PDA

View Full Version : Where do boats need to be hit in order to sink?



Billtrumpet25
05-19-2012, 12:34 AM
I'm referring to boats such as frigates in the 1600s-1700s. My book has a scene on the high seas, and the boat sustains some damage from cannon fire. So, my question is this: where do wooden frigates need to have been hit in order to sink? How much of an impact would a cannon ball have to the front/side? Could it cause the boat to rock enough to really be noticed?

This is the first book I've done that involves the sea, and I'm rather ignorant on the nautical nature (hee hee...alliteration :D) of this issue. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks! :)

Snick
05-19-2012, 01:12 AM
To sink them we hit them below the waterline. A twelve pounder or larger would rock the ship. Generally, ships didn't simply sink after being hit. They would be hit many times, and the accumulated damage would sink them. I would suggestthat you read some about ships of that era and about naval warfare in the pre-steel times. C.S. Forester's Hornblower seies is set in the Napoleonic Era, but there is plenty about ships and naval warfare. Kenneth Roberts wrote several novels about naval warfare, privateers, that were also set in the later 18th and early 19th centuries, but he hung around with people who sailed and whose families had been sailing and privateering for a long time. I can't think f any good sources for naval wafare in the 17th century, but it wasn't as big a business back then.

Peter Graham
05-19-2012, 01:16 AM
So, my question is this: where do wooden frigates need to have been hit in order to sink? How much of an impact would a cannon ball have to the front/side? Could it cause the boat to rock enough to really be noticed?I'm guessing, so stand to be corrected, but I doubt that cannon fire would normally sink a warhip. As you can imagine, the gun decks are all above the waterline, so the damage caused by cannon to the opposing ship would also be above the water line. I don't know if the gun ports or the cannons themselves had enough elevation to hit the opposition below the waterline. I'd guess that cannon balls would bust holes in the side of the other ship and cause a lot of damage - perhaps destroying the steering and causing a lot of injury and death, but a damaged ship would be unlikely to sink unless it was caught in a storm and shipped water through shattered sides. I suppose that the powder hold could explode, but don't forget that cannon balls weren't explosives.

Ships tended to survive and be taken as prizes. The second most important British ship at Trafalgar was Temeraire (sic), which I understand was originally a French ship captured in battle.

Interestingly (or not), modern warships are designed to allow torpedoes to go through them rather than to bounce off armour. I suspect wooden warships worked on much the same principle, although whether masts fell over with quite the regularity which they do in Hollywood films is perhaps another matter......

Regards,

Peter

thothguard51
05-19-2012, 01:18 AM
Below the water line, preferably in the bow or stern...

A single breech the crew could patch, but multiple breeches below the water line would make their jobs harder to impossible...

jclarkdawe
05-19-2012, 04:09 AM
Follow Snicks advice on reading some of the fiction out there. There's a lot of literature by some very knowledgeable people.

Fighting with wooden ships involve a policy decision from the outset. Some countries would choose to target the sails and masts, disabling the ship from being able to move. Other countries aimed for the hull with the intent to sink. Both approaches worked, just in a different fashion.

There was a definite limit to how accurate naval guns were during the period you're talking about. Round shot isn't inherently accurate and wave motion and roll could cause problems. Cannon barrels weren't of that high a quality.

Result was you tended to rely on the weight of a broadside. A large number of cannons throwing very heavy pieces of metal was the basic approach. By the mid-1700s, the British could fire three broadsides for every two minutes. End result is you'd batter your opponent into submission. If you look at the paintings of sea battles, you'll see what a beating the ships took.

Sinking was accomplished by a combination of cannon balls going through the wood of the hull, and the battering causing the joints of the hull working loose. Understand that wooden ships leak in the best of circumstances and would require some work with the pump virtually every day. So the pumps could keep up with some level of holes in the hull, but at a certain point, the pumps would be overwhelmed.

Best of luck,

Jim Clark-Dawe

Duncan J Macdonald
05-19-2012, 06:02 AM
Twenty-year Navy vet here, and while I'm from the iron ships era, there are several incorrect statements in Peter's post.


I'm guessing, so stand to be corrected, but I doubt that cannon fire would normally sink a warhip. As you can imagine, the gun decks are all above the waterline, so the damage caused by cannon to the opposing ship would also be above the water line. I don't know if the gun ports or the cannons themselves had enough elevation to hit the opposition below the waterline.

Yes, the gun decks were all above the waterline, but ships move on three axes simultaneously -- yaw, pitch, and roll. Imagine three cartesian axes centered in the ship. The X-axis points from side-to-side (athwart-ship), the Y-axis from front-to-back (stem to stern), and the Z-axis up and down (keel to sky). The ship will yaw around the Z-axis, pitch around the X-axis, and roll around the Y-axis. Combining the three motions would cause the point of aim of any cannon to describe a vertical figure-eight where the upper lobe could be above your target's mast-head, and the lower lobe could (and generally did) cover the water between the ships shooting at each other.

So, depending on your timing, you could target the sails and rigging, the sides, or below the waterline. You also had different kinds of ammunition. Round shot (normal cannonballs), grape-shot (smaller cannonballs wrapped in a canvas bag), canister shot (musket balls in a metal canister -- think shotgun), and chain shot (two cannonballs attached to each other with a length of iron chain. Each one used for a specific purpose (chain shot works very well against rigging, since the two cannonballs tend to rotate around each other like a bolo, and will cut through the rigging.)


I'd guess that cannon balls would bust holes in the side of the other ship and cause a lot of damage - perhaps destroying the steering and causing a lot of injury and death, but a damaged ship would be unlikely to sink unless it was caught in a storm and shipped water through shattered sides. I suppose that the powder hold could explode, but don't forget that cannon balls weren't explosives.

If the water coming in through the holes below the waterline is greater than the amount the bilge-pumps could pump out, the ship will sink in a dead calm.

The powder hold is called the powder magazine. It is dark below decks, and the only light was from candles and lanterns. The gun captains had to have either torches or slow-match to fire the cannon. Open flame and gun powder don't mix.



Ships tended to survive and be taken as prizes. The second most important British ship at Trafalgar was Temeraire (sic), which I understand was originally a French ship captured in battle.

Royal Sovereign and Britannia both had more guns than Téméraire, (100 as opposed to 98), both were first-rate ships-of-the-line where Téméraire was a second-rate, and they were the other two ships that carried an Admiral's flag. Royal Sovereign lead the Lee Column, and was the flagship of Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, Lord Nelson's second in command. I would contend that Royal Sovereign was the second most important ship. Téméraire was the second ship in the Weather column, immediately astern Victory. Incidentally, the HMS Téméraire which fought at Trafalgar was build in England. Her predecessor was a 74 gun third-rate ship captured from the French at the Battle of Lagos in 1759.


Interestingly (or not), modern warships are designed to allow torpedoes to go through them rather than to bounce off armour. I suspect wooden warships worked on much the same principle, although whether masts fell over with quite the regularity which they do in Hollywood films is perhaps another matter......

Regards,

Peter

Modern warships are not designed to allow a torpedo to go through them. There are far too many important bits of equipment down near the keel (like all your propulsion plant) to allow for a through-and-through shot.

Modern torpedoes don't go fast enough to do that anyway.

FalconMage
05-19-2012, 06:23 AM
As for modern, US torpedoes aren't even designed to strike enemy ships. They explode underneath the keel, causing a void, and the target cracks itself in half.

Explosives. Something ships in the OP didn't have.

Peter Graham
05-19-2012, 01:44 PM
Twenty-year Navy vet here, and while I'm from the iron ships era, there are several incorrect statements in Peter's post.

Many thanks for the heads-up! As I said, I was guessing, so it's good to get the right steer.



Modern warships are not designed to allow a torpedo to go through them. There are far too many important bits of equipment down near the keel (like all your propulsion plant) to allow for a through-and-through shot.

I thought I was right on that bit. I was talking specifically about Corvettes. Family member a high ranker in the Navy!

Regards,

Peter

eggs
05-19-2012, 04:29 PM
My Dad was a fisherman pretty much exactly like the one George Clooney portrayed in The Perfect Storm with boats about the same size. I have no idea how that compares to the boats you're talking about, but I imagine the construction would have been similar. His first boat was called The Albatross and was made of timber and he sank it on a perfectly calm night many miles from shore.

He was hauling in his nets one night and one of the net boards (about 3mx2m) that spread the nets when they are under the water swung out wide as he went over a rolling wave, swung back in and struck one of the boat's timbers that would have been below the water line if the boat hadn't been rolling at the time. The net boards were reinforced on the corners with iron frames and that sucker popped a timber about the length of your leg right out of the boat. The boat sank in less than 10 minutes. They didn't even have time to untie the lifeboat that they kept strapped to roof of the wheelhouse. A long and harrowing night ensued. Boats can be very hard to sink, but if you hit something just right and that something falls below the water line when the boat straightens up, then it's very, very easy.

Duncan J Macdonald
05-20-2012, 06:24 AM
<speaking of torpedoes>
I thought I was right on that bit. I was talking specifically about Corvettes. Family member a high ranker in the Navy!

Regards,

Peter

The U.S. Navy hasn't had a corvette on the list since WW II. Still, purposely designing a ship to let some one punch 14" (or larger) holes in the hull below the waterline is generally contraindicated. :')

Billtrumpet25
05-20-2012, 08:34 AM
Thank you, all. :) I have something to start with now.

Once!
05-20-2012, 02:47 PM
I hesitate to disagree with a Navy vet, but this is a hobby of mine. And I understand it a little differently. Ships of the era that you are talking about are primarily wooden and wood floats. That means that a badly holed ship will settle in the water but will not automatically sink.

I've pulled a couple of books off the shelf. In "Battle at Sea, from Man o' war to submarine", John Keegan says:



By the seventeenth century, however, the North European admirals, particularly the Dutch and English, had grasped that broadside gunnery was the key to victory and were laying their fleets in "line ahead" - bow to stern with each other, that is, from first ship to last in parallel lines - and fighting the issue out by firepower. The battles that resulted were bloody. Few ships were sunk in these encounters, for the wooden ship was virtually unsinkable by solid shot unless it caught fire. But solid shot caused grievous casualties among crews, as long as ships clung together at man-killing range....

... the consequence was that almost all the great battles of the wooden wall epoch proved inconclusive.


This field of writing needs excellent accuracy in historical detail. The people who read it tend to be well informed and, let's be honest, a little bit anal in their attention to detail. So if you have a wooden fighting ship sunk too easily by cannon fire, a large proportion of your readers will be spluttering into their bushy beards.

Metal ships, yes. The Titanic, WW2 ships, the Costa Concordia. But sailors in wooden ships were far more afraid of fire and splinters than they were of sinking.

I suspect that this is one area where you need some detailed research that we can't give you in this forum.

Flicka
05-20-2012, 03:59 PM
There's a perfectly preserved 17th century warship in Stockholm that sank on its virgin voyage before even making it out of port. She was leaving the harbour with her cannon ports open (in order to salute). All it took was a bad gust of wind and some water got in through the cannon ports and she started leaning badly enough for more water to gush in and she sank in just a few minutes. As far as I understand, a little more ballast and she'd have been fine. Anyway, it illustrates that a 17th century warship could sink even if damaged above the water line (exchange cannon ports for a hole from a cannon blast and bad weather and same could happen even to a well balanced ship).

Randomly, the museum that houses her (she was fished out in the 1960s) might be able to help you out by answering further questions on ships and their construction. It's called the Vasa - google it and you'll find it (I'd post a link but I'm typing this on my phone). Good luck!

Once!
05-20-2012, 04:38 PM
The other famous example of a wooden ship sinking is the Mary Rose which was salvaged and is now on display at the historic naval dockyard at Portsmouth. A fascinating ship I have visited many times.

But do bear in mind that these are the exceptions and not the norms.

Flicka
05-20-2012, 05:12 PM
The other famous example of a wooden ship sinking is the Mary Rose which was salvaged and is now on display at the historic naval dockyard at Portsmouth. A fascinating ship I have visited many times.

But do bear in mind that these are the exceptions and not the norms.

If you mean that they're preserved, yes. As to sinking, it depends on what you mean by 'exception'. Most ships that were lost were lost to bad weather rather than fighting, but it wasn't unusual to lose ships. I mean, off the top of my head I can name several Swedish war ships lost in the 17th century - Vasa, Kronan, Riksäpplet, Resande Man... And those are just a fraction of the ones we lost.

Once!
05-20-2012, 06:44 PM
The OP's question was about sinking by cannonball.

Snick
05-20-2012, 07:11 PM
I hesitate to disagree with a Navy vet, but this is a hobby of mine. And I understand it a little differently. Ships of the era that you are talking about are primarily wooden and wood floats. That means that a badly holed ship will settle in the water but will not automatically sink.

I've pulled a couple of books off the shelf. In "Battle at Sea, from Man o' war to submarine", John Keegan says:



This field of writing needs excellent accuracy in historical detail. The people who read it tend to be well informed and, let's be honest, a little bit anal in their attention to detail. So if you have a wooden fighting ship sunk too easily by cannon fire, a large proportion of your readers will be spluttering into their bushy beards.

Metal ships, yes. The Titanic, WW2 ships, the Costa Concordia. But sailors in wooden ships were far more afraid of fire and splinters than they were of sinking.

If there weren't sp many wooden hulled shps at the bottom of the sea, then I would have more regard for your comment. A plain, wooden hull with no equipment on board will not sink, but large ships with a great deal of cargo and/or equipment will sink.


I suspect that this is one area where you need some detailed research that we can't give you in this forum.

Strong agreement on this.

James D. Macdonald
05-20-2012, 07:27 PM
May I recommend The Seventy-Four Gun Ship by Jean Boudriot (four volumes)?

Practically every question you might have about fighting ships in the age of sail will have an authoritative answer there. The book is frightfully expensive; I recommend using your local library.

I picked up copies back when I was considering writing an Age Of Fighting Sail series (which I haven't written... yet).

Don't go to novels when you can go to a source (that the novelists themselves may have used). "Facts" you learn from novels may well have been massaged (or made up) by the authors from narrative necessity rather than strict realism.

Speaking of wooden ships sinking in battle:

Bonhomme Richard sank after her encounter with HMS Serapis. At the conclusion of her (victorious) engagement with USS Chesapeake, HMS Shannon was in a sinking condition, although the crew, when no longer occupied with the guns and boarding, was able to patch her and pump her. During the Battle of Hampton Roads, USS Cumberland sank (and is still on the bottom), following her engagement with CSS Virginia, although in that case the fatal damage was due to ramming rather than cannon-fire.

Wooden ships could, and did, sink.

Once!
05-20-2012, 07:41 PM
I've read a lot of naval fiction from this era - Patrick O'Brien, the Hornblower novels of Forster. And a lot of histories of Nelson and his contemporaries. Not enough to make an expert, but enough to make me wary about some of the clichees that are out there.

Wooden ships do sink. But they don't often go down catastrophically quickly like you see in the movies. With a few exceptions (such as where a ship is overwhelmed by a sudden wave), most wooden ships sink only after prolonged effort by their crews to keep them afloat. And more sank in storms than from cannon fire.

Here's a description from the Royal Navy History website of the damage done to HMS Victory at Trafalgar:



On the firing ceasing, the Victory had lost 57 killed and 103 wounded, and found herself all but a wreck. The tremendous fire to which she was exposed, when leading her line into action, had caused great damage, at a very early period of the battle, and before she herself fired a gun, many of her spars were shot away, and great injury was done to the hull, especially the fore part of it.


An incredible amount of damage done to the Victory, but she didn't sink. She might have sunk in the ensuing storm. She might have sunk if the crew hadn't managed to patch the holes and pump the bilges.

More here:

http://www.royal-navy.org/warships8/2011/06/24/history-of-hms-victory-death-of-nelson-part-eleven/

Once!
05-20-2012, 07:58 PM
Only one ship sank at the battle of Trafalger - the French ship Achille. And that was due to explosion rather than being holed by a cannon ball. Several sank in the storms that followed, or were deliberately scuttled.

ULTRAGOTHA
05-21-2012, 03:18 AM
The other famous example of a wooden ship sinking is the Mary Rose which was salvaged and is now on display at the historic naval dockyard at Portsmouth. A fascinating ship I have visited many times.

But do bear in mind that these are the exceptions and not the norms.

The Mary Rose was built in the early 16th century. So she's at least 100 years older than the time period in the OP, just as a note to the author. But yes, she is a fascinating ship.

Wooden ships sink. They were stuffed with ballast to counter balance the massive amounts of sail. If sufficient water got in they went down. Preferably in cool water so naval archeologists can study them.

jclarkdawe
05-21-2012, 05:51 AM
Wooden ships float, not because of the fact that wood floats, but for the same reason that metal ships, concrete ships, and fiberglass ships float, and that's due to displacement. Fill a wooden ship with water, and it sinks. Just like every other material that is used to make ships.

Many times in naval battles the goal was not to sink your opposition, but to capture their ship. That would give you prize money. And some big sums were awarded through prize money. Many crews earned a year's worth of pay in a few hours of fighting. The British Navy was especially interested in prize money.

Best of luck,

Jim Clark-Dawe