The ship of the line in the 18th century

The 18th century did not bring any radical change in the large warships, but a multitude of small ones. The rigging was made gradually more efficient, the round stern used by the British was adopted in other navies and in turn the channels, which in the British three-deckers had been placed at the level of the middle gun deck, were raised to the upper gun deck in accordance with the foreign practice. Along the century the beakhead gradually retracted on itself and the quarter galleries narrowed to leave space for extra artillery pieces. From the beginning of the century the simple tiller which actuated on the rudder was gradually replaced by a steering wheel.

The custom of painting in diverse colors the bulwarks of the quarterdeck and sterncastle gradually fell into disuse and around 1780 warships were generally painted with only two colors, usually black and yellow, following a scheme of alternate bands. The ornamentation on the transom was simplified as well over time and the open balconies were less present from the mid century. A certain degree of polychromy remained present in the ornamentation, but the expensive gilding gradually fell into disuse, being replaced by common yellow paint. The shape of the transom evolved along the century but little diversity of styles was seen. During the late century it became the norm a rounded, horseshoe-like shape of bland appearance.

At the beginning of the century the bowsprit was enlarged with a boom for the jib sail, and after not much time the bowsprit top disappeared and its sail was held by the boom itself. In the smaller units, the long mizzen spar was soon replaced by a gaff, but the large vessels kept it during the largest part of the century, as a spare part for replacing an important spar if necessary. In the late century it was common in the smaller units that the spanker sail had a boom and that the sprit sails were replaced by a flying jib, placed on the end of the bowsprit boom and held by a stay associated with a martingale boom, pointing down at the end of the bowsprit. And the tops, which had been of circular shape since the dawn of sail ships, were made rectangular with their fore corners rounded.

Ships of the line of the 18th century

Naval architecture in the 18th century

Ships of the line saw the length/beam ratio of their hulls decreasing over time to improve seaworthiness and gain stability for the artillery platform. For this same purpose the sides of the hull had their inclination accentuated. Naval builders were interested in building longer hulls which could accommodate extra artillery pieces, but the length of the hulls was limited due to their constructive material. Since wood cannot endure as much weight and tension as iron can, large wooden hulls often suffered structural cracks during launching. A solution for this problem was to reduce the width of gun ports and the distance between them. On the other hand, the beam of the hull had a minimum dimension, imposed by the space needed for cargo and the artillery pieces and their recoil.

Keeping freeboard as low as possible was important for stability, so the distance between the diverse gun decks was made really tight, to the point that a tall person could not walk upright along the deck without hitting the beams with the head. On the lower gun deck, height was barely 180 centimeters between the floor and the lower face of the beams, and somewhat lesser in the upper decks. During this century remained the custom of painting the boards of the gun decks and the gun carriages in dark red, a rather oppressive color. The reason of this practice seems to be a mystery; it has been said that it was a way to dissimulate the presence of blood during combat, however the decks themselves were not painted.

The outer timber lining of the hull reached up to four inches in the thickest parts, whereas in the inner side of the ribs it was rather thinner. The spaces between ribs were really short in the overwater hull - of 13 centimeters or even less - to prevent the cannon balls from passing through. At the waterline level, in the orlop deck, the fighting alleys, separated from the rest of the deck by low bulkheads, allowed carpenters and their assistants to freely transit along to seal the holes caused by enemy artillery during combat. Around 1780 the underwater hull covered with copper sheets started to generalize, with the consequent advantages for speed and durability.

The quarterdeck and the forecastle were communicated at level by two gangways running along the sides of the waist, so these three decks became a flush deck only interrupted by the raised poop deck, granting a smoother profile to the hull. In the open space between the gangways and supported by the beams were placed the boats, which were three or four in the largest warships. This open space could be covered with gratings or nets, to protect the deck below against elements which fall from the rigging during combat.

Working facilities on a ship of the line

The hold of the ship contained the diverse cargo, spare parts and the ballast. In this place were stored food, wine, water, spare anchors, anchor cables, munitions, spare parts for the rigging and diverse work materials, among any other imaginable thing. The orlop deck which ran below the gun decks was often not a whole deck, but one divided in separate sections as convenient for the stowage of large loads. The cargo was deposited in the hold through the main hatch, which was placed before the main mast an ran across every deck. After having loaded the ship, the openings would be covered with gratings to allow transit on them.

Powder magazines and cartridge storerooms, located astern at the level of hold and orlop decks, were separated from the rest of the ship by a firewall which could consist of a brick wall or a twin wooden bulkhead filled with sand. In the cartridge storerooms, lanterns were isolated behind glass panels. To avoid fortuitous sparks, in 1769 the Spanish Navy introduced copper recipients for storing gunpowder and from 1783 the magazine rooms were coated with lead sheets. Another safety measures, adopted in British warships, included felt shoes to prevent static electricity and wet strip curtains through which cartridges were delivered.

The bilge pumps, which were placed on the waist deck in older ships - such as naos, gallions and earlier ships of the line -, were commonly placed in the lower gun deck during this century. They were two or four and always placed next to the main mast, at whose bottom leaked water would accumulate. During the service life of the ship, which was not specially long (generally between ten and twenty years in the Spanish Navy), the cesspit had to be ventilated and dried. Just as a curiosity, I will mention that the ship of the line which has the absolute record of service life is the Guerrero (Warrior), commissioned in the Spanish Navy between 1755 and 1850.

A main capstan and other auxiliary capstans were installed on the gun decks. They were used to weigh the anchors and for other maneuvers such as mooring. With about a dozen of long bars attached to its drum a capstan could be operated by a large number of men simultaneously, and sometimes two drums were installed on a common axle to allow the men on two decks to apply force. The axle was made of iron to reduce friction and a ratchet was used to allow rotation in only one direction. Large bitts placed in the fore part of the deck, and strongly attached to the hull structure, were used to secure the cables of the anchors or for mooring.

Just below the forecastle deck was located a humble kitchen provided with an oven and a work table. Its main purpose was to produce bread and cookies for a crew which was as large as 900 persons or even more. In those times and circumstances prepared dishes were more the exception than the norm. The copious production of dry aliments was stored in the pantry on the orlop deck, from which it was distributed to the crew.

Blueprints of a three-deck ship of the line from the mid 18th century

Accommodation on a ship of the line

Life conditions on a ship of the line were far from pleasant regarding any imaginable aspect, and privacy was inexistent except for a small minority of crew members. Nearly a thousand of persons had to spend months crowded inside a hull which was not longer than that of a modern corvette. The Santísima Trinidad, the only four-deck ship of the line built during the 18th century, was called "The Escorial of the Seas", but for the almost 1200 persons onboard she was far from being a palace.

The largest part of the crew had to sleep in hanging hammocks throughout the gun decks. Even if they were many hundreds of persons there was space for everyone because they slept literally stowed. On the other hand, the officers reserved their own space in the aft part of the gun decks. The separation between spaces could be a mere curtain or timber bulkheads. Common officers had to share their space with other colleagues while veteran officers, accommodated beneath the poop deck, had the privilege of sleeping in privacy.

The aft chambers, where the commander and high officers reunited during the day to discuss their matters and spend time, were enlivened with pleasant colors and ornamentations. The best cabins, adjacent to the aft chambers, were reserved for the captain or other very important persons. These rooms had no artillery pieces taking their space and they could have the benefit of a small window. But the most notorious luxury that the important people onboard could enjoy were the quarter galleries, where they could use toilets in privacy, while the rest of the crew had to use the toilets in the beak, exposed to the sight of everyone.

In the tight conditions imposed by these ships, the privacy and comfort astern relied in a number of bulwarks. Before entering into battle, these prefabricated elements would be removed to clear the gun decks and stored on the hold of the ship, because they were potential sources of deadly wooden chips, which were the main cause of death during battle. After this one, the carpenters would have to reconstruct the whole ensemble again.

Blueprints of the four-deck ship of the line Santísima Trinidad

~ Anatomy of the ship of the line (II) ~

~ Return to Antique Ships ~