- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Jeff Williams
Age of fighting sail bureau
"C. S. Forester" (AKA Cecil Louis Troughton Smith) was a delightful writer of fiction but a less successful writer of naval history. His Age of Fighting Sail has long received mixed reviews among modern naval historians interested in that period. Forester had a tendency towards "received wisdom" and was careful not to contradict technical details he had already incorporated into his marvelously successful "Hornblower" series novels.
As we all know, there is a tendency for nations to inflate their victories and diminish their defeats. Consequently, it had become customary in re-telling the extraordinary saga of the British Navy in the age of sail to emphasize the superiority of French-built ships versus those of the Royal Navy. It made the long period of English naval victories even more amazing and intrepid. Even still, like most myths, the lore of superior French and Spanish ship design did in fact contain an element of truth for a period.
In the past thirty to forty years a great deal of intense academic research has been performed concerning the ship building and construction practices of the French, Dutch, Spanish, and American sailing navies, but most particularly into the British Navy of the sailing era. Much legend (knee deep when it comes to naval affairs) has been stripped away by contemporary naval historians such as Brian Lavery, Robert Gardiner, and others.
Brian Lavery is undoubtedly the world’s leading authority on the sailing ships of the line, having spent decades researching the subject to its smallest detail. He has a number of volumes to his credit but the ones that directly address the subject of this article would be:
In Building The Wooden Walls — The Design and Building of the 74-Gun Ship Valiant, Lavery uses his first two chapters to describe how the Royal Navy entered the 18th century undefeated but with ships that were generally poorly designed. Their design patterns had become rigidly conservative with little scope for experimentation. This was partly due to a complacency derived from long success in battle. Why fix what’s not broken?
The French on the other hand, understanding that they could not defeat the British Navy because of the need to finance large standing armies and a shortage of ports and seamen, decided on a policy of building speedier and more powerful ships. Later in the century, the new American Navy facing the same problems as the French adopted a similar policy in lieu of a battle fleet.
For the British the end of that complacency came in 1755 with a new surveyor of the Navy, the redoubtable Sir Thomas Slade, and his partner William Bately. The creative logjam in the hidebound surveyors office, that controlled the design protocols for the Navy, was removed and British shipbuilding moved into a new era.
At the time of the Seven Years War, the Royal Navy as a result of the through defeat of both the French and Spanish in battle had captured many of the latest French and Spanish ships. As standard practice, the Navy took the lines off those ships, repaired them if possible and incorporated them into its own fleet. With the practical experience of having these captured ships now as part of the British fleet it became apparent that they contained many advantageous qualities. Slade merged many of those French ideas with his own into a new British building practice.
As an example, it was customary in that era for French battleships to be more "weatherly" (meaning how close they can sail to the wind) by being able to sail 6 points (on the 32 point compass rose) to the wind, while the average British battleship could usually manage only 7 points. That weatherliness was usually largely a function of the relationship between the length and breadth of a vessel. That feature was very important for ships trying to achieve the "weather gauge" (upwind) on an enemy vessel — rather like a Spitfire fighter trying to gain an altitude advantage on a ME 109.
Slade’s new renaissance in British naval construction is usually considered to have been initiated with the building of HMS Valiant. This ship’s lines were actually taken from the captured French Invincible. Valiant, along with her sister Triumph, were the lead ships in a new 74-gun class that began to standardize the British battle line for the next 70 years. British ships were lengthened, their armament re-ordered to be more formidable, and the ships became nearly as fast and weatherly as their French peers but more robustly built.
It should be noted that while French ships were fast and Weatherly, there was a price to pay for those features. One of the costs was "hogging," a circumstance where the bow and stern of the ship actually droops down from a lack longitudinal strength, thus destroying its sailing qualities over time. Generally, British shipwrights tried to keep the scantlings and timbers stouter than French practice and also maintained narrower room and space (the space between frames) than the French in order to minimize the hogging of the keel. Later, British dockyards used the Sepping’s method that allowed a greater length to be built into their ships by using a very strong diagonal framing process. Also, in the new class of ships, the British lower main gun decks were designed to be a little higher above the waterline in order to make them less wet and more available when the ship heeled in the wind. Often the lower gun decks of French ships were so low to the water that even in a moderate breeze the gun ports were unusable.
Importantly, I might add that the British were the first to completely copper the bottoms of their entire fleet beginning around the time of the American War for Independence. This factor had a radical impact upon hull durability and speed, comparable with almost any changes in actual ship design. It was hugely expensive but kept ships out of dry-dock and improved their weatherliness and speed and helped assist uniform the speed characteristics of the whole battle fleet when in formation. This crucial change in itself was comparable in impact to the 20th century’s incorporation of the microprocessor into modern naval electronics.
In consequence of these changes, the battles fought by the British Navy from the period of the American Revolution, French Revolutionary Wars, and the Napoleonic wars were generally fought with ships of equal or superior design characteristics to those of their assorted opponents. This was particularly true of British frigate designs that evolved even faster and were the blue water cruisers of their era.
As most people who have an interest in naval history know, ship design was only one factor — important as it was in the development of naval superiority. Unlike armies, navies cannot be improvised. They required factors such as the availability of trained and experienced seamen, gunnery science, navigation skills (advanced mathematics), seamanship, signaling (an area of complete British superiority), and a developed and practiced doctrine of aggressive leadership. These were all crucial in achieving and maintaining superiority at sea. As the superlative American Admiral Nimitz said, "better good men on a bad ship than bad men on a good ship."
As a final note, Spanish ships (many British considered Spanish captures superior to those of the French) and Dutch ships to a lesser extent were also very interesting in their own right and deserve coverage. The Dutch naval tradition is outstanding though their ships had a tendency to be rather small and shallow of draft to allow them to clear the mud flats off the Dutch coast. The American contribution to naval design in the age of sail was both unique and of generally very high quality and is a full story in itself.
Incidentally, Robert Gardiner, a superb historian of naval architecture, has a number of books out on the specific design elements of various classes of ships such as frigates, brigs, ships of the line, etc., of this period. His work is excellent and spares no detail.