A Sailing Frigate

The classic sailing frigate was the equivalent of the second world war cruiser: fast, heavily armed and glamorous, and it was one of the most successful warship types during the age of sail.

HMS Unicorn as she might have appeared under full sail, by Harold Wyllie

HMS Unicorn as she might have appeared under full sail, by Harold Wyllie

Essentially a frigate was a large cruising vessel of around 30-50 guns which was ship-rigged and carried her main armament on one continuous deck. Such vessels first appeared in the 1740’s and the Admiralty soon appreciated their advantages over their nearest equivalent, the notorious two-decker 44’s, which had their guns set so low for stability that they could not open their lower deck gun-ports in any but the calmest weather. The 44’s were also short, tubby ships and notoriously sluggish.

The frigate type overcame these disadvantages by having all her main guns on a single longer deck of intermediate height, so that although all the gunports had a high freeboard the ship was still stable enough to carry relatively heavy guns. Furthermore, being long and well proportioned, frigates had excellent sailing qualities and so were used as fast scouts for the Fleet, or as independent cruisers.

All warship design involves a complex compromise between such desirable factors as powerful armament, speed and endurance, and such undesirables as high cost, large size and numerous crew. The sailing frigate represented a particularly effective solution to this problem.