Collingwood Society – The Boats that Collingwood knew

December’s Collingwood Society talk looked at ships’ boats and the uses they were put to – a very interesting talk, and I’ll have to keep my notes to hand in the future to help figure out what Jack Aubrey is up to!

The introduction to the talk was a bit of context, showing that both Collingwood and Nelson owed their first promotions to skill with small boats – Collingwood at the battle of Bunker Hill, organising the boats which supplied the troops and brought out the wounded, and Nelson in using a boat to go aboard a prize which his first lieutenant had though could not be taken.

After that, there was an overview of the types and uses of boats – the main three boats, the launch, cutter and gig, survived into Victorian times, although the allocation of these boats to individual ships varied with time and the preferences of captains.

The boats were used in several way – for basic logistical manoeuvres such as laying out anchors, towing the ship, and transporting crew and stores; in attack and defense for cutting out ships, patrolling, and transporting troops for amphibious operations; and for a variety of specific uses – communications between ships, lifesaving, and for exploration and surveying, another useful route to promotion.

The launch was about the size of a single decker bus, and was a versatile boat – the largest and most practical of the boats usually used. It could be rigged, but was usually rowed, and like the cutter was rowed double banked – with two rowers sitting side by side.

The cutter was a later development of the barge, and its smaller relation the pinnace – higher status boats, longer and narrower than the launch.

Cutters were traditionally clinker built – with overlapping planks – although the naval dockyards began to turn out carvel built cutters with planks laid edge to edge. These were more seaworthy boats than the earlier barges, with higher sides and oarports instead of thole pins – cutters usually had six oars, but smaller four oar cutters were known as jollyboats.

The gig was a later development than the others – very narrow, fast, and with a round bottom to make it easier to row – unlike the other types, it was rowed single banked, with the oarsmen sitting in single file and the oars alternately to either side. This was the captain’s private boat, and some captains would have boats – or costumes for the oarsmen – to their own design.

Several standout examples of the uses of boats were mentioned during the talk – the use of boats to bring in troops at Quebec in 1759, the survival of the crew and passengers of the mail packet Lady Hobart in the ships’s boats for eight days after the ship was wrecked, and of course Bligh’s famous 3000 mile journey in Bounty‘s launch, as well as a sadder story, of the wreck of HMS Guardian on an iceberg in 1789, where those who stayed with the ship eventually came safely to land, while almost all of those who left in the boats were lost (a story which seems to be the seed of Desolation Island, although I don’t remember coming across it before).

Only one ship’s boat from the period survives, and it is French – found in Bantry Bay after the abortive French landing in Ireland in December 1796 in support of the United Irishmen, and kept in a boathouse there for nearly 200 years. Eventually it was given to the national museum, and then to the new Maritime Museum, and has recently undergone a lot of conservation work, although the original structure is basically intact.

The boat probably came from the fleet’s flagship and served as the admiral’s barge – it had been originally built as a rowing boat, but later adapted for rigging. More than 70 replicas have now been built by youth groups from an assortment of countries, and the boats are used for races and gatherings.

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