor at Plymouth Dockyard he made a particular study of captured French warships and incorporated many hull features of the French ships in his designs when he was appointed Surveyor of the Royal Navy. These included Third Rate 74s and the fifth HMS Victory, a 100-gun First Rate and Nelson’s Flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. She was the largest ship in the world when launched in 1765. Previously the 100-gun ships were considered unhandy but what became Slade’s masterpiece proved excellent to manoeuvre.
    From the 1780s Navy ships were coppered to prevent rot and growth of weed that slowed them down. Whilst it was immensely costly to copper the fleet the benefits weighed in favour and vastly improved the speed and manoeuvrability of ships when in action.
    Wooden ships were vulnerable to damage if mishandled or caught unawares by severe weather. Ships captains were instructed to wear their ships rather than tack “unless in the chase”.
    Whilst it is possible to find information about ships’ speeds actual mobility seems more difficult to measure. Much depended on weather conditions, tides and currents. John Harland’s Seamanship in the Age of Sail (Conway Maritime Press 1984-1996 Chapter 17 Heaving to) so well describes the skills required to handle a large square-rigged ship without the assistance of an engine or a tug. Anyone who has sailed even a small sailing craft without an engine knows how challenging this can be on occasion.