Mutiny on the Bounty | 18th Century Ships & Our New Inflatable Boat (A Tale from the Age of Sail)

One of the big landmark purchases for our sailboat was to get a dinghy, for safety and other practical reasons, but also for our research – to explore histories and legends in otherwise inaccessible locations. So, we spent the winter researching, looking at every detail, trying to find the best one for us and our boat (which ended up being a 9ft Navigator boat). And all of this really drove home the fact that there is just so much to learn about this lifestyle, so even pretty small things can really make you think!

While we were doing all of this research, we were also looking at different Age of Sail stories all around the world, which of course led us to the infamous mutiny on the Bounty! A classic. And we obviously had to watch the movie while we were at it (Here’s the trailer for your viewing pleasure). But it really got us thinking about how critical dinghies, rather, ship’s boats in general were to large sailing vessels during the Age of Sail and into modern times (just think about the lack of lifeboats on the Titanic…and how most sailboats cruising around today carry some form of dinghy on board).

What Did Dinghies Do?

And what we found is that during the Age of Sail, small, supporting boats, like our modern equivalent, were essential, accompanying larger vessels all around the world! Including the fact that how we’ll use our dinghy is actually not all that different from how they were used during the Age of Sail. With the biggest differences between our modern dinghy and those of the Age of Sail being their size (ours being at least half the size of historic small craft…but that makes sense considering the size of our sailboat) and that ours is…of course…inflatable.

Historically, small craft were multipurposed, serving functions from taking sailors and goods to and from shore, collecting drinking water, responding to emergencies, repositioning the larger vessel, working in shallow waters, ship maintenance, communication and even military boarding actions (which we will discuss in future videos). These small workhorses came in various sizes to suit their different purposes, some of these including – jolly boats, gigs and launches. Two of which would play a critical role in one of the most notorious mutinies associated with the British Royal Navy – The H.M.S. Bounty.

Surviving the Mutiny of HMS Bounty

Captained by William Bligh, the Bounty left England for Tahiti in 1787, on a mission to gather breadfruit saplings for slaves in British sugar plantations (these trees meant to supply a cheap source of food). Bligh chose Fletcher Christian, a close family friend, whom he had a father-son bond with, to be the master’s mate, his second in command. But it is said that as the long voyage wore on, Bligh’s prickly nature and ego became a very real threat to the crew.

Following their arrival in Tahiti, the crew began living, what Bligh might have called, an undisciplined life. A particularly strict British officer, he would try to reinstate his version of Royal Navy discipline once the Bounty had completed its assignment and set sail. Christian, having perhaps overly enjoyed Tahitian life and having bore the brunt of Bligh’s tirades, led a group of mutineers to take control of the ship. But this would have been a difficult decision for Christian – living in hell or betraying a man whom he saw as a father figure and mentor, a hole in his life that he desperately sought to fill.

The culmination of this internal struggle was the decision to commandeer the ship and set Captain Bligh and 18 of his loyal men adrift in a single jolly boat.

Jolly Boats

Jolly boats were usually the smallest of the small craft onboard large sailing vessels, measuring only 16-18 feet. They were ideal for ferrying a small number of the crew and goods to and from shore, carrying out inspections of the ship and other minor tasks.

However, showing some compassion for his former friend, Christian recognized the jolly boat would not work with so many men wanting to accompany Bligh. So he would instead choose the ship’s 23-foot-long launch to allow more space for crew members who wanted to follow their captain.

Launches

Often the largest boat carried onboard, the launch had recently replaced the quintessential small craft – the long-boat. This new boat was preferred for its larger carrying capacity, even though there were concerns over its seaworthiness. These small craft were propelled by oars or sails, and held very important roles, including the ability to kedge, or maneuver, a ship out of a harbour. (Which, come to think of it, might be a good future video.)

Often the largest boat carried onboard, the launch had recently replaced the quintessential small craft – the long-boat. This new boat was preferred for its larger carrying capacity, even though there were concerns over its seaworthiness. These small craft were propelled by oars or sails, and held very important roles, including the ability to kedge, or maneuver, a ship out of a harbour. (Which, come to think of it, might be a good future video.)

With only enough rations for 5 days and a sextant (a navigational instrument), the banished crew were set adrift in the Pacific Ocean. A veritable death sentence. Amazingly, this small craft and its crew would go on a wild adventure, reaching the Dutch settlement in Timor after 47 days and about 3600 nautical miles. Having only lost one man. 

The British Royal Navy attempted to hunt down the mutineers but were only able to capture those who had been abandoned by Christian. The remaining, unfound mutineers, along with their Tahitian captives, would make their way to Pitcairn Island in the south Pacific, where their descendants still live today. And as for Bligh, he would be acquitted for his part in the loss of the Bounty, though ultimately, his legacy and career would be overshadowed by the events of that fateful mutiny.

 So, as you can see, these small boats were a major part of sailing during the Age of Sail! From the most mundane of activities to war and mutiny! And because we will do our best to avoid canon fire and mutiny, we can’t wait to use our new dinghy to explore histories in otherwise inaccessible locations, tucked in hidden, shallow coves and long forgotten islands. So, let’s see where it will take us and what histories we will uncover!

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