So last week we talked about the development of the ship from the ancient Greek trireme and the Viking longboat to the caravel and carrack, the vessels in which Columbus sailed the ocean blue. By the late 16th century technology had improved to the point where long, oceanic voyages were possible and the world opened up. The point of traveling long distances by ship was to improve trade and make money, but just like everything else, the technology was quickly put to war.
I mentioned last time that the Age of Sail is said to have begun with the Battle of Lepanto, a Mediterranean battle between the Holy League and the Ottoman Empire, in 1571. This is the starting point because in this battle oar-powered ships were used for the last time. But what ships were those?
Galleys dated far back into the ancient world. The trireme was a galley. The Galleass, however, was a hybrid ship. It looked more like the vessels that were about to show up on the scene. They had three masts, a forecastle and an aftcastle or sterncastle, but they relied more on oars than sails. Not many of them were ever constructed, mind you, but they were the vessels that saw their last hurrah at Lepanto, and they were the short but important link between medieval ships and frigates.
Yes! Frigate! I just love saying that word! It’s more important than it sounds though. It was the invention of the frigate that took the navies of Europe from being cute little toys for monarchs to play with in the bath to the most important factor in determining a country’s might and international influence.
Okay, but what exactly is a frigate?
“Frigate” is a term that was loosely applied to a variety of different kinds of ships. Technically it described a warship that was built for speed and maneuverability. Frigates had three mast of square-rigged sails. They had forecastles and a quarterdeck. A quarterdeck, incidentally, is the raised deck aft of the mainmast where the captain would stand to command the ship. It was considered the most important part of the ship and all ceremonial functions were carried out from the quarterdeck. They still are today, actually.
The most significant feature of a frigate, however, were the carriage-mounted guns (aka cannons). On a frigate, all of the guns were on the upper deck, in spite of the fact that the deck right below the upper deck was referred to as the Gun Deck. The gun deck was, in fact, the location of the crew berths. There could be guns on the quarterdeck, but none on the lower decks. That distinctive feature was reserved for ships-of-the-line.
A frigate had to have at least 28 guns and was commanded by a post captain. Smaller vessels with less than 28 guns, sloops, brigs, cutters, schooners, were commanded by a regular captain. But what about the bigger ships? What about the massive floating fortresses that had 50 guns or more?
Ah! Now we’re talking. These were the ships-of-the-line.
A ship-of-the-line was one big ass ship. They could have three or four decks along with a forecastle, quarterdeck, and poop (an extra raised deck aft of the quarterdeck). The hallmark feature of a ship-of-the-line was that they had two or even three decks full of guns. The lower decks had portholes cut out of the hull that could be opened to run the guns out during battle or closed when the seas were high. Ships-of-the-line could have anywhere from 50 to 120 guns.
The most common and effective ship-of-the-line design was the “Seventy-four”, which had, you guessed it, 74 guns. First developed by the French in the 18th century, the Seventy-four was quickly recognized as the ideal size and speed for battle. It became the go-to ship for the British as well as the French. They Seventy-four was also known as the “double-decker” because it had two decks of guns. These were the predominant ships during the Napoleonic Wars.
And under the British naval rating system, these ideal ships were called “third rate”. But before you go assuming that means they were third best, they weren’t. The rating of a ship depended on how many guns and crew it carried. A first-rate ship-of-the-line had from 100-120 guns and would need a crew of up to 875 men to man it. At the height of the Napoleonic wars there were only 7 commissioned, as opposed to 103 third-rate ships-of-the-line.
So what exactly did a ship-of-the-line do that a frigate (classified as fifth-rate, btw) couldn’t?
Well, to oversimplify naval tactics during the Napoleonic Wars, the purpose of a ship-of-the-line was to form a wall of fire power and shoot at the enemy until everything was blown to smithereens. Sea battles were a test of nerve and navigation as well as pyrotechnics. Vessels and navies would sail up to each other and “broadside” each other, making passes along the heavily armored sides of the vessels so that every cannon could get in as many shots as possible. Boom!
Frigates, on the other hand, while more than capable of holding their own in skirmishes and attacks, were better served as escort and patrol ships. In battles they would keep to the edges and convey messages from the flagship to the rest of the fleet as they could move around more easily and be seen amidst the smoke. Frigates had a lot more freedom than ships-of-the-line, which were often confined to the fleet. They could go on “cruises”, looking for enemy ships to attack and take as prizes. They were also kept in commission after the war ended.
Not surprisingly, if you were a British naval captain, or French or Spanish or American or any other naval captain, you wanted to be in command of a frigate. Most of the famous sea captains of literary or silver screen fame, including my boys Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower, commanded frigates. And I do believe that that’s what my own character, Captain Dexter Cavanaugh, will command (even though he’s non-military).
So there you have it. Frigate! It’s more than just a fun word to shout. It was the glory of the Age of Sail. And while the Age of Sail was said to have ended with the battle of the ironclads in the Civil War, I think it’s pretty safe to say that its legacy is one of the most romantic episodes in history.
[Note: All images are public domain]