* T H E   F U L L - R I G G E D   S H I P
T H E   1 8 T H   C E N T U R Y

AFTER THE extensive development in the 1600s, the 18th Century development of the ship was restricted to more widespread use of new additions, as well as such improvements as the copper sheathing of the underwater hull, to prevent the attachment of retarding marine undergrowth. (In the earlier centuries, the hull below water line had been smeared with, for example, a mixture of tallow, sulfur, white lead and crushed glass to prevent the attachment of wood-boring toledo worm. The ships sailing in the northern waters had pitched and tarred bottoms to prevent fouling.)

The construction of the frames that formed the hull shape evolved from the earlier method of building the frames from naturally twisted parts of a tree that were fastened together end to end. In order to make the frame stronger, the sections were joined with overlapping joints from the early 18th Century on, a method in use since.

As well as making the use of the royal sail more commonplace, the era also introduced some new additions to the family of sails:

jibs - mizzen gaff
jibs - mizzen gaff

In the early century, the bowsprit was extended by a jib-boom to accommodate the triangular jibs attached to the stays. The mast for the sprit-topsail and the spritsail below the bowsprit were then removed, although the yard(s) below the bowsprit were retained to give the bowsprit and attached rigging rigidity. By the end of the century, another boom was attached to the end of jib-boom, carrying the flying jib.

The lateen mizzen, which had survived almost unchanged from the 14th Century, was now cut and the portion extending in front of the mizzenmast removed, making it effectively a gaffsail. Although the "surplus" portion of the mizzen yard was retained in larger ships, also it was removed after the mid-century and replaced by a gaff that was attached directly to the back of the mizzenmast. The horizontal boom (derived from the 17th Century Dutch yacht) was introduced for bending the gaffsail foot. The long boom extended beyond the stern of the ship and the sail grew in size accordingly. In some ships also a triangular gaff-topsail was added above the gaff.

full-rigged frigate
full-rigged frigate

At the end of the century, as the royal sail was introduced also on the mizzen mast (along with the new skysail in fore- and main masts), mainly in frigates (in this case both the warship and the ship type...) sporting large amounts of canvas, the full-rigged ship (a sailing ship with at least three masts, and all of them rigged with at least three square sails) was born. Generally, the (sailing ship) terms were differentiated so that a "frigate" was a warship and a "full-rigged ship" meant a merchantman.

Whereas earlier the flag signals used by fleets had been rather simple predetermined combinations of single flags raised to a particular mast-top (RN 1775 Sailing and Fighting Instructions), the year 1800 signalling system of the British Navy was based on 11 differently patterned flags that, when raised in a certain order, could be combined to spell out words or a wide range of special, predetermined orders. The modern-day flag signals were derived from these Royal Navy origins.

The effectiveness of naval gunnery continued to increase: the British made improvements in gunnery technology which helped to increase the rate of fire and introduced the heavy carronade gun for devastating close combat effect.

(Cannon and Carronades)

The classification of the warships was updated as the number of guns increased:

Ships-of-the-line (S.O.L.):

  • 1st Rate - Ships with 100-130 guns
    Three-deckers, senior admiral flagships
  • 2nd Rate - Ships with 90-98 guns
    Three-deckers, junior admiral & foreign station flagships
  • 3rd Rate - Ships with 80 guns; powerful two-deckers
      Ships with 74 guns; two-decker "workhorses" of battle fleets, the most numerous type of S.O.L.s
      Ships with 64 guns; two-deckers, which were, however, being phased out by the end of the era, the smallest type of S.O.L.s in numbers


  • 4th Rate - Ships with 44-50 guns
    Both single- and two-deckers, "razees" (two-decker S.O.L.s with the upper deck cut off, offering a sturdy hull and good armament, but retaining the dull sailing qualities of the original) or purpose-built heavy-armed frigates
  • 5th Rate - Ships with 32-40 guns
    The single-decked "standard" frigate
  • 6th Rate - Ships with less than 32 guns

    Smaller ships were used for courier or escort duties: sloops, two-masted brigs, with the gaff-sail, "brigsail" attached to the mainmast, gunboats etc.

(Rating of Warships - bottom of page)

The English 1st class S.O.L. Victory was launched in 1765 and stayed in active service until 1812, serving, among other commitments, as Admiral Nelson's flagship during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The US Frigate Constitution (1794) was one of the US Navy "super frigates" that were rated at 38 to 44 guns but had almost two full gun decks with more cannon, and it had an extraordinarily sturdy live oak planking on the sides, thus earning the nickname "Old Ironsides". In fact, in 1813 the British Admiralty issued an order for the RN frigates not to engage the US Navy frigates unless they had the enemy outnumbered at least 2 to 1...

(HMS Victory website)
(USS Constitution official website)

Only 17 years after the Battle of Trafalgar, the Royal Navy commissioned the steam-engined paddle-wheel warship Comet to its ranks, thus signalling the upcoming change in the naval warfare, and 50 years after the battle the sailing warship was removed from the seas for good.

The sailing merchantmen, meanwhile, continued to thrive and were used, albeit in constantly diminishing numbers, well into the 20th Century.



lo-go text and drawings
© e t dankwa
25 December 1999