I’d hate to go to war in a ship like that – but men did

Following on from our discussion yesterday about a shipwreck discovered deep beneath the Baltic Sea, and comparing its size to Columbus’ three ships that he used to cross the Atlantic, I was taken with the story of USS Providence in the Revolutionary War.  She was a sloop-of-war, approximately 65 feet in length, with a crew of 54 and carrying 12 four-pounder cannon (just about the smallest naval cannon of their day).  Since each cannon usually required a crew of six or more gunners, a crew that small meant that she could fire only one broadside (i.e. the guns on a single side of the ship) at a time, but not both, because the gun crews would have to move from one side to the other to man the cannons there.

To begin with, let’s mention that a replica was launched in 1976, and used for sail training.  The replica was severely damaged when it was toppled from its drydock stands during a winter storm.  The video below shows its restoration, and return to the sea.  (I hate the cheesy soundtrack, but all I can do is suggest watching it with the sound turned off.  Why people can’t just let the footage speak for itself, without adding muzak, I just don’t know!)

Bear in mind that the replica is shown without cannon on deck.  In reality, the presence of those cannon would have taken up more than half the deck space, making it awkward and potentially dangerous (particularly in a storm) to move around the ship.

Tiny as she is, that little ship had a pretty impressive war record.  She captured, or assisted in the capture of, no less than two dozen other vessels, and was for a time the first combat command of the legendary John Paul Jones, then a Lieutenant.  I can’t help looking at images of the ship and shaking my head in disbelief.  More than 50 men shared that tiny hull with a dozen cannon, supplies for several weeks, spare sails and other ship’s stores, etc.  Despite her tiny size and gross overcrowding, she did an immense amount of damage, all while avoiding the much more powerful warships of the Royal Navy.  It’s mind-boggling to us in this day and age, when the smallest seagoing warship in the US Navy is the Cyclone class patrol craft, 178 feet in length (almost three times longer than the Providence), crewed by 28 people.

I guess our maritime seagoing ancestors were a lot tougher men than most of us today!



  1. Yes, that ship looks a mite 'cozy'. I wouldn't want to be on it in the middle of the ocean during a storm!

    When thinking of the toughness of old-time sailors, I always go to that scene in "Master and Commander" where the ship's surgeon operates on a man's head while the crew stand around and watch.

  2. For a quick comparison, Disneyland's Columbia, a full-scale replica of the first American vessel to circumnavigate the planet, is nearly double that of the Providence, at 110' in length.

    A sloop-of-war was a veritable rowboat.

    Nota bene, this was also the same vessel in the flotilla used to sneak into the port of Nassau in the Bahamas and capture the British forts there during the War for Independence.

    Agile, versatile, easy to underestimate, and hard to get away from.

  3. As retired Navy, no surprises here. Realize that Columbus's largest ship, the Santa Maria, had 50 men and was less than 60 feet long. Admittedly it was a nao, a tub made to carry cargo, but the crowding would have been comparable.

    Modern ships are designed for much less endurance, given the space requirements for engine and fuel. A sailing ship can use all that space for cargo, food and water. And yes, those sailors were very tough. I like my comforts!

  4. Crew space was at a premium, hammocks were the rule of the day, and their entire possessions rolled up into a roll smaller than today's sleeping bag. The only 'cabin' was aft, for the captain, and that was about the size of a broom closet. And the food sucked!

  5. A loose cannon in a storm was a man-killing, and potentially ship-killing event. Especially the larger the gun became. Worst would be the bow or stern chaser cannon, usually longer and heavier versions of broadside guns, if not some seriously big hogs.

    The gun-deck was always a crowded and dangerous place. Especially as many captains, ah, up-gunned off the books with extra or larger guns than what was called for.

    Very amazing. And most warships only had enough crew to man one complete broadside, with extras to cover casualties. Only the big Ships-of-the-Line could claim to have full crews for both broadsides, and in all actuality that was a lie, too, due to always needs of too many ships, not enough men.

    For fun, find an old copy of Avalon Hill's "Wooden Ships and Iron Men" if you can. A real lesson in 'crew loss' during combat.

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