Age of Pirates

Pirate Encyclopedia: Pirate Ships

The ultimate multipurpose vehicle, the pirate ship was a place to eat, sleep, fight, and attack other ships, enabling the inhabitants to become rich from stolen goods. Once loot or booty, as it is often called, was secured the ship provided a storage place and a method of escape. No ship was originally built for the exclusive use of pirates, so they were often altered to carry more weapons or in some way make pirating easier. Ships were acquired by pirates through force or by mutiny. After acquiring new ships, many were abandoned or sold.

Loyalty to a ship varies throughout history, with some captains keeping one vessel throughout their career, and others changing ships as quickly as better ones sailed past. Preferences in the types of ships sailed vary as widely as the personalities of their captains. Every type of ship from small, fast ships to larger, more heavily outfitted ships were used for pirating.

Ship captains had tough choices to make when choosing which type of vessel to sail. Many details went into this choice including availability, speed, capacity, amount of weaponry, and so on. A brief description of some of the more common types of ships used is as follows.

A "sloop" described a wide variety of boats that made up the largest fleet in the Caribbean. This versatile water craft was often small, had a single mast, and was both fast and maneuverable, making them ideal for use as pirate ships. With a seventy-five man capacity and fourteen guns a sloop could weight up to 100 tons.

Jamaican made sloops were favored by pirates and had a widely-known reputation for being fast, capable seafaring ships.

The "cutter," a variation of the sloop, was another single-masted vessel. Used to hunt pirates, the Navy and colonial law-enforcement authorities embraced the cutter for their purposes. A particularly fast version of a sloop was the "schooner," an American variation. It was a ship with two masts, a narrow hull, and a large spread of sail. Able to exceed 11 knots if the sailing conditions were right, the shallow draft of the schooner allowed pirate vessels to hide amid shallow waters and shoals. Able to carry up to seventy-five men and eight guns, this ship was limited in its ability to store supplies, causing the captain to frequently dock to restock or get water and supplies off of victim ships.

An eighty foot long ship, weighing 150 tons the "brigantine" sailed in American waters, but was a favored by Mediterranean pirates. Generous square-rigged sails in a unique combination provided opportunities for the maximum use of varying wind conditions. With an ability to carry up to one hundred men and twelve guns, this was a strong mid-sized boat. Two varieties of the brigantine include the “brig,” and “snow.” The brig was rare in American and Caribbean waters, and had two masts, whereas the snow, was used by the Royal Navy as a patrol vessel.

The term "bark” or in Britain, “barque,” was frequently used as a generic term to describe any small ship, but it was later used to identify ships with three masts with different rigging. Caribbean pirates who sailed them to Africa and Madagascar liked their speed for such distances. With a stock of twelve guns, it could hold up to ninety men in very close quarters. Larger barks were built in later times as trade ships with as many as five masts.

The terms "merchant ship” and "square-rigger” were used to describe other three-masted vessels. Slower and larger than the ships commonly favored by pirates, square-riggers had more room for a skillful pirate crew and better gun platforms for the expert take over of victim ships. Larger storage areas for food, water, and supplies also enabled square-riggers to remain at sea longer than most ships. An ex-slave ship captained by Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, known as the Queen Anne's Revenge, was converted to carry forty guns instead of the average sixteen for a square-rigger of that size. Other three-masted ships known as “warships,” carried as few as twelve and up to forty guns and were used by various navies in fighting piracy.

Unique features of "Frigates,” three-masted, fully-rigged, ships used in warfare are their raised quarterdeck and forecastle. These raised areas of the deck carried a range of twenty-four to forty guns. Similar in size to a battleship, common duties of this ship included working as an escort to convoys, acting as signal ships, housing lookouts, and pursuing privateers and merchant men. Most pirate ships feared frigates as they were operated by the Navy and had a considerable advantage in a fire fight, but some were overtaken and became operational for pirate use.

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