Pirates of old 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 favourable ship for
pirates and smugglers alike. This relatively small vessel
could carry around 75 pirates and 14 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 150 ton, 80 foot vessel
could carry around 100 pirates mounting 10 cannons and 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 ship was the clear choice
for battle or combat rather than the quick, hit and run
type piracy tactics that were practiced with the sloops and schooners. 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 to suit the pirates needs.
The large three-masted squarerigger type ships could be
fitted with over twenty cannon plus many swivel guns and a
crew of around two hundred men. She could make a formidable adversary and an excellent flagship for 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 over twice as large as
that of the sloop. 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
The Barbary corsairs of the Mediterranean 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 their main weapon was in their fighting crews
who numbered around one hundred men. These men were used to quickly swarm aboard a ship and sweep aside all opposition.
Pirate Ship Crews
Today there are many different misconceptions and
myths about buccaneers throughout history. A common
misconception made by many people is in the role and
authority of the pirate captain. Unlike naval
captain's who were appointed by their respective
governments and who's authority was supreme at all
times. Most pirate captain's were democratically
elected by the ships crew and could be replaced at
any time by a majority vote of the crewmen. For
example some captains were voted out and removed for
not being as aggressive in the pursuit of prizes as
the crew would have liked. And others were abandoned
by their crews for being alittle to bloodthirsty and
brutal. They were expected to be bold and decisive in battle. And also have skill in navigation and seamanship.
Above all they had to have the force of personality
necessary to hold together such an unruly bunch of seamen.
This left the captain of most pirate ships in a
rather precarious position and some were in truth
little more then a figurehead. Generally speaking, he was someone the crew would follow if he treated them
well and was a fairly successful pirate captain.....
but, could be replaced if enough of the men lost
confidence in him and felt he wasn't performing his
duties as well as he should. However, despite all
this the captain was frequently looked upon with
respect as a knowledgable leader of men. And the
pirate crews historically appeared to have followed
his judgement in most matters. There are surprisingly few detailed descriptions of what the pirate captains looked like, and those we do have are rarely flattering. Most seem to have adopted the clothes of naval officers or merchant sea captains, which in this period followed the style of English gentlemen.
During the Golden Age of Piracy, most British and Anglo-American pirates delegated unusual amounts of authority to the Quartermaster who became almost the Captain's equal. The Captain retained unlimited authority during battle, but otherwise he was subject to the Quartermaster in many routine matters. The Quartermaster was elected by the crew to represent their interests and he received an extra share of the booty when it was divided. Above all, he protected the Seaman against each other by maintaining order, settling quarrels, and distributing food and other essentials.
Serious crimes were tried by a jury of the crew, but the Quartermaster could punish minor offenses. Only he could flog a seaman after a vote from the Crew. The Quartermaster usually kept the records and account books for the ship. He also took part in all battles and often led the attacks by the boarding parties. If the pirates were successful, he decided what plunder to take. If the pirates decide to keep a captured ship, the Quartermaster often took over as the Captain of that ship.
This was the officer who was in charge of navigation and the sailing of the ship. He directed the course and looked after the maps and instruments necessary for navigation. Since the charts of the era were often inaccurate or nonexistent, his job was a difficult one. Many Sailing Masters had to be forced into pirate service.
The Boatswain supervised the maintenance of the vessel and its supply stores. He was responsible for inspecting the ship and it's sails and rigging each morning, and reporting their state to the captain. The Boatswain was also in charge of all deck activities, including weighing and dropping anchor, and the handling of the sails.
The Carpenter was responsible for the maintenance and repair of the wooden hull, masts and yards. He worked under the direction of the ship's Master and Boatswain. The Carpenter checked the hull regularly, placing oakum between the seems of the planks and wooden plugs on leaks to keep the vessel tight. He was highly skilled in his work which he learned through apprenticeship. Often he would have an assistant whom he in turn trained as a carpenter.
The Master Gunner was responsible for the ship's guns and ammunition. This included sifting the powder to keep it dry and prevent it from separating, insuring the cannon balls were kept free of rust, and all weapons were kept in good repair. A knowledgeable Gunner was essential to the crew's safety and effective use of their weapons.
On a large ship there was usually more than one Mate aboard. The Mate served as apprentice to the Ship's Master, Boatswain, Carpenter and Gunner. He took care of the fitting out of the vessel, and examined whether it was sufficiently provided with ropes, pulleys, sails, and all the other rigging that was necessary for the voyage. The Mate took care of hoisting the anchor, and during a voyage he checked the tackle once a day. If he observed anything amiss, he would report it to the ship's Master.
Arriving at a port, the mate caused the cables and anchors to be repaired, and took care of the management of the sails, yards and mooring of the ship.
The common sailor, which was the backbone of the ship, needed to know the rigging and the sails. As well as how to steer the ship and applying it to the purposes of navigation. He needed to know how to read the skies, weather, winds and most importantly the moods of his commanders. Other jobs on the ships were surgeon (for large vessels), cooks and cabin boys. There were many jobs divided up amongst the officers, sometimes one man would perform two functions. Mates who served apprenticeships were expected to fill in or take over positions when sickness or death created an opportunity.
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
( aft mast ) being fore-and-aft rigged. Fast ship with
shallow draft. Favorite of Caribbean pirates. Crew around
max. of 90.
The brigantine was originally a
small ship carrying both sails and oars. It was a
favorite of Mediterranean pirates from whence it got its
name. Italian word brigantino meant...brigand's ship. Later
the ship referred to a two-masted sailing ship with its
fore-mast square-rigged and fore-and-aft sails on its main
mast. The word eventually was split into brig and
brigantines. Each word meaning a different class of ship.
The brig was reserved for a re-rigged ship with much
greater sailing power.
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.
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.
The name frigate came from the Italian
word fregata which may have come from the latin word
fabricata, meaning something built. 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 (battleship). Frigates were
three-masted with a raised forecastle and
quarterdeck. They had anywhere from 24 to 38 guns on
her deck. They were faster than the ship-of-the-lines and
were used for escort purposes. They were
sometimes used to hunt pirates. Only a few pirates
were ever in command of a frigate as most pirates
would flee from a frigate.
A favorite of Barbary Corsairs,
it was a small ship with both sail and oars. It was
fast, long and had a low profile.
The Galiot was long, and sleek with a
flush deck. She carried anywhere from 2 to 10
small cannon. She was powered by oar and carried from 50 to
130 men. The Galiot was used by Barbary and
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
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
Much like a rowboat except they were
very long. They 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.
These ships were
the "heavy-guns" of the fleet. They resembled
galleons in design, but sported heavy fire-power with an
average of 65 guns. It was not uncommon to have
over 100 guns. They 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.
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
merchantmen and 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.
The Shebec 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 Shebec had a pronounced overhanging bow
and stern, and three masts which were generally
lateen-rigged. In addition to sails she was rowed.
The Sloop was fast, agile, and had a
shallow draft. Her size could be as large as 100
tons. She was generally rigged with a large mainsail
which was attached to a spar above, to 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. Today's sailing Yacht is essentially a
The name Tartan applies to an Arabic
ship which was fast, manueverable, and narrow. She
sported one mast with a lateen mainsail and a small
foresail on her bowsprit. In addition she carried
around 30 oars, 15 per side. Sometimes a small mizzen mast
was added with a lateen sail. She was used in
the Mediterranean by the Barbary and Corsair pirates
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