French naval contruction (II)

The ornamentation astern on the ship of the line from the Atlas of Colbert (first page of this article) differs in many aspects from the decoration on the English and Dutch vessels of that time (second page of this article). The galleries have balconies and it looks as if the balustrades, window frames, friezes and other decorative motifs had been taken directly from the architecture of the French palaces of that time. The famous sculptor Pierre Puget, who created the sculptures of the royal galley La Réale, was the autor as well of the ornamentation of numerous ships of the line, and it is said that he often covered the stern with so many heavy figures that the commanders, desperated, ordered to cut them down as soon as they were in the sea, to make their ships more maneuverable.

On the late century, also the ornamentation on the French warships was more reasonable and the figures were made in bas-relief. The Saint Philippe, a 90-gun first-rate ship of the line built in 1693 and depicted in the following illustration, was decorated with very good taste as every other French warship of that time, albeit the stern, built with an almost rect angle, gave the impression of a miniature palace which did not follow the natural shape of the hull.

Saint Philippe ship of the line transom
The following representation of an extravagantly decorated 56-gun ship of the line, rigged only with the main masts and the bowsprit along with the standing rigging, clearly shows the spiderlines going from the tops to the stays. Between the shrouds - which have ratlines to climb them up - and the tops we can see the futtock shrouds which secure the tops and the top shrouds (these latter are not present in the illustration). The futtock shrouds start from the futtock staff, an iron bar attached horizontally to the lower shrouds. The futtock staffs of both sides are secured by a system of ropes called catharpins.

The caps rest in the square-shaped heads of the masts and together with the beams of the tops serve as support for the top masts (not present either in the illustration). In English ships the caps had all their faces rect, like a brick, whereas in Dutch and French ships they had the upper face curved in such a way that it was thiner around the hole for the top mast. The tops are still "primitive", with a rounded shape and lacking the so called "lubber's hole". Around 1680-1690 it was introduced in French warships the bobstay which secured the bowsprit to the cutwater (and later to the very stem).

French 56-gun ship of the line
The cross section below corresponds to the 104-gun ship of the line Soleil Royal built in 1693 which, before her launching, exchanged names with the 104-gun ship of the line Foudroyant, launched one year before. Albeit the picture is not specially clear, they can be seen the fundamental particularities of the ship such as the pronounced hydrodynamic shape in the prow, the strong structure of the bitter, the two capstans (the main one having double drum), the pipes of the bilge pumps next to the main mast or the rudder tiller going up to the poop deck. In the orlop we can see something that resembles a gangway going longitudinally above the stowage, for a deck properly said does not seem to be present; since it is located at waterline level, it probably represents the fighting alleys where the carpenters and their assistants struggled for containing the waterways caused by the enemy projectiles.

Cross section of the French ship of the line Soleil Royal, 1693

The ship of the line in the 18th century

The 18th century did not bring any radical change in the large warships, but a multitude of small ones. The rigging was made gradually more efficient, the round stern used by the British was adopted in other navies and in turn the channels, which in the British three-deckers had been placed at the level of the middle gun deck, were raised to the upper gun deck in accordance with the foreign practice. Along the century the beakhead gradually retracted on itself and the quarter galleries narrowed to leave space for extra artillery pieces. From the beginning of the century the simple tiller which actuated on the rudder was gradually replaced by a steering wheel.

The custom of painting in diverse colors the bulwarks of the sterncastle, quarterdeck, waist and forecastle gradually fell into disuse and around 1780 warships were generally painted with only two colors, usually black and yellow, following a scheme of alternate bands. The ornamentation on the transom was simplified as well over time and the open balconies were less present from the mid century. The shape of the transom became more uniform along the century with little diversity of styles to be seen, until becaming the norm a rounded, horseshoe-like shape of bland appearance.

At the beginning of the century the bowsprit was enlarged with a boom for the jib sail, and after not much time the bowsprit top disappeared and its sail was held by the boom itself. In the smaller units, the long mizzen yard holding a lateen sail was soon replaced by a gaff holding a spanker sail, but the large vessels kept it during the largest part of the century even if the lateen sail had been trimmed, as a spare part for replacing an important yard if necessary. In the late century it was common in the smaller units that the spanker sail had a boom and that the sprit sails were replaced by a flying jib, placed on the end of the bowsprit boom and held by a stay associated with a martingale boom, pointing down at the end of the bowsprit. And the tops, which had been of circular shape since the dawn of sail ships, were made rectangular with their fore corners rounded.

Ships of the line of the 18th century
In the last years of the 18th century ships of the line had reached a high degree of perfection, thanks to the experience accumulated during the last 150 years. They possessed a high degree of sophistication and their construction was highly standardized, being much closer to the industrial methods to what many people may imagine. They were often built in series of sister ships (which would be later called "classes" with the advent of metallic and fully industrial construction). The appearance of the last generations of ships of the line was more uniform than ever and only minor aspects would make them distinguishable from their foreign counterparts. Their hulls were longer and wider than ever, granting improved seaworthiness and stability for the artillery, which had increased its caliber and numbers. Their masts carried the maximum amount of sails possible and their riggings amounted for dozens of kilometers, all to achieve the highest speed possible.

During the whole century these ships were very active in the many battles fought by the colonial powers of the time, being specially notorious the rivalities between France, Spain and Great Britain. The Battle of Trafalgar fought in 1805 was one of the last events on which the classical ship of the line took part. After this encounter the British achieved a naval supremacy - even if not always very ample - which would last until the dawn of the Second World War. Another consequence of Trafalgar was the preservation of the nowadays only surviving ship of the line, on which Admiral Nelson died during the battle.

The Victory, 1805

The Victory, Nelson's flagship, preserved in a drydock at Portsmouth, was already an old vessel when the Battle of Trafalgar, the 21st October 1805. Built in Chatham, between 1759 and 1765, following plans made by Sir Thomas Slade, she had been remodeled two times before Trafalgar. The balconies astern were closed and the channels reallocated upwards to the quarterdeck level. The illustration depicts the ship in her current status at Portsmouth, like in the days of the battle.

104-gun ship of the line HMS Victory, 1805
The overall length from the figurehead to the "crowning" is 68.96 meters, the length of the keel is 45.75 meters and the maximum beam is 15.67 meters. The keel is made of elm, and the ribs and lining are made of oak. The waterline hull is sheathed with copper as protection against shipworms. In Trafalgar the armament was: in the lower gun deck, thirty 32-pound cannons; in the middle gun deck, twenty-eight 24-pound cannons; in the upper gun deck, thirty 12-pound cannons; in the quarterdeck, ten 12-pound cannons; in the forecastle, two 12-pound cannons and two 68-pound carronades (short pieces for combat at close distances, named after the Scottish city of Carron, where they were built for the first time). So, the total number of cannons was 102 and the complement was 850.

The forecastle and the quarterdeck were connected by two gangways, and between these and above beams there was space for the four boats of the ship. Around the whole weather deck runs the mesh bulwark (in the illustration below drawn only at starboard side) placed over the gunwale; it is a row of U-shaped iron candlesticks holding strong nets, where during day were stowed, strongly tied, the hammocks of the crew, with the purpose of clearing the gun decks and acting as protection against shrapnel and rifle-fire. The galleries were totally closed and the ornamentation was very reduced. Only the scutcheon on the figurehead was gilded.

It is probable that the bowsprit sails were rarely used, but their yards were carried along with the corresponding topping lifts and braces which secured to the sides the bowsprit and its boom. The davits for the tacks of the fore sail with their pulley blocks protruded obliquely upon the bulwarks of the beakhead, from the robust mooring bitts placed at the sides of the bowsprit. Until the 18th century the tacks of the fore sail passed through holes in the cutwater. In 1710 twin davits for the tacks were introduced in the British ships, but they reached general utilization only during the mid century.

104-gun ship of the line HMS Victory, 1805

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