Ship Types

Pirates in the 17th century used many types of ships, anywhere from a small sloop to a large warship. But generally they gave preference to those with the greatest speed as it would do no good to spot a potential target only to have it out-sail you. Also pirates wanted a quick escape if needed. The pirates kept their ships in good order, careening them regularly to keep the hulls smooth and clear of seaweed and other marine life. This work was essential in order to maintain their speed advantage. Two of the pirates favorite types of ships were the sloop and the schooner. The speed and shallow draft of these ships enabled the pirates to hide in relative safety in shallower coastal waters where larger warships could not enter.

The single-masted sloop had a bowsprit almost as long as her hull making her perhaps one of the swiftest vessels of her day. If the wind was favorable, a square topsail could be hoisted to give her a top speed that could on occasion exceed eleven knots. The Sloop was a favorable ship for pirates and smugglers alike. This relatively small vessel could carry around 75 pirates and around ten cannons. The Sloop was often the ship of choice for hunting in the shallower channels and sounds. The Schooner which came into widespread use around the last half of the eighteenth century is a little of all of the best features in a pirate ship. Perhaps her greatest virtue lie in her shallow draft. She was favored by pirates of the North American coast and the Caribbean. Fully loaded she was still small enough to navigate the shoal waters and to hide in remote coves. The Schooner could also reach 11 knots in a good wind.

Another versatile ship the Brigantine was more of a captain’s ship for a pirate. This was generally a 150 ton, 80 foot vessel that could carry around 100 pirates mounting over 10 cannons with a cargo space about twice as big as the sloop. She had two masts. Her main sail could be fitted with either square sails that were best in quartering wind, or fore-and-aft sails for sailing windward. This larger ship was the clear choice for battle or combat rather than the quick, hit and run type piracy tactics that were practiced with the smaller sloops and schooners. It was also rugged enough to cross the Atlantic ocean, and fared better in harsh sea conditions. Also keep in mind that pirates could not build a ship to order like the merchants and military did. They had to be opportunists and having looted a ship, the pirates would either burn the vessel, let it go on it’s way, set it adrift, or take the ship over for their own use. Most pirate ships were no more then captured vessels taken as prizes and then altered ( “squibbed”) to suit the pirates needs.

The large three-masted square-rigger type ships could be fitted with well over twenty cannon plus many swivel guns and a crew of around two hundred or more men. She could make a formidable adversary and an excellent flagship for a large group of pirates despite her lack of agility. Many ships would probably have surrendered to her without a shot fired if they were not fast enough to out-sail her. Besides being greatly feared and comparable to a Navy Frigate, she had a reputation for seaworthiness on long voyages and a cargo space about twice as large as that of the brigantine. One of the most impressive aspects of some of the early eighteenth century pirates is the enormous voyages which they made in search of riches. They sailed the North American coast from Newfoundland to the Caribbean. They crossed the Atlantic to the Guinea coast of Africa. And they rounded the Cape of Good Hope to Madagascar in order to plunder the ships in the Indian Ocean.

The Barbary corsairs of the Mediterranean mainly used oar powered galleys rowed by slaves. These were long rather slender craft which were renowned for their speed, and sailing ships traveling in the calm winds of the Mediterranean were at their mercy. Their oars made them very quick, enabling them to maneuver quite easily and to come alongside an intended victim. When the winds picked up the corsairs hoisted a large lateen sail on a single mast amidships. The galleys were armed with one or more big guns at the bow, and several swivel guns were also mounted along the side rails. But like with most pirate ships their main weapon was in their fighting crews, who could number over one hundred men on a large galley. These men would quickly swarm aboard a ship and sweep aside all opposition. These corsairs were not generally involved in piracy for gold or silver. They were trying to capture people, who they could hold for ransom, use as oarsmen on their galleys, or just sell as slaves.

Of the many types of ships used in the great age of sail.
Most of them are distinguished by their rigging, hull, keel,
or number and configuration of masts. Designs would usually be
modified over the course of time with lessons gained from use.
The same ship type could vary in how it was built by country.
Pirates sailed aboard almost all of the ship types listed below.
Various small sailboats and fishing boats are not included.

Ship Classes:

Before the 1700’s the name was applied to any small vessel. Later it applied to a small ship having three masts. The first two being square-rigged, and the third ( aft mast ) being fore-and-aft rigged. Fast ship with shallow draft. Favorite of Caribbean pirates. Crew around max. of 90.


Very popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries. A brig is a sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts. To improve maneuverability, the aft mast carries a small gaff rigged fore-and-aft sail. The brig actually developed as a variant of the brigantine. Re-rigging a brigantine with two square-rigged masts instead of one gave it greater sailing power, and was also easier for the crew to manage. During the Age of Sail, brigs were seen as fast and maneuverable and were used as both naval warships and merchant vessels. When used as small warships, they carryed about 10 to 18 guns. Due to their speed and maneuverability they were also popular among pirates, although they were rare among American and Caribbean pirates.


Originally the brigantine was a sail and oar driven small warship used in the Mediterranean in the 13th century. It was lateen rigged on two masts and had between eight and twelve oars on each side. Its speed, maneuverability and ease of handling made it a favorite of the Mediterranean pirates. Its name is derived from the Italian word brigantino, meaning brigand. By the 17th century the term was adapted by Atlantic maritime nations. The word eventually was split into brig and brigantines. Each word meaning a different class of ship. The brigantine had no lateen sails but was instead square-rigged on the foremast and had a gaff-rigged mainsail with square rig above it. The main mast of a brigantine is the aft one. The brigantine was generally larger than a sloop or schooner but smaller than a brig.


A small ship meant for trading. Originally lateen-rigged they later developed into square-masted ships and were used by the Spanish and Portuguese for exploration. Around 80 feet long.


Before the advent of the galleon, carracks were the largest ships. They often reached 1,200 tons. They were used for trading voyages to India, China, and the Americas by the Spanish and Portuguese. They were 3 masted with square sails on the fore and main masts and lateen-rigged on the mizzen. They had very high fore and aft-castles. She carried an immense amount of power and thus was able to easily fend off pirates. Only through surprise could one hope to take one of these towering giants.


The term corvette seems to have begun with the French Navy in the 1670s, to describe a small, maneuverable, lightly armed warship, smaller than a frigate and larger than sloops-of-war. Most sloops and corvettes of the late 17th century were around 40 to 60 feet in length. They carried four to eight small guns on a single deck. These early corvettes grew quickly in size over the decades, and by the 1780s they reached lengths of over 100 feet. Most of these large versions had three masts, and carried about 20 guns. The British Navy did not adopt the term until the 1830s, to describe a small sixth-rate vessel somewhat larger than a sloop.


Cutters were widely used by several navies in the 17th and 18th centuries and were usually the smallest commissioned ships in the fleet. A cutter is a small single-masted boat, fore-and-aft rigged, with two or more headsails, usually carried on a very long bowsprit, which was sometimes as long as half the length of the boat’s hull. The mast may be set farther back than on a sloop. The rig gave the cutter excellent maneuverability and they were much better at sailing to windward than a larger square rigged ship. Later larger naval cutters often had the ability to hoist two or three square-rigged sails from their mast to improve their downwind sailing performance as well. Over time the cutter grew in size to include ships of two and three masts. Pilot cutters were widely used near ports to ferry harbor pilots to the big ships. Navies used cutters for coastal patrol, customs duties, escort, carrying personnel and dispatches and for small ‘cutting out’ raids. As befitted their size and intended role naval cutters were lightly armed, often with between six and twelve small cannon.


Dhows were meant to be trading ships, having a single mast which was lateen-rigged. They were from 150 to 200-ton ships. Arab pirates arming her with cannon would use these ships.


An early 17th century merchant ship, similar in design to a bark (barque). These were inexpensive to build, and could carry a large cargo.


Designed out of the experiences gathered from long and arduous voyages to india. This class of ships were one of the largest merchant vessels of there era, having three masts and weighing 1100 to 1400 tons. Built from the early 1600’s to the end of the 1700’s, to transport goods between Asia and Europe. They were usually well armed with cannons to defend themselves.


The Venetians called a frigate a small oared boat around 35 feet in length and around 7 feet wide. The English adopted the word for a larger ship which may have carried oars. Around 1700, the English limited the word to mean a class of warship which was only second in size to the Ship-of-the-Line (Man-O-War). Frigates were three-masted with a raised forecastle and quarterdeck. They had anywhere from 24 to 38 guns, and were faster than the ship-of-the-lines. Frigates were used for escort purposes, and sometimes to hunt pirates. Only a few pirates were ever in command of a frigate as most would flee at the sight of one.


A favorite of Barbary Corsairs, it was a small ship with both sail and oars. It was fast, long and had a low profile.


GALIOT, Mediterranean
In the 16th century, a galiot was a type of ship with oars, also known as a half-galley. The Galiot was long, and sleek with a flush deck. Then, from the 17th century forward, a ship with sails and oars. As used by the Barbary pirates against the Republic of Venice, a galiot had two masts and about 16 ranks of oars. Warships of the type typically carried between two and ten cannons of small caliber, and between 50 and 150 men. She was used by the Barbary corsairs in the Mediterranean.


In the 17th thru 19th century, a galiot was a type of Dutch or German trade ship, similar to a ketch, with a rounded fore and aft like a fluyt. They had nearly flat bottoms to sail in shallow waters. These ships were especially favored for coastal navigation in the North Sea and Baltic Sea.


Galleons were large ships meant for transporting cargo. Galleons were sluggish behemoths, not able to sail into or near the wind. The Spanish treasure fleets were made of these ships. Although they were sluggish, they weren’t the easy target you would expect for they could carry heavy cannon which made a direct assault upon them difficult. She had two to three decks. Most had three masts, forward masts being square-rigged, lateen-sails on the mizzenmast, and a small square sail on her high-rising bowsprit. Some galleons sported 4 masts but these were an exception to the rule.


Galleys have an extremely long history, dating back to ancient times. They were used until the Russo-Swedish war of 1809. They had one deck and were mainly powered by oars. They were costly to maintain and fell into disuse. However they were still being used by the Barbary corsairs in the Mediterranean. As they were meant to carry soldiers they were used in a few large-scale raids. There was a version of the galley used in the Atlantic by the English. They had a flush deck and were propelled by both oar and sail. They were rigged like frigates. Captain Kidd made his name in one of these, the “Adventure Galley”.


A guineaman was a large cargo ship engaged in trade with the Guinea coast of Africa. Many were specially converted or purpose built for the transportation of slaves, especially newly purchased African slaves to the Americas. Their hulls were divided into holds with little headroom, so they could transport as many slaves as possible. Unhygienic conditions, dehydration, dysentery and scurvy led to high mortality rates on average 15% and up to a third of captives.


The word junk derives from the Portugues junco, which in turn came from the Javanese word djong, which means ship. The ship has a flat-bottom with no keel, flat bow, and a high stern. A junk’s width is about a third of its length and she has a rudder which can be lowered or raised providing excellent steering capabilities. A junk has two or three masts with square sails, made from bamboo, rattan or grass. Contrary to belief, the junk is capable of operating in any seas as she is a very sea-worthy vessel.


A two mast vessel with a large sail on the mainmast and a smaller mizzen. Historically the ketch was a square-rigged vessel, most commonly used as a freighter or fishing boat in northern Europe, particularly in the Baltic and North seas. During the 17th and 18th centuries, ketches were commonly used as small warships. In the latter part of the 18th century, they were largely supplanted by the brig, which differs from the ketch by having a forward mast smaller (or occasionally similar in size) than the aft mast. The ketch continued in use as a specialized vessel for carrying mortars until after the Napoleonic wars, in this application it was called a bomb ketch. In modern usage, the ketch is a fore-and-aft rigged vessel used as a yacht or pleasure craft.


Much like a rowboat except they were very long. These were carried on ships and used for coming and going to the ship. They were normally rowed but often had a removable mast and sail. Also some were armed with one or more very small cannon. Sometimes referred to as a Jolly-boat.


A vessel with a lugsail rig, normally two-masted. When they were used for smuggling or as privateers, extra sail was often added aft. These small ships were mainly used by merchants in coastal waters.


There are two classifications of Pink. The first was a small, flat-bottomed ship with a narrow stern. This ship was derived from the Italian pinco. It was used primarily in the Mediterranean as a cargo ship. In the Atlantic the word pink was used to describe any small ship with a narrow stern, having derived from the Dutch word pincke. They were generally square-rigged and used as fishing boats, merchantmen, and warships.


The Dutch built pinnaces during the early 17th century. They had a hull form resembling a small “race built” galleon, and were usually square rigged on three masts, or carried a similar rig on two masts, like the later “brig”. Pinnaces were used as merchant vessels, privateers and small warships.


The Schooner has a narrow hull, two masts and is less than 100 tons. She is generally rigged with two large sails suspended from spars reaching from the top of the mast toward the stern. Other sails sometimes were added, including a large headsail attached to the bowsprit. She had a shallow draft which allowed her to remain in shallow coves waiting for her prey. The Schooner is very fast and large enough to carry a plentiful crew. It was a favorite among both pirates and smugglers.


From the 17th century into the 19th, these ships were the “heavy-guns” of the naval fleet. At first they resembled galleons in design, but carried awesome firepower with an average of 60 guns. Over the course of time, they developed into larger and heavier beasts. They were designed to be large enough for use in line of battle tactics, hence there name. In the 18th century they ranged from fourth rate ships of 50 guns, up to first rate ships of 100 guns. Most were around 1,000 tons and had 3 masts, which were square-rigged, except for a lateen sail on her aft-mast. Only the three major sea-powers of the time (Spain, England, and France) had an extensive use of these ships.


These were large cargo ships converted for the purpose of transporting slaves. They reached there peak use between the 17th to early 19th century. There large size and ability to handle long ocean voyages made them attractive targets for pirates. Early western slave ships would have mostly been square rigged merchant/galleon types. Later these ships became more purpose built. See Guineaman description above.


The Sloop was fast, agile, and had a shallow draft. They usually had a speed of around 12 knots. Her size could be as large as 100 tons. She was generally rigged with a large mainsail which was attached to a spar above the mast on its foremost edge, and to a long boom below. She could sport additional sails both square and lateen-rigged. She was used mainly in the Caribbean and Atlantic. Since piracy was a significant threat in Caribbean waters, merchants sought ships that could outrun pursuers. Ironically, that same speed and maneuverability made them highly prized and even more targeted by the pirates they were designed to avoid.


In the 18th and most of the 19th centuries, a sloop-of-war in the British Navy was a warship with a single gun deck that carried up to eighteen guns. A sloop-of-war was quite different from a civilian or merchant sloop, which was a general term for a single mast vessel rigged like what would today be called a gaff cutter. In the first half of the 18th century, most naval sloops were two mast vessels, usually carrying a ketch or a snow rig. A ketch had main and mizzen masts but no foremast, while a snow had a foremast and a main mast but no mizzen. The first three mast sloops-of-war appeared during the 1740s, and from the mid-1750s on most were built with three masts. The longer decks of the multi-mast vessels also had the advantage of allowing more guns to be carried. In the 1770s, the two mast brig sloop became popular with the British Navy as it was cheaper and easier to build and for crews to sail it.


A snow or snaw was a type of brig often referred to as a snow-brig. It was typically a merchant vessel, but was a common form of sailing rig for small two-masted sloops, especially during the first half of the eighteenth century. Snows carried square sails on both masts, but had a small trysail mast, sometimes called a snowmast, stepped immediately abaft the mainmast.


The xebec was favoured among Barbary pirates for she was fast, stable and large. They could reach 200 tons and carried from 4 to 24 cannon. In addition she carried from 60 to 200 crewmen. The xebec had a pronounced overhanging bow and stern, and three masts which were generally lateen-rigged. In addition to sails she was rowed.


Ship Types

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