Ship Types

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Ship Types

Since 1450 the bulk of world trade has been conducted by ship. Although trade in the last five centuries has become increasingly global, much of the innovation originated in Europe. Medieval European vessels were based on two traditions—one northern, descended from Viking/Celtic models, and one southern, founded on modified Roman designs. Increased trade in the era fed new innovations in shipbuilding, although the process was two-way. The most important medieval northern vessel, known as a cog, helped develop Baltic and North Sea trade contacts through its efficient carriage of bulk goods.


By the fifteenth century, extensive commercial networks were established between northern and southern Europe. At this time a fusion of the two shipbuilding traditions occurred, resulting in vessels whose general form lasted until the twentieth century. The sternpost rudder and square sails of northern Europe were combined with the triangular lateen sails and framed hull construction of the south. There was also an increase in average vessel size (a process that lasted until the end of the sail era), and rigging was altered.

By 1500 the cog had evolved into a number of vessel types, generically called "ships." Instead of a single mast and rig, the Renaissance ship might have up to three masts, with a combination of sail types. Main masts carried a square sail, while the mizzen (aft) mast was fitted with a large lateen sail. The fore mast was usually equipped with square sails supplemented with fore and aft jib sails-another new development-mounted onto a bowsprit. The result of this hybrid design was a full-rigged vessel with better maneuverability that could sail closer to the wind, usually called a carrack.

Carracks were used not only to trade and explore, but to establish a European naval presence worldwide. Older vessel types survived for a time, although in modified forms. One example was the caravel, carrying lateen sails on more than one mast and trading from Iberia to the Atlantic islands.

Over the next two hundred years, the greatest innovation in ship design was the development of specialized vessel types. Not all were directly related to trade, but warships like the galleon played a role in protecting commercial vessels from pirates, privateers, and enemy raiders. By 1650 the last word in merchantmen was the Dutch flute, characterized by its broad beam, flat bottom, and round stern. This adaptable craft proved a great boon to burgeoning world trade. Cheap to build and needing few men to handle it, the flute could take on half as much cargo again as narrower vessels of similar size. The flute was the workhorse of European trade, carrying the continent's products and people to many parts of the globe. A disadvantage of the flute in high-risk trades was its light armament. The answer came in the form of the large, heavily gunned East Indiaman, the backbone of Anglo-Dutch trade in Asia.

The period from 1650 to the early 1800s was not especially productive in terms of merchant ship design, but important innovations did appear. For example, the ship's wheel was in use by the turn of the eighteenth century, and Sir Robert Seppings's hull design of the Napoleonic period made it possible to build much longer vessels.

Even with such improvements, little might have been accomplished without a similar revolution in navigational techniques. In the thirteenth century both the compass and the modern maritime chart appeared. Using such advances, the first professional navigators like Columbus and Magellan sailed, opening up the world to commerce. In the eighteenth century the problem of finding longitude-a vessel's east-west position was solved, first by the sextant of 1757, but more accurately by John Harrison's marine chronometer. Although modified and improved, these devices remained mariners' primary navigation tools into the twentieth century.

THE 1800s AND 1900s

In the nineteenth century, European and American expansion opened up a truly global economy. Their vessels traded everything from Canadian timber, to Indian cotton, Chilean nitrates, and Australian wool. An array of vessel types, mainly distinguished by their rigging, entered into use. From small schooners, with their triangular fore and aft sails, so useful for coastal trading, to the large ship-rigged vessels, with their great spreads of square sails mounted on as many as four, or five masts. Other vessels, such as brigs and barques normally carried combinations of the two sail types.

The merchant sailing ship reached its peak of development in this period. Prior to the 1840s such craft were still fairly small, normally 500 register tons, or less. The largest wooden sail vessels of the day were the East India-men of up to 1,400 register tons. In the following decades, merchant sail vessels grew larger and generally performed better due to improved rigging and hull designs.

Trades with low-value cargoes did not place a premium on speed, but those that did, such as the Azores-to-London fruit trade, encouraged faster vessels. The ultimate development in speedy sail tonnage was the famous clipper ship, used primarily in the China tea trade. The new world economy also encouraged increased movement of people. Businessmen traveled the oceans promoting their endeavors, and immigrants headed around the globe in search of new opportunities. Sail development climaxed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as iron and steel hulls allowed the construction of the largest sail craft ever seen. By the end of the 1800s, barques and ships with four or more masts, over 3,000 tons and 300 feet long, were operating on the longest trade routes. By this time, however, sail was declining, being replaced by steam-driven vessels. Sail enjoyed a brief revival after World War I, but its age was at an end.

The steam revolution at sea produced two main types of craft by the late nineteenth century. One was the general bulk cargo vessel, constructed first of wood, but soon iron and then steel. Initially these carried auxiliary masts, as if reflecting owners' distrust of the new technology. Adaptable to a wide variety of trades, these workhorse vessels might be large, or small, depending on their use. They could be employed as liners, running on regularly scheduled routes, or as tramps, dispatched to wherever paying cargoes might be found. Like sail craft, the steamers also increased in size, but unlike their rivals, whose optimal size was about 5,000 tons, steamers exceeded this capacity by the 1860s. At first the new vessels could not compete with sail in the longer trades, but improved engine technology and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 meant the era of the steam cargo ship had arrived. Increasingly, the world's seaborne trade was carried by steam-powered, metal-hulled tonnage.

Alongside cargo carriers came the passenger liners whose existence grew out of emigration from Europe to North America and the Antipodes. This movement started modestly with the sail packets of the early 1800s, but led to leviathans like the Queen Mary and the Normandie in the twentieth century. Although based primarily on the passenger trades, they also had large holds for goods transport.

There were numerous technological improvements in this era, including the introduction of turbines and diesel engines, refrigerated meat carriers, oil tankers, and telegraphic communications. Still, with the possible exception of the telegraph, the changes were more of scale than anything revolutionary.

By 1950, cargo was still handled by cranes and derricks, cargo vessels seldom exceeded fourteen knots, and oil tankers had not grown much beyond 10,000 tons. After that date, however, everything began to change. As demand for petrochemicals increased in Europe and North America, sources farther afield, especially in the Middle East, became more important. As the petroleum trade became more globalized, larger and larger tankers evolved, becoming the modern supertankers, often over 200,000 tons. A similar evolution occurred with natural-gas and ore carriers. The large Atlantic liners remained competitive with aircraft until the mid-1950s, but declined precipitously thereafter. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, a revival in the passenger liner could be seen. Vacation cruises had become a favorite with tourists, and more people than ever before were traveling on passenger liners. As for the cargo ship itself, the traditional break-bulk carriers with their derricks and cargo holds, have generally lost out to new forms of vessels, especially the container ship. These vessels—some over 20,000 tons—can handle many times the cargo of traditional carriers, make faster round trips, and need less than half the crew. Containers can be handled vertically, but some vessels allow horizontal loading, resulting in the roll-on/roll-off (Ro-Ro) vessel. A combination of these types, permitting transport of both vehicles and containers, is the multipurpose ship of about 20,000 tons.

Along with the new vessel types have come enormous advances in navigation. The modern mariner is not only guided by the old compass, but can call on the services of radar, satellite-based global positioning systems (GPS), computer-generated charts, VHF wireless, and automated lighthouses. The maritime world of today is as far removed from that of 1900 as that era was from the age of sail. As world trade has expanded and intensified, so have the tools at the seafarer's disposal.

SEE ALSO Cargoes, Freight; Cargoes, Passenger; China; Containerization; Cunard, Samuel; Empire, British; Empire, Dutch; India;Indian Ocean;Mediterranean;Packet Boats;Persian Gulf;Petroleum;Shipbuilding;Shipping, Aids to;Shipping, Coastal;Shipping, Inland Waterways, Europe;Shipping, Inland Waterways, North America;Shipping Lanes;Shipping, Merchant;Shipping, Technological Change;Ships and Shipping;South China Sea;Suez Canal;United Kingdom;United States.


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David J. Clarke