The Unusual Tale of the Professional Pirates’ Adventure in Search for the Answer….
Chapter One – Rum
This tale starts, like all good stories, in an ale house in the port of Lymington.
This fine seaport is to be found in the middle of the smuggling territory of Hampshire. The year is 2008 and the Hunter clan are noisily discussing sailing, and something that is called live action role play. The rain is pelting against the windows and the fire is roaring in the grate. The beer is making its’ mark and talk turns to the building of period warships because ‘they would be fun to sail’. Perhaps an eighteenth century Frigate would be about the right size? The evening draws on and the darkness settles in….
A while later and in a more sober setting the Frigate discussion erupts once more. “We really should build not one Frigate, but two because then we could compete, one ship against the other. Oh and wouldn’t it be great if the ships actually had working armaments in some form?” It quickly becomes a chat about specifics, and then eventually turns to a discussion about actually having a go ‘because it would be awesome’. (we agree that we can’t really have live fire as someone might get hurt although it would be amazing if the canon fired something!). We agree to see how we might make it become a reality.
Well, building one 18th century Frigate would be a monumental task, let alone two! In addition the number of crew required to simply operate the ship is clearly impractical, the costs outlandish and it would require a large organisation to deliver even one ship let alone operate two! So we let the idea take its natural course and founder on the rocks of doom.
Time staggers on and the wreckage of the Frigate floats by.
That idea of a pair of historic warships once more becomes the topic of an ale house discussion.
This time, having already spent a bit of time looking through historic records from the 18th Century, we start to discuss some information found in Howard I Chapelle’s “The search for speed under sail” for the period 1700 to 1760. It would appear that the English Cutter, which was already well developed before 1727 had caught the eye of the Admiralty having originated as a smuggling vessel. ‘The form is relatively short and broad, with little drag to the keel or rake in the ends. They were sharp ended for their displacement, and very heavily sparred and ballasted. For example, a cutter of 43 ft length on deck , built in 1758, had a 66 ft mast and topmast, a 42 ft boom and a 43 ft bowsprit. Cutters were built by the Admiralty from 1764.’
Well, we all agreed, that is a bit more like it. Small enough to be manageable by few crew, handy enough to be able to get into small ports, estuaries and creeks around the coast and possibly affordable. They would also fit the criteria of being fast with an interesting sailplan, armed and with enough deck space to host a lively crew. Time to start to look into this in a bit more (sober) detail. A glimmer of light on the distant horizon. Its either the dawn of a new venture or an idea in flames. (Is that smoke?)
A bit more digging into the past.
We are now looking for small fast sailing vessels from the middle of the 18th century as the basis ship. This places the time frame in the ‘golden age’ of sail and also the age of Piracy. So we are looking for an armed Sloop or English Cutter in the employ of the Navy/Revenue/Smugglers. So started the search through the historical records for smaller vessels.
It appears that from the mid century the Admiralty acquired several small single masted vessels that were rated as ‘cutters’ to be used in coastal operations. This was largely to attempt to challenge the rampant smuggling and also to find and take the many privateers operating in the region. During the period that we have chosen, the year that the largest number of vessels acquired was 1763 when some thirty existing mercantile cutters were purchased. It seemed likely that some of these had already been in service with the Navy Board and these appear to have kept their previous names.
One of these vessels was the Sherbourne, the build of which was commissioned in June 1763 and the contract placed in Woolwich. She was to the form of a purchased cutter Pitt designed by Thomas Slade. She was some 54ft 7in carried six 3 lb Guns and eight swivels. The crew consisted of some 30 men and her build cost was some £1,581 8 shillings and 9d including fitting. She fits the criteria, there is enough data to be able to replicate the vessel and she was in the service of the Revenue, but after a bit of deliberation we decided that she would be too big for our purposes although a very handsome ship!
What we were looking for was a cutter of around the 40 ft mark. So we paid a visit to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to see what drawings they might have for the smaller cutters from this year. It would seem that the winds of chance were on our side and that they did indeed have some original drawings…………..
Alastair (Sir Francis Drake) Hunter