Age of sail ships were made almost entirely from wood. Oak, prized for its strength, was the most popular type of timber used but other woods were employed as well. Elm was the favoured wood for keels, while ancient pine from the virgin forests of America and the Baltic was used for decking and spars. The enormous growth in the number and size of wooden ships during the 18th century led to the exploitation of different forests trees. The Spanish navy built over a hundred warships from tropical woods in Cuba, including the huge Santissima Trinidad, while the Royal Navy built teak warships in Bombay.
But no matter which wood is used, or how well a ship was built, from the moment it was launched it began to deteriorate. Sea water is a harsh and corrosive element and wood is a nourishing food source for a wide variety of creatures. Not only were wooden hulls fed on by boring teredo worms outside, they could also be attacked by insects and fungi resident within. Waves and storms batter the ship at sea, while warships were prey to additional sources of damage. Naval cannon were massively heavy, creating huge strain on hulls when they are in use, not to mention the damage caused by the projectiles they fire. Small wonder then that one of the most valued members of a warship’s crew was the carpenter and his mates.
These were highly skilled artisans who had almost all started their careers in a shipyard. Only after they had worked their way up to be qualified shipwrights with several years of experienced were they considered fit to become a ship’s carpenter. This close association between shipbuilding and ship maintenance was encouraged, with many carpenters helping to build the warship they ultimately served on. The carpenter was a warrant officer who was usually allocated to a ship for its whole life in the navy. When it was taken out of commission during a period of peace, the carpenter remained onboard, maintaining and repairing the ship ready for the time when it would be brought back into service.
At sea the carpenter headed up a small team of dedicated professionals who worked on maintaining the fabric of the vessel. Even on a modest sized ship, like a frigate, the carpenter had a mate and two apprentices (rated as servants) to assist him. He was responsible for regularly sounding the well, which meant measuring the amount of water in its bilges. All wooden hulls let water in to some extent, and this was a good indication of the state of the hull. Part of the carpenter’ duty was to keep this leakage within tolerable limits. He did this by constant inspection and regular maintenance, such as renewing the caulking. The timbers of a ship are made watertight by forcing junk (old rope fibres) into the gap between planks using caulking hammers and then sealing it with hot tar, a process known as ‘paying’. This is most evident on the deck, where the black tar seams between the planks are clearly visible, although it was more critical beneath the waterline. The working of the ship loosened this calking, which meant that it needed to be constantly renewed to keep the ship watertight. The longest seam in a ship’s hull was known as the devil, which is where the expression “There’s the devil to pay and only half a bucket of pitch” comes from.
At other times the carpenter was called on to replace a damaged timber. Ships went to sea with a supply of suitable wood from which replacement pieces could be fashioned, and the carpenter had all the tools required to manufacture a new part. This might even include yards and masts, which were under constant strain from wind and sails. Cracks might appear, which the carpenter would repair by ‘fishing’ the yard - reinforcing the damaged area in much the same way as splints hold a broken bone together. In extreme cases the carpenter and his team would manufacturer a new mast or yard by cutting down and shaping one of the spare spars carried in the waist of most sailing ships.
The hardest time for a carpenter and his crew was when his ship went into battle. Their station was below the waterline, patrolling the wings. These were low narrow passageways that ran along the skin of the ship and gave access to the inside of the hull. A shot hole in the hull down in the hold had to be plugged quickly before it produced serious flooding, and battling to repair such damage in the cramped semi-darkness amid cascades of water must have been terrifying. Even when a battle was over, the carpenter could be faced with often considerable damage to his ship which it was his job to put right.
A skilled carpenter could make all the difference when disaster struck at sea. In 1782 the Royal Navy 74 Ramillies was returning from the Caribbean with a convoy of merchantmen when she was caught by a savage gale. During the night the wind direction suddenly veered around, taking the ship aback and snapping off her main and mizzen masts. Before the wreckage could be cut free, the hull was dragged around by the force of the gale till she was stern on to the storm. A huge wave struck her, breaking her rudder and smashing through her vulnerable stern and flooding the ship. This in turn broke loose items in the hold which battered against the inside of the hull, causing yet more damage. The storm lasted three days and nights, and through all that time the crew of the Ramillies and her valiant carpenter fought to keep their wrecked ship afloat in appalling conditions. A new rudder was fashioned and fitted, a jury mizzen mast set up to take a little sail, and her guns, anchors and stores were thrown overboard. Thanks to his efforts, and the crew’s continuous pumping, the Ramillies was still afloat when the storm abated. He had won his exhausted crew just enough time to be taken off by the merchant ships she was meant to be protecting. Shortly afterwards the Ramillies sank beneath the waves.