The ships of medieval Europe were, in general, developments of the Roman galleys, but they used much longer oars, or sweeps. These oars frequently were as long as 15 m (50 ft) and were powered by as many as seven rowers at each oar. The inboard portions of the oars were counterbalanced and equipped with handles; the rowers were arranged in tiers on ramps. To provide greater leverage for the long oars, the tholes, or pins, against which the oars were pulled, were mounted outside the hull of the ship on a wooden framework, called an apostis, running parallel to the centerline of the ship. First used on ancient galleys and reintroduced on medieval ships, the apostis had the same purpose as the outriggers used on modern racing shells. Use of the apostis also facilitated the arranging of the oars in two or more banks on each side of the vessel.
Other improvements introduced in the Middle Ages included the use of a permanent rudder hung from the sternpost of the ship in place of the steering oars used by the Romans. In addition, the ships of later medieval times were made with a greater freeboard (higher sides above the waterline) to make them more suitable for use in rough or stormy seas.
The typical warship of the Middle Ages was the medieval galley, which was brought to perfection by shipbuilders of the Mediterranean area, particularly by the builders of Genoa and Venice. Galleys varied in length from 30 to 60 m (100 to 200 ft) and were commonly propelled by 20 oars on each side together with sails rigged on two or three masts. Beginning with the 15th century, galleys were armed with cannon on the forecastle deck and on the high poop deck at the stern. In later models of the galleys, guns were also mounted to fire broadside over the bulwarks of the ship and, still later, to fire through openings or ports in the bulwarks. The larger galleys carried as many as 1200 men.
Until the end of the Middle Ages no clear distinction was made between naval and merchant sailing ships; vessels with sails were used both as warships and as merchantships, although oared ships were restricted largely to military purposes. At about the beginning of the 15th century, however, various nations began to develop distinctive types of vessels for fighting and trade. A typical merchant ship of the late Middle Ages was the carrack, a strongly built, three-masted vessel, carrying two courses of square sails on the foremast and mainmast and a lateen sail (a triangular sail attached to both a mast and a yard) on the short mizzenmast. Such ships were equipped with only a limited amount of armament and were designed primarily for carrying cargo.
Near the end of the Middle Ages the use of oars for propulsion began to give way to the exclusive employment of sails, particularly in vessels built in northern Europe for use in the Atlantic Ocean. The Mediterranean nations, particularly Italy, continued to build galleys, and as late as 1571 the Christian fleet that fought the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto was composed almost exclusively of galleys. Subsequently, various classes of rowing-and-sailing warships, such as the galleon, were developed by the Mediterranean nations; these types replaced the galley ships by the late 1700s.
Early European Types
European nations developed many types of sailing ships. The caravel, typical of Portugal and Spain, was a comparatively small vessel, usually of about 113 metric tons burden (cargo capacity), but sometimes larger or smaller. The caravel had a broad bow and a high, narrow poop deck. It was rigged with three or four masts, of which only the foremast carried a square sail, while the others carried lateen sails. The ships in which Christopher Columbus sailed on his voyages of discovery were caravels.
The typical European warship of the 16th and 17th centuries was the so-called great ship, with four or five masts, high forecastle and poop decks, and two or more tiers of guns. These ships reached displacements of 900 metric tons or more and carried at least 60 guns. Later, armaments were increased, particularly in the British navy, so that ships of 100 guns were not uncommon. The flagship of the British admiral Horatio Nelson, the HMS Victory, built in the middle of the 18th century, typified the large man-of-war style of the period. The Victory was 56.7 m (186 ft) in length, 15.9 m (52 ft) in beam or width, and had a displacement of 2197 metric tons. Lighter types of warship were the frigate and sloop, or corvette, full-rigged ships, carrying 36 or fewer guns, usually all mounted on deck rather than below decks as in the great ships. Other small naval vessels of the 18th and 19th centuries included brigs, brigantines, schooners, cutters, and luggers..
Though gradually increasing in size and with minor improvements in detail, sailing ships remained unchanged in their essentials for the three centuries following Columbus's voyages. The renowned clipper ship, which brought a remarkable advance in speed, was introduced only near the end of the sailing-ship era in the mid-19th century. Its predecessor, the Baltimore clipper, which was developed around the time of the American Revolution, established an international reputation for swiftness and was particularly successful in blockade running and privateering during the War of 1812. Slightly modified and enlarged to accommodate up to approximately 450 metric tons burden, Baltimore clippers were used as fast mail and passenger packet ships in the transatlantic trade after the war.
The true clipper ships, which replaced the Baltimore clippers, were the highest development of the commercial sailing ship, combining speed and seaworthiness. Long, slender, and sharp-bowed, clippers excelled in long-distance commerce, such as the U.S.-China trade and the Britain-India trade. The trade between the west and east coasts, brought on by the California gold rush of 1849, accelerated the need for fast-moving ships. As a result, during this time numerous speed records were set.
The largest clipper ever built was the Great Republic, built in 1853 by Boston naval architect Donald McKay, whose clippers set many of the records for transatlantic, New York-to-San Francisco, and around-the-world voyages.
See also Pirates
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