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The Ballahoo and Cuckoo-class schooners were small (50-60 foot length) warships built for the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars. According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballahoo-class_schooner

The class was an attempt by the Admiralty to harness the expertise of Bermudian shipbuilders who were renowned for their fast-sailing craft (particularly the Bermuda sloops). ... This durable, native wood, abundant in Bermuda, was strong and light, and did not need seasoning. Shipbuilders used it for framing as well as planking, which reduced vessel weight. It was also highly resistant to rot and marine borers, giving Bermudian vessels a potential lifespan of twenty years and more, even in the worm-infested waters of the Chesapeake and the Caribbean.

This all sounds very promising so far! However,

William James wrote scathingly of the Ballahoo and subsequent Cuckoo-class schooners, pointing out the high rate of loss, primarily to wrecks or foundering, but also to enemy action. ... Moreover, when sent forth to cruise against the enemies of England...these "king's schooners" were found to sail wretchedly, and proved so crank and unseaworthy, that almost every one of them that escaped capture went to the bottom with the unfortunate men on board.

Now, I'm going to disregard the question of enemy action. Small ships losing badly when they go up against big ships? That's not a surprising outcome in special need of explanation.

What is a surprising outcome in special need of explanation is the high rate of loss primarily to wrecks or foundering, and the facts as laid out in the accompanying table of the fates of the individual vessels, do seem to back up this summary. What was the problem there?

Is it a matter of sheer size? That seems unlikely. People have sailed significantly smaller boats across oceans plenty of times. According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caravel

... the Pinta and Niña were smaller caravels of around 15–20 m with a beam of 6 m and displacing around 60–75 tons.

So Columbus crossed the Atlantic with ships in just that size range.

Was there a problem with the materials used in construction? It certainly does not sound like there should be; the first paragraph quoted above, specifically calls out Bermuda cedar as being particularly suited to this application.

Was there a problem with inexperienced or otherwise incompetent shipbuilders? This also does not seem as though it should be the case, if Bermudian shipbuilders were renowned for successfully building similar craft.

So what was the problem?

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    There's a reddit post on this, though it doesn't cite sources. Also, perusing the list of ships in your first link, the claim that losses were "primarily to wrecks or foundering" may not be accurate. – Lars Bosteen Jul 21 at 6:35
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    It should be noted that for the RN (during this period) the primary source of all ship losses were wrecks or foundering. The RN often kept ships at sea when everyone else was safe in harbour. There's nothing particularly remarkable about these vessels in that respect. They were comparatively small and might not have been a suitable design for all-year-round use in northern waters. The only true comparison would be to find another class of schooners of similar size and construction that possibly didn't suffer in the same way. – Steve Bird Jul 21 at 7:27
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    The phrase "proved so crank and unseaworthy" suggests strongly to me that it was just not a good design (or not a good design for the way they were employed), rather than any intrinsic flaws in the workmanship or materials. – Andrew Jul 21 at 11:26
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Taking the last of the question's points first - I think we can free the Bermudian shipbuilders and the Bermuda cedar from particular blame because the follow-on Cuckoo class ships suffered much the same way and they were all built in British shipyards with European woods. If the materials or construction process were purely at fault, you would perhaps expect to see more of a difference.

The Royal Navy lost far more vessels to the 'dangers of the sea' (wrecks/foundering/accidental fires) than they did to enemy action. This was largely a result of their policy of keeping ships at sea, year-round, in all weathers in order to maintain what A.T. Mahan later called "Sea Power" – keeping control of the seas.

During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, the RN permanently lost just 10 ships to enemy action (a few others were captured but subsequently re-taken). In the same period they lost a total of 344 ships to the sea; 254 were wrecked, 75 had foundered and 15 had burned/blown up. As a British sailor, you were almost safer in a battle than you were sailing to and from one.

With that in mind, were the Ballahoo and Cuckoo-class schooner losses particularly notable?

If we look at a couple of slightly larger schooner classes used by the RN in the same time period, the pattern of losses there isn't all that different.

  • Adonis class (10-guns). Of 12 built, 7 were lost (4 wrecked/foundered, 1 destroyed in action, 2 captured)
  • Shamrock class (10-guns). Of 6 built, 4 were lost (all wrecked/foundered)

Taken in that light, the losses of the Ballahoo and Cuckoo-classes might not be all that exceptional after all.

I think there are two key elements that affected these vessels (which might well apply to the larger schooners too):

  1. Design. These vessels where originally intended to serve as "despatch boats" (i.e. carrying communications) rather than as cruisers. The desperate need for every available vessel to cover all of the RN's world-wide obligations meant that they were pressed into service as cruisers; kept at sea in all weathers, and serving in waters that were probably never envisioned when the schooners were designed. Their altered loading and trim as a warship would have changed the way the vessels handled, which could explain the descriptions of them being "crank and unseaworthy".

[Describing the schooner Haddock] An attempt to harness the expertise of Bermudan builders who were renowned for their fast-sailing small craft, this class was primarily designed for dispatch duties rather than as cruising warships. Lightly armed, but forced by their role to go in harm's way, they suffered heavily from both the dangers of the sea and the violence of the enemy.

British Warships in the Age of Sail, pg.358

  1. Officers. These small vessels were too small to be worthy of a post-captain, so were commanded by a lieutenant. While these officers were by no measure novice sailors, they were less experienced and were, quite possibly, more inclined to take risks (a meritorious promotion was a quick way to jump the seniority list). Therefore, they were potentially more likely to take a gamble with the vessel where an older officer might be more cautious.

References:
British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1793-1817, Design, Construction, Careers and Fates, R. Winfield (Seaforth, 2005)
A Social History of the Navy 1793-1815, M. Lewis (Allen & Unwin 1960)

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  • "As a British sailor, you were almost safer in a battle than you were sailing to and from one." -- That line, while humorous, is faulty statistics, and does nothing to further the answer, which would be better without it. – DevSolar Jul 21 at 19:56
  • @DevSolar While it was intentionally made a little jokingly, it was done to serve the purpose of reminding people that life at sea had plenty of risks outside of battle. It reinforces the point that ships at sea were always at risk and it was not unusual for them to be lost outside of combat. Finally, given that I didn't quote any figures for human casualties, I can't see how my statement represents faulty statistics. – Steve Bird Jul 21 at 21:17

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