Preventing Wooden Ships From Rotting in the Age of Sail

For most of history, ships were made from wood. But how did these wooden ships not rot in the sea? And how were these ships maintained to prevent them from falling victim to rot, decay, or the shipworm? All these questions will be answered in the following!

Ships in the Age of Sail were built from seasoned wood of wood species with a high natural resistance to rot (like oak or members of the cedar family). The gaps between the planks (seams) were filled (caulked) with a mixture of oakum and tar or pitch. The hulls were usually coated with tar or pitch and the superstructure was painted to delay rot. The hulls were cleaned regularly from maritime growth, damaged boards were replaced, and the coating was renewed. Well-maintained wooden ships lasted about 15 years before they had to be completely rebuilt.

Let`s take a closer look.

How did wooden ships not rot & decay in the water?

Wood doesn`t rot as long as it’s either fully covered by water or does not have any contact with water at all. Only wood that gets wet, dries, and then gets wet again will start to rot over time. So while the underwater parts of the hull of a wooden ship in the Age of Sail were pretty safe from rotting, parts that would occasionally get wet were at risk of rotting away.

One example. Let`s say that it rains and the rainwater is allowed to pool and slowly evaporate into the wood. Then that is the ideal environment for rot.

To prevent these parts from rotting away, wooden ships needed (and still need) a lot of attention and care.

Ships in the Age of Sail were built from the seasoned wood of wood species, that had a high natural resistance to rot and decay (like oak or members of the cedar family). The gaps between the planks (seams) were filled (caulked) with a mixture of oakum and tar or pitch. The hulls were usually coated with tar or pitch, and the superstructure was painted to delay rot and decay.

However, the risk of rotting was not the greatest danger to a wooden ship.

The greatest risk to wooden ships, especially in warmer waters like the Caribbean, was the shipworm. These shipworms bored through the wooden planks until, sooner or later, the ship was no longer seaworthy. One of the most famous ships lost to seaworms was the Vizcaina.

Christopher Columbus lost the caravel Vizcaina in 1504 on his 4th journey to the Americas after shipworms had perforated the boards to a degree that the vessel was no longer seaworthy.

The shipworms were able to completely destroy a wooden ship within months and would remain the biggest problem that the Spanish conquistadores had to face in the Caribbean. In 1508, the Spanish crown ordered, that every ship leaving for the Caribbean had to be fitted with metal sheets to protect the hull against shipworms.

However, that brought its own problems with it.

The best way to slow down rot and decay was to regularly maintain the ship and either repair – or ideally – replace damaged boards.

Pirates were especially famous for how they maintained their ships since their maintenance was impeded by their status as outlaws….

Where & How did Pirates repair their ships?

As mentioned. Especially the seaworm, but also marine growth that cumulated on the hull and drastically reduced the ship`s speed, made it necessary for wooden ships to be maintained and cleaned regularly. That did not stop the inevitable rot/decay of the ship, but it slowed it down drastically. Later we will also talk about the life expectancy of a well-maintained wooden ship in the Age of Sail.

Maintaining the superstructure of the ship was not that difficult since these parts, as well as everything above the waterline, were relatively well accessible. Renewing the coating of the hull or replacing damaged planks was much more challenging since these were under the waterline. That was especially true for Pirates who could not just turn up at a drydock.

Merchants- & Warships could just visit a drydock where the maritime growth was removed, the tar/pitch coating was renewed, and damaged planks were replaced.

However, Pirates did usually not have access to these drydocks for obvious reasons.

Since they usually didn`t have access to drydocks, Pirates used secluded bays and beaches to careen their ships. They would ground the ship broadside onto a steep beach. Then the ship was pulled over with tackles from the mastheads to strong points on the beach until one side of the hull was out of the water.

As soon as one side of the hull was out of the water, the crew started to clean it from maritime growth, and burned off the old coating with brush torches. Carpenters replaced damaged planks, and the Caulkers replaced the mixture of oakum and tar/pitch with which the gaps between the planks were filled. Then a new coating was applied. After that, the ship was floated off, turned, and the procedure was repeated on the other side of the hull.

The beaches and bays that were used by Pirates to careen their ships had to be as secluded as possible since both crew and ship were extremely vulnerable during the careening, so that only one stray warship could have taken out the pirate crew without any real resistance.

But secluded bays and beaches that were suitable for careening and then cleaning & repairing a ship could be found all over the Caribbean as well as in most other regions.

All these measures, from the choice of the wood to the maintenance of the finished ship, helped to fight rot and decay. But it could only delay, not stop, the eventual demise of the ship. Sooner or later the ship was too damaged to repair once more.

And that brings us to the question of how long wooden ships lasted in the Age of Sail.

How long did wooden ships last in the Age of Sail?

The life expectancy of a wooden ship in the Age of Discovery and the Age of Sail varied drastically depending on the circumstances and the quality of the maintenance.

When Spanish explorers first advanced into the Caribbean, some of their ships (like the Vizcaina) were destroyed within months by the shipworm. In the 18th century, a wooden frigate was expected to last about 15 years before it needed a complete rebuild or was broken up as too badly damaged to save.

That life expectancy of about 15 years is also supported by one of the most famous pirate ships of all time, the Queen Anne`s Revenge.

The flagship of the pirate Edward Teach („Blackbeard“), the Queen Anne`s Revenge, was built in 1710 in Bristol (England), was originally named Concord, and was first used as a slave ship. 7 years later, on 28 November 1717, the already damaged ship was seized by Blackbeard and named Queen Anne`s Revenge before she was finally abandoned after she was stranded on a sand bank on 10 June 1718.

At that point in time, 18 years after her construction, the ship was damaged beyond repair, which speaks for an average life expectancy of 15 years for a wooden ship in the Age of Discovery and the Age of Sail.

Ok, so now we have talked a lot about how the wooden parts of a ship in the Age of Sail were maintained. But what about the ropes and the rigging?

Why didn`t ropes & rigging rot on pirate ships?

Unlike the wooden parts of a ship, the ropes and the rigging could not be coated to protect them from rotting. So why didn`t the ropes rot during the Age of Sail?

The ropes and rigging onboard Pirate ships were made from coconut fibers. And since coconut fiber only rots extremely slowly so did the ropes made from the coconut fibers.

I hope you enjoyed our journey into the Age of Sails.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


Robert Bohn: Die Piraten (München 2020).

Uwe Müller: Piraten (Bindlach 2008).

Hannes Bahrmann: Piraten der Karibik (Berlin 1990).