Anatomy of a Pirate Ship

When pirates captured a prize ship and claimed it as their own, they usually had to make some modifications to suit their needs. They would usually lower the decks and siderails as much as possible, and tear out any interior walls. Given that pirates lived communally onboard, it was typically only the captain who had separate quarters. Additionally, they would sometimes move extra guns below decks, and cut small square windows, or portholes, in the hull through which they could shoot the guns.

In general, pirates were more likely to worry about how they could gain extra speed and maneuverability as well as extra armament on their vessels — comfort at sea was not something they cared much about. Because of this, there were certain types of ships that pirates favored, including pinnaces, sloops, brigantines, and square-riggers.


Many pirates who prowled the Caribbean began their career with a pinnace, which in its original meaning refers to an oared longboat that belonged to a larger ship. It might have a single mast with a lanteen sail, and was usually used to move between two larger ships, or to put into shore when the water was too shallow for the larger ship to dock. About 40 feet long, the vessel could carry a cargo of fifteen tons. Buccaneers frequently used pinnaces, or other small boats like them (the Dutch pingue, and the Spanish barca longa), to raid larger craft or to attack settlements from water. These boats couldn't travel long distances from shore, so pirates would want to quickly trade up to a larger vessel.

Sloops and Brigantines

A common ship for many pirates during the 1700s was the sloop, which featured a single mast and usually a fore-and-aft rigged mainsail (the largest sail of a mainmast). The hull was usually between 35 and 60 feet long, and was commonly fitted with four to twelve guns. Almost half of the pirates cruising Caribbean and American waters during this time were sailing sloops. Stede Bonnet's Revenge, Blackbeard's Adventure, and William Kidd's Adventure Galley were all sloops.

Brigantines were larger vessels with two masts, and were usually rigged with a square-rigged foresail (the lowest sail on a mast) and a fore-and-aft rigged mainsail. They also often had a triangular sail called a jib that was attached to the bow of the ship. Cumbersome in size, brigantines were slow ships that were responsible for far fewer pirate attacks. Charles Vane's vessel was a brigantine named the Ranger.

What kind of ship is a schooner?

Schooners came about in the early 1700s, and generally had two masts with fore-and-aft rigging. They were never very popular as pirate ships, though pirate movies often use either schooners or the slightly larger square-rigged ships as the vessel for their fictional pirates. In reality, schooners didn't become popular until after the Golden Age of piracy had ended.


When thinking of a pirate ship, many people today picture a large, square-rigged vessel. Both Bartholomew Roberts and Blackbeard captained square-riggers during their careers (see Chapters 11 and 12). Black-beard's Queen Anne's Revenge, a former French slaver he captured, was between 200 and 300 tons. His primary modification was refitting it with over forty guns. Roberts' Royal Fortune was a former French warship, but as a pirate ship it carried a crew of over 200 men and forty-two guns. Both vessels had three masts, with square-rigging and jib sails. Queen Anne's Revenge was lost when she ran aground in the shallow waters off North Carolina in 1718. The Royal Fortune took a broadside shot from a British warship and was captured in 1722. Because these larger ships were less wieldy, and because they required a more experienced crew, few other pirates dared sail them.

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