Ships of the Roanoke Voyages

No plans for vessels used in the Roanoke voyages are known to exist, but reasonably accurate inferences about those vessels can be drawn from contemporary paintings, construction and performance records, woodcuts, and maritime treatises.

The wooden sailing ships of the period, while much trimmer and sleeker than their tub-like fourteenth-and fifteenth-century ancestors, had considerable strength, durability and maneuverability. Rather than battering and slamming their way through the forces of a North Atlantic gale, the typical sixteenth century English ship was able to slip and bob through the waves with comparative ease.

Disasters at sea were rarely caused by the structural failure of a ship. Typically, the hull or shell of the vessel was either clinker-built, that is, with plank edges overlapped and fastened with nails; or carvel-built, with planks laid flush, edge to edge, over a skeleton frame. Both methods of hull construction had advantages and drawbacks.

The clinker-built ship, while extremely strong and durable, was difficult and expensive to repair, the services of a master shipwright being required. Moreover, gunports, which were cut through the overlapping, weakened the hull significantly. In spite of these drawbacks, the average life of a typical ship was an impressive sixty-five years. Even though this method of construction was being phased out by the mid 1540s, it is likely that some of the vessels that took part in the Roanoke ventures were clinker-built.

The carvel-built of skeleton-frame ship was also strong, durable, and difficult to repair. The skill of a master shipwright was not always required, however; a competent carpenter could handle many repairs and alterations.

Whether a merchantman or a ship of war, a sixteenth-century vessel contained a vast array of small pieces of wood, nails, iron bolts, washers, wooden pegs, and knees or braces. All seams were made water tight with a caulking of tarred hemp fibers. The result of the shipwright's art was a springy, flexible vessel able to work under the various and variable stresses exerted by the wind; the weight of cargo, the crew, and the ship itself; and the violent impacts of the sea.

The vast majority of sixteenth-century oceangoing vessels were three-masted and square-rigged. On a square-rigged ship, the large main square sails were laced to a yard or bar, which was attached horizontally to a mast. In addition to the square sails carried on the main and foremasts, square-rigged ships of the period also had, on the aftermast, a small lateen, or triangular sail which acted as a stabilizer. The square-rigged ship of the Elizabethan era was able to sail well to windward, that is, approximately in the same direction from which the wind was blowing. The versatility of this particular style of rigging enabled mariners to adjust sails to meet constantly changing wind conditions. Because of the strength and durability of its hull, its maneuverability, and its adaptability, the three-masted, square-rigged ship was the mainstay of the European voyages of discovery and exploration.

In sixteenth-century England, the size of a vessel was estimated in terms of tunnage --the ships capacity to carry 252 gallon tuns of hogshead barrels of wine. A 50-tun ship could carry fifty hogsheads. The tun was a measure of volume, not weight, and it was hardly uniform. The capacity of a Spanish tun, for example, was considerably less than that of an English tun. Thus a Spanish vessel of 50 tuns was not the same size as a 50-tun English ship. During the Elizabeth Era, tonnage, a more accurate and sophisticated measurement system based on a ship's dead weight and its displacement of water was in the early stage of development. As a system for standardizing the measurement of ship size, it was not uniformly applied to English shipping for many years thereafter. Though sometimes used interchangeably by post-Elizabethan writers, tunnage and tonnage are not synonyms.

The majority of ships used in the Roanoke ventures were privately owned, well-armed merchant ships ranging in size from 20 to 400 tuns. Other than names and tunnage, very few details about the vessels survive. The lack of information is complicated by the inexact system for estimating ship size--one ship could be listed with different tunnages. Identification of the vessels is made more difficult--and in some cases rendered impossible--by the Elizabethan practice of renaming ships often. Sir Francis Drake's Pelican (Golden Hind) is famous enough to be traceable, but most of the vessels associated with the Roanoke voyages are not. Contemporary descriptions of these vessels vary. A vessel called one thing in one document might be called something else in another. Further, more-or-less standard modern usage and definitions have little in common with sixteenth-century terminology.



Admiral (flagship): a ship of any type on which the commander of the expedition sailed. It was usually the largest, best, or safest ship in the fleet.

Bark: a relatively small sailing vessel, generally around 50 or 60 tuns, having three masts, of which the fore and main were square-rigged, and the rearmost (mizzenmast) was rigged fore-and-aft.

Boat: a small, undecked craft propelled by oars or a small sail on a short mast. Ships' boats varied in capacity and size, but always had a shallow draft. They were used to haul cargo, supplies and personnel to and from shore. Carried aboard ships in the fleet during the Atlantic crossing, the versatile and maneuverable ship's boat played a major role in the exploration of the shallow sounds and rivers of northeastern North Carolina.

Captain: the commanding officer of a vessel, with absolute authority on board. Captains were not necessarily skilled in navigation or seamanship. Ship owners and company appointees were frequently styled captain of a ship in the fleet.

Consort: a ship of any size or type that accompanied another vessel, generally in accordance with an agreement to share any loot seized from other vessels.

Flyboat: a large ship of Dutch origin, having a high stern, broad beam, shallow draft, and one or two masts; generally square-rigged, and around 600 tuns.

Frigate: a light, swift vessel, generally around 10 tuns, having one or two square-rigged sails.

Galleass: a fighting vessel, with provisions for oar and sail power, favored by the Spanish but not by the English.

Galleon: a large, heavy, square-rigged ship, having a high stern and three or four levels or decks. The galleon design was developed primarily by Sir John Hawkins, but Spain adapted it and used it as the mainstay of its American treasure fleet.

Master: a professional mariner responsible for all aspects of sailing and maneuvering a ship.

Pilot: an experienced mariner responsible for plotting courses for ships of the fleet, particularly through coastal waters.

Pinnace: a small vessel of around 20 tuns, generally having two square-rigged masts. Pinnaces were small, fast, and maneuverable and sometimes carried oars. They were frequently used as message boats within fleets and were also highly regarded by the English for scouting coastal waters. Some small, undecked pinnaces were technically boats, for they could be taken aboard larger vessels.

Shallop: a large, heavy undecked boat with a single fore-and-aft-rigged mast.

Ship: a generic term for any square-rigged vessel having a bowsprit and three masts.

Tiltboat: a small boat with a canvas awning at the stern to provide protection from the sun.

Wherry, double wherry: an open boat used originally to carry passengers on the tidal reaches of the Thames. Noted for their great speed, wherries were sometimes called "light-horsemen" and ranged in length from around 14 feet for a single oarsman to 25 feet for four oarsmen. The Grenville expedition of 1585 used both the tiltboat and the wherry to explore the sounds around Roanoke Island.



1584 Reconnissance Voyage of Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe

Two vessels described in Hakluyt's Principal Navigations as "barks well furnished with men and victuals."

1585 First Expedition of Sir Richard Grenville, Which Planted the Lane Colony

Dorothy, "a small bark" (described as a pinnace in other accounts) owned by Ralegh and possibly captioned by Barlowe.
Elizabeth, a vessel of 50 tuns; Thomas Cavendish, Captain.

Lyon (Red Lyon) of Chichester, "a hundred tunnes or thereabouts"; George Raymond, Captain.

Roebuck, a flyboat of about 140 tuns; John Clarke, Captain.

Tyger, a ship of "seven score tun, " the admiral of the fleet; commanded by Sir Richard Grenville, with Simon Fernandez chief pilot and master. This was probably the Tyger originally built as a galleass in the mid-1540's and rebuilt in 1570. Its tunnage is given variously as 140, 160, and 200.

Two pinnaces, 20-30 tuns each, names unknown, "for speedie seruices. " One was lost on the outbound leg, so Grenville's party built its replacement at Tallaboa Bay, Puerto Rico.

Prizes: Santa Maria de Vincente (300-400 tuns), Alonzo Cornieles, captain; a large frigate owned by Lorenzo de Vallejo; and a small frigate, used by Ralph Lane to carry salt dug at Cape Rojo, Puerto Rico.


1586 Sir Bernard Drake's Voyage to Newfoundland

Golden Royal of Topsham (110 tuns), owned by Drake and Amyas Preston. Drake intended to lead Ralegh's second squadron to Virginia, but the Queen ordered him to Newfoundland instead--there to seize Spaniards and warn English fishermen not to take their catches to Spain. Drake met Lion and maybe Dorothy off Newfoundland, perhaps by prearrangement.

Good Companion, consort of Golden Royal.

Job (70 tons), owned by Ralegh; Andrew Fulforde, captain. Job eventually limped into Brittany with a cargo of cedar, probably transferred from Lion.

Prizes: Lion of Viana, a Portuguese fishing vessel; four Brazilian vessels; a French ship bound from Guinea; and seventeen other fishing vessels taken off Newfoundland.


1586 The Main Ships in Sir Francis Drake's Fleet, Which Evacuated the Lane Colony

Aid (200-250 tuns), the Queen's ship; Edward Wynter, captain.

Bark Bond (120-150 tuns); owned at least in part by John Hawkins, Treasurer of the Navy; Robert Crosse, captain.

Bark Bonner (about 150 tuns), apparently owned by William Hawkins; George Fortescue, captain. This is the vessel that Drake offered Lane after a storm had dispersed much of the fleet.

Elizabeth Bonaventure (600 tuns), the Queen's ship and Drake's flagship.

Francis (70 tuns), owned by Drake and under the command of Captain Thomas Moore. Drake offered her to Lane, but she was driven out to sea by a storm.

Leicester (Ughtred), a 400-tun galleon captained by Francis Knollys.

Minion of Plymouth (100-200 tuns) probably owned by a consortium of Plymouth and Bristol merchants; Thomas Cely, captain; John Newsome, master.

Primrose (300 tuns), part-owned by John Hawkins and captained by Martin Frobisher; its journal is an important source of information about the voyage.

Sea Dragon (140 tuns), owned by Sir William Wynter, the Queen's Surveyor of Ships; Henry Whyte, captain. Evidently one of the vessels scattered by the storm that arose while the fleet rode at anchor off the Outer Banks. In any case, on her return, she required new anchors and cables.

Speedwell, a merchantman of 50-60 tuns; probably not the vessel of the same name that accompanied Mayflower in 1620. She returned to England after a storm separated her from the fleet.

Talbot, a bark of 150-200 tuns owned by George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury; [Walter?] Baily, captain. This may have been one of the vessels scattered by the storm that arose while the fleet rode at anchor off the Outer Banks.

Thomas (Bark Hastings, Thomas Drake, Thomas of Plymouth), a vessel of 100-200 tuns owned by Sir Francis Drake; Thomas Drake, captain.

Tyger (200 tuns), under the command of Captain Christopher Carleill; not the Tyger of 1585.

White Lion (140-150 tuns), a private man-of-war owned by Charles Lord Howard of Effingham. Lord Admiral of England; James Erisey, captain. She lost an anchor and cable off the Outer Banks during Drake's attempt to render assistance to the Lane colony.

Eight pinnaces and a dozen or so other vessels of various kinds, including prizes.


1586 Relief Voyages for the Lane Colony

Name unknown: a supply ship of 100 tuns, owned and sent by Ralegh. She arrived after 19 June 1586, found Lane's settlement deserted, and soon left.

Names unknown: a fleet of two large vessels and four or five smaller ones commanded by Sir Richard Grenville. Grenville arrived shortly after Ralegh's supply ship had departed. He left a holding party of fifteen men with food for two years.

Prizes: Brave (Peter); Julian of St. Brieuc (60 tuns), Peter Godbecin, master; Martin Johnson of Amsterdam, a flyboat; and a bark, name unknown, taken in the Azores.

1587 The Voyage to Plant a Second Colony in Virginia

Lyon (120 tuns); the admiral, captained by Governor John White, with Simon Fernandez as master and pilot. A flyboat of 20 tuns, Edward Spicer, Master. A pinnace under the command of captain Edward Stafford.

1587 Sir George Carey's Expedition

Commander (2000 tuns), owned by Carey; William Irish, leader of the expedition, may have been her captain. Commander and two consorts left England before the squadron bearing the colonists and evidently called at Chesapeake Bay, the colonists' supposed destination, but found no evidence of English settlement. The exact relationship of Carey's expedition to White's has not been established.

Swallow, a bark of 70 tuns owned by Carey.

Gabriel, a pinnace of 30 tuns owned by Carey.


1588 First Attempt by Governor John White to Relieve the Roanoke Colonists

Brave: a pinnace of 30-50 tuns commanded by Captain Arthur Facy; Pedro Diaz, pilot.

Roe: a pinnace rated at around 25 tuns.

1590 Second Attempt by Governor John White to Relieve the Roanoke Colonists

Conclude, a pinnace of 20-30 tuns owned by Thomas Middleton and partners; Joseph Harris, captain; Hugh Harding, master; consort of Moonlight.

Hopewell (also known as the Harry and John), 140-160 tuns; Abraham Cocke, captain; Robert Hutton, master. Governor White booked passage on this vessel. White's account of the voyage suggests that the company barely tolerated presence even as a passenger with no real authority.

John Evangelist: a pinnace, captained by William Lane.

Little John (120 tuns), Christopher Newport, captain; Michael Geare, master.

Moonlight (formerly Mary Terlayne), 80 tuns; owned by William Sanderson, commanded by Captain Edward Spicer.

Two shallops lost under tow in the waters just off Plymouth.

Prizes: Buen Jesus of Seville (300-350 tuns), Trinidad (60 tuns), and two Spanish frigates (one of 10 tuns).

1590 Another Squadron that May Have Called At Roanoke Island

Bark Young, owned by associates of Sir George Carey; William Irish, captain.

Falcon's Flight, owned by John Norris.

Text by Olivia Isil; edited and expanded by lebame houston and Wynne Dough

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