Thursday, April 12, 2012

Tools of the Trade: Rates and Classes

The navy of England may be divided into three sorts, of which the one serveth for the wars, the other for burthen, and the third for fishermen which get their lyving from fishing on the sea. ~ William Harrison, English topographer and canon of Windsor writing in 1587

Separating out ships in the service by class has been undertaken since ancient times. The Minoans classed their vessels basically as military, non-military and pirate (a telling point there). The Romans had three classes as well: naves longae (warships), naves onerariae (merchant vessels) and naves liburnae (pleasure yachts). It wasn’t until the Great Age of Sail, however, that the breakdown of classifications became more intricate.

The system of rating ships, which anyone familiar with nautical literature has doubtless encountered, began in the Royal Navy of the Georgian era, or just before. In this system ships were assigned a “rate” based on the number of guns they could carry on average. Thus the following list:

First Rate: a ship-of-the-line carrying 100 or more guns
Second Rate: the same carrying 90 to 98 guns
Third Rate: the same carrying 64 to 80 guns
Fourth Rate: a frigate carrying 50 to 60 guns
Fifth Rate: the same carrying 32 to 40 guns
Sixth Rate: the same carrying 20 to 28 guns
Sloop: a two masted vessel carrying 16 to 18 guns
Cutter: a one or two masted vessel carrying up to 14 guns

It should be remembered that any given ship carried an even number of guns, but even with this in mind, things could get muddled pretty fast. A sloop of war might carry twenty guns, bumping her technically up into the Sixth Rate category. Likewise, a sturdy frigate might bare 66 guns and join the Third Rates. As the mid-19th century approached it became clear that the old rating system established by the Royal Navy was no longer complete much less workable.

In 1858 the U.S. Congress passed an act to define ships in the navy by classes, a system that in some ways harkened back to ancient times. The classes identified a ship by her profession rather than her fire power. Thus ships could be broken out into groups that were then defined even more. Combat ships, fleet support, patrol ships and supply ships all got initials behind their names such as FF for frigate and PC for coastal patrol. A much more involved version of these classifications continues in use today; find a full list here at the U.S. Navy website.

The more things change, of course, the more they stay the same. A CVN, or nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, is still the daughter of a First Rate ship-of-the-line and the granddaughter of the Roman naves longae. It just takes a lot more sturdy hands to run her.

Header: U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Eagle by John M. Barber (click to enlarge to enjoy all the incredible detail of this painting commissioned for the 2012 Tall Ship festival)


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That is a lot of acronyms and designations in the U.S. Navy website. I like that Old Ironsides is designated as an "Environmental Research Ship".

That is an awesome painting, too.

Pauline said...

It is a long list but, you know, sailors love to classify things. Even Old Ironsides herself :)

And yay; that painting is just breathtaking.

DaleBurr said...

I'm sorry, you have touched on one of my pet peeves of 19th century ship classification - the Sloop of War. From all I have read a sloop as three square rigged masts, but unlike a frigate has no covered gun deck. Admittedly I have concentrated most of my research on U.S Navy, but as I recall in the Hornblower books both Hotspur and Atrops both had a mizzen mast. I have always seen 2 masted vessels as described as Brig or Schooner, even the large British Cruizer class with 18 guns.

The Naval-Text book;

Page 203 clearly stations men on the mizzen mast for all 3 classes of sloops.

I do not see numbered classes in U.S Navy before 1864, before then they are classed as Ship of the Line, Razee, Frigate, Sloop, Brig or schooner, although there are numbered rating within most of the classes.

An other interesting aside I have seen several 19th references to "Sloop Boats" either open or with a cuddy cabin, similar to our modern conception of sloop, with a single mast and fore and aft rig.

I recently saw a special of one of the history channels about Pirates sailing on their "Sloops" with all the vessels shown Cutter rigged with a single mast!

Sorry to rave, but you have hit a nerve. Sailing vessel classification has been a passion of mine for many years. I do enjoy your blog and the paining is great.


Pauline said...

Actually, Dale, you've caught me in what probably sends you off on a rant in the first place: over-simplification. Thank you for adding clarity to the issue and right you are. A sloop-of-war can easily be a three masted vessel without a proper gun deck.

In fact, as you note, the line between frigate, brig/barque, brigantine/barquentine, hermaphrodite brig, sloop, gun sloop, schooner, gun boat and even in some cases pirogue or periauger can be easily crossed one way or another, historically speaking. I think that may be one of the many reasons that the U.S. Navy became so thorough in their cassifications.

Well said, and documented, all around.