The Eighteenth Century

We have now reached the eighteenth century, and, before giving some notes on the development of rigs which took place, it may be thought advisable to give some details of the royal yachts belonging to the period.

Some of them lived to almost fabulous ages, thanks to the radical way in which ‘rebuilding’ was carried out, and one, the Princess Mary, which was not built in England, and is not in Charnock’s list, is stated to have broken all records for age. She came over with William III. in 1688. She was sold out of the service in or about 1750, and became a trader, being renamed Betsy Cairns; in the nineteenth century she was still running, having by then become a collier, of course brig-rigged, and the disclosure of her history suggested the clever couplet –

‘Behold the fate of sublunary things;
She exports coal, that once imported Kings.’

In 1827 she was lost at the mouth of the Tyne, being then 8o feet 3 inches long, 23 feet beam, 6 feet 6 inches high between decks, and carvel-built. Though it is possible that she was rebuilt, there is no record of the fact. The William and Mary also lasted into the nineteenth century, but she is known to have been rebuilt.

The list, which is taken from Charnock, is not quite complete for the end of the period, for it does not include such craft as the Royal Sovereign or the still later Royal George. Such vessels, however, are of very little interest to this inquiry; indeed, none of the yachts on the list were used as Charles II. would have loved to use them. They carried royalty or ambassadors as occasion arose; but they did little that could strictly be classed as pleasure-sailing. On one of the rare occasions when George III. took his pleasure afloat, in the summer of 1791, the Juno frigate was chosen to serve as a yacht, and took the Royal Family on board daily. The programme was always the same, to cruise about Portland Roads, and to land the royal passengers in the evening. The King, Queen, and Princesses enjoyed themselves on board, as we are told by Byam Martin, who was an officer in the Juno, but Captain Hood, com­manding the ship, found himself saddled with the heavy expense of their entertainment, amounting in six weeks to £700. ‘It was a shameful omission on the part of the Admiralty,’ wrote Byam Martin, ‘not to provide against so serious a loss. In after-times the yachts were very properly brought into use on such occasions, and all expenses defrayed by the Board of Green Cloth.’

Table viii.pdf (For the table, please access the .pdf version of this chapter)

It will be noticed that the size of the yachts has grown con­siderably since Charles II.’s time, and with the growth in size came a change in rig. The smaller yachts were still rigged in smack fashion – that is, with a gaff mainsail without a boom, two head-sails, and a square topsail; but from the very beginning of the century the larger yachts were rigged as ketches. The old ketch rig would seem sufficiently appalling to a modern yachtsman, both in appearance and in handiness. The readiest way of describing it is as a full-rigged ship with the foremast taken out. Thus the mainmast was amidships, and, as the bowsprit was steeved up in the orthodox old-fashioned way, the luff of the jib was nearly horizontal. The only fore and aft sails were a microscopic mizen – the mizen topsail being square – and the headsails. The fore and aft sail on the mainmast came very much later. It seems strange that such odd-looking crafts could sail, but we have every reason to believe that they could. The last of them endured till well into the nineteenth century. From the middle of the century onwards till the introduction of steam the royal yachts were full­-ship-rigged, and therefore less interesting to us here.

A French writer at the beginning of the eighteenth century, in a book compiled chiefly from Dutch authors, referred to yachts as ‘small vessels which the English use for pleasure and for war. They are also much used in Holland.’ He gives dimensions of the Dutch yachts, which were much smaller than those in the English table, and he mentions no yachts belonging to other nations.

In 1750 yachts were defined as having ‘one mast with a half­spreet or smack sail, and sometimes ketch fashion.’ This was true only until the ship rig for the larger yachts came in, as it seems to have done while Blanckley’s fingers still held the pen. The ketch rig, however, continued to hold its own for smaller craft, as is clear from Falconer and many other writers of the second half of the century. The best account of yachts at the time of the American War comes, naturally enough, from a French writer, for throughout the eighteenth century it will uniformly be found that in all that belonged to the shipbuilder’s art the French experts bore the palm, just as the Dutch did in the seventeenth century. Yachts, then, according to Lescallier, are an English type. They are usually very light, and are used for short passages or cruises. Their dis­tinctive rig comprises a mainmast, a mizen, and a bowsprit, with the same sails as a ketch; then the sole difference between a yacht and a ketch is that the former is decorated, very lightly rigged, built for speed, with good accommodation, and that the ketch, on the other hand, is built for trade.. The Lords of the Admiralty, etc., and many private persons of good fortune, even such as have no connection with the navy, have yachts of from 60 to 8o tons, in which during the fine weather they cruise on their coast, cross to France, to Holland, and sometimes even to Lisbon and Cadiz.

The royal yachts have three masts and the same sails as a ship, but their masts and spars are very slender – as few blocks are used as possible; they are rigged very handily, and as lightly as can be. Sometimes men-of-war make the mistake of copying this style of running gear. He then runs off into a description of the carving and gilding on the royal yachts, into the details of which we need not follow him.

As far as rigs are concerned, the interest of the eighteenth century lies, not in those vessels which were officially styled yachts, whose development, as we have seen, proceeded along sufficiently obvious lines, but in the rise to favour of new types. It is customary to speak of the schooner, the lugger, the cutter, and possibly the sloop, as having been introduced at this time; and it seems hitherto to have escaped notice that in this instance, as in most cases, tradition is probably wrong. To begin, then, by quoting the tradition. In 1713 the first schooner was built by Andrew Robinson at Gloucester, Massachusetts; up to the time of her launch her constructor had not made up his mind what to call her, but as she took the water a bystander cried: ‘Look how she scoons !’ Robinson caught at the suggestion and said: ‘A schooner let her be.’ The present writer must confess that, long before he had occasion to inquire into the truth of this fable, its inherent improbability repelled him. The entry of the cutter into England was, as we are told, less dramatic. The type existed in France, and in 1761 a cutter taken from the French was bought into the Royal Navy as the Swift. She was the first vessel of that class to appear in England. Similarly, the first English lugger was La Gloire, taken from the French in 1781.

It would be satisfactory to make sure of the origin and deriva­tion of the word ‘schooner.’ On the face of it it looks Dutch; but hitherto no one seems to have traced any early Dutch use of the word. That, however, is no valid argument against the prior existence of the thing, as we have already seen in the case of the sprit, the gaff, and other nautical developments. It would, in fact, probably be nearly correct to say that the mere existence of a widely recognised name for a thing is proof that the thing itself has for long existed. We know that early in the eighteenth century the name ‘schooner’ became common. It was in general use throughout the American continents, from beyond Cape Horn to the New England States, by 1740, and it was well known in England, as the lists of shipping in the Gentleman’s Magazine prove. Even from such evidence it would be reasonable to infer that the rig, as distinct from the name, was older than 1713, but it would not be fair to assume this as a fact without concrete testimony. Fortunately, such testimony exists.

It will perhaps be universally agreed that the full schooner rig implies two gaff sails, the after sail not being smaller than the fore, and a headsail set on a bowsprit. There are many variants of the rig, and there always have been variants; but the description suggested includes all the essentials of a schooner. On the other hand, it would hardly be admissible to speak of a craft without headsails as a schooner, though, in tracing the evolution of the type, it is fair to speak of her as an embryonic schooner if she fulfils the other requirements. We know from illustrations of 1630 and thereabouts that small craft rigged with two gaff and boom sails, the main stepped nearly amidships and the fore almost on the stem head, and with no bowsprit or headsails, were fairly common in Dutch waters. Strangely, however, the type seems to have died out. It is possible that Petty’s first catamaran had some such rig; she certainly had two pole-masts, placed as in a schooner, and a bowsprit; but it is not until 1697 that we meet with an undoubted schooner, though long boats with two fore and aft sails were common in the seventeenth as in the eighteenth century. The plate that establishes the fact that the rig was not invented at Gloucester in 1713 is by an English engraver, J. Kip. It will be found in vol. i of the ‘Nouveau Théâtre de la Grande Bretagne’; it is dated 1697, and it shows a fully developed schooner, as defined above, sailing on the Thames. An Englishman may draw such satisfaction as he can from this fact. It certainly proves that the rig was not turned out ready-made in America sixteen years later; but it does not completely solve the riddle as to who first added the essential headsail. Certainty in such a matter is, however, almost impossible of attainment, and, until definite evidence to the contrary is produced, it is allowable to claim the rig as English. That the name sounds Dutch need not weaken the English claim to have invented the rig.

But it is clear that the schooner was not a popular rig in England until towards the close of the eighteenth century. As late as 1777, Lescallier spoke of the rig as characteristically American, and we know that schooners, as well as sloops, swarmed in American waters at an early date. They were of all sizes – small craft without topsails, large vessels of some 200 tons with a square topsail on each mast. The day of the fore and aft topsail had not yet dawned; but even without it the rig proved advantageous for sailing with side winds, as in the trades of the West Indies. The same natural cause has of late years brought about the abnormal development of American schooners, producing five, six, and even seven masted craft, such as would be most undesirable in European waters.

Little need be said about the sloops. The term, to be sure, is one that admits of much confusion, a definition, or rather descrip­tion, of it as late as 1750 saying that ‘Sloops are sailed and masted as men’s fancies lead them, sometimes with one mast, some­times with two, and with three, with Bermudoes, Shoulder of Mutton, Square, Lugg, and Smack sails; they are in figure either square or round sterned. This includes in reality all small craft not otherwise named; and though it is undoubtedly true that a cutter-rigged vessel with a standing bowsprit and a jib stay – a type common both in England and America in the early eighteenth century – would be called a sloop, yet it must be remembered that the contemporary use of the term ‘sloop’ by no means necessarily implied a vessel of this class. It might imply a man-of-war sloop, which would be ship, snow, or brig rigged, and it might mean also what we would now call a cutter.

However, there is no doubt that the rig of gaff and boom main­sail, with two headsails, dates back to the seventeenth century. To go no further back, it will be remembered that Roger North’s boat had these sails. The point now is to distinguish between the sloop and the cutter before 1761, and to account for the introduction of the term ‘cutter’ as applied to this type in that year. It is easy to be overprecise. Nowadays, of course, the characteristics of each type are cut and dried; but 200, or even 100, years ago men thought less of what was the exact name to be given to any particular ship or boat. The confusion as to the meaning of sloop has been referred to. Yawl is another term of varying meaning; cutter to this day is another; and an extreme instance will be found in the term ‘lugger,’ which includes everything intermediate between the three-masted topsail fishing craft of Calais and Dunkirk and the gunter lug sharpies of the Upper Thames.

But although the early differentiation between cutters and sloops seems of small moment, it is at least certain that the cutter, in the most orthodox modern sense, existed before the name figured on the Navy List. It would seem from illustrations that even Charles II.’s yachts had at least some of the necessary character­istics. They were not sloops by our modern definition, for they had no jib stays; they were not cutters, for they had no boom, and they had, in all probability, fixed bowsprits. Roger North’s boat went nearer, for she had a boom. If she had a running bowsprit she was certainly a cutter. But, unfortunately, the owner did not think that such a point was worthy of notice, and we shall never know. The presumption, however, is that she had a standing bowsprit, for it is natural to suppose that the reeving bowsprit was copied from the jibboom of great ships. And we know that it was only in the first few years of the eighteenth century that the jibboom began to displace the spritsail topmast in great ships. In this connection it may be mentioned that the horizontal cut jib first appears in a great ship of 1720. In this year, too, we find that the boats of the Cork Water Club set their jibs flying and had booms; but their bowsprits were steeved, and may therefore be decided to have been fixed. The type reached very near to the cutter ideal, but did not quite attain it. After this date we might expect to find running bowsprits on the lines of the ship’s jibboom – fishermen often call a running bowsprit a jibboom to this day – and, in fact, we do find them so fitted. The tilt-boats of the Lower Thames in the middle of the century were undoubtedly cutter-rigged vessels in every particular.

What, then, is the meaning of the introduction of the name ‘cutter’ in 1761? Probably that the confusion of the term ‘sloop’ had come to be recognised. It had recently been complicated by the introduction of the rating of ships below the size of frigates as sloops in the Royal Navy, and it was therefore impossible to continue to describe miscellaneous small craft as sloops, still less to give the name to one distinctive rig. But the cutter-rigged vessel had developed rapidly at this time, the earliest of those on the Navy List being almost identical in length, beam, and tonnage with the large yachts of Charles II.’s reign. Its characteristics were sufficiently marked to allow it to be regarded as a standard type, and a type consequently it became in virtue of its official baptism at the hands of the Navy Board. But the baptism did not create the type, any more than the ceremony at the font creates the child, or the naming function builds the battleship. The cutter existed in an unrecognised form for an unknown number of years before 1761. From this date, however, the modern meaning of the term begins. A cutter was a one-masted vessel with a gaff and boom mainsail, a forestay-sail, a jib set flying, and a running bowsprit. The Navy cutters, and all cutters of any size, had also a topsail or a topsail and a topgallant, but these were almost invariably square sails until well into the nineteenth century. The fore and aft top­sail was seemingly never used instead of a square topsail in the eighteenth century; but it was on rare occasions set as a save-all in addition to the square topsail after about 1770. The gaff topsail, for practical purposes, may almost be regarded as the invention of the great yachting clubs. They inherited the germ of it, to be sure, but its development was undoubtedly due to the rise of yacht-racing in the nineteenth century. The old cutters, it may be added, knew not the spinnaker. For running they set a square sail flying, as a topsail schooner does to-day; they also used studding sails, and occasionally royals. A case is known of a cutter in the Mediterranean during the great wars setting not only royal, but royal studding sails, skysail, and moonraker. Such a rig would excite merriment in the Solent in 1907, but a hundred years ago it was not flagrantly abnormal.

The only remaining fore and aft rig is the lugger, but happily the lug rig has never been popular for yachts. It is therefore un­necessary to examine carefully into its origin, which is fortunate, for of all rigs it presents the most insuperable difficulties. The name dates back only to the middle of the eighteenth century, when it seemingly did not necessarily imply what we call a lugsail. Some bold men have spoken of the ships of the Vikings as lug-rigged – a contention which it would be hard to support. Some have supposed that the thing came in with the name in the eighteenth century – a quite unjustifiable assumption. The fact would seem to be that the origin is hidden in the darkness of the Middle Ages; there is an undoubted lugsail in Wagenaer, and there are others among Kip’s engravings of about 1700, but what names they, or the ships that carried them, bore in the mouths of the men of those dates remains at present undetermined.

We have seen that the official adoption of the cutter type, which had existed hitherto without a separate name, coincided with the determination to build no more ‘yachts’ of the old rig, and that this took place in 1761. It may perhaps be of interest to point out that one of the best-known of nautical novels – Captain Marryat’s ‘Snarleyow’ – is certainly responsible for some of the misapprehension which has existed concerning the antiquity of the cutter type. Among other anachronisms, Mr. Vanslyperken was made to carry on his nefarious practices in a cutter in 1690. Marryat was no student of antiquities, or he would have put his villainous hero in command of a yacht, not of a cutter, and would have avoided other similar steps, the detection of which gladdens the hearts of the hypercritical. Before proceeding to explain the meaning of this rise to favour of the cutter, it will be apposite to trace the development of the centre-board, which, though it has never become popular in this country, save for small pleasure-craft, was introduced in the hope that it would do much to improve the sailing of all types of vessels.

The idea seems to have slumbered for more than 100 years, from the time when the Royal Society was asked to consider ‘a versatile keel’; and the earliest centre-board constructed was not ‘versatile,’ but corresponded far more nearly to William Bourne’s ‘devise,’ of which an account has been given. In 1774 a boat with one long lowering keel was built for Lord Pery at Boston; but the hoisting of so great a weight was clumsy, and we may suppose it to have been very liable to jam, for it was not repeated, and when, fifteen years later, a centre-board cutter was constructed for the Navy, it was decided to give her, not one, but three keels, similar to those which were used in Commodore Taylor’s small yacht Cumberland. The Cumberland had five, but the Navy cutter, which was named the Trial, had three, of the type that we should now call dagger plates. There was a small one aft for running, as in some modern lifeboats, there was a large one amidships, and another small one forward. Thus fitted, the Trial sailed against other cutters of the Royal Navy in 1790, and easily beat them all on every point of sailing. When on a wind all the keels were kept down, the after-keel was used in wearing, and the forward one was found of much service in tacking. But centre-boards of this type never came into common use, though they were fitted seven years later to a brig, the Lady Nelson. The first pivoted centre-board belonged to the new century, being invented, or reinvented, in 1809 by Captain Molyneux Shuldham, R.N., an officer who afterwards brought forward many other ingenious contrivances, one of which seems to have developed into the balance lug. An American patent for a ‘leeboard through the bottom’ followed in 1811, and during the nineteenth century the centre­board gradually forced its way on both sides of the Atlantic. That it became more popular in America than in England was due to hydrographical causes. There was less need to use it here for coasting craft, both because we have for the most part a good depth of water on our coasts, and because we had the barge type with its leeboards available for the smaller class of coasting work.

The reason why the cutter type was adopted suddenly for the Navy is perfectly clear. The adoption was purely utilitarian. Anyone who has even a slight acquaintance with the statutes of the eighteenth century will know what a great plague smuggling was to the authorities, and what varied efforts were made to reduce the evil. Of these, those only need concern us which affected the building of fast-sailing craft, and those which, by treating every vessel not engaged in regular trade as at least a potential smuggler, opposed very serious obstacles to the development of pleasure-sailing.

When it was found that the smugglers were taking pains to develop fast-sailing types, and that nothing in the Navy could be relied upon to catch them, it became imperative to adopt the handiest type of vessel which had been evolved. This, as has been seen, was the cutter, and the chases of smuggling cutters by the revenue cutters have passed into a household word, though it must be confessed authentic details of these exciting races are, to say the least of it, scarce. However, the cutters cruising for the protec­tion of the revenue did not entirely meet the case. The smugglers were driven to new efforts indeed, but these they were quite ready to make. They could afford to build their craft lighter, and to rig and spar them more heavily than the preventive vessels, which had to keep the sea, blow high, blow low; but it must not be sup­posed, therefore, that the Navy cutters were underrigged. As the following establishment for a cutter of 200 tons shows, they were well equipped to carry a crowd of sail:

Table ix.pdf

The bowsprit and jibboom will excite astonishment, and the ringtail and water-sail will seem strange to those whose knowledge of the cutter rig is limited to the pure fore and aft type.

When it was found that the revenue cutter could not be relied upon to catch the smuggling vessel, the aid of the law was invoked, and in 1784 it was enacted ‘That all vessels belonging in the whole, or in part, to any of His Majesty’s subjects, called Cutters, Luggers, Shallops, and Wherries (of what build soever), and all vessels belonging as aforesaid, of any other description, whose bottoms are clench work, unless they shall be square rigged, or fitted as sloops, with standing boltsprits; and all vessels belonging as aforesaid, the length of which shall be greater than in the pro­portion of 3½ feet to 1 foot in breadth, which shall after 1st. October, 1784, be found within the limits of distance, shall be forfeited.’

The law did not, in fact, succeed in putting down smuggling, but we may very well believe that it, and other similar enactments which it would be tedious to quote, succeeded very well in dis­couraging the evolution of swift-sailing pleasure-yachts. The ‘limit of distance’ within which ‘hovering,’ or cruising without obvious business, was disallowed was 4 leagues in 1784. In 1736 it was only 2 leagues, in 1802 it was raised to 8 leagues, and shortly afterwards to 100 leagues. Also, in 1807 a scale of crews for different types of vessel was established. It will be obvious that if the regulations of build and rig made serious yacht-racing impossible, the laws against hovering and the annoyance of constant search by the revenue officers acted as a very serious drawback to cruising, the more so as the law designedly pressed most heavily on small craft.

As concerns yachting, the result was much as we would expect to find it. The earliest racing beyond the limits of harbours was confined to pilot vessels and other fast small craft, which, by virtue of their employment, were exempted by license from the penalties fixed by the law. And the few private yachts which cruised in the Channel and the open sea were of large size. By their size alone they were exempted from some of the disadvantages of the statutes; and it is also reasonable to suppose that their owners, being necessarily men of wealth and of position, were able in that corrupt age to make interest in high quarters in order to be freed from annoyance. But we do not find – nay, rather we recognise the impossibility of – any such widespread pleasure-sailing as at present, when every harbour – in fact, every available strip of beach – has its quota of small privately owned boats. Things were unpleasant enough for the small coasting yacht when the Custom-house men rummaged Roger North’s boat and annoyed his crew; as time went on, and the laws grew progressively stricter, the position became frankly impossible.

It is also a matter of some importance to remember that during the long period from 1739 to 1815 England was almost constantly at war. War-time would in any case discourage cruising in open waters, but it could be doubly relied upon to do so, inasmuch as the smugglers saw in it an opportunity for a harvest. They grew more daring, and they added treason of various sorts – such as carrying information to the enemy and helping prisoners of war to escape – to their more venial crimes, with the not unnatural result that the efforts of the revenue cruisers were more strenuous when England was at war than during the days of peace. But in all this period peace reigned for only thirty years in all, and never for more than twelve years continuously. We are driven, there­fore, to make the most of the few casual mentions which the century affords, and of the doings of sailing clubs in sheltered waters.

Read on … The Rise of Racing and Regattas