The types of ships in the 18th century

Written by carole simm
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The types of ships in the 18th century
The 18th century was a great era for shipbuilding. (sail ship in London image by thomas owen from

Although man had been building ships and exploring the world for thousands of years previously, the 18th century was the era when ship design and shipbuilding became a scientific process. Ships were in great demand. Naval forces needed fighting ships, pirates were sailing the high seas around the Caribbean, smuggling was rife and this was also a great age of trade and commerce.

Sloops and Cutters

The 18th-century sloop was primarily designed for sailing in estuaries and coastal waters. It had a gaff-rigged mainsail and a triangular foresail. Seagoing sloops also had a topsail, and were rigged with a bowsprit, to which the jib could be attached. Sails were raised and lowered using a halyard, and the ship was steered by a tiller. The skipper's cabin was located under the afterdeck, and the crew's cabin under the foredeck. The clinker hull was designed to allow the maximum possible cargo space. The Bermuda sloop was popular with pirates, since it could sail into narrow coastal passages in order to evade the Royal Navy. In response, the navy commissioned a similar ship, known as a cutter, which they also used for pursuing smugglers along the British coastline.


Frigates were small naval warships, which were mainly used for patrolling, escort duties, carrying messages and scouting, although they did see a lot of action during the Napoleonic Wars. They were square-rigged, with three masts, and were designed to be fast and light. They carried around 28 guns on their upper deck, while the lower deck was used for sleeping and living quarters. The frigate had a long range, since it was able to carry a six-month supply of stores.

Merchant Ships

Merchant ships were custom-made at private shipbuilding yards, so there was a great deal of variety in their design. Many were very ornate with carvings, gilding and large windows. Some had enlarged poop decks for carrying livestock such as sheep and goats. Merchant ships were used by trading companies like the Honourable East India Company for importing exotic items such as spices, porcelain, silks, jade, jewellery and furniture into Europe, in return for gold and silver. Their expensive cargoes made them an obvious target for pirates, so they had to be well armed. From the late 18th century, tea traders used sailing ships known as clippers, which were built for speed, with sleek hulls and square-rigged sails.

The types of ships in the 18th century
Merchant ships were often ornately decorated and comfortably furnished. (Clipper image by __PeTe__ from

Barques, Brigs and Brigantines

These were large sailing vessels, which were at least partially square-rigged. The brig and brigantine each had two masts, while a barque had three or more. These ships were often rigged with numerous small sails, attached to cross beams known as "yards." This had several advantages: Together they created a large sail area for maximum speed, but the smaller sails were easier for the crew to handle. Additionally, damage to a small sail was less disastrous than to a large sail. Brigantines were popular with pirates and privateers because of their speed and maneuverability. They were also used to protect larger, slower warships.

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