George Washington wanted ships to capture British merchant ships carrying supplies to the Royal Army. What he wanted most was powder, muskets and musket balls, all of which were in short supply.
Rather than wait for the Continental Congress to act, Washington commissioned Hannah, a two-masted, gaff-rigged schooner built in Marblehead, Massachusetts. It was the first of what became known as the Marblehead Schooners.
For landlubbers, the main sail on gaff-rig is trapezoidal in shape with the top being the narrowest part. At the top of the sail, there a small boom called a gaff and the configuration provides about twenty-five percent more sail area than a conventional, triangular sail..
Fully loaded, Hannah weighed 78 tons and carried four, four-pounder cannon. As offensive or defensive weapons, its guns were tiny. She set sail on September 5th, 1775 and captured the Continental Navy’s first prize, H.M.S. Unity, a small sailing barge. On October 10th, she was deliberately run aground in front of a fort near Beverly, MA to avoid being captured by H.M.S. Nautilus, a 16-gun sloop.
Eventually, Hannah was towed back to Manchester, New Hampshire, converted back to a cargo vessel and renamed Lynch. She sailed to France to deliver correspondence to the American delegation. On the way home, Hannah was captured by H.M.S Foudroyant, an 80-gun ship-of-the-line.
Four more fishing schooners – Franklin (60 tons and 6 guns), Warren (60 tons and 4 guns), Hancock (70 tons and 6 guns) and Lee (74 tons and 6 guns) – were fitted out. They were known for their speed, maneuverability and shallow draft. When they encountered a more heavily armed Royal Navy ship, they ran for shallow water close to the shore where they knew the Royal Navy captain would not risk running aground and having his ship captured.
All five had relatively brief careers. Franklin and Lee were returned to their original owners in 1777. Hancock managed to capture H.M.S. Fox, a 28–gun British frigate only to be taken by H.M.S. Rainbow, 44 guns several days later. Like Hannah, Warren was captured by the British and ran aground near Portsmouth, NH.
These ships were a start. The Continental Congress realized bigger ships were needed to effectively fight the Royal Navy. Congress faced a three-fold problem – not enough money; lack of experienced crews; and time.
Time was the biggest issue because the Navy Committee couldn’t go to the warship store, pick a ship and hand the clerk a credit card. Back then, as it does today, building ships takes months, even years.
The compromise was to convert larger merchant ships into warships while it ordered new frigates built. The first conversions were the frigates Alfred (30 guns) and Columbus (28 guns), the brigs, Andrea Doria (14 guns), Cabot (14 guns), and the sloops Hornet (10 guns), Providence (12 guns), and the Wasp (8 guns).
These ships had two missions – harass British shipping until the thirteen new frigates ordered by the Continental Congress were built. Two, enable a cadre of officers and crews to gain valuable experience in maritime warfare.