Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Ships: Catch Me Who Can
The true revenue cutter was a product of England and her colonies, particularly New England and Nova Scotia. They were fast sailors and generally carried between 10 and 12 guns, sometimes even managing long 9 pounders which could do a deal of damage at a respectable range. Size varied, even in the heyday of the revenue cutter between the start of the American Revolution and the end of the War of 1812. Some of these swift sailers were as large as 250 tons (HMS Ranger, for instance) while others were very light at 75 tons (USS Massachusetts, pictured). General dimensions for a 100 ton cutter were 85 feet length, 24 foot beam and a draft of between six and eleven inches.
Initially used as mail carriers, the era of England’s wars with her colonies, France and the U.S. saw the revenue cutter used for campaigns against piracy and smuggling. Because smuggling ships, particularly in the English Channel but also on the Atlantic coast of the future U.S., were small, fast and weatherly, the ships that chased them had to be just as swift and maneuverable. Since revenue packets could carry a decent armament, they could engage just about any smuggler or pirate they encountered. Their larger crew, made possible by the lack of need for much in the way of provisions, gave them the advantage in boarding and the ability to place prize crews on captured ships without suffering for the loss of hands. Though the compliment of men in a cutter like Massachusetts was only 25 to 30, Ranger carried a crew of up to 100. Revenue cutters did suffer from a lack of ability to pursue too far into open water and generally hugged the coastlines, but this was often true of smuggling vessels as well.
It probably goes without saying that a technological advance in pirate hunting called for a response. Pirates, privateers and smugglers fitted out their vessels with planking, two jibs and small guns, making them faster and more formidable. The use of sailing pirogues in Louisiana and the Carolinas and the birth of the American topsail schooner, one of the fastest ships of its age, were both influenced at least in part by the model revenue cutter.
Eventually revenue cutters came to be used in coast guard service, first in the U.S. and Canada and then virtually around the world. Their fast sailing and armament capacity made them perfect for keeping ocean shores and inland waters safe from predation of all kinds. Small versions of this same design are still favored by sailing enthusiasts as they are generally easy runners and can be handled by a green crew. Unless one hits dirty weather, it is by and large smooth sailing in a sturdy, one masted cutter.
Header: USS Massachusetts via USCG.mil