A ship's boat is a utility boat carried by a larger vessel. Ship's boats have always provided communication with the shore and with other ships. Other work done by such boats has varied over time, as marine technology has changed. In the age of sail, especially for warships, an important role was the collection of drinking water. A large enough boat may be needed to carry an anchor to some distance away from the ship, so as to kedge out of a harbour or away from a hazard - and also to recover such an anchor afterwards. Warships have always used their boats as an extension to their military role. This includes the provision of a means of escape for the crews of fireships, the landing of troops, or the "cutting out" raids that were used by the Royal Navy, especially during the Napoleonic Wars. All these requirements competed with the need to be able to stow the boats on board in a way that did not interfere with the normal operation of the ship.
Historically, ship’s boats had different names depending on their role. During the Age of Sail, this included the longboat, captain's gig, jolly boat, and other forms and designations. The terminology was not totally precise and has some variations with time and place. For example, there is reason to believe that the same actual boat could have been issued to one ship as an admiral's barge and then at a later date be used as a captain's pinnace. Similarly the steam pinnaces issued to warships in the decades around 1900 were habitually called "steam picket boats" - so one type of boat had two names.
In modern times, some of the older nomenclature persists, especially in military circles. This reinforces the view that the names refer to the role of a boat, more than to its design and method of construction
Different types of boat were usually carried on an individual ship, to fulfil different roles. The names and designs of boat varied over time, dictated by changing requirements and new design options being available. The commonest of these are:
In the age of sail, a ship carried a variety of boats of various sizes and for different purposes. In the navies they were: (1) the launch, or long-boat, the largest of all rowboats on board, which was of full, flat, and high built; (2) the barge, the next in size, which was employed for carrying commanding officers, with ten or twelve oars (3) the pinnace, which was used for transporting subordinate officers, with six or eight oars (4) the yawl, a smaller pinnace; (5) the cutter, which was shorter and broader than the long-boat and used for the transfer of goods (6) the jolly boat, used for light work; (7) the gig, a long narrow boat, employed for expeditious rowing and fitted with sails, and belonging to the captain.
A merchant ship usually carried on board: (1) the launch or long-boat; (2) the skiff, the next in size and used for towing or kedging; (3) the jolly boat or yawl, the third in size (4) the quarter-boat, which was longer than the jolly-boat and named thus because it was hung on davits at a ship's quarter; (5) the captain’s gig, which was one of the quarter boats.
One of the main roles of a ship's boat was to act as a taxi to move stores and people between shore and ship, and between ships. Although some boats were general purpose in nature, boats such as the Captain's gig and the Admiral's barge were for the exclusive use of officers. It was also the role of a military vessel's boats to act as landing craft, to deliver boarders and cutting-out (night attack) parties. Boats were also sometimes armed with a single bow-mounted, forward-firing, smoothbore cannon to function as small gunboats, boats so equipped would support landing operations and act as picket boats for ships at anchor.
When a ship was becalmed, mastless, run aground or otherwise unable to move, a ship's boat allowed the ship to be kedged or warped ahead. The ship's anchor and cable would be rowed a distance from the ship before being laid, the crew would then man the ship's capstans to haul the ship forward, repeated as many times as needed. Multiple ship’s boats could also be manned to physically tow the ship.
The ship's boats could also be used as lifeboats and rescue boats when needed.
During the age of sail the ship's boats of larger ships of the line would be stowed upon the deck, sometimes nested one atop the other. Boats would be deployed and recovered by davits with some vessels carrying a single small boat suspended astern. In the smallest vessels a ship's boat was also on occasion towed astern. Boats stored on deck in tropical climates were usually partially filled with water to prevent the wooden hull planks drying out and shrinking, which would make the boat leak once it was placed in water until the wood swelled up again.
When a warship was going into action her boats were usually towed astern. This freed space on the deck, reduced the possibility of the boats being damaged by gunfire and prevented the boats becoming a major source of dangerous splinters if they were left on deck. If a ship was spending a long period at anchor (such as during a spell in a home port when the boats would be regularly employed moving people and supplies between ship and shore) it was common to rig a boat boom perpendicular to the hull of the ship. The boats would then be moored to this, ready for use as required. This saved the manpower and time needed to hoist a boat into and out of the water whenever it was needed.
Steam ships continued to carry ships boats, sometimes armed. For instance, a long-serving 19th century British picket boat, carried on capital ships, was a 50-foot (15 m) model introduced in 1867 which saw wide service in World War I and even some limited service in World War II. The typical main armament during most of this boat's service life was a Hotchkiss 3–pounder, adopted by the Royal Navy in 1886.
Ships today from large cruise ships to small private yachts continue to carry ship's boats as tenders and lifeboats. Aboard military vessels, ship's boats, often rigid-hulled inflatables, continue to do many of the jobs expected of their Age of Sail predecessor.
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