British warships’ boats in 1905

(by Commander Alastair Wilson, R.N.)

[At the outset, it should be explained that the Navy does not “row” a boat: it “pulls”: so to pull is to row, and a pulling boat is a rowing boat.]

Both the more detailed descriptions of the activities of the Channel Squadron given in A Fleet in Being and many occasional references in the Pyecroft stories show that Kipling realised the important part played by the boats of HM Ships in naval life of this period. With the passing of sail, whose last vestiges disappeared from training ships and outlying sloops soon after 1900, boats provided its chief substitute as a means of keeping up the old school of seamanship, maintaining physical fitness and affording an outlet for healthy competitive spirit amongst ships. In this connection they were used both for drills – “Away all boats, pull round the fleet”, “Man and Arm boats” and other diversions mentioned by Kipling – and for racing under oars or sail, not merely at an annual regatta but as the result of an inter-ship challenge at any time. The saying “A ship is known by her boats” was kept very much in mind and it was taken to apply to their appearance, handling and management, and the bearing and turnout of their crews. As his first command, a midshipman’s boat was his pride and delight, and most of them put their hands into near empty pockets (a midshipman’s pay was 1s 9d per diem – his cox’n and stoker each got more than he did, 2s. while his bow- and stern-sheetsmen each got 1s7d) to beautify their boats, not for personal glory, but the honour of their ship. (A well-known saying in the midshipmen’s mess, the Gunroom, was “We don’t get much money, but we do see life!”)

The feeling that the unnecessary use of steam amounted to slackness, if not actually cheating, died hard in the old “masted” men-of-war and lived on for some time in the boats of their “mastless” successors. (The first battleships without the ability to sail as well as steam joined the fleet in 1872: battleships with sails had gone by 1889.) Except for certain specific purposes, the admiral’s permission was needed to use a steamboat. As late as 1902, when the Channel Squadron was paying a ceremonial visit to Lisbon, some captains thought it would be reasonable and fair to use steamboats in the sluicing tides of the Tagus but Admiral Sir A.K. Wilson, V.C. (known to the lower deck, not without grudging respect and affection, as “Old ‘Ard-‘Eart) disagreed: “It will be a useful experience of working pulling boats in a tideway.” (Another admiral, slightly less well-known, consistently chose the hard way of doing things, on principle. His flag-lieutenant described this as “The Grey Life” and owned to a personal preference for a “Pink Life”, but as he had volunteered for the job, we must doubt whether he always practised what he preached. Be that as it may, some boats’ crews certainly had their share of the Grey Life.)

Although efforts had been made to standardise and reduce the number of types of boats, the fact that they had to be provided to meet the varied needs of a wide range of ships limited what could be done. The main types of pulling and sailing boats in general service in 1905 are listed below in descending order of size.
Pulling and Sailing Boats

Type Length Crew
(without Coxswain)
Weight Life-saving
Launch 42 ft. 18 men 5½ tons 140 men
Pinnace 36 ft. 16 men 3 tons 80 men
30 ft
Cutter 34 ft to 14 men 1½ tons 66 men
25 ft 8 men
Galley 32 ft. 6 men 1 ton 26 men
Gig 30 ft 6 men 0.8 tons 25 men
28 ft.
Whaler 27 ft. to 5 men 0.75 tons 27 men
24 ft.
Dinghy 16 ft 3 men 0.5 tons 14 men
13½ ft. 3 men 0.4 tons 10 men


Launches and pinnaces were known as boom boats because in sailing ship days the large boats, like the longboat (to which the launch corresponded) were stowed on the booms, amidships, with the spare spars. The yard tackles (ropes and pulleys attached to the outer end of the yard which, together with the mast and the yard itself, formed a rudimentary crane) used in those days to hoist the boats in and out were replaced in the steam age by a derrick, the heel of whose spar rested at the foot of the mainmast.

The cutter was normally used as a sea-boat, at instant readiness whenever a ship was at sea for life-saving and general purposes, in a large ship; in a small cruiser, she was the largest boat supplied. She was normally carried at davits, somewhere abreast the bridge, so that her lowering into the sea, in the event of an emergency, could be overseen from the bridge.

Officially, the ‘galley’ was a 32 ft. boat provided for admirals, but the term was universally used for a gig allocated to the captain of a ship. Galleys and gigs were usually particularly smart in appearance and fast under oars and sail, though in heavy weather a well-ballasted launch could give them a run for their money. The present editor must have been one of the last to form part of the crew of a captain’s galley on a formal occasion. In October 1952, in Valetta harbour, Malta, the captain of the training cruiser Devonshire decided that he would use his galley, a 30ft gig painted a fire-engine red, to pay his official calls when we arrived. A special crew of cadets were trained to be the oarsmen – galley stroke was more akin to the style of a racing eight, with the oars feathered on each return stroke, and an infinitesimal pause at the end of each power stroke. (Though ship’s boats were normally painted the same grey as the ship’s side, the tightly-observed tradition was that they could be any colour, except that green was reserved for a commander-in-chief, and dark blue for any other flag officer. In Devonshire the captain’s motor-boat and his galley were painted red.)

Whalers differed from other Service boats; they had a pointed stern instead of a transom (square) stern, and an unequal number of oars, three starboard and two port side. With the smaller patterns of cutters, they might be regarded as taking the place, in cruisers and bigger ships, of the old “jolly boat”, described in Admiral Smyth’s Sailor’s Word Book (1867) as “generally a hack boat, for small work”. (We find the First Lieutenant of the Devolution, that “singularly unhandy-looking officer”, using a whaler to examine T.B. 267’s stencil work on his ship’s side (‘Their Lawful Occasions’, Part II). In a destroyer, on the other hand, the whaler was a large new innovation; early classes of T.B.D.s and torpedo boats had Mr. Berthon’s collapsible boats, canvas on a wood frame.

Dinghies were normally manned by three men, stroke pulling starboard oar, No. 2 a pair of sculls, and bow a port oar. In pulling regattas, they were used for the “veterans’” races, veteran for this purpose being anyone aged 35 or over (the Navy remains a young person’s Service).

Under oars, launches, pinnaces and cutters were “double-banked”, i.e. two men sat on each thwart, each pulling an oar on his own side. Gigs and whalers were single-banked, stroke pulling a starboard oar, and the rest of the crew pulling port and starboard alternately. In the “All-comers Race” at a regatta, arrangements were often made to increase both the number of oars and the men pulling them.

For sailing, the Service provided sloop rig (big triangular fore-and-aft mainsail, smaller triangular foresail) for the launches and pinnaces ( each with a single mast), sprit sails (much like the main sail on a Thames barge – no yard top and bottom of the sail, but the top rear corner of the sail – the peak – held out by a diagonal sprit, running from the heel of the mast to the peak ) for dinghies, and lugsails for most of the others (a lugsail was a fore-and-aft sail with a yard along its top, hoisted to the top of its mast at a point about one-third of the way from its top front corner (the throat). The sail was (very) roughly trapezoidal in shape, with the shorter parallel side forming the front of the sail (the luff), and the longer the back (the leach). Keen officers who could afford it often provided suits of sails to their own design at their own expense. They were allowed in such races as “the sailing cutter (fancy-rig) championship”, referred to by Pyecroft in ‘The Bonds of Discipline’. Occasionally they were later adopted for general use. The last time this editor was aware of such a boat was in the late 1950s, when C-in-C Plymouth, Admiral Sir Richard Onslow, would race his galley (a 30ft.gig) with a non-standard rig of two Royal Naval Sailing Association mainsails, and a single foresail, in place of the standard service rig of two lugsails.

A smart boat’s crew could make sail, or get masts and sails down and oars out in a matter of seconds, and there was great rivalry in this as in other evolutions. At Dartmouth in the 1950s, and in fleet regattas when there were enough big ships carrying cutters, a “crash-cutter” race was a feature. In this, the boats were all anchored on the starting-line, with masts and sails down, and oars in the boat: at the gun, the crew stepped the mast, set up the shrouds and stays, weighed the anchor, hoisted sail, and sailed to the first mark; there the mast was brought down (hence the ‘crash’) and the boat was pulled to the next mark. There the mast was again stepped, and the boat sailed to the finishing line. It was a first-class opportunity to acquire multiple bruises, and/or crushed or torn finger-nails: a ‘Health and Safety’ inspector would have filled a note-book with red-ink remarks in the first minute!

In 1905, steam was the only other method used to propel boats, although naphtha (a distillation from crude oil) was in use to power small boat engines in the USA by the turn of the 19th century.

Steam boats were first supplied to H.M. Ships, on a strictly limited scale, in the 1860s. In most cases, a launch or pinnace would be provided with one or more portable engines and boilers which could be installed in the boat when needed, or otherwise hoisted out, leaving the propeller shaft (or shafts) in place. The propellers, too, would be removed to reduce drag when boats were to be sailed or pulled.

By 1905, however, the “steam pinnace” was a fully decked craft of 40 to 56 feet in length, commonly called a “picket boat” (one may be seen in the mast pond in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. An admiral flying his flag in a large ship, a hulk, or ashore was allowed a 40ft. barge, usually with a graceful overhanging counter and a brass funnel, much envied by midshipmen of picket boats.

Smaller cruisers, sloops and the like were limited to one or two steam cutters, from 25 to 32 feet in length. These were usually open, except for a canopy over the engine and boiler.

Though petrol engines had been installed in the first submarines for surface propulsion (pending the development of the diesel) fire risk was considered to rule them out in boats when steam was available.
Steam Boats

Type Length Weight Notes
Steam Pinnace 56 ft. 18 tons commonly known as picket boats. A 45 ft boat was introduced soon after
40 ft 12 tons
Steam Barge 40 ft 10½ tons for Admirals
Steam Cutter 32 ft 5¾ tons
27 ft
25 ft
23 ft 3 tons

It should be emphasised that neither this nor the previous list is exhaustive. At any given moment, there were some obsolescent boats on their way out, an often some new ones on trial. Amongst the former in 1905 were some wooden torpedo boats carried in the earlier battleships, as mentioned in our notes on ‘Judson and the Empire’ (Page 334, line 4, where the length should have been 63 ft and not 56 ft.). Official lists of 1905 still show a few of these boats allocated to old ships, but both they and the ships were about to be scrapped.

When the ORG notes were written in the 1960s, ship’s boats still formed an essential part of a ship’s inventory, but their types had been very much reduced: of the pulling and sailing boats, only the 32 ft cutter and the 27 ft whaler remained, and a few (very few) 30 ft gigs – the latter nearly all at the various shore training establishments. The steam boats had all gone, to be replaced by diesel-engined boats. The old pulling/sailing pinnace had received an engine, and became the harbour work horse for large ships, while the almost universal power-boat for the rest of the fleet was the 25 ft motor-cutter.

Today, ships boats as Kipling and Pyecroft knew them have virtually disappeared. Their prime function (apart from training in seamanship skills) was to maintain communication with the shore when a vessel was anchored off. Today, it is very rare for a warship to anchor off a port or harbour for any length of time: 98% of the time, the ship will go alongside a jetty, wharf, or quay. And one of the major reasons is the desirability of being connected to a shore electricity supply so that the ship’s generators can be shut down for maintenance, and to reduce the need for watch-keepers to keep an eye on them. The multiplicity of boats has been replaced by one or two rigid inflatable boats, with a small, highly powered motor. Such power boats as there are (in the aircraft carriers and larger amphibious ships) are now made of glass reinforced plastic, rather than wood.


©Alastair Wilson and P W Brock 2006 All rights reserved