By Paul Austin - Dallas, Texas - USA

Our Young Navy - Part One

To Part Two

To Part Three

To Part Four

The historian Ian Toll in his book SIX FRIGATES, writes that the performance of the Revolutionary War Navy 'was a wasteful and humiliating fiasco.'

And yet, by 1778 the yard of Greenleaf, Cross & Cross had designed the Hancock, known immediately by the British as the fastest frigate in the world. And by 1794 the most famous warship ever, the Constitution, had been built. Old Ironsides has a battle record of 33 victories and no defeats. It is the oldest naval ship still in operation.

It's amazing that we became a naval power in so short a time. Some civilizations took centuries, we did not. The story of how we became the leading naval power in the world is worth retelling this time of year.

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In 1775 Britain ruled the waves, Atlantic and Pacific. The British fleet was massive in numbers and in size of vessels. Lord Nelson's tactics were the claw that slit the world at sea. Personally he had the mild looks of a country parson, as he was a parson's third son. Small and gentle in springtime when he wrote poetic love letters to the married woman Emma Hamilton, he was quite complimentary to other navy men.

Yet, he was brutal at sea. Toll says 'His personal courage was extreme to the point of recklessness.' This is much like the American George Custer. In the fury of battle Nelson had lost an eye and one arm, amputated without painkillers such as brandy-just a knife for the flesh and a saw for the bone. He did not complain.

His tactics spared no one, not his men nor the enemy. The British navy built huge, heavy ships as floating forts. They were not the fastest ships, but loaded down with cannons. The cannons shot ships to pieces so Nelson could ram the enemy with his ship-of-war vessels, board the enemy over bulwarks and fight hand to hand, knife to the belly, scabbard to the throat, pistol to the eyes. They were ruthless, they were frightening.

Nelson's ships were loaded with too many men. They slept in hammocks 14 inches apart in damp, dirty, sickness-infested quarters. If the ship took on any water below the waterline, the men could smell the sealife in it. They slept in sweat-infested clothes winter and summer. They were ruled with an iron hand, brutal, punishing at any infraction, with little to eat. Naturally when an enemy ship appeared on the horizon, the men just leaped out of their quarters to get into action on deck.

Nelson's cannon men drilled constantly because their great advantage was the ability to fire more often than anyone else. While the French reloaded guns, the British fired away. Toll says the crews often competed against each other for money, rum, or light duties after the battles were over.

. . . . .

As Britannia ruled the waves, the American colonies were a slender arch of property at the shore facing Britain. What this new land did have were rivers and forests. Life was crude, so much so that the first ship of any size built in America was built to take settlers back to England, the 30-ton Virginia. Planks were shaped by two-handed adzes, swung full circle to slit timbers into flat planks. Pitch was shoved between planks. Crude, tapered nails were pounded through grain, cracking and scrawling wood. Old hemp rope squeezed planks together, creaking and cramping it till the ends faced each other. At first, the trees near the fishing grounds came down, axed into boats. Then trees further inland came down, hauled by oxen to the rivers and streams where they'd be slit and sawed and shaved into a boat. This is why the early shipbuilding came at the entrance to the Mystic, Merrimac, Charles, and Hudson rivers.

The work was part-time, usually in the winter as there was less farming to do then. While there is no record of Native Americans ever raising a sail, the first boats of any size were sloops-a gaff main, two headsails, and a square topsail.

In the 1770s King George III of England decided he was going to beat the Colonies down by showing some military force in Massachusetts. He sent the Royal Navy to Boston Harbor. The Royal Navy was the most powerful in the world. They hadn't lost a major naval encounter with any national power in years. The King sent Major Pitcairn in charge of troops to march on Lexington and Concord from the barracks at Boston, to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock.

In April, 1775, the night was cold and damp, so that any breath frosted in the air like an aging beard. It was a night for plots, for subterranean thoughts leaping silently from soul to soul. It was a night of stark shadows and chilly whispers and faint ripples in the bay's water. Squatting in the harbor was the HMS Somerset, all of 64 guns, and rigging lights burning in the cold. Its mast and spar shadows lay across Boston rooftops like a web of intimidation.

For Pitcairn's troops to surprise Lexington, he'd have to get them across the bay in 20 whaleboats undetected. As the whaleboats dipped their keels into the bay, Paul Revere told his neighbor Robert Newman to hang two lanterns in the belfry of the Old North Church. The lantern light struck the two church iron bells, reflecting softly a long ways across the jagged roofs of the town.

Revere, Joshua Bentley and Thomas Richardson then snuck down to the sandy, reedy banks of the Charles River, where they had a 20 foot skiff hid. Thomas and Joshua dipped the oars like they were fingers in the water to get Revere across the river to a horse, panting in the cold air. But to get to that horse, they'd have to row right under the Somerset, looming huge and black and formidable. Anyone staring down from the quarterdeck would see them, they would be heard curling the water into tiny lines of ripple from their skiff's bow.

If the British troops march south across the isthmus and then along the coast to cross the Charles River, they wouldn't surprise a gopher. But if they use whaleboats to row across the bay, they would be there in less than two hours. So Revere had to get to his horse in time to alert the patriot regulars the British were coming to Lexington by sea. He had to get his skiff across to Charlestown in time. Two boats-British whaleboats against one American skiff. If anyone on the Somerset had seen or heard Revere, Adams and Hancock would have been jailed or killed.

Paul Revere will row north to the church while the British will row west toward the Charles River.

But the British ship had no guard boats out, as they all were with the grenadiers crossing the Bay toward the Charles River. No one walked the Somerset's deck looking down on the Bay. The British commander of the Royal Navy was Admiral Samuel Graves. He failed to provide enough whaleboats that night, thus the British took much too long to cross. Revere, at the helm of one skiff, eased out from the shadow of the Somerset, the circle of oar ripples disappearing soon as they reached Charlestown and a swift horse.

This is a traditional whaleboat, serving on British war craft for many years. Double-ended, with great volume amidships, not just for a centerboard but also for spars, weapons, extra clothes, weapons and oars. Between the oarlocks the molds show lines fairly parallel to the keel. These boats were 20 to 30 feet long, on occasion longer, usually serving 6 men. They were heavily built since they could be used in battle situations. Most had low sprit-rig sails, a mainsail and a jib.

The planks were painted white with a black sheer strake. This paint scheme may have made them easy to see in the dark. Where the keel post is joined to the keel had to be solidly built, as this is the point taking the brunt of a beaching. Eight strakes to the side, bent around frames, while the molds seen on whaleboats are put in after the planks have been clench-nailed in. Then the interior planking goes in, and the thwarts last.

This is a traditional cross-planked skiff.

At the beginning of the War, the colonies had no warships at all. Our naval actions amounted to boarding and capturing British merchant vessels, small and weakly armed. An example of this is the HMS Rose and the Katy in 1775. The captain of the Rose, James Wallace searched every ship coming and going out of Providence, Rhode Island. But he was to meet his match in Alexander Whipple, commander of the Rhode Island navy. Whipple cruised Narragansett Bay in his 12-gun Katy and a tender. There he spotted a small sloop, the Diana, with one of the Rose's masters at its helm. Whipple stretched all sails, chasing the sloop down. The two ships exchanged fire, then the Diana made a run for it. He had no chance against the 100 foot topsail sloop Katy. He had to ground the Diana, get his men off, and run for the Rose. They made it, leaving the beached Diana to Whipple's men. The Katy had been built by a wealthy Rhode Islander, John Brown, for his merchant fleet. Having been converted to a naval craft, she was fast. By the way, the Katy was renamed Providence, John Paul Jones' first solo command while the HMS Rose became the ship in Master and Commander. And just to heighten the irony, the Diana was a ship Wallace took from Thomas Linsey of Providence Rhode Island. Whipple gave her back to Linsey.

. . . . .

While these naval actions showed the Colonial courage and fighting ability, they didn't help General Washington win the war. In order to do that, General Washington needed big ships. The failure of converted merchant ships to deal with the huge, heavily armed British ships of the line put Colonial shipwrights to work. They were free of the British limitations, and they were independent of the Continental Congress.

Meanwhile the design game was afoot in the shipyards of Europe. Britain, France, and Spain headed in another direction in ship design. From the 1550s to the 1750s the European nations had been playing point-counterpoint in espionage, commercial rivalry, civil wars, and naval battles. Governments sent spies to foreign shipyards to see how they framed ships. Kings and prime ministers had to take country walks to talk in private. It was an interlude of hoarse whispers, notes hidden in corsets, letters sent at night by horseman, and giddy bribery. The temper of the times is perfectly captured by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities.

In this atmosphere, France had lost her navy in civil wars by the year 1600. By 1659 France had 26 ships. Yet they had Jean-Baptist Colbert, a man hell-bent on making France the naval power of the world. When the British crushed a French invasion fleet in 1692, Colbert and his Minster of Navy knew France had to build lighter, faster ships than the British. This came about when the French created the Corps of Engineer-Constructors in the 1750s. Now we come to the American Revolution. Cutting gun-ports in the sides of ships came into practice around 1650. This meant ship warfare was standardized into two lines of ships-broadside-blasting away at each other. In order to win such battles Colbert divided ships up by their guns so that the French would not shoot it out against a ship with greater guns. Colbert wanted to standardize ship design, building, and tactics. It was a fascination of the age for numbers, theories, and beaurocracy. Sound familiar?

He envisioned it as the Fast French against the Big British.

What this meant in the Colonies is that seafaring men saw both styles. In 1775 the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, the largest city in America, the only city Europeans knew. The Congress appointed a Marine committee of 7 members to get a navy going. Naturally they met one block from the waterfront, over the City Tavern. They had a fire going, with the crackling of burning wood lacing the boisterous tavern talk below. These 7 men, breathing liquor odors, created the American Navy.

No one knew what to do. Defend the coast, guard commercial ships, attack the British ships? What kind of ships? How should they be armed, and who is going to write Naval manuals and train these men? The Marine committee then ordered the building of 13 ships. The British specialized in huge, fat, loaded 'ships of the line.' They lumbered, shoving through the oceans with 70 to 140 guns on two or three gun decks.

But in contrast to the French attempt to standardize ship design, each of the American ships were built in different cities by different crews and shipwrights and constructors, around 1777. H. I. Chapelle says no one city had enough skilled labor or dock facility to build more than one ship, so he suspects each yard was given certain dimensions of the ship needed. They may have been given plans, or a few pages of plans from which to build, the number of cannons, etc. Either way, the shipwrights in those yards made design and construction decisions themselves. This is why historians say a ship was built by a yard instead of being designed by an individual. We don't know who they were but we have two names to go on.

William and John Hackett were shipbuilders since the 1650s in Salisbury, Massachusetts. William and his wife gave birth to a son, William Hackett in 1739. The boy grew up holding little models in his hand, staring out his bedroom window at the ships and masts and spars of the harbor. He was so single-minded, by the age of 12 (when I was hiding my baseball bubble gum cards from my brother) William Jr. left school to work in the shipyard. William Sr. died before 1776, so the young boy took over supervision of the yard with his uncle, John. William and John Hackett were building the 32 gun frigate Raleigh at the same time the firm of Greenleaf, Cross & Cross were building two frigates assigned to them by the Continental Congress. Chapelle thinks young William made the plans for one of these frigates, the Hancock.

The Raleigh and the Hancock have nearly identical dimensions-

The Hancock was launched in 1776. When she was captured by the British, they called her 'the finest and fastest frigate in the world.' This was said by British officers just 100 years after shipbuilding began in America and 200 years BE (Before Elvis). How did American shipbuilders and designers get so good, so quickly?

This takes us back to the French and their loony attempt to design ships by mathematical formulas which ignored how wood works. In 1672 the Secret Treaty of Dover created an alliance between England and France, the two countries with the most spies. Louis XIV ordered two ships from Anthony Deane, the master British shipbuilder. While Deane was in Versailles supervising the delivery of the ships, Louis in pouffed wig, layers of perfume and ringed fingers came up to Deane. In his whispery voice-think Peter Ustinov-he asked Deane a question. 'Why can a vessel sail against the wind?'

Deane must have stared off, looking toward Dover. Louis walked away without an answer, to find some royal court maiden for a maiden voyage. But Deane did ask the same question of Bernard Renau, a 23 year old expert in naval matters. In 1679 Renau published a paper describing how the wind shoves a boat sideways and forward. The paper also described the ideal boat shape as elliptical with a pointed bow. A few years later he published another paper saying that if the widest beam is forward of the waterline midpoint, the boat will be the most maneuverable. In 1727 Pierre Bouguer published a paper on finding the perfect place for masts and sails, and in 1733 he published a paper on the bow of least resistance. Most of the French theories and formulas were later proven to be wrong, but all of this has a bearing on Hancock.

In the 1770s many shipwrights thought French ships were faster than the British. Journals from British officers state the same thing. French ships were double-ended, so they could pull the planks together, bow and stern. This made their entrance and run quite hollow. In light air, this is a great advantage. However, the British thought this made for weak ships, leakage, and a lack of structural support for cannons. They thought French ships leaked and broke up easier than their own.

An interesting fact is that when French ships were captured by the British, the Royal Navy constructors changed them. They lowered the French masts, making the sails wider and lower, cleaning the hulls to a slick smoothness. This seems to have made these captured ships quite fast. But this does not explain the Hancock, as the fastest frigate in the world.

What might explain it is the French frigates were larger than the British. In fact, in every classification of warship the French built longer for their rating. When the Continental Congress gave dimensions and number of guns to American shipbuilders, the size of frigate ordered were always bigger than the British frigates. It was a great decision which made our Navy.

There may be another reason for Hackett's great design. Before the Continental Congress ordered Navy frigates, private citizens built ships for their business. Merchant vessels sailed to the Caribbean, Europe, even Africa. They were designed for modest speed with great cargo capacity. To have capacity the merchant ships had a fairly blunt bow, long smooth sides, and a flare at the turn of the bilge which stayed constant through many frames.

In this view, the distance between the lines stays the same for a distance along the keel. While the bow looks blunt to us, those long nearly parallel diagonals make the Hancock fast. If this came from the practical design of merchant ships, it's a leap of conceptual thought well in advance of the French. They were wrangling over the best shape for a bow, in naval architecture called the solid of least resistance. While they scratched and erased their lines and vectors, Hackett designed a long smooth hull. What the French didn't know is that a smooth hull increases speed much more than a perfectly sculptured bow.

I've also put a blue line in for the frames between diagonals. Usually the shape of these frames between diagonals at the turn of the bilge changes flare as the frames proceed from bow to stern. However, Hackett made these frames between diagonals close to the same flare for several frames. This simplified the flow of water considerably. In later decades, tank tests showed this has a great affect on ship speed. The Duckmeisters might be reminded of Bolger's Cartopper, with its bilge panel. The Cartopper bow is finely sharp but at the size of Hancock, it doesn't need to be. The Duckmeisters will recognize the parallel frames in small boats. When the lines for the frames are parallel, the flare is the same along the chine. We've all seen this, as in the Atkin skiff Nina, on the left:

Where did Hackett get this idea?

We have to go back before the Revolutionary War. England used the Colonies to build ships here in shipyards they owned and patrolled, for use in the Caribbean, Cuba, and South America. These were not big ships, but 40-80 footers, called sloops because of the guns on the top deck. When these ships were finished, the shipwrights left the Colonies back for England. So no one in the Colonies learned how to build big ships.

Around the 1740s merchants amassed enough wealth to construct their own private shipyards for merchant vessels. These vessels needed to get into harbors and ports in the Caribbean and other places, so the ships were built with flat bottoms in the Dutch style. These ships had moderate speed with great cargo capacity. Some were armed, but they couldn't win a battle with the British..

However, the men in the shipyards learned to put big ships together. Each man in these yards could loft, do carpentry, caulking, and rigging. And when their sons came along, these skills were passed down from father to son. In Britain and France and Holland a young man had to go to a government sponsored school to learn shipbuilding; in the Colonies the same skills were learned in a few years by the apprentices and sons of the merchant ship builders, in private yards.

This is how William Hackett learned so much, so fast. To a boy, it was all play, all the imagination of seeing ships from different countries. If young William were to stand on the docks he could see the huge, wide, heavy British warships. He could see the long, narrow, slender light ships of the French. He could see the flat bottoms of the Dutch merchant carriers. He could watch the water roll under the British frigates, he could watch the slender waves laying apart in long low lines from the tall bows of the French ships. He could watch the waves come from under the Dutch ships at a 45 degree angle off the keel, rather than along the sides. Warships are hard to design, especially in the 18th century.

Merchant ships of the day were either small and fast, carrying little cargo to meet a deadline, or large slow ships with plenty of cargo. If the hull is bigger, the ship is slower; if the hull is slender, the cargo space is less and the crew space and their food space is less. If the merchant ships carries guns to protect itself, the ship has to be built heavier, slowing it down. So when the thought of war became immanent, what did designers and yards do to build warships that could deal with the Royal Navy?

They gradually broke out of the past, to find a new shape for American frigates. We can see this in a progression of shapes from the 1720s to the 1790s.

I have reproduced the body lines of a 1764 ship, Chaleur, from Chapelle. This schooner is 70 feet overall. Chapelle says she was 'a fast sailor in moderate weather but poor to windward in heavy going.'

Here you can see the influence of the Dutch flat bottoms, with a slight turn at the bilge well below the waterline, which I've put in. This has capacity but not good waterflow. It's slightly better than a coastal carrier but not much.

Now let's go forward a few years to a breakthrough. This ship is Marblehead, built in 1767. It is only 57 feet long because that increased deadrise cannot support the guns and rig to be any longer. This is a fast schooner but not a ship which could challenge the British frigates and ships of the line.

We need more capacity without loading up too much volume. How did Hackett do that? On the next page you see the body plan of Hackett's Raleigh, the precursor to Hancock. What you see is hollowness at the keel to create some flatness away from the keel, supporting the flare between diagonals 1 and 2. This holds on to the capacity of the Dutch while still having flare right at 40 degrees, the trademark of speed.

In fact it puts the volume quite low underneath the waterline, producing a stable base from which to shoot cannons accurately. William Hackett gave Raleigh support, flare, capacity. Did he have a method of giving a ship good stability long before the formula for stability-the metacenter-was mastered by the French? I think he thought he had a formula for stability worked out. The French didn't because they couldn't accept a center of gravity above a center of buoyancy. Raleigh was Hackett's first attempt at combining capacity, stability, and speed. It didn't work out as Raleigh was overtaken by the British Experiment, a smaller ship with only 50 guns, in Raleigh's first year of service. In any event, here are the lines:

The turn of the frames between diagonal 1 and 2 give great support, but they load the ship down with volume well below the waterline. Stable but not swift enough. However, soon after Raleigh was slid down her stays, Hackett drew lines for Hancock. Here he made a change. He took that turn between the diagonals, put it higher up, closer to the waterline and extended the deadrise from the keel up to diagonal 1. He had his swiftness through the water, but he didn't have load carrying capacity.

So Hackett or someone in the yard then arched the frames between the keel and diagonal 1 and between diagonal 1 and 2 to recover some of the capacity needed. He then had some space and strength below, although not as much as Raleigh. He then tried to make up for the lesser space and strength below the waterline by making Hancock five feet longer. Same 11 feet depth of hold, just a longer ship with more weight between diagonals 2 and 3:

This is a hull of swiftness, but it has less weight lower down. It made Hancock fast, but it also made her more difficult to sail. The British caught the Hancock over three days in a race through light air, by the HMS Rainbow. The British knew that Pierre Bouguer had written in 1752 that the angle between the keel and the wind should be twice that between the sails and the keel for the fastest sailing with square sails. The American crew aboard the Hancock were mostly army soldiers, just learning the ropes.

After her capture, the Hancock was renamed by the British as the Iris, serving the Royal Navy with credit for several years.



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