Napoleonic Era Ship Manoeuvrability

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  • #18753
    Sam Willis
    Keymaster

      We’ve been contacted by Felix Brenner with a query about ship manoeuvrability in the age of sail. Can you help?

      I have found Sam Willis’ articles in the Northern Mariner concerning windward and manoeuvrability capabilities of the sailing ships and I wonder if there is any data that refers not only to the speeds of the ships, which is generally available, but their acceleration/deceleration rates under various conditions, rates of turn, and, for example, how long it would take a frigate or ship of the line to come to a relative stillness when heaving to in comparison to bare poles?

      #18764
      Malcolm Lewis
      Participant

        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.

        #18765
        Malcolm Lewis
        Participant

          Apologies Victory is / \was a First Rate

          #18784
          Frank Scott
          Participant

            This is a very complex subject. For a start it is important not to confuse manoeuvrability with speed. For example, the famous East Coast collier brigs may not have been quick, but they were extremely manoeuvrable.
            For fleet manoeuvres the two great advantages of coppering were that speed within the fleet was much more consistent, making it easier to keep together; and that the overall speed increased, because even those ships longest out of dock were much less foul than in the pre-coppering era.
            Important to remember that the ships of the line were the exception, particularly 1st & 2nd rates. The vast majority of warships were frigates & below. For frigates one of the interesting things is that as frigate length increased during the Revolutionary & Napoleonic wars, manoeuvrability correspondingly decreased. The ‘super-frigates’ that came in with the US Navy & the RN response were not nearly as handy as the frigates of the beginning of the war, and some of them were poor sailers. Samuel Leech observed that even in a patched-up condition the smaller Macedonian was a far better sailer than the United States, whose crew nick-named her ‘the Old Wagon’.

            #18785
            Frank Scott
            Participant

              Furthermore I have not come across the instruction to avoid tacking, unless in the chase. If you only wear it is quite impossible to make any ground to windward. Indeed, the fact that very heavy weather forced you to wear rather than tack was the reason why being caught on a lee shore was so feared, and why being ’embayed’ was fatal.
              Modern square riggers all have auxiliary power to assist in such situations, but if they rely on them too much, and the engines fail, they have proved just as much at risk of being driven ashore and wrecked as in the days of old.

              #18786
              Frank Scott
              Participant

                With respect to stopping, simply taking down the sail will not stop a square rigger, due to the very high windage of the rig. What will happen is that you will lose directional control, and go downwind, and in strong winds that speed will be quite high. Heaving-to enables you to slow down or stop (by backing & filling) while maintaining full control of the vessel.

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