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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.


Pirate Ship Crews

There was a certain hierarchy on board of a pirate ship, to determine the most important functions and the line of command:


  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 a little 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 knowledgeable leader of men. And the pirate crews historically appeared to have followed his judgment 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.


The quartermaster came next after the captain in exercising authority over the pirate crew; he was in charge of the men when the ship was not in action. He could punish the men for insubordination and arbitrated minor disputes among the men. The quartermaster usually led the attack and was the first to board the vessel. He was also in charge of food and water supplies. The quartermaster also assisted in numerous tasks, including attending to the binnacle (box housing the compass), steering the ship, and navigational duties.

Ship's Master

The ship's master was an officer responsible for the sailing of the ship. He had to be a specialists in navigation and pilotage. He directed the course and provide himself with maps and instruments necessary for navigation.


The boatswain supervised the maintenance of the vessel and its supplies of naval stores (tar, pitch and tallow, spare sails, etc.). He was responsible for inspecting ships, 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 handling of the sails.

Sailing Master

The sailing master was in charge of navigation. Of course, since charts were often inaccurate or nonexistent, his job was a difficult one. Many sailing masters had been forced into pirate service.

Master Gunner

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 canon balls were kept free of rust, and all weapons were kept in good repair.


The Carpenter was responsible for the maintenance and repair of the hull, masts and yards. He worked under the direction of the ship's master and was looking after the main tack and bowlines, or working the forecastle with the mate. The carpenter has no command and could not give an order even to the smallest boy; yet he was a privileged person.



The Surgeon was responsible for inspections to judge the fitness of the new recruits, and treatment of the sick and wounded. While the owner of the ship had to provide the surgeon with drugs, medicaments, and other things necessary for treating sick persons during the voyage, the surgeon provided the instruments of his profession. The surgeon was not allowed to leave the vessel in which he was engaged, before the voyage was accomplished.


The cook had to charge the steep-tub, and was answerable for the Meat put in it. He had to see the meat duly watered, and the provisions carefully and cleanly boiled and delivered to the men. In stormy weather he had secure the steep-tub that it was not washed over-board.


The Mate took care of the fitting out of the vessel, and examined whether it is sufficiently provided with ropes, pulleys, sails, and all other rigging necessary for the voyage. At the departure he took care of hoisting the anchor, and during the voyage he checked the tackle once a day. If he observed anything amiss, he acquainted the ship's master. Arriving at a tort, 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. In case of absence or sickness of the ship's master, the mate commanded in his place.

Powder Monkeys

This term was first used in the British Navy for the very young men who made up most gun crews in the 17th century. In contrast to a pirate officer who was elected, these poor souls were forced to perform what was some of the most dangerous work on the ship. They were harshly treated and rarely paid, and if they avoided being mortally wounded in their service, desertion was probably as attractive as having very little hope of being promoted.


Ship Classes


Sloops- The favorite little wonder boat of Caribbean and Atlantic pirates in the late 1600's was first produced in large numbers by master builders in Jamaica, and the Bermudans augmented her one-mast design later in the 1700's. It was usually rigged for a large fore-and-aft mainsail, but could easily be altered for various sail combinations, the huge bowsprit adding more canvas area for maneuverability.

Having a length of 30 to 60 feet and a top speed of over 10 knots, a crew of 20 to 70 men could easily maneuver this father of today's sailing yacht for quick in-and-out surprise attacks, avoiding broadsides and outrunning pursuit. With the sloop weighing as much as 100 tons and having maybe 15 cannons, its draft was still very shallow at eight feet and allowed it to find refuge in shallower waters far beyond the reach of any warship. This also was the reason that those commissioned to hunt out pirates often chose the sloop to gain access to their hiding spots.

Schooners- Another favorite of the Caribbean and Atlantic pirates was the similarly sized two-masted schooner. With many of the prized features of the sloop such as terrific speed, maneuverability, and gun capacity, this sleek American variant was developed in the 1700's with a narrower hull and a shallower draft of only 5 feet. This meant it could effortlessly take a full load and 75-man crew further inland to hide or to divide the spoils, but diminished hold capacity meant fewer spoils to be had when you arrived.

Brigantines- This shallow-draft, two-mast brigand's ship provided great maneuverability and speed from its various square and fore/aft-rigged sail possibilities. It was valued in the Mediterranean, where its earlier versions sometimes included oars that were better for diminished winds. Longer, heavier, roomier, and better manned than the smaller sloops and schooners, it was usually the first choice for prolonged battles instead of quick hits. A larger cargo area combined with moderate firepower meant the versatile brigantine also saw widespread use as a trade ship.70-80 foot length, 125-150 tons, 100+ men, 12 guns...

Square-Rigged Varieties-

These vessels having large square sails hanging from arms on the three masts would be technically called ships, or merchant ships, for those outside of Naval use. Pirates knew well that merchant ships were relatively slow, full of valuable goods, and under gunned because of spendthrift owners. A few varieties may have been fairly swift for their size in crossing large areas of water, but none of them were very agile for their sheer mass - they could not turn on a dime...or a dollar. Added protection was sought out through either more cannons, traveling in convoys, military escort, or possibly all of these options.

 The Merchant Carrier was a 275-ton, 80-foot long variety with a more streamlined hull known for speedily carrying passengers as well as cargo across the Atlantic in a month or less. Its vulnerability lay in the fact that such a large ship would usually have such a small crew of 20 or less, and they could only fire a fraction of its average 16 guns.

 The Dutch Fleut gained such a reputation beyond its native waters that it became the prototype for cargo carriers. Here was a flat-bottomed and broad, strong ship whose weight of 300 tons was spread over only 80 feet, and it could carry half again as much as the other guys. The shrewdest merchants loved the fact that the Fleut was economical to build and to man, with only12 as a minimum crew. It was also weakened in its defense like the carrier, when such a small number meant one person for each of its twelve cannons.

 An East Indiaman was by far the biggest and most well suited for long voyages. Imagine this behemoth being twice as large as a Fleut and weighing in at 700 tons! Many a pirate would have doubloon $igns in his eyes when he spied this pregnant guppy on the horizon. The maximum crew of 300 was probably employed only after crushing attacks in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, and the top gun capacity of 54 was often undercut to save room and weight for more goods. With practices like these, the East Indiaman practically begged to be plundered.

The seaworthiness of the Fleut or the East Indiaman leads many to think of the demands of sailing the Pirate Round... from the Caribbean north to Newfoundland, across the Atlantic and south around the Cape Coast of Africa, down around the Cape to Madagascar and to riches beyond. This was a ship most pirates would nearly die to have for the long open stretches and the wear and tear of the deep, as well as the fierce storms that would engulf everything on the surface.

Galleons- These famous trade and treasure ships designed by the Spanish shunned the low-armament idea of other merchant vessels and were truly a force to be reckoned with; although that could not completely deter pirates attracted to the immense wealth they contained. With a crew upwards of 200 manning two or three decks of over 70 cannon, numerous swing guns, and even archers' platforms on the three or four masts, this virtual man-of-war would use resistance only as a last but fearsome resort - broadsides were deadly. Still, the pirates came after it, because the top speed of around eight knots could not begin to compensate for quirky design features which made it difficult or impossible to maneuver well in less than ideal seas. Massive square sails that prevented sailing into the wind, the hull broad at bottom and narrow at top that failed to lower its high center of gravity, and a tiny keel all conspired to make it behave more like a washtub than a warship, and someone was always waiting to drain it dry.

Before the galleon, the Spanish and Portuguese sailed huge carracks on their trade routes. These well-armed three-masted ships were the biggest around and could reach over 1100 tons. A carrack could most always fend for itself against pirates.
...and let us not forget:

Galleys- A variation of this ancient, long and lean design was used widely by the Barbary corsairs in the Mediterranean during the 1500's and following. Its main form of power came not from sails, but from up to 30 oars rowed by several men apiece below the flush deck, although there was one or more masts rigged with lateen sails to take advantage of any occasional winds. The galley captains concentrated first on manpower to overtake the prey, then if necessary, on the gun power of several cannon in the bow to assault, and finally on the large number of 100 or more marines or pirates to overpower the other crew. Because its narrow hull design could be rather unstable at times, ramming a ship was not practical as it was with galleys of earlier date.

The Adventure Galley was made in England for Captain William Kidd in 1695. In addition to 46 oars were its three masts of square sails, 34 guns, and nearly 300-ton weight, making it more like a frigate than a corsair galley.

Junks- For all practical purposes, there was no other type of ship in the Far East but a junk for untold centuries. This unimposing but unique flat-bottom design was highly adaptable to merchant, military, and piratical demands alike.

Notable features include its very high stern, flat bow, wide breadth, and adjustable rudder height. Junks could range in size from 45 to 100 feet and have two to four main masts, as well as several heavy guns.

Types of Naval Vessels

The Navy Snow became the patrol boat of choice for the British in their campaign against piracy. This 90 ton, 60 foot ship was very much like a brigantine, but offered extra maneuverability with trysails added to the standard square-rig arrangement of her two masts. It was well manned with up to 80 men and had 8 small guns.

The Navy Sloop was a one-masted pirate hunter only slightly bigger than the snow but bulkier, with 12 guns and an abundance of sail. This 110 ton ship enabled a crew of 70 to give the pirates all they could handle even in calm winds: there were several pairs of oars fit between the gun ports for swift pursuit whenever sails hung limp.

Naval Man O' War- Only the main naval powers of England, Spain, and France could afford to use these 3-masted, square-rig gun ships in any great number during the Golden Age of Piracy. Designed like a galleon but armored for war, the largest could weigh an amazing 3500 tons and have 140 guns. The principal differences in the types and uses for the gun ships stemmed from their weight, size, and number of guns, which determined basic maneuverability.

Three Man O'War Types

The Ship of the Line actually refers to the top three in a six-level description based on size, crew, and firepower, with a 200-foot first class over 2000 tons, 100 or more heavy guns, worked by over 850 men on at least three decks. The massive arsenals of classes one through three were generally reserved for bombarding fortresses, fighting battles of national significance, and other large-scale naval conflicts.

The Frigate was a moderately sized, light armored ship with 18 to 40 mid-sized guns on one or two decks and 50 to 200 men. It was much lighter and faster at 300 or more tons over as little as110 feet, so in addition to leading convoys, it saw duty for reconnaissance, patrols, and pirate hunting. While no giant ship of the line, the frigate was still imposing enough to send some pirates scurrying just at the sight.

The Corvette was a smaller but powerful two-masted variety with up to 20 guns on one deck. Having the least amount of armor made it swift and agile, but the smaller number of guns meant the fights had to be chosen wisely.