The Fate of Piracy, Part III: About Ships in the Age of Sail

For the previous post in this series, click here.

We’ll begin our foray into rules for ships and sailing in Fate games by addressing some of the historical difficulties of easy classification of types of ships in the Age of Sail. Hopefully, this gives you a sense of just how hard it is to create easy categories or “classes” of ships to profile.

Let’s start with the understanding that ships in this Fate hack will make full use of the “Fate Fractal” or “Bronze Rule.” Ships will be statted as characters, with skills, stunts (representing upgrades or modifications) and aspects (representing unique qualities, history, reputation, etc.). Some stats will come from the ship design itself, others will come from the crew that (wo)mans it. I’m not sure exactly on the interplay between those two facets, but that’s a subject for a later post in the series.

The English Rating System
The English (and later British) Rating system for warships goes back to the reign of Henry VIII, where it was initially related to the number of guns on a ship (or, at times to the ship’s tonnage), though the categories were not the “rates” that would come into later being. Instead, ships were classified as Royal, Great, Middling or Small. By 1626, a ranking system came into being, though this seems to have been tied to the pay of the sailors on board rather than to the size or number of guns of the vessel.

By 1660, the word “rate” had replace the word “rank” and vessels began to be measured by the number of carriage guns (that is, excluding swivel guns) carried on board. The ratings vary over time, particularly as designers were able to cram more weapons onto ships, but a generalization goes as follows:

  •             First Rate: 100 guns, usually over 2,000 tons BM (see below about “Builder’s               Measure”)
  •            Second Rate: 90-98 guns, about 2,000 tons BM
  •            Third Rate: Ships with two gun-decks and 60-80 guns
  •            Fourth Rate: Ships with two gun-decks and 50-60 guns, about 1,000 tons BM
  •            Fifth Rate: Ships with single gun-decks sporting 32-40 guns, running 700 to                  1450 tons BM
  •            Sixth Rate: Ships with 22-28 guns, and 450-550 tons BM

The rating system was designed primarily, it seems, to determine which ships could stand “in the line” of battle under the naval tactics of the time and which could not.

Most of the ships in the Caribbean were unrated ships smaller than anything above. A few pirates, like Blackbeard and his Queen Anne’s Revenge (which, having been captured by Teach in 1717 is relatively late in the period) could have classified as fifth-rate ships, but I’m not aware of any privateering or pirate vessels that were larger. Bear in mind also that only military ships were given a true rating, so ships that could have been classified on this list wouldn’t necessarily have been.

This was partly a matter of expense—warships are expensive to build and staff (a First Rate ship could have 750 people aboard!) and the Caribbean is rough on ships—it purportedly has the highest concentration of wood-eating ship-worms in the world and the lifespan of a quality hull in Caribbean waters was only about 10 years!

Another factor was the need for versatility in ships for the Caribbean—trade was more often more important than fighting, so cargo space and speed were more desirable than lots of guns and men to crew them. The galleons of the late sixteenth century and seventeenth century could be relatively-easily adapted between trading roles and more confrontational ones. And, like “frigate” and “pinnace” below, “galleon” itself originally referred to a style of design, not a size, with small galleons of a few hundred tons to the Manila galleons of 2,000 tons or more. Even in the late 16th century, the Portuguese had a ship nicknamed Botafogo, which was at least 1,000 tons and carried a staggering 336 cannons.

Sizing Ships Up
Modern ships are measured by the tonnage of water they displace, but this was not so for ships of the seventeenth century, which were measured by tons burthen (or burden if you want to get out of Middle English and into modern), which represented the amount of cargo a ship could carry.

To make things more confusing, the burthen tonnage of a ship was calculated by a formula called the “Builder’s Measure” (hence the “BM” above) rather than the reality of the design of holds and space.

The Builder’s Measure in 1678 used the following formula:

Tonnage Formula

So, a ship like the Little Unicorn (captured by the British from the Dutch in 1665 or 1666), which had a length of 72 ft, a beam and a beam of 22 ft would, by the 1678 Builder’s Measure, have a tonnage burthen of 185.19 tons. This was classified as a fifth-rate ship of despite its size and small number of guns. The British converted it into a fireship.

Names and Classification
The naming of ship types in the seventeenth century is less than helpful. The word “pinnace” was used to describe both a “ship’s boat” powered by oars or a single small sail to tend the larger ships in a group by ferrying people, messages and goods between them and to describe ships around 100 tons burthen with two or three square-rigged masts.

Likewise, the word “frigate” first denoted a hull design (long, low and sleek for speed) rather than a specific ship type, resulting in “light frigates,” “frigates,” “heavy frigates” and “grand frigates” without clear distinctions (because, when important, reference was more likely to be made to tonnage or to rating).

This was not an age of mass production, and shipbuilders were constantly experimenting with designs to find an edge. The names for classifications of ships could rely as much on the arrangement of the sails and number of masts of the ship (the “sail-plan”) as its raw size or other factors. For instance:

A sloop was a single-masted, fore-and-aft rigged ship. Having a single mast limited the size, but you could still find a wide array of sloop sizes.

A ketch had two fore-and-aft rigged masts.

The brig had two square-rigged masts with headsails.

The brigantine, however, had one square-rigged mast and a hybrid-rigged main mast (also with headsails).

The snow had headsails, two square-rigged masts and a smaller “snow-mast.”

The barque had two or more square-rigged masts and headsails with a fore-and-aft-rigged aftmost (that’s “rearmost” for you landlubbers!) mast.

Fully-rigged ships had three (later they could have more) square-rigged sails.

So, what do you call a frigate-hulled ship with a brigantine sail-plan? Your guess is as good as mine, and the primary sources from the period don’t make it seem like much concern was given to precise appellations for ship categories (notice that the “galleon” and the “fluyt,” common ships for the period, are missing from the above category).

Remember the problem with the word “rapier” in the series on swordsmanship? Yep, it’s kind of like that.

Variance within a “Class”
If confusion among classifications isn’t bad enough, let’s talk about the variations within a particular “type” of ship.

For instance, the Spanish Armada of 1588 had 22 galleons in its fleet, with some as large as 1,000 tons and some as small as 250 tons. If proportions are maintained, that means some ships were four times as large as others—yet they were all galleons. In later periods, the Manila galleons could easily reach 2,000 tons.

As mentioned about, frigates are another example of wide variance. In the 17th century, frigates tended to denote full- (square-)rigged ships, because square rigging is the fastest sail plan (at least with the wind to your back). They could have one or two gun decks, likely meaning a range of 18 and about 300 tons to 40 guns and 750 or 1,000 tons.

Later, the “great” or “heavy” frigates would be created by taking a larger ship and cutting down the fore- and aftcastles to make a lighter, leaner, ship with a single monolithic topdeck instead of one having raised areas at the front and back. This was called razée, from the French “razed” or “shaved,” though you’ll sometimes see this described in English (particularly in the 16th century) as “race-decked.” I much prefer that styling than the sometimes used razéed, the orthography and pronunciation of which gives me fits (It should be pronounced like “rah-zayd,” which in turn would be more accurately spelled razé-ed or razée-d. Y’know, it’s a mess either way).

Conclusions about Ship Classifications
For a game, if we’re going to stat out various types of ships, it is very helpful if we create some categories that are a little less flexible than the seeming free-for-fall historically used. Yes, that’s arbitrary, but accuracy must sometimes give way to expedience. For those of you who, like me, grew up playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! before it was in color, you’ll remember that that game used fairly distinct categories for its ship types. I don’t know about you, but that never spoiled my fun.

What’s important, at the end of the day, is determining what kind of ship stats are necessary and useful.

Trivia: If you’re used to the image of the captain at the ship’s wheel, understand that that’s a relatively late addition to the period we’re looking at. Based on archeological finds, we know that the ship’s wheel was in used at least by 1703.

Before that, ships were sailed by a tiller. Some ships, particularly those intended for war, might have their tiller below decks where it was protected or even have two, one on the topdeck and one below decks.

For the next post in the series, click here.

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