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The careening of a sailing vessel is laying her up on a calm beach at high tide in order to expose one side or another of the ship's hull for maintenance below the water line when the tide goes out. The process could be accentuated by securing the top halyard to a fixed object like a tree or rock and pulling the mast over as far as possible. Such maintenance might include dry rot or cannon shot repair, tarring the exterior to reduce leakage or barnacle removal to increase her speed. A particularly well protected area might be called "Careening Bay" to the locals and they would know shallow, calm water could be found. Pirates would often careen their ship because there was no dry dock available to them. A secluded bay would suffice and this is where they would careen their ships for necessary repairs and/or cleaning of the hull. This would make the ships faster and able to overtake a prize vessel. Similar to beaching.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A General History of the Pyrates

By Daniel Defoe 1661-1732

Some Time after, which was in August 1717, Bonnet came off the Bar of South-Carolina, and took a Sloop and a Brigantine bound in; the Sloop belonged to Barbadoes, Joseph Palmer Master, laden with Rum, Sugar and Negroes; and the Brigantine came from New-England, Thomas Porter Master, whom they plundered, and then dismiss'd; but they sailed away with the Sloop, and at an Inlet in North-Carolina careened by her, and then set her on Fire.

After the Sloop had cleaned, they put to Sea, but came to no Resolution what Course to take; the Crew were divided in their Opinions, some being for one Thing, and some another, so that nothing but Confusion seem'd to attend all their Schemes.

With this little Fleet, viz. Admiral Lowther, in the Happy Delivery; Captain Low, in the Rhode Island Sloop; Captain Harris, (who was second Mate in the Greyhound when taken,) in Hamilton's Sloop, and the little Sloop formerly mentioned, serving as a Tender; I say, with this Fleet the Pyrates left the Bay, and came to Port Mayo in the Gulph of Matique, and there made Preparations to careen; they carried ashore all their Sails, and made Tents by the Water-Side, wherein they laid their Plunder, Stores, &c. and fell to work; and at the Time that the Ships were upon the Heel, and the good Folks employ'd in heaving down, scrubing, tallowing, and so forth; of a sudden came down a considerable Body of the Natives, and attack'd the Pyrates unprepared. As they were in no Condition to defend themselves, they sled to their Sloops, leaving them Masters of the Field and the Spoil thereof, which was of great Value, and set Fire to the Happy Delivery, their capital Ship.

British Naval Supremacy: Some Factors Newly Considered.

Copyright 2002 Mitch Williamson


One policy that the Royal Navy developed far ahead of its French rival was the establishment of naval bases overseas: Minorca in 1709, English Harbour, Antigua, and Port Royal, Jamaica, in the 1730s, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, between 1757 and 1759. Careening, naval stores, supply, victualling and hospital facilities were established at these bases, thus enabling the Navy to maintain an all round presence in permanent stations as opposed to the French practice of sending out squadrons from Europe for short periods each year. Two naval yards in the Caribbean, where France had none, enabled Britain to establish local superiority for most of the mid-eighteenth-century wars, while the establishment of a permanent naval presence at Halifax in 1757 was a vital part of the throttling of the French supply line to Canada which in turn led to French Canada?s final surrender in 1760. During the wars against Revolutionary and later Napoleonic France the main overseas bases had increased to Cape of Good Hope, Malta and Bermuda, with store depots at Barbados, Minorca, Martinique, Lisbon and San Domingo. Also temporary bases had been established at one time or another at Ajacco and Alexandria during this time. Even the island of Heligoland, taken from the Danes in 1807, had a British naval harbourmaster appointed to control naval affairs. The East India Company?s Bombay and Madras ports were also supporting the British Navy. Indeed a dry-dock was established at Bombay as early as 1750, several more built over the years following. One enabling the dry-docking of a ship-of-the line as large as a 74 being partly completed in 1806 followed by another in 1810.

A major factor extending the parameters of British naval power were the number of dockyards which facilitated the major overhaul of warships, with twenty-three home dry docks in 1793-6 as against eight in French and eight in Spanish yards, the Royal Navy could turn around more ships at a faster rate than its rivals. Britain?s private shipbuilding capacity enabled her to free her naval dockyards to concentrate on the operational maintenance of the fleet.

Despatches of Vice-Admiral Francis Holburne

Newark in Halifax Harb?r. 4 Nov: 1757. (R?d. 6 Dec)

With such Stores as We have here, We have begun to careen the Sutherland at a small Wharf hired by the Navy, which with some Repairs I have fitted for that purpose: When She is hauled off, the Arc-en-Ciel shall take her place, but I fear it will not do for larger Ships, tho? I shall leave directions for those of 60 Guns to be hauled too, if the Weather will admit.

As soon as I received their Lordships Orders for making a Careening Wharf, I went with some of the Captains to look out for a proper place for that purpose, and finding that George?s Island was for many reasons the most so, I apply?d to Governor Lawrence for a piece of Ground, and He having readily agreed to do whatever should be necessary in this matter, I ordered a Number of hands from the Ships to begin to level, and carry it out, and I am now endeavouring to agree for Piles, and other Materials for carrying on the Work; But whatever Expedition may be used, I fear it cannot be ready for large Ships to careen at till the Summer is far advanced: And I should think a proper person who understands this kind of work, should be sent out early to superintend it, as well as some Artificers to the Yard, as few are to be hired here, and Those at 5 Shillings per diem; A Master Attendant I appointed some time ago; finding the different Services could not be well carried on without Such an Officer.


Mare Liberum No.2, 1991, pp 177-207


Richard Barker

"It's wonderful what you could do with main strength and foolishness" [1]


The essay presented here is an attempt to investigate some curious apparent anomalies in accounts of careening: the process of examining and repairing a ship by heeling it over in the water, even to expose the keel. The period considered is primarily that of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

All too often careening is regarded as synonymous with forcing a ship over by hauling on her masts. There is substantial evidence that in earlier periods especially, the tackles on the masts were to secondary effect in heeling a ship; but could serve a very real function in stabilising the vessel during the work.

It also appears probable that the alternative method which careening replaced (especially in remote places) - that is, grounding a ship, may in many places have required that the ship be bodily hauled further out of the water than could be achieved with the tides alone. Aspects of tidal regimes are considered.


The starting point for this study was the discovery of a passage in William Bourne's compelling Treasure for Traveilers, published in 1578 [2], parts of which are worth citing forthwith:

"...Genoans, Venetians and Ragusans, with a number of others .... that have great ships, and yet never ground them, but only bring them over on the one side, which is called careening of them, and many people that have heard thereof, have thought that they have wound them over by force, and some have judged one way, and some another way, but few or none of them have judged the truth of the matter, although that divers Englishmen have been there, and have seen the thing done: yet as far as ever I could perceive at their hands, they could never understand the truth of the matter, and the cause thereof was that they were never in the ship where she was careening.

...Therefore it is a strange matter, to see the strange opinion of some people in the world that seem to be wise, and for that generally the most part of men have thought that in the careening of ships, that they have been wound down with capstans and jeers and tackles by great force, and therefore they have made fast the ballast by some proportion, and also have made rafts of masts, to the end that they may lie the side of the ship upon them, to help to bear up the ship. And see the simple opinion of them that should be wise, to think that the same should do any good....

... for masts being massy, and not hollow, are but little lighter than water, so that twenty tons weight of them will not support two tons, therefore that can do no great good at all. And what a vain folly it is for them to make fast the ballast that it should not slip, for twenty tons of ballast being made fast at the bottom of the ship, must require the force of twenty tons to wind it down over. And then the ballast, for that it is made fast, and the ship wound down by force, the ship is forced down with more than forty tons....."

The passage as a whole (albeit the last paragraph above requires comment) presents a number of aspects in stark contrast to what is usually said of careening, whether in interpretations of the account of Jo_o Baptista Lavanha, recorded in the Hist?ria Tragico-Marit?ma [3], where the author appears to abhor the damage allegedly done to Portuguese Indiamen by careening (though I intend to show that the emphasis often attributed to this text is wrong); or in almost any modern reference to the practice of careening. The English misconception has survived from the sixteenth century, and flourishes widely. For most modern commentators, careening has been synonymous with forcing ships over by hauling on their masts. Indeed, commentators have failed to distinguish between the verbs careen, ground and dock (in the sense of dry- dock); or have referred to docking as an option for repair in times and places where there simply were no docks (or indeed significant tides in many cases). These subtleties lie at the root of this paper: a study of one of the means to repair large ships before the era of efficient dry-docks of the modern kind.

I subsequently came across another equally fine reference from a late 16th century English source, in a footnote to G.V.Scammell's stimulating article on European Seamanship in the Great Age of Discovery [4]. Hakluyt appears to have collected this account from a Spanish pilot, about 1586:

"The carenero or caulker does give in sureties, that if the ship so cast over, as they do commonly use to cast them, in such sort as any man may go dry upon the keel, as I have done, and without any butt, pipe or any other kind of timber under her sides, more than with counter-poise of stones in her, made with certain timber as though it were a chest; and with the stones the carenero does bring her as he will, high and low, leaning or rising; and if she miscarry in her carena then is the carenero bound, if it be either by fire, water, or sinking, or any other misfortune, to pay for the value of the ship.....This carena may not be given at any hand but in a river, where no tempest can arise..." [5]

The object of this paper, then, is to collect contemporary evidence for careening, as a primary pre-industrial means of repairing the underwater parts of relatively large ships; and to point to certain areas of interest for further studies. I shall inevitably touch upon two parallel enquiries: launching of ships and early docks, but it is my intention to return to these on another occasion; for there is a mass of equally fascinating material.

I shall also discuss the relationships between careening, and hauling a ship over by her masts. My purpose is not to claim that the latter did not really happen - manifestly it did, to some extent - but rather to emphasise that this was not an essential and unavoidable part of the operation; and equally that as a secondary balancing mechanism it could have a real role in the security of the operation of careening.

The sources for this study, even those which contain a smattering of technical overtone, are almost entirely at the anecdotal level. They include contemporary dictionaries, and a range of traveller's tales, reported at second hand; and as time progresses a selection of more formal accounts, though the practice of careening remains largely incidental to these reports. Some of these disparate sources are cited directly in the text, generally in English for uniformity; others have been collected in an appendix. Where I have myself been obliged to use existing English translations, there is a risk of confusion from careless use of the term "careen", but generally there are other indications to corroborate the usage.

Part of my objective has been to emphasise the lack of attention paid to this subject - for almost any period. Yet careening and its alternatives were absolutely fundamental to the practice of ship-owning. It seems highly probable from a preliminary search that many other manuscript and indeed published accounts of repairs to ships must exist, if only incidental to their context, and I would hope that their significance might be recognised, and that they might be reported independently of the accounts of "Discoveries", voyages, or the careers of the principals, in which they occur. Greater precision in reporting is desirable, though the individual sources do not always permit it.


Careening is, as far as documentary sources can tell us, not a particularly old process: I have found nothing much earlier than 1500, although in context it was arguably a widespread and thus not a new process at that time. It is however necessary to ask what alternatives there were for the repair of large ships, as distinct from boats, in earlier periods. Just as pertinently, we might ask how even small ships were repaired away from their home base, with its manpower, and infrastructure, however rudimentary. The answer is again that documentary sources do not tell us clearly. We know that some very large ships existed even in Roman times; that large dockyard structures which might be dry-docks or slipways or grid-irons have been found from ancient China - third century BC [6], or that Viking raiders might build some sort of dock facility at over-wintering sites [7], but we have nothing definitive. Nonetheless, if we are not to suppose that large ships were simply written off as irreparable, much below the vessel's unladen waterline, which would seem an economic absurdity, we have to recognise that methods existed. Careening is at once an obvious method, since any ship will heel as it is loaded routinely, and a very simple method, independent of heavy tackle, large manpower, or the existence of significant tides [8, and Fig.1]. I would suppose that it is in fact a very ancient method, in essence.

Approaches to the problem of repairing large ships varied in recorded periods from one part of the world to another. Solutions developed in the North of Europe, with its generally higher tides on the Atlantic coasts, were simply not available in the relatively tideless Mediterranean, or the Baltic, for example; or indeed in the Caribbean. Most of Northern France and the Low Countries, and the major ports of Britain, enjoyed tides which on springs could be made to float virtually any ship in existence, unladen, onto a suitable bank [Fig.2]: the natural and original process of "docking", in a mud berth (= p?r a monte). (It was always quite normal for small ships to lie aground in rivers and harbours, in any tidal area; even now, laden coasters are sometimes beached to allow direct unloading to vehicles, where there are no harbours.)

In England, this process of docking developed from about the thirteenth century into the use of enclosed docks, of primitive construction. The extant accounts do not make it very clear whether the protection was from pilferers, or from the tides themselves, but by 1496 technology had developed to the point where dock gates are spoken off. It was not until the eighteenth century that dock structures and gates developed to anything recognisable in modern docks. Dry-docks however were an expensive and thus a military solution in early periods: only the wealthiest ports such as London had private dry-docks in 1600. In 1660, London had sixteen private dry-docks, though none of them could accommodate ships above the Navy's Third Rate [9], which is an indication that repairs to large ships still remained a problem. Even then most ships must, from sheer numbers, have been repaired by grounding at high tide. In the fierce currents associated with high tides, and the tortuous channels in many port approaches, grounding was all too often accidental, and ships must have been constructed with that in mind. It affects the rise of floor that is permissible, for example, and doubtless the thickness of planks, and the strength of internal frames and reinforcements, to carry the weight of a laden hull supported in limited areas, rather than by the gentle buoyancy of water.

As an illustration of this process, Manwayring's definition of grounding a ship is of interest:

"When a ship is brought of purpose to be trimmed on the ground, or otherwise, that is called grounding the ship: There are three manner of laying a ship a-ground, that is, either laying her head upwards towards the bank and her stern towards the offwards, and is [termed] laying her pitch-long-to. this is used to ships that are crank with the ground; for this way they take the best advantage for the ship to bear herself: The second is, to lay her all alongst the shore, and to heel her to the shore-ward; this is used to ships which have reasonable good floats [floors ?] and will bear themselves sufficiently well: The third, is laying her alongst the shore, heeling her to the offward; this we use to ships which have great broad [floors] (as Flemmings, which have standing strakes); the reason is, for that otherwise we should hardly come to her keel" [10].

There was always the risk of a ship turning right over, if her bottom was not fairly flat, as she took the ground and the tide receded. At least two famous English warships capsized in this way [11]. Drake's "perfect fighting ship", the Revenge, capsized at her winter moorings in the River Medway at Chatham in 1589, when she was:

"by the extremity of a storm unluckily put ashore, and there overset, a danger never thought on before, or much less happened."

Unfortunately the account gives no further detail, but she would have been riding light, with perhaps little ballast. The Ann Royall, formerly the Ark Royal, was wrecked in the Thames in 1636, after she went aground stern-first on a falling tide.

A similar risk was incurred even in the days of modern docks, and is well attested [12]. This is in part related to the difficulty of constructing and draining dry-docks deep enough for the largest ships, and it is clear that in early docks in England large ships could only be docked on high spring tides, and even then often rested directly on the floor of the dock, creating great difficulty in repairs to the keel especially, and requiring that the entire ship be jacked up after docking. This was in some way ameliorated by Seppings in 1800, when he introduced cast iron folding wedges to act as keel- blocks in dry-docks [13].

Intermediate solutions in strongly tidal areas were the grid-irons, which were latterly familiar in many small ports, where ships could be settled and evenly supported on a timber framework and against walls, for either cleaning or repairing planks and seams, and also making access much easier for ships with flat floors [14].

Repairs dependent on the tides caused their own problems: the larger the ship, the less the time before the work was flooded again - a very few hours in general [Fig.3]. This would lead to a distinction between "tide-work" and "stock-work", the former being more regulated and enjoying privileges in Guild regulations in Newcastle, for example, about 1622 [15].

High tides can be extremely dangerous. An estuarial tide rising at some four metres per hour is an awsome sight, though with good local knowledge it is a great assistance in docking or beaching ships. Where the topography generates a tidal bore [eager, pororoca] in a river, such as parts of the Amazonas, however, the use of vessels that cannot be dragged from the water becomes hazardous. On the Hangzhou estuary vessels have to be deliberately grounded on artificial platforms, out of the way of harm from the first wave of the bore, as the tide falls [16]. On the Severn, natural ledges and sandbanks were used: curiosities arise such as a dock where vessels had to be locked out upwards at high tide, after the bore had passed [17]. Many accounts exist of travellers' astonishment at finding vast tides, or diurnal tides, or places with negligible neap tides. Without a local tide table and knowledge of the sea bed the reluctance to risk grounding that often appears in accounts is understandable.

The variability of tides from place to place is extraordinary: localised tides in the range six to ten metres can be found in many parts of the world, not far removed (at most a few day's sailing) from places where the coastal tide is too weak to be of much significance in repairing ships. Examples are given in Figs. 4 and 5. It may be that when accounts speak of pilots searching for weeks for a place to repair a badly leaking ship, that they might as probably have been looking for a high tidal range as for a sheltered site to careen. (An example is given below, from Cook's voyage.)

There were economic and practical restrictions on the use of the various alternative methods, with the result that all three methods were in use in parallel in the English royal dockyards - docking, grounding and careening. A specific example occurs in the agreements made by John Hawkins for the maintenance of the fleet in the period beginning 1579 [18]. It would be interesting to know how this is related to Bourne's work, and when careening really appeared in England. The five largest ships were each to be grounded at least once every three years, more frequently if it was necessary to stop leaks. Every year, each ship was to be "cast over", that is careened, and three or four strakes below the waterline on each side were to be renewed. Five slightly smaller ships were to be grounded every second year, and careened annually; and the small ships both grounded and careened every year. This gradation probably reflects the relative costs: whatever could be done by the cheapest method would be done that way; even grounding a large ship was a major exercise. But all this was only for routine repairs: major repairs and alterations (and much new building) were usually carried out in the limited number of dry docks. There is some evidence that the process of getting a ship in and out of dock at that time was a difficult and costly one, but the spread of docks, themselves costly to build and maintain, is clear evidence of their advantages over the other methods for extensive work on large ships.

An interesting series of definitions of the degrees of repair undertaken periodically in the Royal Navy, and the methods used, exists from 1691, and is cited in the appendix [19].

A further significant approach to repairs was to haul the ship bodily out of the water, a process which seems to have been highly formalised in civilisations which employed large galley fleets, from ancient Greek times - witness the surviving slipways from Piraeus or Venice. The details are far from clear, though one ancient account gives a good idea of the forces involved [20]. By 1600, in Northern Italy, the process was rather more complex: Crescentio [21] gives a partial account of an articulated cradle associated with the launching (and recovery ?) of galleys from the arsenals. That it existed is hardly in doubt: there is a vast equivalent, for launching large ships, in the manuscript of Manuel Fernandes, from Lisbon, in 1616 [22]; though again its modus operandi remains largely a mystery. John Smith knew of the practice in principle, but is little help in detail:

"A cradle is a frame of timber made along a ship, or the side of a galley by her bilge, for the more ease and safety in launching, much used in Turkey, Spain and Italy" [23].

In most places, and for most ships, the process probably relied more on simple rollers and shores, on suitable beaches; with a gradation from man-power, to oxen, and to beach capstans. The whole process must have been in some way a reversal of the method of original launching, which is equally mysterious in documentary accounts [24]. The example cited from Manuel Fernandes makes it very clear that the process became rather cumbersome as the size of ship increased, and even launching, prepared on dry land, could indeed be spread over a period of several days [25]. What the necessary forces, and their concentration, did to the hulls of large ships is a matter for speculation: but it would not have been desirable. It is unfortunate that Fernando Oliveira's Livro da Fabrica Das Naos and Ars Nautica, of about 1570, which both promise accounts of such matters, both survive as incomplete texts, and do not actually discuss them; and that Lavanha's Livro Primeiro da Architectura Naval is also incomplete.

There were certainly hybrid methods. Deane is reported to have launched a Stuart royal yacht of "42 tons weight" in 1674, by dragging it two hundred yards on a four-wheel cradle to the low water mark at Portsmouth, lifting it with tackle, and allowing the tide to float it off the mud, for example [26], though there are no more accounts of such practices that I am aware of until the nineteenth century.

"Modern" slipways do not appear until much later - apparently during the later seventeenth century for launching, if not for recovery. Chapman, in 1768, drew various national forms, the oldest of which represented the launch of the French Royal Louis at Toulon in 1692, and shows clear traces of its ancestry in methods akin to Fernandes' of 1616 [27].

That is the background, then, to the use of careening, which was evidently held to have originated in the Mediterranean. It is specifically ascribed by Lavanha to the Italians, calling it the Italian invention, and surprisingly he seems to imply that its use was a relatively new phenomenon, writing in 1597 [3]; though it cannot even be read as new to the Portuguese at that time, as we shall see from the evidence of Vasco da Gama's voyage. Certainly, Bourne did not regard it as a new invention, in his work, which was in manuscript by 1572 [2], though the inference is that it was not widely practised in England at that time.

It was also used for much smaller boats than the Indiamen. Kostas Damianidis has kindly sent me details of an account of one traditional method as used recently by Greek seamen [28], apparently in preference to hauling their boats out of the water; and at least one modern yacht has had sea-cocks replaced by careening [29].


The most vivid accounts have been given in the introduction, but a few others exist in English sources. Harriott, about 1608, gives a manuscript note:

"to bring her upon the careen is to lay her upon one side on the water that the garboard strake may be caulked" [30].

John Smith is more explicit in his Sea Grammar of 1627:

"... careen; which is to make her so light, as you may bring her to lie on the one side so much as may be, in the calmest water you can, but take heed you overset her not. And this is the best way to bream [clean] ships of great burthen, or those [that] have but four sharp floors, for fear of bruising or oversetting" [31].

That is, he too appears to contradict Lavanha, by recommending careening for large ships, despite the existence of a few docks in England. The bruising he refers to is local damage from grounding a heavy ship on a small area of planking - or perhaps a large stone, or piece of debris, on a beach, or notoriously on an anchor.

Henry Manwayring, whose dictionary was in circulation in manuscript by 1620 [as fn 10], gives another full account:

"Careening is the best way of trimming a ship under water, both for that the carpenters may stand upon the scaffolds, most commodiously to caulk the seams, or do any other thing that shall be requisite; also for the saving of the ground timbers, which, especially in ships of great burthen and weight, must needs be much wrung, though they be laid never so strong; besides, it is a most necessary trimming for great ships, which are either old or weak- built, and also for any ships that have but small float, and are built so sharp under water, that they will be in danger of overthrowing when they shall be brought aground. This careening is to be done in harbour, where the slower the tide runs the better. And it is most commonly used in such places, where there are no docks to trim a ship in, nor no good places to grave a ship on, or else that it does not ebb so much that a ship may shew dry. For the manner of careening, it will be too long and unnecessary to set down all the particulars. In general, it is thus, they take out all, or leave but little of the provision, ballast, ordnance (or the like) in the ship. And you must have a lower ship by her, with which she must be hauled down on a side, and righted again, with tackles (yet with the weight of the ballast above, or below, they do effect the chief force of the business, and so never strain the ship's masts much. Note that all ships are not of a like condition to careen; for some ships will be very hard to come down, though they have no ballast in them, and those are Flemmings, built with two standing strakes, these must have some weight upon the deck to help them down, and yet these will right themselves very easy, and therefore need not much in [the] hold to help to right them. Some, as our English built, and the like, will come down easy and be hard to right, and therefore we keep somewhat in all these (to right them) in hold, and having nothing on the deck. Some will come down easy and right themselves well. Some will do neither, so that there is not one way for all, but as we see the condition of the ship, we fit things, and work accordingly. Any kind of bringing the ship over to lie on one side (she being afloat) is called careening, though it be but a few strakes; as we say, she was careened three, four or five strakes. If a ship lie down much with a sail, they will say, she sails on the careen".

Clearly he draws on the same experience of the process as Bourne, but now from local usage. The method has evidently spread to Northern Europe more generally. Significantly, he too emphasises the role of the ballast, and equally of weights higher in the hull, and the limited effect of hauling on the masts, despite the external appearance of proceedings; and significantly, in relation to Lavanha's text, he regards it as a desirable method for old or weakly-built hulls.

Problems start in the eighteenth century, when the Royal Navy in particular had careening wharves in most of its dockyards, fixed installations where ships could be regularly hove down, with their masts made fast to ring bolts and capstans on the wharves. Dummer's plans for the new Plymouth Dock in 1690 included two such berths, outside the basin walls [32]. I suspect that this practice was as much to clear weed growth as anything, routinely, though Captain Hervey records that he "hove down the ship, and found our false keel all eat away" at Port Mahon in 1755 [33].

The Oxford English Dictionary cites an early use of "careen" as from 1790, "the careening wharves are entirely decayed". The rot had truly set in. Thenceforth, almost any account of careening will emphasise the tackles to the masts, and ignore the ballast.

Indeed, it would not be long before ships of any national importance were simply too large to careen, with too much permanent weight too low in the hull; and requiring too much in the way of heavy metal-working equipment close at hand, first for machinery, and finally for the hulls themselves. Careening was no longer of major concern.


The Iberian approach to both designing and repairing ships must have been conditioned to some extent by the relatively small tidal ranges in their home ports and in many of their overseas bases; especially for the Spanish at Cadiz, in the Mediterranean, and in the Caribbean; but also at places such as Goa and Cochin. Biscay and Portugal as far south as Lisbon enjoyed moderate tides, but even these were relatively less significant than those of much of Northern Europe, for the larger ships which the two nations tended to build. There were marked national differences in ship design, noted by numerous commentators from the sixteenth century onwards. Harriott, for example, made some notes on this subject, in about 1608, from Edmund Marlow's lost manuscript, Ars Naupegica:

"The Easterling, Dutch or Flemming build floaty ships by reason those countries are subject to flats and shoals. And because they often bring them aground they have much flat floor to rest upon.......

Contrarywise the Spaniard (not accustomed to bring his ships aground but always to ride afloat, and also to trim his ships upon the careen. As you may see by their caravels. And their carracks likewise for the most part flare much of aloft.....but they draw much water and are not well to be brought aground without good shoring for fear they fall over" [34]

Palacio in 1587 implicitly emphasises the same point: he briefly defines careen, but feels no need to mention "dock", or "ground", to a Spanish audience [35].

At about the same time, Lavanha is usually assumed to have been painting a very different picture of careening. Not the gentle, subtle, leisurely method of many other contemporary sources, labour-intensive perhaps, but safer than grounding; but a brutal new practice causing severe damage to Portuguese ships, in the context of the Carreira da ?ndia. He was not explicitly bemoaning the heaving over by the masts that undoubtedly strained other ships at other times; he does not even mention that practice. Just what his observations were, and indeed his motives, is not at all clear. Lavanha actually states:

"Santo Alberto.....lost by careening and overloading.... The greed of the contractors and sailors brings about both these things. The contractors rejoice in the Italian invention, because it costs much less to careen a ship than to drag her aground (tirar a monte)"......"They become strained with the heeling over in careening, and with the great weight of such huge carracks..." and "experience shows that when this damaging invention was not used..." [36].

On the face of it there is a contradiction, compared with many other sources, and even internally. Specifically, we know that careening was at least a century old in Portuguese use. Unfortunately Lavanha offers no guidance as to the details of the prior (?) method which he ostensibly preferred - some form of grounding. To complicate matters, we know so little about the real structures of any ships of that period that it is difficult to identify any cause in that direction. Suspicion must be directed at the sometimes quite exceptional size of these ships (especially bearing in mind the longstanding debate about the optimum size for Indiamen). It is nonetheless curious that if he wished to polemicise the problem of size as such, that he should shift the blame to careening in this passage. With the majority of ships still built in Portugal itself, the frame timbers and knees in particular may have been of relatively small size and length, and weaknesses in the frame may have been one key factor leading to damage. That the damage was real, on occasion, is not in doubt: there is one Traslado from 1631 which reports a survey of so many broken structural timbers that the professional opinion was that it was surprising that the ship had returned to Portugal at all [37].

What is in doubt is what caused the damage: inherent weakness; simple decay of the timbers; stress of weather; poor loading, or over-loading: we have no evidence to identify careening as the specific culprit, though inadequate (indeed corrupt) attention to repairs as part of the overall process of careening is clearly implicated in many accounts. It is worth noting that obsessive repairs to planking would rapidly lead to a weakening of timbers by repeated boring for new fastenings: it seems that the opposite fault prevailed in general.

We should however distinguish between the fact of a ship's being heeled to obtain access to its underwater parts (rather than its being laid aground or hauled ashore), and the type and thoroughness of repairs then carried out on it. Indeed the passage goes on to indicate the interplay of different factors, and almost exonerates careening as such. Lavanha states that it was a matter of experience that some older ships, which had also been repaired and patched by the process of careening, reached Lisbon safely, because (unlike newer ships which were habitually overloaded and often lost at sea) they did not carry such full cargoes [38].

Is it beyond the bounds of possibility that Lavanha was looking for excuses for the failure of some ship he was directly concerned with ? His name appears on the specifications for ships to be built in Lisbon in 1598 [39], and he may have been involved much earlier. Alternatively, and far more likely (then as now) the received text may be corrupt.

Boxer adds a footnote to the effect that Lavanha is complaining about the practice of heaving a ship down on one side by strong purchase on her masts, rather than laying aground, or using a dry-dock. Duffy says that in querena italiana, which "became a common practice in the years of Portugal's decline", the ship "was not pulled completely out of the water, but only into a shallow section of the beach,......The side timbers of the vessel were frequently cracked by the excessive weight placed upon them". Neither summary is acceptable: there were no dry-docks in Lisbon or India; the other points are all open to considerable variation in interpretation [40].

Melchior Estacio do Amaral, writing (in 1604) another of the accounts collected by Gomes de Brito, this time for the Santiago, in 1602, gives virtually a paraphrase of Lavanha's account for the Santo Alberto, but actually uses the term querena italiana. He too uses the term carraca, which Boxer in his commentary on Lavanha describes as very rare for a Portuguese writer; he too is more concerned with the unsatisfactory work resulting from the contractual system in use; and he too compares the conditions of the Levant where careening was acceptable. This last is a curiosity: the whole suggests some conventional hyperbole on the theme. Both Lavanha and Amaral refer to the galleys of the Levant: unless this is an implicit reference to the fact that galleys were also careened, their withstanding storms in the Levant seems a non sequitur to remarks on careening - indeed perversely we are being told that the grevious process of careening which so wracked India naos was suitable for the lightly-built ships and galleys of the storm-free Levant, while the implicitly tougher Portuguese ships built for the oceans and the storms of the Cape could not withstand careening, in principle. As an aside, it is in one sense surprising that galleys needed careening: it seems that the galley fleets were held in reserve ashore. From ancient times, galleys have been brought ashore at night, even, for security, and to prevent soakage increasing their weight. Light galleys are fragile and open vessels, relatively easy to get ashore, but vulnerable to unintended stresses. Nonetheless, Crescentio has a passage on careening, related explicitly to galleys (indeed English galleys were careened on occasion), and describes the complex masthead tackles needed to haul one galley down against another in the process of careening, together with reinforcement of the shrouds; and an engraving of the process, which makes it clear that he is speaking of light galleys. It may be that galleys in service for relatively short periods required cleaning simply to retain their speed [41].

It is perhaps worth further comment on the main passages. Lavanha ought to be a reliable witness to Portuguese practice, since he was countersigning specifications for shipbuilding in Lisbon in 1598 [as 39], but his account presents other difficulties of interpretation.

Thus, why did it cost more to lay a ship aground ? In the English case, or indeed in the text for Vasco da Gama's voyage, which will follow, it was laying aground that was the easy option (other than for work quite near the waterline, when careening was easy). The key may be the great size of the vessels to which Lavanha is referring - far too deep to be left dry by the tide almost anywhere, even unladen; though there are places in South America, East Africa, India and further East where this is not true, it holds good for Goa (tide about 1.9 metres) and Cochin (tide about 0.9 metres), even for Lisbon, marginally, for the largest ships. I surmise, then, that Lavanha is actually referring to some method perhaps related to the use of cradles, to drag the ship wholly ashore, specifically to get down towards the keel, where tides were inadequate.

This interpretation is supported by Lavanha's next statement, that during careening the hull never dried out to permit proper caulking of the seams. Now drying out, at least for the lower parts of the hull, was quite impossible by simply laying aground on a mud berth, subject to bi-diurnal tides. Careening has no intrinsic time limit, and one side could be exposed for weeks, as in many accounts of the period. For the hull to dry out better by laying it aground, anywhere, it must have been dragged beyond the high water mark for a long period. For a very large ship, in most tidal ranges, the difference between spring and neap tides is a nicety of little significance in this context.

It would be interesting to know more of the change of usage in the term used for grounding: Lavanha and Castanheda used tirar a monte; and while Leit?o & Lopes in their Dicion?rio da Linguagem de Marinha Antiga e Actual cite p?r a monte as the normal case, now meaning to put aground on a mud berth, they also cite Gaspar Correia [42]: "mandou a Cochym concertar alguns navios que se tirar?o a monte", and imply that it has the same meaning. Interestingly, the tides are of less than one metre at Cochin. This is clearly a point that would bear further examination of contemporary sources and modern charts.

Another factor of some relevance, especially in the early years of the India voyages, might be the relative security of a ship in careening, rather than firmly aground on a hostile continent.

Contractors were reportedly delighted with the cheap alternative to "laying aground", whatever Lavanha meant by that term: he calls careening "the Italian invention". He seems to imply that the method was a recent introduction in 1597 - within "experience" - but knowledge of the method must considerably pre-date 1572 even in remote England, for Bourne to be able to treat the subject as he does. As we shall see, it was actually known and used by the Portuguese from 1498 or earlier. On the other hand, the tone and details of Smith and Manwayring, when compared with Bourne, do seem to imply that its rapid adoption in the North was between 1572 and about 1600. The more legitimate target for Lavanha's wrath (other than the great size of some of the ships) would then seem to be the contracting system for the work, and perhaps at root an unwise penury in the practice of shipowning. Clearly if the work was skimped as regards what was actually contracted for, and the general haste that careening permitted encouraged the omission of repairs that might be found necessary, but which would not only cost more to remedy, but cause a delay in returning the ship to service, then the whole ship was put at risk, especially on long voyages to remote places. If structural repairs were being avoided, it is not surprising that ships could not complete two return voyages to India without severe problems, at the end of three years neglect. Lavanha also tells of the use of unsound timber in these ships.

In summary, I am inclined to question not the gist of Lavanha?s statement, but the usual interpretation of it. After all, Lavanha correctly identifies that over-loaded top-heavy naos were capsized by severe leakage, not sunk directly: he was generally a reliable source, as his other work indicates.

A comparison with what we know of the Spanish system of careening, where ships were not permitted to depart for the Americas without exhaustive and virtually annual repairs, reinforces the point. Careening, as such, was not the whole problem, at least for ships up to 1000 tons, such as the Spanish used. While there are (on present evidence) certain structural characteristics which are uniquely Portuguese, or typically Spanish, there is nothing to suggest that for ships of any given size the Portuguese ships should have been any more vulnerable to careening.

The Spaniards, at least for a period in the sixteenth century, had a rigorously enforced and systematic approach to the safety of their ships going overseas. One recent and extensive treatment of this is in C R Phillips' work [43], though since this is primarily devoted to the building of new ships, careening is incidental, and material is widely scattered in the book, and not developed as a theme. Much of her text on careening is based upon the Tratado de la Galafetar?a published by Duro (see below), or corroborating lesser sources, including one by a sixteenth century French observer, who evidently took great interest in the treatment of the hull timbers, but not in the process of heeling the ship (p 112).

Two items are of greater interest here. One concerns Spanish Ordinances of 1618 that evidently required the hulls of ships to be marginally broadened aft, to make careening easier (pp 53-4). The second relates that in 1629 a fleet of 35 ships had spent the winter at Cartagena, where the risk of storms and the lack of shipwrights had prevented more than partial careening: the commander was anxious to reach Havana, where the full careening could be carried out prior to their Atlantic passage (p 86).

Phillips comments (pp 197 ff) that Spanish ships spent up to one third of their useful lives undergoing repair and careening: a luxury that was perhaps not even a possibility on the typically much longer Portuguese voyages.

However, not every source is as complimentary about Spanish thoroughness in matters of shipbuilding in the Basque area. Pepys recorded a curious short-hand note about this in 1683/4, in his Tangier Papers:

"The careening of a galleon at Cadiz shall cost 35,000 pieces of eight, things are so dear there and workmen (at a dollar a day) the ship itself not costing more the building in Biscay, but they come from thence very imperfect, all their upper work being undone and no painting etc, nor leaded in their bottoms as they are before they go to sea" [44].

Duro reproduced an important document, anonymous, but by inference dated to about 1640: Tratado de la Galafetar?a.....[45]. It gives brief descriptions of various degrees of careening, though primarily concerned with the details of making ships watertight, protecting them from ship-worms, fastenings, etc. Carena de firme is the most thorough process, cutting back seams to sound timber and replacing the caulking right down to the keel, and attending to all fastenings (Advertencia 11).

A lesser form, which the author terms fraudulent work, only acceptable under pressure of time, was carena de ferrogroso, which was limited to breaming, and replacement of obviously unsatisfactory caulking (Adv. 16). An interim method was de falco (Adv.17): no breaming, and superficial repairs to prevent a leaking ship actually foundering before it could receive a carena de firme. This work was accustomed to be done at the end of summer, when the upperworks were dry enough to allow good caulking, preparatory to heeling the ship (Adv.18).

Advertencia 19 is perhaps the most interesting in our context: it describes the process of dar lado - no more than breaming the ship, renewing its pitch and tallow, lead sheathing, etc, and repairs "de ferrogroso". This was amply done "in the ports of the Indies, and other places.... with the weight of the artillery and other heavy things". The disadvantage was that the keel was not exposed: the ship evidently remained laden at least with its guns, and was too heavy and stiff to heel.

One of the best documents available to quantify the work done during careening is that collected by Dom Ant?nio de Ataide, which he annotated "es notable" [46]. Unfortunately, this is not actually a technical document at all, but a list of quantities of materials used in the careening of one ship at Cadiz in 1629. The sheer number of various nails alone that were consumed indicates that some very major repairs were undertaken in this case. The total is astonishing - upwards of six tons of various spikes, and a further 167,000 nails measured by number (largely for fixing lead sheathing perhaps); some ten tons of tar and seven tons of hemp and oakum were consumed, together with some 400 heavy planks, 215 oak knees, etc. The inventory seems almost sufficient to build a new ship, rather than just repair one - though it is explicitly headed as for a carena y apresto.


Some of the earliest and most distinctive accounts of careening relate to incidents during voyages of exploration, from the fifteenth to the late eighteenth centuries - from Columbus to Cook. Without exception, these must concern operations conducted by small crews in remote places, with minimal equipment. Very often the narrator will emphasise the importance of unloading the vessel in a sheltered site, often in a river. There was often a substantial incentive, of course: simple survival, and any prospect of a return home. There were risks, too, and more than one account in which the crew of a ship careened or graved on the far side of the world only returned home because they had been sailing in company.

Careening even enters fiction: most notably in Daniel Defoe's sequel to Robinson Crusoe, which is so convincing an account of the methods and perils as to be fit to preface some of the incidents which must have inspired it. It is set on a voyage begun in 1695 [47]:

"I have observed above, that our ship sprung a leak at sea, and that we could not find it out, and however it happened, that, as I have said, it was stopped unexpectedly, in the happy minute of our being [about] to be seized, by the Dutch and English ships, near the Bay of Siam; yet as we did not find the ship so perfectly tight and sound as we desired, we resolved, while we were in this place [tides around three metres], to lay her on shore, take out what heavy things we had on board, which were not many, and to wash and clean her bottom; and if possible, to find out where the leaks were.

Accordingly, having lightened the ship, and brought all our guns, and other movable things to one side, we tried to bring her down, that we might come at her bottom; for on second thoughts, we did not care to lay her dry aground, neither could we find a proper place for it.

The inhabitants, who had never been acquainted with such a sight, came wondering down to the shore, to look at us, and seeing the ship lie down on one side in such a manner, and heeling towards the shore, and not seeing our men, who were at work on her bottom, with stages, and with their boats on the off side, they presently concluded, that the ship was cast away, and lay so very fast on the ground.

On this supposition, they came all about us in two or three hours time, with ten or twelve large boats, having some of them eight some ten men in a boat, intending, no doubt, to have come on board, and plundered the ship, and if they had found us there, to have carried us away for slaves to their king, or whatever they call him, for we knew nothing who was their Governor.

When they came up to the ship, and began to row round her, they discovered us all hard at work, on the outside of the ship's bottom and side, washing and graving, and stopping, as every seafaring man knows how....[a battle took place]...our carpenter being prepared to grave the outside of the ship, as well to pay the seams where he had caulked her, to stop the leaks, had got two kettles just let down into the boat, one filled with boiling pitch, and the other with rosin, tallow and oil, and such stuff as the shipwrights use for that work; and the man that tended the carpenter, had a great iron ladle in his hand, with which he supplied the men that were at work with that hot stuff.......with great dexterity brought the ship almost to rights; and having gotten their guns into their places again.....got all our things on board the same evening.

There are a number of accounts of Vasco da Gama's voyage, which have been compared by Lord Stanley in his translation of Correia's narrative [48]. They differ in detail, but the differences are of less concern to us here than they might be to a geographer trying to re-locate the precise spot. They are very old accounts, and must illustrate the typical problems and methods encountered in their era, if not accurately Vasco da Gama's in January or February 1498, somewhere in Southern Africa, named the River of Mercy ( - dos bons sinaes). Their very existence compels a re-assessment of Lavanha's comments.

"...the ships...let in so much water that they never left off pumping. The Captain-Major saw this, and that the ship had an absolute need of repairs; and also because they had no more water to drink.... they sailed along the land for several days without finding where to put in.....found themselves in the mouth of a large river....and found [themselves] within a large bay sheltered from all winds, in which they anchored.....

Then they settled about refitting the ships, for they had all that was necessary for doing it. Although they had a beach and tides for laying the ships aground, for gre

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