Burrow into the lockers or lazarette of even a modest modern yacht and you are highly likely to find a rolled-up inflatable dinghy, testimony to the fact that, even with all that modern reliable engines and electronics can provide, even leisure yachtsmen still find a need for that ubiquitous staple: the ship’s boat.
Maritime history and art bear witness to the long lineage of such craft. Paintings from the seventeenth century show double-ended longboats towed behind their parent ship while one Turner painting depicts a longboat overloaded with “sailors’ wenches” in the foreground of a view of Gosport. Such craft could often be rather large relative to their parent: a 1618 census of the Royal Navy’s vessels records a 52 foot longboat serving a ship with a keel length of 115 feet. Such monsters were of necessity towed although smaller craft would be hoisted aboard via the yardarms. The near universal introduction of davits in the early 1800s, however, tended to result in a focus on smaller craft which could more easily be hoisted aboard.
Nevertheless, before the introduction of davits and in an era when ships’ boats were commonly towed, such boats were always heavy, cumbersome, a drag when towed, and liable to swamping, so what made their use so widespread? The answer is that they were found indispensable for a wide variety of tasks. In the age of square rigged sailing ships, with their poor manoeuvrability, there was a need for small manoeuvrable craft to help with anchor setting and weighing, for depth sounding, for transferring crew, stores and barrels of water from shore to ship, as well as for rescue. In the service of warships additional uses involved evacuating the crews of fire ships or towing off enemy fire ships, or in supporting amphibious landings.
Although some common features emerged, ships’ boats came to exhibit a wide variety of designs depending on the particular use envisaged: for example wide, broad bowed boats for carrying the maximum number of barrels of water. In the Royal Navy at least eleven different designs of ships’ boats were distinguished: barge, cutter, galley, gig, jollyboat, launch, longboat, pinnace, shallop, wherry and yawl. However in the course of the nineteenth century various technological developments resulted in a large reduction in the number of different designs. The advent of steam power made large ships more manoeuvrable than ever before, reducing the need for small craft to help with anchor handling, while steam power also allowed vessels to produce their own water, rendering redundant the broad beamed craft used for carrying water barrels. In addition turret mounted guns set on the ship’s centre line necessitated a clear arc of fire, making it no longer possible to line the ship’s side with multiple davits carrying a variety of different boats for different purposes; a single multi-purpose boat was required.
The design that came to the fore was the whaler. Originally used as a highly seaworthy and manoeuvrable craft from which to harpoon and tow whales, often far from the parent ship, double ended whalers usually around 28 feet length overall (LOA), powered either by oars or sails, proved ideal. Such craft were also found useful in the slave trade when negotiating the surf of West African beaches, which added to their reputation. Proposals relating to rig and hull shape by Rear Admiral Victor Alexander Montagu (1841-1915) led to a standardisation of design for the Royal Navy’s whalers which came to be called Montagu Whalers. This craft became the almost universal ship’s boat for the Royal Navy’s surface ships from the 1890s to the 1960s and was the one in which generations of Navy recruits first learned the basics of seamanship and boat handling. Indeed serving in this capacity Montagu Whalers continued to be sailing and pulling craft long after their parent vessels had been given motive power. Highly seaworthy – reckoned to be capable of carrying 27 persons in a rescue capacity – some of these boats have performed sea voyages of over 2000 miles.
The Montagu Whaler was built as a 27’ LOA double ended centre plate clinker hull (a shorter version was also built), generally constructed of either elm or mahogany on oak, 6ft 3ins in beam and with a draught of 1ft 5ins with the plate up, ketch rigged with a dipping lug mainsail stepped in an iron mast clamp secured to the after edge of the second thwart, but also set up for rowing. In this respect it was single banked, manned by a cox and five oarsmen, an unusual configuration but apparently one that worked. A peculiarity was the steering system; since, with an outboard hung rudder, a conventional long tiller would have fouled the mizzen mast, steering involved a yoke around the mizzen mast with ropes attached to the tiller. This feature did not detract from the popularity of such craft which were viewed as practical craft with a variety of uses. In addition they were keenly raced, and highly competitive pulling and sailing races between RN ships’ companies became a feature of naval life. Through 150 years of service with the Royal Navy hundreds of whalers were built either at dockyard around the world or under contract by local boat builders, such as in the Far East where boats were built wholly of teak.
In the mid-twentieth century the Montagu Whaler was largely superseded by the three-in-one whaler with an engine and Bermudan rig, although the 3-in-1 was regarded by many as a design disaster – heavy & uncomfortable to row, poor if not dangerous to sail, and very noisy under its air-cooled motor. From the 1960s onwards whalers began to be phased out entirely by the Royal Navy as their roles were taken over by RIBs and helicopters. Many whalers however found a second life in Sea Cadet and Sea Scout groups as platforms for a younger generation to learn skills of seamanship and boat handling; a few boats passed into private hands. Many retired Royal Navy sailors today, however, continue to speak with fond memories of their experiences with this archetypical ship’s boat.