If Age of Sail era Ships were to come into regular contact with Polynesian outrigger and Catamaran ships like the Hōkūleʻa, and the people using the ships did not start using the foreign design of ships, how could they adapt their ships to compete in an age of sail setting including naval combat with things like cannons?

The design of the hulls and would likely have to be changed drastically to suit so how could they make the required changes while still staying true to the original design?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Cool question! It's generally best to leave a question up for a few days before "accepting" the answer you like best - you never know what other answers might come in. (Says the guy who answered four hours after the currently accepted answer....) $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    May 1, 2018 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps as fire ships ? Hard to see an essentially unprotected catamaran surviving long against a hardened target like a ship of the line which were designed to slug it out and take (and give) punishment. $\endgroup$ May 1, 2018 at 22:03

4 Answers 4


Firepower is the key

The other answer is saying that you can take advantage of upwind speed and manoeuvrability. It is true, but it will not compensate for the enormous firepower of larger monohull warships. Let’s take an example: The galleys were able to move fast even when there was no wind, they were able to go straight upwind if needed. They were much more manoeuvrable. However, in the battle of Cape Celidonia, 5 Spanish galleons (big mono-hull sailing ships) defeated 55 ottomans galleys. This is typical from this period, when large sail-only ships started to replace galleys on the seas.

Basically, during late sail-era, the more fire power you could carry, the more likely you were of winning.

Your case

You are not talking about galleys, but light multi-hulls. I believe however that the problem will be similar: your vessels are small. It is difficult to build a large catamaran or outrigger, because of their shape. A monohull warship is basically a big cylinder. Catamaran are two smaller cylinder with pieces attached between them. So the limitation that you have are:

  • Less cargo (food, men…) for a similarly sized vessel, so you cannot go so far away without ressuply
  • Probably more delicate
  • Less guns, very important
  • Guns closer to water
  • Lower freeboard and bulwarks, making it easier to be boarded. (or harder for them to board bigger ship)

The advantage were already covered in another answer:

  • Faster upwind
  • Better manoeuvrability

Classic war

In an open war between well-defined opponents, larger boats, even if they can't catch your catamarans, can come in range of cities and gun them from the sea. They could occupy harbours. They can go further in the open sea. They can carry more men and resources, in a safer way. My guess is that the catamarans are going to lose, not because they are sunk, but because the large ships are going to cut their harbours, resources and so on.

Hull design solution

You ask if anything can be done in terms of hull design. I believe that the only way is making it bigger. But probably, while trying to make them bigger, they are going to lose some of the advantages (think weight and structure fragilization). Maybe the architects are going to reinvent mono-hulls?

Adaptative solution : Guerilla war

So, as these boats won’t stand in front a large mono-hull vessel. Their strategy, in order to exploit their advantage at the maximum, is to play it guerrilla style.

  • Approach quickly, discretly
  • See if you have a chance
  • Attack by surprise, or only smaller boats
  • Run away and hide
  • Repeat

This strategy is close to what were (and are) doing a lot of pirates.

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    $\begingroup$ In addition to firepower, the big sailing ships also had higher bulwarks. The period in question is one where combat transitioned from boarding actions after an initial salvo to boarding actions after long firefights. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    May 1, 2018 at 9:43
  • $\begingroup$ @o.m. That's correct. I'll add it to the answer. $\endgroup$
    – Legisey
    May 1, 2018 at 12:42
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    $\begingroup$ "they were able to go straight upwind if needed." Wait, what? How? Do you mean tacking where you zig zag against the wind or did those galleys have a crap ton of oars? $\endgroup$ May 1, 2018 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ How do you approach "discretly" in the middle of the sea? Your boat is probably slightly more difficult to see than a ship of the line, and slightly faster, but in the age of sail ships sighted each other hours before being in range. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    May 1, 2018 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ The other advantage you alluded to (but did not state) is cost. For every one ship-of-the-line, you could presumably construct and crew a vast number of simple catamarans. A guerilla strategy centred around maneuvering close to the large ships and holing them below the water line could make it prohibitively expensive for the large ships to engage. $\endgroup$
    – K. Morgan
    May 1, 2018 at 15:18

A lateen rigged mulithull vessel such as Hōkūleʻa have straight advantage over the square rigged monohull designs the European powers used.

It's faster and it can sail closer to the wind

Choosing when to have your combat is one of the most important factors in "random encounters" in the period. Many of the Hornblower type stories include statements about larger and faster vessels and the risks of encountering one.

They also spend a lot of their time trying to gain the controlling position upwind of the vessel they're chasing. The lateen rig of the Polynesians on a catamaran hull with appropriate leeboard/centerboard can sail 10 to 15 degrees closer to the wind than a square rigged monohull.

In this case, even when smaller, it's still faster, and sailing closer to the wind, you get to choose your opponents, and when and where to fight or not.

Under normal (modern) circumstances I would say that a multihull vessel is slower to turn, but in this case you're again comparing a schooner-lateen rig with a square rigger. If you maintain this difference in rigging then you maintain faster maneuvering as square rigs lose all speed to tack and can end up going backwards.

It's entirely valid to scale catamarans up to quite large sizes without having to change the rigs all that much. If you have the people and you have the timber you can build them up to galleon scales. However one of the key differences you'll notice when scaling up a multihull when compared to a monohull, apart from the significantly higher complexity of construction, is that monohulls have larger holds relative to deck size. Multihulls have much larger decks but can't haul as much cargo. This leaves you in a situation of having greater naval effectiveness close to your home ports but limited ability to project power at greater ranges.

  • $\begingroup$ Woops, got the link from following an image link used as an example on a page talking about outriggers. I've edited the question to include catamarans now though. $\endgroup$
    – ArcWraith
    May 1, 2018 at 7:42
  • $\begingroup$ Practically anything else can sail closer to the wind than something entirely square-rigged. Few if any completely square-rigged vessels can sail closer than 85 degrees off the wind. $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    May 1, 2018 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ Of course, after observing how the enemy sail, the European ships would start changing their rigging to match, and we might see schooner rigged frigates and second rates capable of sailing against the enemy ships. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    May 1, 2018 at 21:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Thucydides, with the same rigs it gets interesting as multihulls are faster on the straight but monohulls turn faster. As a general rule the multihulls are faster overall. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    May 2, 2018 at 7:04

Attack Head on, then Pivot

In classic "Ships of the Line" combat, the two forces formed two parallel lines, and then battled it out. This was driven by the reload time of the cannons - it took a fair amount of time to reload, so you wanted many cannons to maximize your firepower.

You generally did not want to approach your enemy head on - they showed you their side, which had many guns, and you showed them front of your ship which had few.

But (!) an outrigger is highly maneuverable and has a VERY small cross section when seen from head-on. An outrigger would be very hard to hit when it was a approaching head on.

So a potential modification could be: take a note from modern catamarans and place a platform between your main hull and your secondary hull. It only needs to be strong enough / large enough to hold your guns. This platform can be utterly destroyed by enemy fire, and all that happens is you loss the use of the guns on it.

Now, load up as many guns as you can fit on it, mainly arranged to face forward. Charge at the enemy.

Your hull has a very small cross section, and the enemy has a large cross section - you should score many more hits, on average. Once you've fired all your forward facing guns, use your maneuverability to turn about, and steer away. The non-forward facing guns provide some cover fire for your retreat.

You reload at your leisure, outside of firing range, while another outrigger rushes in to take your place. This creates a steady stream of accurate fire against your enemy, who often misses due to your small target size.

You probably want to keep this fight at the end of cannon range - it maximizes your advantage in target size and avoids downward shots onto the broad "catamaran deck" you've created. A good volley from a Ship of the Line against a smaller ship from close range would be devastating.

  • $\begingroup$ This might not work so well once the Europeans start switching over to chain shot or even canister. Once the smaller ship is "clipped" many of its advantages are lost. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    May 1, 2018 at 21:04
  • $\begingroup$ Approaching head sounds like a non-starter in the sail age. $\endgroup$ May 1, 2018 at 21:56
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    $\begingroup$ This platform can be utterly destroyed by enemy fire, and all that happens is you loss the use of the guns The sole purpose of the ship is laying fire on the enemy so the loss of guns is rather crippling. It's a warship, it's guns are what defines it. $\endgroup$ May 1, 2018 at 21:59
  • $\begingroup$ Unless they have huge industry producing guns (sounds unlikely), I guess that a single gun would be worth more than the whole ship. Perhaps together with the crew, if you look just at the tactical balance. $\endgroup$
    – Frax
    May 2, 2018 at 10:45
  • $\begingroup$ @stepheng if you shoot off the guns they rake you with musket fire, wait for the other outriggers to soften you up, and board you. $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    May 2, 2018 at 11:50

Gunboats have been used well into the Napoleonic era. An outrigger canoe could, in principle, function the same way.

  • Those gunboats were used in the constrained waters of the Baltic. How they will cope with the Pacific, even between islands, remains to be seen.
  • The larger gunboats were bigger than most outrigger canoes.

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