The little ship that could – be a mail packet, a revenue runner, a privateer or a smuggler, that is – was known to the French as a chasse-marée and to the British as a lugger. Chasse-marée (chaz mar-AY) translates as tide chaser and the ships were originally developed in the 16th century as coastal fishing vessels. Used initially around the coasts of France (and possibly developed in my paternal ancestral home, Bordeaux and Gascony), the ships caught on in other coastal countries like Holland and England. By the early 18th century, they were ubiquitous to the English Channel.
Chasse-marées (or, as the French derogatorily referred to the British version, lougres) were smallish, three-masted vessels square rigged on fore and main with a Mediterranean style lateen rig on the mizzen mast. Though the rigging was effective for the slow work of fishing, it would not do as the vessels evolved into privateers with the almost constant wars going on among European nations heading into the 18th century. The rigging evolved along with the chasse-marée’s duties and the lateen sail on the mizzen was replace by what is known as a lug sail (thus the name lugger). This type of sail, which resembled the more common gaff sail, allowed for ease of handling that the lateen sail did not. In fact, by the end of the 18th century the chasse-marée developed a short spar extending directly over the stern that carried a block. The lug sail’s sheet was carried inboard through the block and the mizzen was stepped very close to the stern. With this rig the chasse-marée could virtually turn on that proverbial dime.
Always a small ship, the general dimensions for a chasse-marée were comparable to a sloop of the same era. The length averaged about 75 feet, beam width at about 20 and tonnage just above 100. The draft of the ship was necessarily shallow, about 3 to 4 feet, and she was often packed to capacity with men when sailing as a privateer. The French in particular, during the Napoleonic Wars, would cram 50 or 60 men onto these little ships and then set prize crews aboard ships they took. Documents from the era show privateering chasse-marées leaving ports like Dunkirk and Saint-Malo with 55 men and returning with only 20.
It was during the Revolutionary War era that the British began to toy with their luggers’ rigging. They drastically raked the masts, pulling them backward to improve the weatherliness of their ships, and then added huge sails to afford all possible wind and speed. The French caught on and, finally taking one of these British luggers as a prize, began to pattern their own chasse-marées on their enemy’s version. The first such built for French naval service as a mail packet and tender, L’Espiegle (which means The Mischievous One), was based on the plans of a British lugger.
The chasse-marée was adopted and manipulated by the 19th century privateers of the New World, finally becoming the hermaphrodite brig. Slightly larger than her Old World cousins, and shipping just two masts, she was perfectly suited to the conditions of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean and she too was frequently jammed with men going out and surprisingly sparse on crew coming in. Unlike the chasse-marée, however, the hermaphrodite brig could carry a relatively large compliment of guns and was therefore also favored by the emerging navies of Argentina, Chile and Bolivar’s Grand Columbia.
Modern forms of the historical chasse-marée have become more like racing schooners and are popular with yachtsmen around the world. The traditional ship, with her long bowsprit and unusual lug spar at the stern, is more handsome to my eye. But then, I’m a sucker for history, particularly at sea.
Header: Revenue Cruiser Chasing a Smuggling Lugger by Charles Dixon