Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Building a model of the Fair American

"...without a Respectable Navy, Alas America!" -Captain John Paul Jones, 17 October 1776, in a letter to Robert Morris.
I’ve had this project I’ve been working on for nearly four years now and still haven’t finished. Yes, I procrastinate, but most of the time has been spent in research.
The project is a solid hulled model of an American privateer from around 1780. The model originally belonged to my grandfather, but he died back when I was three and I have no memories of him. Since starting the project, I’ve had this weird feeling of getting to know him. Somehow doing something he would have loved to do makes me feel a little closer to him.
Now, a little background.
Fair AmericanIn 1776, when Thomas Jefferson penned the famous lines of the Declaration of Independence and the Continental Congress declared the thirteen American Colonies independent, America was at war with Britain, the greatest power on earth, in a conflict that became known as the American Revolution. America won the war in 1783 through the heroism of many American men and after a train of events that were no less then miraculous.
Some of these heroic men were the American privateersmen.
A Privateer is a ship outfitted for war with a letter-of-marque. A letter-of –marque was permission from a king or governor granted to the captain of the Privateer allowing him to take prizes and sink ships, providing they sailed under the flag of an enemy. It was simply legal piracy…in fact, in earlier days many of the renown pirates who sailed the seven seas held letters-of-marque.
Fair American
Over two thousand privateers took part in the American Revolution. They sank or captured sixteen British frigates and almost three thousand British merchant ships, contributing many supplies to the commander of the continental army, General Washington.
The Colonies founded a navy in 1775, which linked some privateers together into a more organized body, as well as adding gunboats and other small warships that were built under the supervision of Benedict Arnold. Regardless of the navy, the privateers won the glory. The number of ships that were specifically built for the navy dwindled in size from thirty-four ships to seven.   
It was hardly difficult for America to start turning out well-built, efficient ships for use as privateers. By the
Fair American
time of the Revolution one third of all vessels operating for England were built in the American Colonies and from 1700-1775 the averaged size for a ship launched from American shipyards had increased from four thousand tons to thirty five thousand.
Perhaps this is why, when privateers were being built in the early years of the Revolution, they were simply armed merchant men. As the British navy moved in to patrol the coasts of America, the slow heavy privateers suffered great losses. The heavy merchant men were replaced by a new breed of privateer. 
The privateer had to fit many requirements. She had to be fast enough to overtake another vessel, or run when a larger force attempted to take her. She had to be stiff and strong to carry the great expanse of sail necessary to make her fast and she had to be a good sailor, safe and weatherly in a storm or calm.
Fair AmericanA privateer could be as small as a single masted sloop and as large as a small three masted frigate. Most were two masted brigs and schooners.
The Fair American was a brig. A brig is small, with two masts, fore and main. She is rigged with square sails. 
The Fair American had a length of sixty-eight feet and a beam of twenty-four feet. She had sixteen guns and a crew of one hundred twenty, more men then would normally be needed to man her, because some extra men were needed to man a prize.
The Fair American was captured by the British somewhere between 1780 and 1781 and caused a bit of a stir when she came into port in England. In 18th century terms, she was state-of-the-art, far faster and more agile than anything the English had. Detailed plans of her hull were drawn up and when those plans were discovered more recently, some people had the bright idea to make a model out of her.

Fair AmericanThe model I’m in possession of is the 1952 Model Shipways solid hulled model of the Fair American. It wasn’t supposed to be a difficult model, but to me, after building only one other scale wooden model, the Bluenose (which you may hear about some other time), it was quite hard enough. None of the pieces, except the hull, was pre cut, and my father and I had to draw patterns on blocks of wood and whittle away at them with a carving knife and a band saw. We made them out of cherry, which is one of the hardest woods (no joke).
The hull of a privateer would have been made by first laying the keel, or backbone, of the ship, and bolting U-shaped frames, or ribs, to it. After the frame was up, long planks would have been steamed until they were bendable and bolted lengthwise on the frame. Then the gaps between the planks would have been filled with hemp and tar to waterproof the hull.
Fair AmericanModel Shipways provided me with a roughly shaped solid hull, so I was spared the arduous work of a shipyard, though models built from the keel up can be acquired.
The bow rails were perhaps the hardest to carve. Ships have nearly always been covered with unnecessary decorations and in the 17th and 18th centuries, ships were sometimes covered with intricate carvings and gold leaf. The Vasa, a 17th century Swedish man-o-war capsized because her massive stern castle over balanced her. She was refloated in the ‘60’s and is the oldest complete ship on land anywhere in the world.
I painted the bottom of the hull white, with a black stripe above the waterline. I left the outside of the bulwarks natural, but in actuality, they would have been painted brown. Painting the hull white was possibly inaccurate because white paint at the time usually dried with a yellowish tint and was very expensive.
Fair AmericanBut despite all the setbacks of building the hull, the rigging has been the hardest thing of all. There would literally have been miles of rope on a full-sized Brig and while I’m not dealing miles it’s still daunting. I’ve been doing rigging for the past two years.
The Fair American has been a lot of fun, and though it still is not finished, I have learned a lot from the building. I have learned history, ship designs from the time and most of all; I have learned patience from the hours of laborious work that have gone into the model. Someday, I hope a full sized replica will be built and I will really get to see the Fair American all sails set and a bone in her teeth.

But, if you're interested in ships of the time period that are big enough to go aboard, you could visit the US Brig Niagara, or the HMS Victory, or the USS Constitution. The Lady Washington is a movie star you might recognize from Pirates of the Caribbean and the HMS Surprise sailed the seas in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Unfortunately, the Bounty sank last year, but there's still the Friendship of Salem and the Fame and the Sultana.
"We sailed and we sailed and kept good cheer, For not a British frigate could o’ercome the privateer.”
- Old Sea Shanty



  1. Do you have any information on the FM sail sizes, layout, whatnot

    1. Hi there! Thank you for your comment and sorry for my late reply. The plans that came with my model are very limited and only have the spar layout, no sail plans, unfortunately. What specifically were you looking for?

    2. I am also building a model of the Fair American based upon the one in the Rogers Collection at the U S Naval Institute Museum. I have added to the complications by adding sails to my model. If interested in any photos let me know and I'll send some.