The story

How did sailing technology improve during the Age of Sail?

Wikipedia article on the Middle Passage says:

while an average transatlantic journey of the early 16th century lasted several months, by the 19th century the crossing often required fewer than six weeks

What were the technological improvements that allowed that advance? When did they happen?

It is an exaggeration that in 16th century the crossing took months. Columbus's first voyage took 6 weeks (I subtracted the stop on Canary islands).

This was not the shortest route, and this was his first voyage ever! Return crossing took 1 month and 2 days. You can check Wikipedia for his other voyages, and for some subsequent 16th century voyages.

But it is true that the time of an average crossing somewhat improved. First of all, this is due to the better knowledge of currents and prevailing winds, and the choice of optimal routes. One thing is when you travel for the first time, and know really nothing about the conditions; another is when you use the experience of several generations of previous travels on the same route. In 19th century they could use good maps and the art of navigation made an enormous progress. (At least they knew exactly where they were, in 19th century).

The speed of sailing ships also improved somewhat. The main parameter on which this speed depends is simply the LENGTH of the ship waterline. Everything else is marginal in comparison with this. The average speed of a sailing ship of given length DID NOT increase since 16 century.

By 19th century they were building bigger ships. Columbus's best ship Niña was less than 50 feet long. An typical late 18th century frigate was 135 feet long, and I suppose that commercial transatlantic ships were not smaller than that. This gives a gain in speed by a factor of 1.6 under similar conditions.

These are the two principal reasons why the average travel time shortened. Of course the conditions on board improved too. In 16th century they had neither private cabins nor berths, and cooked on open fire on the deck. Food and water storage were primitive.

Speaking of the ship construction, there were no revolutionary changes. The main improvement was covering the underwater part by sheets of copper, to protect the wood from barnacles and other similar things. This somewhat improved the speed too, but the main advantage was that it was no longer necessary to careen the ship so frequently for cleaning. This copper covering was very expensive by the way. The changes in rigging were not decisive for speed, and were mostly due to the increased size of ships.

EDIT. To support my point of view, I mention admiral Samuel Morison who repeated Columbus crossing in a yacht, and wrote a biography of Columbus, and a separate book on his navigation. He claims that there was no improvement in the average speed of passage of a sail ship of given length since Columbus days to the 1-st half of 20th century. (But there was significant improvement in safety and comfort).

Finally on the question, who and when invented. The copper sheathing was proposed in 1708 by Ch. Perry, and rejected by the Navy Board because of the high price. In the late 1750s they started experimenting and by the end of 18th century it became standard for the principal European navies. The single most important improvement in navigation also happened in mid 18th century with the simultaneous development of two different methods of determination of longitude. The key names are Nevil Maskelyne, Thomas Harrison John Hadley and Tobias Mayer. Mathematicians also contributed (Alexis Clairaut, Leonard Euler).

Bartolomeu Dias

He was the first European explorer to sail around the tip of Africa, proving the Atlantic Ocean connects to the Indian Ocean, which opened opportunities for a new trade route to India.

Name: Bartolomeu Dias [bahr-too-loo-me-oo] [dee-ahs (Portuguese) dee-uh sh]

Birth/Death: 1450 CE - 1500 CE

Nationality: Portuguese

Birthplace: Portugal

How did sailing technology improve during the Age of Sail? - History

The age of Exploration Life on the open Seas

Life was pretty difficult for a sailor in the age exploration.

Journeys could take years. Ships only covered about 100 miles a day.

The pay was poor. Seamen on Columbus' journeys made less than $10 a month in today's money.

Crews worked around the clock in shifts minding the ship.

Disobedience led to harsh punishments. Beatings and floggings were common, and mutineers were put to death.

16 was the minimum age for sailors, but some boys started working on ships as young as 7 or 8.

Some men didn't join willingly. They were"impressed," or forced into service.

Sailors consumed about 3,000 calories a day, which they got from:

Flour mixed with fat was served when meat rations ran low.

Hardtack was infested with weevils and bugs, which sailors ate as additional food.

A salty diet combined with a lack of fresh water led to dehydration.

There were no fresh fruits or vegetables.

Scurvy, Seasickness and slime

Vitamin deficiencies gave men scurvy-and rotted teeth and gums, open sores and even mental breakdowns.

It was common to lose 50 percent of a crew to scurvy, known as the "scourge of the seas."

Explorer James Cook was a pioneer in scurvy prevention.

He fed his men sauerkraut and dried vegetable soup.

If the diet didn't kill you, there were plenty of other things that could.

Sailors had just one set of clothes that were rarely washed.

They thought dirt and grease provided protection from wind and rain.

Lice, rodents and foul drinking water spread typhoid fever.

Ships could be dangerously cold-fires were only allowed in calmer weather.

The lack of fresh air below deck caused carbon monoxide poisoning.

Men slept on deck in hammocks-an invention they borrowed from Mesoamerican cultures.

Captains didn't have it much better than their crews.

A fight over stolen boats ended Cook's life in Hawaii.

Balboa was beheaded after feuding with his bosses.

Magellan didn't make it around the world with his ships. He was killed in the Philippines.

Hudson's crew set him adrift in what is now Hudson's Bay. He was never heard from again.

Ponce de Leon failed to find the Fountain of Youth, but a poison arrow found him in Florida.

During the age of sail, how did large ships maneuver in ports?

This view of the West India Docks in London looks like it would be tough to maneuver a steamship in, let alone a sailboat. How did such large ships move in tight spaces? How did they move away from piers when docked alongside them?

hi! fyi, here are a few posts that may be of interest

if you have followup questions on locked threads, post them here & include the user's username so they'll get an auto-notification

A few different methods could be used. The first would have been simply using a minimum of sail. Maybe just the mains heavily reefed amd a small jib. Enough to let the helm answer and make small forward progress.

Another could be simply towing. It was perfectly common for a larger ship to send its boats out in a calm or congested area and for them to row the mother ship forward. Tiring yes but sometimes that's all you could do.

Another option is to Warp or Kedge. Kedging involved taking the ship's anchor out a distance, letting it catch, then pulling it in amd building forward momentum that way and repeating. While warping is essentially the same process but with fixed points on the shore like cleats or bollards.


  1. Peter Ifland, Taking the Stars: Celestial Navigation from Argonauts to Astronauts (Malabar: Krieger Publishing Company, 1998), 7.
  2. Timothy M. Kusky and Katherine E. Cullen, Encyclopedia of Earth and Space Science (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2010), 375 – 376.
  3. Gerard L’E Turner, Scientific Instruments 1500 – 1900: An Introduction (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 1998), 13.
  4. Peter Ifland, Taking the Stars, 6.
  5. Helaine Selin, ed., Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997), 75.
  6. Robert Bud and Deborah Jean Warner, eds., Instruments of Science: An Historical Encyclopedia (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 1998), 36.
  7. Robert Bud and Deborah Jean Warner, eds., Instruments of Science, 36.

An Ambitious Plan

Almost nothing is known about the life of Bartolomeu de Novaes Dias before 1487, except that he was at the court of João II, or King John II of Portugal (1455-1495), and was a superintendent of the royal warehouses. He likely had much more sailing experience than his one recorded stint aboard the warship São Cristóvão. Dias was probably in his mid- to late-30s in 1486 when King João II appointed him to head an expedition in search of a sea route to India.

Did you know? According to Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c. 484-c. 425 B.C.), Egyptian pharaoh Necho II (d. 595 B.C.) sent Phoenician sailors out from the Arabian Gulf to sail around the African continent. Their journey took three years.

King João II was entranced by the legend of Prester John, a mysterious and probably apocryphal 12th-century leader of a nation of Christians somewhere in Africa whose kingdom included the Fountain of Youth. King João II sent out a pair of explorers, Afonso de Paiva (c. 1460-c. 1490) and Pêro da Covilhã (c. 1450-c. 1526), to search overland for the Christian kingdom in Ethiopia. King João II also wanted to find a way around the southernmost point of Africa’s coastline, so just a few months after dispatching the overland explorers, he sponsored Dias in an African expedition.

In August 1487, Dias’ trio of ships departed from the port of Lisbon, Portugal. Dias followed the route of 15th-century Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão (c. 1450-c. 1486), who had followed the coast of Africa as far as present-day Cape Cross, Namibia. Dias’ cargo included the standard “padrཞs,” the limestone markers used to stake Portuguese claims on the continent. Padrཞs were planted at the shoreline and served as guideposts to previous Portuguese explorations of the coast.

Dias’ expedition party included six Africans who had been brought to Portugal by earlier explorers. Dias dropped off the Africans at different ports along the coastline of Africa with supplies of gold and silver and messages of goodwill from the Portuguese to the indigenous people. The last two Africans were left at a place the Portuguese sailors called Angra do Salto, probably in modern Angola, and the expedition’s supply ship was left there under guard of nine men.

5 Spain And Britain Trade Armadas

In the 16th century, Spain rose to become the most powerful nation in the world, dominating the seas and conquering the New World. Perturbed by England&rsquos stubbornly Protestant Queen Elizabeth, Spain&rsquos Catholic monarch, Philip II, thought it would be no trouble to invade and conquer the northern backwater.

In 1588, Philip dispatched the Invincible Armada, one of the most intimidating naval forces ever assembled, consisting of around 130 ships. But the size of their fleet did little to help the Spanish. They lacked organization, and the British defense consisted of small, fast ships that could fire at the Armada from afar. The fleets met at the Battle of Gravelines on August 7, but both were left relatively unscathed. Not long after the battle, a huge storm more or less destroyed the Armada.

The importance of this battle should not be downplayed. It gave the English a massive confidence boost and opened the door to Britain&rsquos eventual naval dominance. But the defeat wasn&rsquot the end of Spanish power. In fact, with money flowing from the New World, Spain&rsquos coffers were quickly refilled, and they were ready for another fight&mdashas were the British.

Cue the British Counter Armada of 1589, led by Sir Francis Drake. The fleet sailed down to the Iberian Peninsula, where it was handily defeated. Then there&rsquos the Spanish Armada of 1596, which headed for Ireland until it was destroyed by a storm. Spanish Armada of 1597? Storms again. Plans for yet another Armada ended prematurely with Philip&rsquos death. England and Spain finally signed a peace agreement in 1604.

Technology and the Age of Exploration

Advancements in technology, valiant journeys, and important people of the Age of Exploration created an impressive step toward the modern era. Improved technologies, such as the compass, which helped sailors along their journey to reach their destination, were promoted during this age. The brave journeys by many men were incredible, like Gil Eanes’ short, but significant voyage across the Green Sea of Darkness. In the Age of Exploration, many important people decided to move beyond their ability, for example Ferdinand Magellan, who circumnavigated the Earth.

Many of the significant improvements of the technology were made during the Age of Exploration. First, the caravel’s smooth hull, lateen sail and two rudders were improved by Prince Henry’s designers for the trips that the sailors had to make. The compass, that is crucial part of any type of journey, which was used for looking at the direction one was going, was promoted throughout this age. Prince Henry’s plan for sailing needed the astrolabe, which determined latitude to prepare for their voyage. Improved maps were part of the technology’s improvements during the Age of Exploration and were used to find their destination.

Additionally, the valiant journeys of many important figures were all very astonishing. Gil Eanes’ voyage across the Green Sea of Darkness was short, but he was the captain of the first successful voyage across the ocean. The well-known journey of Columbus was an exciting journey that led to the Native Americans and discovering of America, which he did not know was America. Journeys of Vasco De Gama were significant because he was the man that began to go on a tough and a lengthy journey. Magellan’s circumnavigation is one of the most respected voyages of all time because it was not a very high chance of success and some of his crew made it.

Finally, the remarkable figures of this time decided to go beyond their skills. Prince Henry, the navigator, was the man that destined some people and some technology to become an important part of history. Gil Eanes, the valiant sailor of Portuguese is a respectable person of this time because he was the man the broke the fear of the Green Sea of Darkness. The two people, Columbus and Vasco De Gama, are both gigantic people that made some tough and long trips that impacted the history immensely. Lastly, the remarkably momentous man of this generation would be Magellan with his unrealistic circumnavigation that surpassed various abilities in his time.

To sum up, many significant achievements were accomplished during this time. Old technologies were modified for the substantial figures that made successful journeys in their lifetime. Respectable people of all time represented this time period showing consummation during the voyages and improvements. The time period of exploration was an immense accomplishment for the venerated people of the time.

During the age of sail, how common was "trolling" for fish while underway to supplement the ship's diet, and what kind of line would have been used?

Thinking about the bad water and hardtack commonly referenced on long sailing voyages, I've always wondered how much of a big ship could be fed on fish they caught. and how they would catch it without the aid of invisible plastic fishing line.

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The History Book Club discussion

"The Age of Sail was the period in which international trade and naval warfare were dominated by sailing ships, lasting from the 16th to the mid 19th century. This is a significant period during which square-rigged sailing ships carried European settlers to many parts of the world in one of the most expansive human migrations in recorded history.

Like most periodic eras the definition is inexact and close enough to serve as a general description. The age of sail runs roughly from the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, the last significant engagement in which oar-propelled galleys played a major role, to the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862, in which the steam-powered CSS Virginia destroyed the sailing ships USS Cumberland and USS Congress, finally culminating with the advance of steam power, rendering sail power in warfare obsolete.
Sailing ships continued to be an economical way to transport cargo on long voyages into the 1920s. Sailing ships do not require fuel or complex engines to be powered thus they tended to be more independent from requiring a dedicated support base on the mainland. Crucially though, steam powered ships held a speed advantage and were rarely hindered by adverse winds, freeing steam-powered vessels from the necessity of following trade winds. As a result, cargo and supplies could reach a foreign port in half the time it took a sailing ship. It is this factor that drove sailing ships aside. Sailing vessels were pushed into narrower and narrower economic niches (see disruptive technology) and gradually disappeared from commercial trade. Today, sailing vessels are only economically viable for small scale coastal fishing, along with recreational uses such as yachting and passenger sail excursion ships.

Folks, please feel free to develop this thread as it relates to the Age of Sail: People, Places, Events, Ships, etc.

You may also cite books, urls, websites and any ancillary threads which deal with this subject. Remember when citing any source, please add the bookcover, the author's photo when available and always the author's link (which is the author's name in text).

This is one book that I quite enjoyed that covers this period of history, the age of sail:

by Richard Woodman
Publishers blurb:
Extraordinary maritime heroes of the late 18th and early 19th centuries stride across these pages - some, like Warren, Pellew, Cochrane and Collingwood, are still renowned others are almost unknown today, yet their brilliant exploits deserve to be pulled from under the long shadow of the greatest naval figure of all, Horatio Nelson. The Royal Navy's struggle is set against the political backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars and the sea war with America.

""A superb Napoleonic War study, admirably written. It puts Patrick O 'Brian and Homblower in the shade. One of John Bayley's Books of the Year." - Daily Telegraph
"An enthralling story of the fighting captains and frigate warfare in the age of Nelson." - Robert Harvey, (author of Cochrane).
"A marvellous book. shows where Patrick O' Brian and C. S Forster got all their stuff from, but is more exciting than either." - Times Literary Supplement
"Here the surging thrill of broadside battles under billowing sail is captured with narration that also presents a considerd assessment of the times, of the social, military and political factors that came so powerfully into play would that all history books could be as arresting" - This England

Here is another pretty good title that fits in with 'Master & Commander'. I have a copy of this book but sadly it sits un-read in my library.

by James Henderson
Publishers blurb:
Admiral Nelson's most frequent cry was for more frigates. Though not ships of the line these fast and powerful warships were the 'eyes of the fleet'. They enabled admirals to find where the enemy lay and his likely intentions, as well as patrolling vital trade routes and providing information from far-flung colonies. Together with their smaller cousins, the sloops and brigs of the Royal Navy, they performed a vital function. Generally commanded by ambitious young men, these were the ships that could capture enemy prizes and earn their officers and men enough prize-money to set them up for life. The fictional characters Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey hardly surpassed some of the extraordinary deeds of derring-do and tragedy described in these pages. Originally published in two volumes, this book is a bargain for all who want the factual low-down on the Brylcreem Boys of Nelson's navy.

The following book I read very recently and again it would offer some relevant information, although somewhat concise, on the period of the 'Ship of the Line' between 1650-1815.

by Jonathan Dull
Publisher blurb:
For nearly two hundred years huge wooden warships called 'ships of the line' dominated war at sea and were thus instrumental in the European struggle for power and the spread of imperialism. Foremost among the great naval powers were Great Britain and France, whose advanced economies could support large numbers of these expensive ships. This book, the first joint history of these great navies, offers a uniquely impartial and comprehensive picture of the two forces, their shipbuilding programs, naval campaigns, and battles, and their wartime strategies and diplomacy. Jonathan R. Dull is the author of two award-winning histories of the French navy. Bringing to bear years of study of war and diplomacy, his book conveys the fine details and the high drama of the age of grand and decisive naval conflict. Dull delves into the seven wars that Great Britain and France, often in alliance with lesser naval powers such as Spain and the Netherlands, fought between 1688 and 1815. Viewing war as most statesmen of the time saw it - as a contest of endurance - he also treats the tragic side of the Franco-British wars, which shattered the greater security and prosperity the two powers enjoyed during their brief period as allies.

This title below offers a very good introduction to life in Nelson's navy that may interest readers who wish to learn more. My copy is still un-read :(

by Roy Adkins
Publisher blurb:
The Royal Navy to which Admiral Lord Nelson sacrificed his life depended on thousands of sailors and marines to man the great wind-powered wooden warships. Drawn from all over Britain and beyond, often unwillingly, these ordinary men made the navy invincible through skill, courage and sheer determination. They cast a long shadow, with millions of their descendants alive today, and many of their everyday expressions, such as 'skyscraper' and 'loose cannon', continuing to enrich our language. Yet their contribution is frequently overlooked, while the officers became celebrities. JACK TAR gives these forgotten men a voice in an exciting, enthralling, often unexpected and always entertaining picture of what their life was really like during this age of sail. Through personal letters, diaries and other manuscripts, the emotions and experiences of these people are explored, from the dread of press-gangs, shipwreck and disease, to the exhilaration of battle, grog, prize money and prostitutes. JACK TAR is an authoritative and gripping account that will be compulsive reading for anyone wanting to discover the vibrant and sometimes stark realities of this wooden world at war.

Alan Villiers Sons of Sindbad - The Photographs: Dhow Voyages with the Arabs in 1938 -39 might be worth searching for in second-hand bookshops. I have read some brief excerpts. He narrates his journeys around the the Arabian Sea, from the Arabian peninsular to the Rufiji Delta in the late 1930s. Dhows were plying their trade in this fashion till the 1950s.

Thank you Aussie Rick and Harvey for your adds.

I'd like to add one more book which I thought was a great story, of just one ship, during the Napoleonic period, the 'Bellerophon' or better know to its crew as the 'Billy Ruffian'.

by David Cordingly
Publishers blurb:
Lavishly illustrated with paintings, sketches, maps and battle plans, and drawing on a wealth of primary sources and contemporary literature, David Cordingly's portrait of the 'Billy Ruffian' is an original work of popular history and a fascinating insight into the reality that lies behind C.S. Forester's and Patrick O'Brian's fictional ships and heroes.

"A thrilling narrative which brings engaging the enemy so alive that you smell the cordite of the guns and hear the splintering of mighty masts and spars." - Independent
"A masterly account and, like all good biographies, says as much, if not more, about the historical context as about the subject itself." - Sunday Times
"Richly entertaining and informative . These resurrected log books, captains' letters and court martial reports give us a thrillingly up-close feeling for what it was like to live and fight through those tumultuous best of times and worst of times." - Independent on Sunday
"Cordingly has unearthed a revealing study . The account of Napoleon's brief incarceration on the ship in July 1815 is fascinating . original and well-researched." - Daily Telegraph

Wow. I love how anytime a new thread is opened up, on any period of history, Aussie Rick has a nice list of books and descriptions and recommendations.

It is kinda frustrating when I'm interested in so many periods of history (almost everything) to realize that if I limited myself to any one section there would be so many great books to read! It is one of those bitter-sweet, "so many books, so little time" things. The nice thing about Aussie Rick, and goodreads in general, is that I have a much better idea which are the good books, so I don't waste any of that time on the mediocre. Thanks!

Hi Elizabeth,
My recommendations might not suit everyone but hopefully it may point people in the right direction and they can find other books along the way :)

'Aussie Rick' wrote: "Hi Elizabeth,
My recommendations might not suit everyone but hopefully it may point people in the right direction and they can find other books along the way :)"

Exactly. I guess that is part of what I like about your recommendations, too, is that you give us enough info to help us judge how well the book would work for us. Many thanks. :)

Here is one more good book to tempt you then Elizabeth "Broadsides: The Age of Fighting Sail, 1775-1815" by Nathan Miller.

by Nathan Miller
"Pace the pitching black deck with a sleepless Admiral Nelson the night before battle bestows eternal rest and peerless immortality upon him envision with Mahan the storm–tossed and ever–watchful ships–of–the–line that kept England secure from invasion wonder in awe at Collingwood′s dedication in working himself to death after Trafalgar elevated him to primary responsibility for England′s imperial safety in the Mediterranean. All of this and more awaits the reader who will sail through these pages, every one of which is etched with the indelible expertise and boundless enthusiasm of Nathan Miller, master of naval history." - Kenneth J. Hagan, Professor of History and Museum Director Emeritus, U.S. Naval Academy, Professor of Strategy, U.S. Naval War College

"This is not just inspired naval history – the personal lives of the seafarers themselves, from cabin boy to admiral, are given generous treatment." – The Times (London)

"A wealth of detail. Descriptions of dreadful living conditions aboard cramped wooden vessels give way to bloody decks after close combat. A solid introduction to a turbulent era at sea." – Publishers Weekly

"[As:] a companion to the popular nautical novels of C. S. Forester and Patrick O′Brian––it succeeds brilliantly." – Daily Telegraph (London)

"The descriptions of the great sea commanders and their battles display all the craft of the gifted writer. Read Broadsides for enjoyment as a well–informed, action–packed naval narrative." – The Christ Church Press

Below is a book I have yet to read but it covers the very interesting subject of 'boy sailors' who served on ships of the line during the period of sail.

by D A B Ronald
Publishers blurb:
They 'fought like young Nelsons.' The words of a schoolmaster, writing from aboard the Mars after the battle of Trafalgar, describing the valour of his pupils in the heat of battle. Made immortal by the novels of Patrick O'Brian, C. S. Forester and Alexander Kent, these boy sailors, alongside those of every other Royal Navy ship, had entered the British Navy to fight the French across every ocean of the world. There was a long-standing British tradition of children going to sea, and along the way found adventure, glory, wealth and fame. During the Napoleonic Wars, these children, some as young as eight or nine, were also fighting for the very survival of Britain. Drawing on many first-hand accounts, letters, poems and writings, this book tells the dramatic story of Britain's boy sailors during the Napoleonic Wars for the very first time.

The following book was one of my favourite books covering aspects of naval warfare during the American Civil War "Reign of Iron" by James Nelson.

'Aussie Rick' wrote: "Here is one more good book to tempt you then Elizabeth "Broadsides: The Age of Fighting Sail, 1775-1815" by Nathan Miller.

by. "
I will 'second' this recommendation! I think this is a good book to introduce the age of fighting sail to someone looking for an overall, easy to read narrative.

Good to see you found the naval section. I will be looking forward to any good books you'd like to recommend!

It's an interesting period of history. When it comes to naval history I love reading about men-of-war, ships of the line, sailing and the old cannons blenching fire and smoke. I much prefer this period to the age of steel and massive battleships firing at targets miles and miles away. What attracts you to this period James?

Much the same as you mention above, Rick. Along with the captain having all authority, the need to exercise it carefully and to act independently when called for. It was such an age of discovery as well, and that fascinates me, too. I still find the age of steel interesting, particularly before technology fully took over.

Hi James, I have a book sitting un-read in my library that may interest you if you haven't already read it titled "Black Night Off Finisterre" by A. Hawkey. It has received some very good reviews and I should make the effort to read it sooner than later.

by Arthur Hawkey
"Back in 1963 Arthur Hawkey published HMS Captain, and this book is a second edition of that text. It includes a small amount of new material, and a few new photographs. The chapters are identical, with two new ones added in to carry the new material. Only the final chapter is renamed. That this is essentially a repeat edition is nowhere acknowledged, and may well lead the unwary to purchase a book they already own. This is misleading, to say the least. Even the errors of the original text are repeated. The appendix of key political office holders between 1860 and 1870 misses HTL Corry's term as First Lord of the Admiralty, he served between March 1867 and December 1868, a critical period for the construction of Captain while Lord Derby did not die in office, as reported here, but retired through ill-health. In the interval several important books have been published addressing this subject, notably those of Stanley Sandler, DK Brown and John Beeler. None have been consulted.

The book remains, as it was back in 1963, a fine tale, and it is told with considerable brio. The characters are suitably dramatic, the monomaniac turret pioneer Captain Cowper Phipps Coles RN, a half pay officer whose pushy public persona masked a boyish enthusiasm for his system, 'his' ship, and almost everything else in life. His opponent, Edward James Reed, the talented naval architect was equally difficult, although with rather more justification. Nonetheless the two men would create the modern battleship between them, Coles' turrets and Reed's hull and breastwork combined in the epochal HMS Devastation completed in 1873.

After experience in the Crimean War, and with considerable input from IK Brunel, Coles developed the armoured turret system for heavy guns. After years of trying, with a steadily growing list of converts to his cause, from Prince Albert to The Times by way of a number of radical politicians, including Richard Cobden and Hugh Childers, Coles finally secured the Admiralty's order to build a ship that embodied not just his turrets, but his integrated concept of the turret warship, which combined low freeboard to reduce the area to be armoured and a full sailing rig. Reed, who did not share the widespread enthusiasm for the turret, preferred inboard mountings, with high freeboard. When ordered he designed a turret ship, HMS Monarch that shared the sea-keeping of his broadside ships, using hinged bulwarks to increase freeboard. Coles attacked this as an unworthy compromise. However, the full rig of Monarch led him to install an equally large wind trap on his own ship, with tripod stays to strengthen the masts. In view of the opposition of the Chief Constructor and Controller's Department to Coles' system the Captain was designed and built by Lairds of Birkenhead. They overbuilt her, and sacrificed eighteen inches of her already limited freeboard of eight feet. Concern over Captain's stability as completed was followed up, but the results were not ready until after she went to sea on her third cruise, the first two having been successful. The calculations showed she was dangerously unstable once her upper deck was awash, a condition in which her Captain Hugh Burgoyne, and Coles, who was on board, now considered perfectly normal.

On the night of 6-7 September 1870, Captain was cruising with the combined fleet, under double reefed fore and main topsails. Shortly after midnight a squall struck the ship, already heeled over with her deck partly awash, and before Captain Burgoyne's order to cut away the topsail halliards could be executed she went over, and quickly sank. Before this Monarch had taken in all sail and kept station under steam, an option open to Burgoyne. However, Burgoyne and Coles were anxious to show that Captain was a complete man of war, and could keep station under sail. Burgoyne, exhausted after 48 hours without sleep, had gone below in the late afternoon, and was probably not called up soon enough by the officer of the watch. He survived the sinking, but was last seen on an up-turned boat. He was one of 490 to die that night, more men than the Royal Navy lost at Trafalgar.

Eighteen men, led by Gunner William May survived, and rowed ashore. The new material in the book demonstrates that Thomas Kernan, an able seamen, was so concerned by the ships' motion that he hid in the launch, and cut loose the lashings before the ship went over. It was entirely due to him that the boats floated free when the ship went down, and that anyone survived. However, his action was never reported, even to the Court Martial. Kernan went on to have an exemplary career in the service, including a period on the Royal Yacht.

The Court Martial rightly exonerated the survivors, but felt obliged to take the highly unusual step of observing that the ship had been built in deference to public opinion, and against professional advice. Among those who backed Coles none stood closer to the disaster than Hugh Childers, who had been First Lord of the Admiralty since December 1868. Childers had disagreed with Reed so forcibly that Reed had resigned, and appears to have promised Coles, after the first cruise of the Captain, some official position. He also moved his son from the Monarch to die on the Captain. Prostrate with grief, and suppressed guilt, Childers issued a minute blaming everyone else for the disaster, and implying much of the fault lay with the Controller, Admiral Sir Spencer Robinson. Robinson was not the sort of man to accept the implication, and refused to resign, forcing Gladstone to retire him, after a sick Childers left office.

This book provides a clear lesson of the folly of allowing public opinion, political dogma and other irresponsible elements to influence the design of warships. Sadly, while HMS Captain remains the most tragic example of such interference, there have been any number of later examples." - Andrew Lambert, King's College, London (Journal for Maritime Research - Journal Issue: January 2002)

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