Shipbuilding and Navigation

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SHIPBUILDING AND NAVIGATION. A revolutionary change in the design and construction of seagoing sailing ships occurred around 1400. The two established European shipbuilding traditions, one Mediterranean and the other northern, merged in the production of the full-rigged ship. From the north the rounded tubby hull form of the cog, the sternpost rudder, and the large square sail for driving the ship were combined with the abutting or carvel hull planking and the lateen sail of the south. Full-rigged ships carried three masts with a large square sail on the mainmast, a triangular lateen sail on the mizzen, and a small square sail on the foremast to balance the lateen at the stern. The square sails provided power while the lateen made the ship more maneuverable. Relying on the internal frame for strengthnecessary if the hull planks did not overlap but instead abutted one anothermade for lower initial construction costs, though such a hull required more repair and maintenance.

The carrack was the most prominent example of the new type, but there were smaller versions that were also capable of more reliable passages and over longer distances at lower cost than before. The higher carrying capacity per sailor gave these vessels much more range than did any of their predecessors, while the rig made it possible for them to survive more dangers. The most impressive accomplishment of the new merged type was its ability to carry Europeans on voyages across the oceans and, ultimately, around the world.

The change in construction also meant a change in the organization of work in shipbuilding. There was a growing distinction between the master builder, who drew the lines, and so designed the ship, and the carpenters who formed the wood according to his directions. Once established, the design of the full-rigged ship was far from static. Shipbuilders experimented with variations and explored the potential of the new design.

Late medieval northern European cargo ships were about three times as long as they were wide, and deep, with high freeboard. The tendency through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was to reduce height while increasing length. Oared shipsgalleysdid not disappear and their length-to-breadth ratios of 6:1 or more probably served to influence the design of cargo ships. In the state shipyards of the Mediterranean region, most notably the Arsenal at Venice, oared ships such as the heavy galleass and the more common light lower galley continued to be produced. Only governments built those types, for use against similar ships in war, because they were no longer useful for carrying cargo.

Oared warships changed in response to the introduction of gunpowder arms on board. The galleon, built in a number of places in southern Europe from the 1530s on, may have been an effort to get the most from both the new full-rigged design and heavy cannon. The type had a low beak and carried heavy armament in the bow like a galley, but the rest of the ship was like other full-rigged ships, the exception being a relatively high length-to-breadth ratio. Modified over time, the galleon proved to be an effective carrier of expensive goods. In some cases builders added a fourth mast, a bonaventure mizzen, with a second lateen sail to increase speed and maneuverability.

The galleon and other similar sixteenth-century types proved that the future of naval warfare belonged to the sailing warship armed with cannon. There would be mistakes in developing and exploiting the new technology, mistakes that now provide invaluable information through the work of underwater archeologists. The English Mary Rose sank in 1545 when the overmanned vessel took in water through gunports no one had thought to close, despite what was an obvious danger. The Swedish Gustavus Vasa sank in Stockholm harbor in 1628 on a shakedown cruise, one that the builders did not want to attempt because they knew the ship was unstable and needed modification. Political authorities insisted on the ill-fated voyage because the warship was a symbol of royal power as well as a vehicle for battle at sea. In each case the difficulties of dealing with novelty were obvious.

The diffusion of new techniques was often slow. The durability of medieval types of construction features continued into the eighteenth century. Ship-building was typically conservative, given the high cost of error, so shipbuilders were often reluctant to adopt new methods. Old designs and types persisted for centuries, especially in smaller craft and riverboats. New composite or bastard types appeared when builders tried to exploit some of the advantages from the new improvements without giving up what they knew.

Builders and captains changed the sail plan of the full-rigged ship further, exploiting the advantages of combined rig. The general tendency was toward a more divided sail plan. They added new sails, a square sail above the mainsail and a square sail under the bowsprit, and even a square sail above the square sail on the foremast. The greater number of sails meant that sailors could work on each one separately. Captains enjoyed greater choices in deploying canvas and owners enjoyed lower labor costs. Because the individual sails were smaller than the single mainsail on the mainmast had been, the maximum effort required to handle sails decreased, and with it the size of the crew needed to man the vessel. To further reduce crew, masts were made simpler and rigging reduced so that more of the work of handling the sails could be done from the deck. That, in turn, reduced dangerous time aloft for the crew and further decreased the labor requirement.

The advances in the building of cargo ships came together in the highly efficient fluyt, developed in Dutch yards in the late sixteenth century. It had a length-to-beam ratio of 5:1 or 6:1 and a low bow with a tapered or fluted stern. It carried little or no armament and a simplified rig. The vessel was suited for the carriage of bulk goods such as grain and salt between the Baltic and western Europe. Because it traveled in peaceful waters, it required a smaller crew. The fluyt was slow but it offered relatively low costs, and it became a critical factor in the rapid growth of Dutch shipping and trade in the seventeenth century.

Builders modified the fluyt for use in different waters or for special purposes, and in its various forms the fluyt was widely used throughout Europe. Cargo ships required protection in wartime, so the diffusion of the fluyt promoted the use of convoys and an enduring distinction between ships for trade and ships for fighting. Because the number built was so large, Dutch builders were, to some degree, able to standardize parts. They also centralized much new construction in shipyards along the Zaan River just to the north of Amsterdam, where the wharves were permanent. The presence of a sizable skilled labor force and of complementary industriessuch as sawing and canvas and rope makingmade it possible to produce ships quickly and less expensively. The pattern in the Zaanstreek was followed, perhaps to a lesser extent, in a number of places such as the lower Thames in England and the lower Tagus in Portugal.

For many trade routes in the eighteenth century, the sailing packet proved superior, especially for transporting more costly goods over long distances. The packet carried full rig, although on the mizzen there was now a spritsail, a true fore-and-aft sail, which was easier to handle than a lateen. Whereas the giant carracks that the Portuguese used for trade to India in the sixteenth century reached 2,000 tons and more, the fluyt proved that for most trades the most efficient size was significantly smaller. The packet was typically about 500600 tons, the optimum economic and technical size for a sailing cargo ship.

There were variations in size and in design to suit specific trades or functions. There were lighter variants for safe trades similar to the fluyt and its descendants, and there were heavier variants such as the East Indiaman produced by the yards of the national trading companies in the Dutch Republic and England, which carried enough weaponry to make them similar to warships. Competition for the packet in the north came increasingly from twomasted ships such as brigs and snows. Builders found ways to make those types larger, nearly the optimum size of a full-rigged ship, while reducing crew size. Two-masted ships became especially popular for regional trades. In the Mediterranean, smaller types, for example, the polacre and the felucca, which retained traditional triangular sails, survived in short distance and coastal commerce. State shipbuilding yards in the south still produced galleys at the end of the eighteenth century, but their numbers were small and declining.

At the same time that oared ships were disappearing, improvements in metallurgyamong the first signs of the industrial revolutionled not only to better and more reliable tools for shipbuilding but also to the introduction of iron for major framing and supports. Such composite construction was the first step toward the iron, and then steel, ships of the nineteenth century. Like cargo ships, warships tended toward greater standardization over time. With vessels built to fight, government agencies made the decisions about design so that limitations on design were much stricter. By the eighteenth century, navies had their vessels divided into specific rates, each with its own form of hull and rig and level of armament. The distinction between warships and cargo ships was by 1750 virtually complete, in sharp contrast to the years through about 1600. With no value as traders, warships were built exclusively in government yards that also typically served as bases with all the necessary stores and spare parts needed for the operation of those ships.

In the late Middle Ages sailors came to use a method of finding their way at sea that relied on the use of compass bearings and estimates of speed. Such dead reckoning could replace the traditional combination of experience, some stargazing, and the use of lead and line to find out about depth and the nature of the bottom. Portolan books, available in several languages by the sixteenth century, were compilations of data on sailing along coasts with directions, distances, and warnings about dangers. The pilots who worked along portions of coast in the Mediterranean and western Europe used them. From the thirteenth century they also had portolan charts, which visually represented the knowledge in the books. It is likely, though, that pilots and captains did not abandon the use of stars as a guide. Dead reckoning made possible impressive navigational feats. Long-distance voyages across the open sea, far out of sight of land and around the world, presented very different navigational problems from sailing along or near coasts. Still, navigators like Columbus found their way to, and, more importantly, their way back from, sites consistently, all that before the growth in astronomical knowledge that precipitated and was part of the scientific revolution. The influence of the new knowledge on navigation in the short term was small. It did, however, generate increasing interest in research on the movement of the stars and planets and in the potential of using observations of the heavens to aid navigation. For most of the voyages undertaken in early modern Europe, however, other information, such as prevailing wind directions or dangers of specific coastal features, was more critical for sailing.

As part of the exploration of the west African coast, Portuguese sailors developed ways to measure latitudethe distance they were south of Lisbon. Already discussed and formalized in the fifteenth century, the measurement of latitude was normal by the eighteenth century. What was lacking was a way to measure longitude. It was not until the perfection of an accurate chronometer by John Harrison in the second half of the eighteenth century that it was possible to establish the position of a ship at sea with accuracy. The diffusion of the more sophisticated navigational techniques was slow and, in 1800, sailors still commonly used lead and line and dead reckoning to find their way at sea, especially on shorter voyages in smaller vessels. Even if old techniques persisted in both shipbuilding and navigation into the nineteenth century, advances from the late Middle Ages on made possible the massive increase in trade and commerce that was the hallmark of the society and economy of early modern Europe. They also made possible the sharp increase in the productivity of workers on board ship, a success that translated into improvements in welfare, not just for sailors but for all people touched by waterborne transportation.

See also Astronomy ; Atlantic Ocean ; Barometer ; Cartography and Geography ; Chronometer ; Clocks and Watches ; Commerce and Markets ; Communication and Transportation ; Consumption ; Earth, Theories of the ; Engineering: Military ; Europe and the World ; Exploration ; Galleys ; Industrial Revolution ; Industry ; Navigation Acts ; Navy ; Pacific Ocean ; Scientific Revolution ; Shipping ; Technology .


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Lucassen, Jan, and Richard Unger. "Labour Productivity in Ocean Shipping, 15001850." International Journal of Maritime History 12 (2000): 127141.

Unger, Richard W. Ships and Shipping in the North Sea and Atlantic, 14001800. Basingstoke, U.K., 1998.

Williams, J. E. D. From Sails to Satellites: The Origin and Development of Navigational Science. Oxford and New York, 1992.

Richard W. Unger