Monday, February 28, 2011

Ships: The Faithful Snow

Certain ships during the great age of sail tended to lend themselves to only one specific task: the man-of-war, the bomb ketch, the coal barge. Their names even tell you what they are up to. But today’s ship, the origin of whose name is anyone’s guess, could just about do it all. The snow worked hard in the merchant service for more than four hundred years beginning in the 16th century with the last of her kind retiring in 1909. But her talents were such that she found herself working for more than one master.

By the 18th century the general type of the snow had been perfected. She was a two-masted brig-type ship, usually of no more than 1,000 tons. Her hold was not remarkably large but, if her cargo was stowed correctly, she could carry a lot of merchandise and deliver it quickly. Merchants also favored her for her economy; she could be manned by a very sparse crew of as few as 35 hands. Her speed and ease of handling was due in large part to her slim lines, relatively shallow draft (about 10 feet) and the unusual set of her masts and sails.

The snow carried square rigging on both of her masts with a trysail on her main. Originally this last was loose-footed but around 1800 the trysail was routinely fitted with a boom at the bottom, allowing for a larger sail and more speed. Another unique feature of the snow was the bracings of her mainmast. These were led forward and made fast to her foremast rather than backward as in most brigs. Finally, and perhaps most unique of all, the snow had a smaller third mast which became known as a “snow mast”.

This mast, also called a trysail mast, can be seen in the picture at the header. It rose only to the maintop and was blocked and bolted there. The trysail would be the only sail carried by this “mini-mast”. In some cases, particularly later in the snow’s history, the snow mast would be replaced by a jackstay on the mainmast. This was often the case when the snow found herself in the service of the navy.

This ship was popular with the French Navy, coming into service during the Revolution and continuing through the Napoleonic Wars. The Royal Navy made good use of the snow, as did the U.S. Navy, but she was especially loved by the French on both sides of the Atlantic who called her a corvette. This is a good place to note that the snow’s speed also made her a favorite of pirates and privateers. In the Gulf of Mexico during the early 19th century she would often be rerigged to resemble a hermaphrodite brig. The Laffite brothers’ ships Dos Hermanos and Dorada as well as Renato Beluche’s La Popa and Dominique Youx’s Tigre were probably all originally merchant snows.

As with most sailing vessels, rebuilt snows – or corvettes – can be found to this day. They handle remarkably well and are a joy to sail. If you ever get the chance to take a cruise on one, don’t hesitate. You’ll find it a delightful experience.

Header: Thane of Fife, a snow in Royal Navy service c 1810


Le Loup said...

An interesting post & a good looking ship.
35 hands? How many hands required for a tall ship?

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

@captainswallow turned us onto yous @Twitter.
That is one of the best post I've ever read about a tall ship.
We hung you on the Ladder, and onto our list of Stitch'hikas.
Get yerself back home to Nola! I just got your mascot tattooed onto my right bicep.
I mean, Get Down! Get Back Up Again!

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Interesting. I had heard of the corvette, but had not heard of the term snow before... The picture definitely helps to understand its' unique features. I'm guessing that because of it's speed, this was probably the inspiration for the corvette sports car too...

Pauline said...

Ahoy one and all and thankee for stopping by!

Le Loup: 35 was essentially the type of "skeleton crew" that merchant ship owners liked for keeping costs down. 75 to 100 would have been the starting muster if she were running as a pirate or privateer. A three mast frigate would require at least 150 and more like 200 men for an average cruise while a large man-of-war might muster as many as 800.

Editilla: Thankee indeed mon ami! I'm honored. And I hope to return home sooner than later. I hope to see your pelican tattoo then as well. Come by anytime and leave me a thought or two.

Timmy: There is a specific French ship also known as a corvette that is smaller than this and was usually used as a mail packet or tender which was indeed the origin of the car's name. Good call!

Cliff said...

Thanks for posting this. My ancestor came to America in 1753 on a ship called Snow Rowan. I'm thinking the type of ship was Snow. Do you know how many passengers would fit in one of these ships and how it would fare in a trans-atlantic voyage?

Pauline said...

Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. It is very possible that your ancestor made it to America in a snow. The ship is essentially a brig with just a few rigging differences and usually displaced between 80 and 150 tons. A snow could probably carry up to 200 people - not comfortably of course but it was not uncommon for pirates and privateers in particular to carry a large crew.j As a passenger vessel, it would generally carry fewer people; perhaps a crew of 70 or so with 50 to 60 passengers.

Robert Hammitt said...

Out of curiosity, do you know why snows were built, instead of just flying the trysail from the mainmast, as a standard brig? Were there advantages of performance, or were they easier/cheaper to build or maintain?