So, I am designing a board game which includes pirates/imperial battles during the age of sail. While I have found a lot of information on the internet as well as books, papers and of course other boardgames, I am having difficulty in determining a more accurate picture regarding sailing maneuvers and battle tactics.

More specifically, I would like to find out if escaping a battle was a viable option after realising the engagement tactics have failed and the battle would be lost, given that the ship has not taken damage to the sails.

Also, was escaping easier than boarding? And were they both mainly dependent on the maneuverability of the ship and the navigational skills of the crew or did other factors play significant role?

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    Are you talking about fleet battles, squadron battles or single ship combat? When you ask about escaping, are you talking about individual ships escaping a battle or a whole fleet?
    – Steve Bird
    Nov 17, 2020 at 20:20
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    I was reffering mostly to single or up to 4vs4 ship battles, and looking for the parameters defining the moves/tactics/actions in order to simulate them in a very simplified manner (board game). You helped a lot!
    – Spyros
    Nov 18, 2020 at 13:04
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    Regardless of history, if escaping serves the game play well, you should implement it. Nov 18, 2020 at 13:43
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    Sounds like an interesting game!
    – boatcoder
    Nov 19, 2020 at 18:31

4 Answers 4


This is where the wind gauge becomes critical. Having the wind gauge, contrary to popular perception, was of little tactical benefit; but rather enabled one to prevent the enemy from escaping. This is because being upwind of the enemy allows one to cover him, disturbing the wind and reducing their speed by (I would estimate) 3% or so. Not enough to matter when one vessel type is inherently faster, but more than enough for comparable vessels.

For some superb examples of this, look up the online videos of the 1983 and 1987 America's Cup races off Newport and Freemantle respectively. These are the last two times that 12m yachts competed for the Cup, and as I recall one wag remarking at the time: "no sailor has ever been able to sail a slow boat faster than Dennis Connor can." The way in which Connor maneuvred his slower boat, particularly in 1983, to repeated wins by covering on both the upwind and downwind legs was a beauty to watch.

The above is why sailboat races (except for catamarans) are over triangular courses with upwind, downwind, and reaching legs. Upwind the yacht in front can cover, and downwind the yacht behind can cover, providing opportunities on both for a more skilfully crewed yacht to catch and pass in both cases. The reaching legs then become pure speed tests.

However in a full fleet battle it is impossible for both sides to engage (in line of battle, that is) except on parallel downwind paths. As downwind is considerably slower than a broad or close reach, either side can disengage from such by simply reaching away - at which point they also cover the pursuing fleet; and escape.

Nelson at Trafalgar, in particular though the tactic wasn't new, could create a decisive battle *by sailing on a broad reach into the enemy line, with the weather gauge (see diagram) and, completely disdaining line of battle, engaging just 2/3 of the Franco-Spanish fleet in vessel-to-vessel combat. Notice how the entire trailing 2/3 of Villeneuve's fleet is covered by the British fleet, while Nelson has skilfully avoided having his own vessels cover each other. The light wind that day assisted - as while it slowed the British advance into battle their lead vessels were quite capable of taking the punishment, the light air was even more disturbed by the cover than a slightly heavier breeze would have been.

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Note also that the van of Villenueve's fleet, in order to enter the battle, must either turn to port and tack into the line of the approaching British fleet, or gybe away and then tack or close-reach back. Neither will be either pleasant or efficient, and as it happened the battle was all but over before they were able to do so. Nelson truly contrived a masterful plan that gave Villeneuve no good choices as the two fleets started to engage.

From my now deleted comment to another answer:

The slowest point of sail is straight downwind. In ascending speed after a straight run are broad reach, close-hauled, close reach, and finally beam reach as the fastest point of sail.

  • straight run

  • broad reach

  • close-hauled

  • close reach

  • beam reach

The reasons for this are that on a run there is zero aerodynamic lift, and the boat is simply being dragged by the wind at some speed less than the wind itself. A tiny amount of aerodynamic lift is available on a broad reach, with some of the sails. Close hauled lots of aerodynamic list is available, but one must counter considerable leeway in addition to the hydraulic drag. As the vessel bears off the wind from close-hauled the lee-way lessens and the aerodynamic lift increases, and the vessel reaches full speed.

Now clearly there musty be some intermediate reaches between a (slow) broad-broad reach and a (fast) beamy-broad reach. The point above stands as I know of no precise nautical terminology for describing these, and part of a Master's or Captain's skill is setting a course that best leverages these choices.

To conclude, some may recall the phrase: "running before the wind". I have seen this interpreted as justification for the claim that a downwind run is a fast point of sail. Rather, it refers to a downwind run being the most comfortable point of sail. The boat sails flat with no heel; the crew can gambol freely aboard the vessel; sail changes are infrequent and minor (unlike a square-rigged tack or gybe); the seas are often following and if not calm then at least less disturbing to the vessel's trim; and even the passengers are comfortable and not retching over the sides. All very pleasant, and very unlike the faster points of sail.

Clarifications (mostly from my comments below):

  • Re close-hauled please clarify if you are referring to velocity-made-good, which of course is terrible on a square-rig due to the inability to get much closer than 60 degrees to the wind, or actual measured speed relative to the water which I maintain is still fairly fast as, if it isn't, one is not making progress at all due to lee-way and that is demonstrably not the case. My reference is specifically to measured speed over water, the knots measured over the gunwale, which I believe should be clear from context.
    Terminology: Velocity-made-good (VMG) is net speed as plotted on a chart, as distinct from vessel speed (over the water) as measured over the gunwale. Upwind VMG for square-riggers is terrible even at appreciable vessel speed because of their very poor pointing characteristics, often in excess of 55-60 degrees off the wind. The speed references above are to vessel speed because that is independent of the reason why one is on a particular heading relative to the wind. Think of it as the difference between speed towards where you're pointed (what's dead ahead of the bow) and where you're headed (a location on a map or chart).

  • Cover has a small tactical effect at Trafalgar by slowing the trailing Franco-Spanish vessels compared to the van. Note all the battle commentaries which speak of how slow those vessels were in forming line of battle, and how this hindered Villeneuve's plan. That's the cover having effect. It's right there in the battle summaries. However it's main effect is in the chase, where the pursuer has both the wind gauge and a long enough chase for the effect to manifest. For a 200 foot mast the effect in even short match races would extend out to perhaps 2000 feet, for a single vessel. The effect for a large fleet is both greater in effect, and much easier to aim at opposing vessels.

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    To the subject of disturbing the wind. There is a huge difference between a single vessel and a whole fleet. A single vessel needs rather close cover to have a good effect which is why classic match racing is so exciting. A whole fleet disturbs the wind in a huge area which makes it very hard for the escaping vessel to maneuver out of the disturbed wind
    – Manziel
    Nov 18, 2020 at 8:56
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    I am by no means an expert, but I do think I have read somewhat more extensively about naval tactics than average in the age of sail (including Trafalgar), and I have never seen a mention of cover being relevant, except possibly at very close quarters, prior to boarding. Yes, guns then had less range than today, but even so, I am very skeptical that cover would make any difference at typical ranges at which gun-armed sailing ships engaged. Can you add any references? Nov 18, 2020 at 10:37
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    Regarding the fastest point of sail in the last half of your answer, that's only true for modern yachts. For a square-rigger it really wasn't the case - their speed close-hauled basically dropped off a cliff. A broad reach was still the fastest point of sail, but downwind on a square-rigger was no slower than a close reach and almost the same as a beam reach, and close-hauled was radically slower. That's the reason cutter and schooner rigs were invented, trading off guns/cargo against raw speed and manoeverability.
    – Graham
    Nov 18, 2020 at 13:02
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    And regarding wind shadow, as an ex dinghy racer, I know very well that wind shadow tails off very quickly with distance. You're looking at it being effective to about 5x mast height, somewhat effective out to maybe 10-20x mast height, and basically non-existent past that point. For Trafalgar, wind cover was not an issue - what mattered was Nelson using speed and surprise to break the "normal" rules of naval battles.
    – Graham
    Nov 18, 2020 at 13:07
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    And don't forget why those "normal" rules existed. Nelson's plan relied on Victory, Royal Sovereign and Temeraire being able to soak up an insane amount of punishment from the French fleet, in order to get the English fleet into the French line. For those three ships it was virtually a suicide run (and of course it was for Nelson himself). The French plan was perfectly valid tactically for normal fleet skirmishing - it just didn't allow for suicidal self-sacrifice.
    – Graham
    Nov 18, 2020 at 13:12

The subject of disengagement and, possibly, the subsequent chase is one that fills chapters and even whole books on Age-of-Sail tactics. Determining the possibility of escape involves a large number of variables. This includes, the number of vessels involved on each side, the state of those vessels (age, loading, trim, damage, how clean the hull is, etc), the comparative skill and morale levels of the crews, the nationality of the vessels involved (which determined standing orders, training, etc.), the proximity of allied forces (e.g. other ships, harbours and shore defences) and, especially, the weather.

A book you should read is by Sam Willis - Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century, The Art of Sailing Warfare (Boydell, 2008) which has two chapters on "Chase and Escape". (While the title refers to the 18th Century, much of what is covered will apply to tactics through the whole Age-of-Sail). As he notes -

Once two ships or fleets had made initial contact, one of two things would then happen: they would prepare to engage, or one would flee and the other would chase. It was rare indeed for two ships or fleets to meet and both be intent on action, and usually the aggressive party in some way had to force action on his enemy. The captains of both ships, therefore, now turned their minds to the question of speed.

Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century, The Art of Sailing Warfare, S.Willis (Boydell, 2008) pg. 27

In a engagement between single ships, it's the individual captains who are responsible for the choice of tactics. They decide if and when to break off and attempt an escape from an action, or if they were the aggressor, how and if they make the attempt to chase. Again, there are many factors involved in making those decisions. For example, a British Royal Navy captain always had the Articles of War in mind which required him (on pain of death) to do his utmost in the face of the enemy. Other navies were less focused on the destruction of the enemy, especially if that conflicted with the mission that they were on, which gave their captains other priorities.

In fleet engagements, the captains had less scope for individual action. They had a responsibility to the fleet as a whole and were directly answerable to the admiral in command. Conducting an escape or a chase as part of a fleet was a very different proposition.

The whole purpose of a fleet was to achieve strength in numbers, and that required a certain degree of cohesion. A fleet strung our over miles of ocean posed relatively little collective threat offensively, and could offer little collective resistance defensively; a fleet in close formation, on the other hand, was a fearsome opponent. The basic problem for a fleet in chase, therefore, was that the basic building blocks of fleet performance, the performance of the individual ships themselves, was neither uniform nor reliable.

Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century, The Art of Sailing Warfare, S.Willis (Boydell, 2008) pg. 31

Any captain of a vessel that broke away from an engagement, to escape, without permission or extremely good reason, would find himself in a very awkward position. In theory, the escaping fleet has the option of scattering, which makes it more likely for the faster vessels to escape, but that would doom the slower ones to capture or destruction. There were also other risks -

The dilemma facing the fleet commander in chase, therefore, was to go at the speed of the slowest performer or to sacrifice any hope of cohesion. Sacrificing cohesion was risky; it opened the fleet up to attack and brought with it a heightened risk of collision. If a fleet was committed to a general chase through individual action, with each captain free to do exactly as he saw fit to bring his ship up with the enemy as quickly as possible, the behaviour of each ship immediately became unpredictable. In fair weather this could be problematic, but if the weather turned foul, chaos was inevitable.

Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century, The Art of Sailing Warfare, S.Willis (Boydell, 2008) pg. 32

In a general chase there was also the risk that the fastest vessels of the chasing fleet would get too far ahead of their own companions and risk being defeated by coming up on larger numbers of the escaping fleet. First contact would be the 'hottest' combat, with fresh gun crews and a full complement of guns on each side. So there was the potential for the fastest chasers and/or slowest of the escapers to be significantly damaged (which would reduce their performance) in such a situation.

Ultimately, the ability to escape or not wasn't simply the relative performances of the vessels -

It has been argued that once a chase had been established, with both ships sailing as fast as they could, the only chance of escape for a slower craft rested on 'shifts of wind, squally weather, or the blunders of the chaser'. It is a statement that implies both a passive role for the captain of the escaping ship and a sense of inevitability in the outcome of the chase, both of which are unjust. The outcome of any chase, however ill matched the ships or fleets, was characterised by a marked unpredictability; it was an activity in which everything remained uncertain.
[my emphasis]

Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century, The Art of Sailing Warfare, S.Willis (Boydell, 2008) pg. 36

To answer the final part of the question — was escaping easier than boarding? — you might want to have a look at an earlier question on this site: Was there a way for ships to disengage from boarding actions?. In short, there were significant risks to boarding actions, so, for a ship that is potentially losing a battle, it's essentially a last throw of the dice. If your ship was still manoeuvrable, it was far more sensible to attempt to escape first (and boarding remained an option if that escape attempt failed).

Additional Recommended reading:
Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail, Tunstall/Tracy (Conway, 1990) - Concentrates mainly on fleet tactics.
Seamanship in the Age of Sail, J.Harland (Conway, 2009) - While not about warfare, this gives invaluable information about handling the sailing ships of the period.

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    Nice answer; though I was so hoping for a comment on that staple of escape-chase: "the false tack". That wold have so nicely complemented my remarks on covering. Nov 18, 2020 at 2:00
  • Nice answer indeed, thank you! From all the answers I got, is it safe to assume that in a 1vs1 or 2-3vs2-3 battle, boarding was more difficult than escaping and could only happen if the stronger ship (about to be boarded by the weakest) decided to "allow" the opponent to approach in order to try to inflict more damage from close range?
    – Spyros
    Nov 18, 2020 at 12:59
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    As mentioned in the other thread, boarding, in a battle between warships, only happened in certain circumstances - when both captains desired it (which would be rare) or when one vessel was unable to move freely (by collision or damage). In the case of a warship against a merchant, boarding was more likely (to avoid damage to the merchant ship) but in most cases the merchant would surrender before that happened.
    – Steve Bird
    Nov 18, 2020 at 13:20
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    When multiple vessels were involved, boarding carried additional risks as the action left both ships (involved in the boarding action) vulnerable to fire from the other participants. A good example is at Trafalgar when the Redoutable was preparing to board the Victory, the Temeraire passed across the stern of the Redoutable and fired, killing many of the intended boarding party.
    – Steve Bird
    Nov 18, 2020 at 13:26

There are plenty of examples of ships withdrawing out of range during a ship vs. ship battle. HMS Java vs USS Constitution is one. Constitution withdrew to make repairs before returning to the battle. It could have easily sailed away, but that would have been silly, as it was winning the battle at the time.



Very easy, providing the enemy was playing a classic game. If the enemy was "charging" like Nelson at Trafalgar, there would be a lot of losses for the loser. If the wind was changing fast, this could possibly trigger a charge from the enemy or prevent the ships to go out fast, and thus heavy losses could happen.


The main tactic at the age of sail, is two lines of ships going alongside each other and firing at each other. If you lose, you just have to move your line and you escape. But for that, there are some conditions:

  • Ships must be down the wind to sail fast
  • Ships must have the order in time (not easy at the Age of Sail)
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    It 's about my english being inaccurate (and you puting wrong mean on words). By "downwind" I don't mean "straight downwind", I mean broad reach Nov 17, 2020 at 20:04
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    Okay, edit into your answer. It's a common misconception to think that downwind is the fastest point of sail, when it's actually the slowest. I'll remove my first comment, and you are welcome to check your terminology against the description at the tail of my answer. Nov 17, 2020 at 20:09
  • @PieterGeerkens, downwind is only the slowest point of sail for modern craft. Many Age of Sail ships were square-riggers, with respectable downwind performance (and abysmal upwind performance).
    – Mark
    Nov 20, 2020 at 21:48
  • @Mark: You are again conflating velocity-made-good, which is to say the speed upwind on a chart, with vessel-speed-over-water as measured by the knot meter (however implemented) over the ship's gunwale. It is impossible to exceed windspeed on a run or very broad reach, because the sails empty instantly. It's (one reason) why vessels avoid a dead run when possible and prefer a slight broad reach where there can be a hint of aerodynamic lift. But once a vessel, even a square-rigger, approaches a beam reach it is possible, due to aerodynamic lift on the sails, to exceed wind speed. Nov 20, 2020 at 21:56
  • @Mark: The poor velocity made good (VMG) of a square rigger is due to the very poor pointing (no better than about 60 degrees off the wind compared to a modern racing yacht's 42-45 degrees) and greater leeway due to a rather shallow and non-aerodynamic keel. it's absolutely not due to poor speed-over-water measured over the gunwale. Nov 20, 2020 at 21:59

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