In Renaissance period, would it be possible to safely bind ships together for extended periods of time?

Imagine if there was a fleet of large ships (say, two dozen) that have been traveling over a vast ocean for a long time. No land is in sight, they don't know when they'll reach their destination. They come well-provisioned for a long journey with capable sailors.

But then something happens, like the commanding admiral dies of sickness, and then the mission goes into peril. The captains want an assembly, but they need to fasten their vessels together. They aim to rope their hulls together, to use gangways to form bridges, such that the entire fleet is joined into one secure grouping.

Basically, I'm imagining them building a giant platform out of the fleet, such that the men can all walk (or climb) between every vessel, and that all the captains can hold an assembly in the middle, without their ships floating off. Is this actually possible to convene like this?

I imagine that the wind and waves are going to knock the ships around, and it'd be impossible to steer. They're just floating. Would it damage the ships to tie them together, and is it feasible for an entire fleet to do so?

How long could they actually last like this in the middle of the ocean? Would the makeshift platform be doomed as soon as they hit a storm or strong winds, or is there a way that they survive indefinitely (assuming plentiful food)?

Edit: It's possible that they might unhook ships from the grouping in bad weather, provided they had enough warning that a storm was coming.

Bonus question: what if there were hundreds of ships?

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    Normally the captains would use boats to convene on one the ships. This was perfectly normal and pretty frequent. Ocean-going ships are not designed to be assembled into pontoon bridges. – AlexP Sep 24 at 13:59
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    @AlexP And when a storm was approaching they would disperse to avoid damage, being the opposite of this scenario. – Douwe Sep 24 at 14:04
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    @Wyvern In that case, your fleet is more or less lost. If half the crew is thinking about mutiny, and considering that they will take atleast the same time back, i fear your captains are pretty much doomed unless they don't turn back. – DarthDonut Sep 24 at 14:07
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    @DarthDonut Yet others think that they must be nearly there, and it's only a bit longer. They think they would be definitely doomed if they turn back, but if they keep going forward they'll reach land on the other side. Some want to keep course, others want to take their chances on a return journey, but nobody is sure - they need an vote to sort it out. – Wyvern Sep 24 at 14:12
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    @Wyvern: Especially in the time you're referring to, if the captains are unable to control their crew and they don't have an effective chain of command after the admiral dies, then the fleet is lost before this meeting takes place, normally the captain would leave his executive officer in charge while he goes for the meeting, if the captains don't even trust their XO not to mutiny then doomed is putting it mildly – Blade Wraith Sep 24 at 15:02

12 Answers 12

You can do it if the sea conditions are favourable (read dead flat calm), otherwise having the ships that close together, tied or not, is a danger to all concerned. Banging hulls weighing tens to hundreds of tonnes together even at relatively low speeds is never something you want to do if you can avoid it, you'd need at least as many mechanisms keeping the ships apart as holding them together. If their were any noticeable swell or wind the risk would be pretty extreme.

I would point out that the traditional venue for such a conference is in fact the Captain's cabin of the fleet flagship, captains were afforded expensive extra space so that they could conference effectively. People attending such a conference would travel between their ship and the flagship in longboats. The flagship of a fleet often changed during battles, sometimes even changing to an enemy vessel, as officers took over due to combat loses or ships went down and their crews, and commanders, moved to other vessels. In the event that the ranking admiral died the senior most captain, or possibly another admiral depending on the circumstances, should take over as a matter of course.

With enough rope and spars there's no real limit to how many ships you can put together except that the more ships you put together the more likely you are to lose some when the weather goes against you without warning.

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    Even if conditions are 'favorable', the slightest waves would result in the ships grinding against each other, or smashing gangplanks between the vessels. There's a reason sea-going vessels use small boats to transfer people between them. – Theo Brinkman Sep 24 at 19:43
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    the lack of waves between the ships will drive them together over the course of a day if not sooner, those ships cannot stay tethered for long. – John Sep 25 at 4:53
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    "there's no real limit to how many ships you can put together" Physics will say otherwise. Keep in mind we're talking Renaissance fleets, not high-tech modern fleet which could be outfitted with compensating hardware. For a modern fleet it would be complicated. For a Renessaince fleet 2 ships is really all you could ever try to bind together and it won't survive the moment wind picks up. – Mast Sep 25 at 9:54
  • @TheoBrinkman Yeah I'm thinking millpond calm, conditions I don't think you can actually get in the open ocean. – Ash Sep 25 at 15:51
  • @John How does that work exactly? – Ash Sep 25 at 15:52

Would the makeshift platform be doomed as soon as they hit a storm or strong winds, or is there a way that they survive indefinitely (assuming plentiful food)?

It would be doomed.

Disclaimer: I've based my answer on real ships, not hypothetical pontoon-like vessels.

A ship that is not able to steer its bow into the waves will take on a lot of water if a wave hits it sideways, causing it to sink. Also, the force of the waves will make them crash into each other with more force than anything they would have had with them would be able to withstand. Gangways and the like would simply break to pieces. Ropes would present an even bigger problem because a sinking ship would pull its neighbors with them.

Afaik even today's ships cannot be serviced by other ships (like tankers) in bad weather, because of above reasons.

  • Well they'd have to detach if the weather stopped being calm, so their conference would be interrupted, but they wouldn't be doomed per se. – Dronz Sep 24 at 16:39
  • @Dronz How fast do you think a Renaissance-like ship with crew would be able to respond to such an event? Not fast enough. – Mast Sep 25 at 9:56
  • @Mast I think if they were competent sailors, they'd be full of people who know how to read the weather, several of which would be paying attention, and I think they'd probably usually be able to deal with it in time. – Dronz Sep 25 at 22:00
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    @Dronz, just turning the ship required an awful lot of physical exertion and coordination. Disconnecting the ship from another ship would have to be done first. And weather can change fast — even without the complication of connecting ships together, there are plenty of real ships that have gone down (even outside of war time) due to failure to respond to weather changes quickly enough. All of which is the long way of saying: your comment bears all the markings of a landlubber. ;) – Wildcard Sep 26 at 0:29
  • @Wildcard I am a landlubber, it's true. Even taking what you say for true, though, I would still note the wide gulf between "weather can change fast" to "it would be doomed" per se. I didn't go as far to say they were safe, or that lashing the ships together to have a conference was a good idea. Just not doomed. – Dronz Sep 26 at 6:10

Less ropes needed, more fenders needed.

There is a well-known phenomenon where two ships close together will tend to get closer together. Whichever ship is to windward, it will experience more pressure on the windward side, because it's shadowing the other ship from the wind. The result, ironically, is that the problem is stopping ships from coming together, not keeping them together. The ropes are only needed to stop the ships shuffling around, not particularly to keep them together.

The issue then is stopping the two boats from damaging each other as the waves bash them against each other. This is actually harder than you'd think for a large ship. Fenders work in a harbour because the waves are much more limited. Out in the open ocean, it'll be very much weather-dependent. If you're becalmed, no problems. Any kind of breeze though, it really isn't going to go well. For ships, safety is being away from other ships.

A bigger question is why they'd need to do it. Semaphore, Morse and flag codes allow captains to communicate. If they did need to physically meet, each captain takes a dozen sailors in a rowboat and they meet on one ship that way. It's far easier than any of the alternatives.

And then we need to think about other reasons why you might not do it. If there's sickness, the ships need to maintain quarantine. Gunpowder is inherently dangerous, and random explosions are very much not unknown. Captains have total authority over their own ship, so there's no way an ordinary sailor would be allowed to roam randomly. But most seriously, sailing ships need to sail. Whilst ships are tied together, they aren't making progress anywhere, and that's another day's supplies used up. Running out of food and water was always a massive problem, so you'd need a really good reason for them to stop. Simply having a chat does not qualify.

In short then, it'd be hard to do this without damaging the ships, there are no good reasons for doing it, and there are very many good reasons why it shouldn't be done

If the ships are of similiar size and construction, sure, this is done frequently, even during the Renaissance era. You may even be able to still be underway, albeit with obviously reduced maneuverability and speed.

The elasticity and strength of the ropes as well as the fenders used to prevent abrasion and crashing between the member boats will be the most important factor. What you're looking at doing is called Ship-to-ship mooring. Ropes at this time were surprisingly high-tech and had plenty of sufficient strength to do this. What could you put between the hulls which you would already have on board? Maybe large wooden balls could be crafted and covered with linen from the sails. Ancient fenders were often rope creations which would likely get worn out much faster under your conditions.

Weather will of course be a major issue. Depending on the size and construction of your ships and the sea conditions, you may not fair too well in bad weather. Lashing ships together had uses in this time period, but most often either in protected waters or for short duration. What you are proposing would likely not last through very rough seas, due to the boats now having another axis of common movement.

And as for a hundred boats, I'd say you're not going to stay together for long. It will take quite a bit time to maneuver the ships together (and I doubt you could do it in pairs, then join the pains, etc as a binary tree reduction... the first iteration would lose a lot of necessary maneuverability). Maybe the ships could break off in to smaller groups and hope that they don't get blown in to each other.

Sure if their engineers are imaginative and they have the actual resources to do so. Obviously they can only use the resources they have with them rather than a forest to cut down for decking etc,.

The Hellespont was bridged by a line of boats decked over into a roadway for a whole army mounts and all to cross. Apparently 674 ships were used and estimates of the army size which included cavalry are 200,000 or more.

  • Good example. For the readers, note this was done on a sea, not the middle of the ocean. That makes quite a bit of difference. – Mast Sep 25 at 9:57

Entirely possible to do if difficult. You want to think as much as you can about the movement of the two (lets say two to begin with) vessels in relation to each other. If the water is calm then strapping them together will be relatively easy as they will stay pretty synced up in their frames of spacial reference. As soon as the sea starts to churn up however each ship will react differently to the ocean below it and they will try and move separately from each other, putting strain on the join points.

Things with flex in them, like ropes (to a degree) will fair better than solid joins (unless those solid joins are so severe as to essentially make the two vessels one).

Basically I'd expect a working version of this to look more like a mesh of ships with flexible but strong join points that may incorporate a hard walking point but where most of the strength is in heavily braided rope attaching to reinforced connection points on each vessel.

Danger at sea is hitting something

I think you are attacking this from the wrong angle. While at sea, a well designed boat should not sink. The problem starts when the boat hits something (coast, reef, another boat). So to stay safe, your boats should stay sufficiently far apart from each other to not risk a collision.

If you try to bind them, there will be constant little collisions between ships, breaking more things every time, until catastrophe arrives. If one ship begins to sink, and you are tied to it, well, not good...

To make the big meeting you are talking about, they can:

  • Use flags to communicate. This was fairly common before radio, and professional marine officers must still learn it.
  • Wait for calm weather and launch little boats (dinghies) so that officers can meet on one big boat and decide on a plan. (If they are wise, this plan will not include binding ships together.)

If some of your ships are badly damaged, it is also likely that they've lost some crews. So what they should do is scavenge the damaged boats for pieces to repair the others, and distribute the remaining crew on the remaining boats. Abandon the damaged boats that are beyond repair, or insufficiently manned.

Beside, where are they going to find material to build the platform? Boats are carrying replacement parts, but this material was designed to repair a vessel, not to build some unplanned super-big-platform.

Keep in mind that ocean going vessels are designed to sail through storms, waves and the like. So repair them and keep them as boats. If you try to design something else out of your boats while in the middle of the sea, you are trying to bypass millennia of boat design. It will fail.

Lastly, if you bind your boats together, and something goes wrong, everybody dies. If you have many boats, some might be lost, but the rest can still survive (and maybe rescue others).

Try lashing the ships together in a line, not a bundle. As @Douwe said, if the boats cannot face into oncoming waves, they will sink. A straight chain of ships will allow them to collectively turn to face the waves so that they won't sink. The chain also allows the ships to steer apart so that they don't run into each other. In this design, the longer the rope, the better. Longer rope allows the ships to move farther apart and not get pulled as much by the adjacent ships moving up and down if they hit the wave earlier or later than your boat.

When one boat lifts up, the rope will pull both boats toward each other, and one boat farther behind or ahead in the wave might end up sinking other boats. How long the rope needs to be can be reduced by keeping the ships closer together in relation to the waves, but you run the risk of the ships crashing together.

Would you believe the navies of the world have thought of this, because doing a naval resuply on the run, and stormy conditions would be advantageous. This is the sort of thing that winns wars. Thus being able to dock two ships would be great. Its just that, while it does work, it doesent work very simply.

So they have had to come up with many methods of doing this. It is called:

and tethering ships for transport of goods an men is possible. However, real solutions that actually work to some extent only appear in the very latest years of 1800's so you could say its tech of 1900's.

Not strictly lashing together bridges at open sea in the Renaissance, but:

Consider the siege preceding the Fall of Antwerp in 1585. The besieging Duke of Parma (hence Italian, but fighting for the Spanish crown) built a 730m long bridge across the river from boats lashed together, and thus stopped food being delivered.

Now that river is very much tidal, with 5m differences up to Antwerp twice-daily, and each incoming tidal wave travels at 35kph (so: high tide in Antwerp is 45min after Vlissingen which is 75km downstream from Antwerp). The river itself flows "upstream" at more than 10kph with incoming tide, should you plan to swim it. From personal experience, as a sea-arm that river is as much or more "open sea" than any bit of the Mediterranean within 10--20km from the coast.

So with that in mind, I'd say yes, no problem for Renaissance multi-ship pontoons in the open sea (especially if larger boats than this bridge consisted of; larger is more stable).

[Very limited info found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_Antwerp but pass the Dutch version there through a translator and you'll have more details (like e.g., this). The attacks on the bridge are very interesting to read about in themselves.]

Binding Ships are Possible

This was a possible thing to do. The captains of the ships would tie their ships together with a thick rope between the bottom and the tops of the ships. Usually, they would use a very long rope so the ships don't crash into each other and they would also use more than just one rope. Since you're saying there is a bunch of ships, an entire flotilla, I think you would mean that you can't have just one row of ships.

To have more than just one row of ships, (I'm getting creative here), the captains would probably tie the edges of the ships together as well. This isn't that hard to do. But, most ships wouldn't do such a thing because... why would they?

During that time, there was a large number of crew members for each ship. These crew members were able to run the ship even without the guidance of the captain for a while. That means the captains can all row to one ship (usually the old captain's ship) and have their meeting there to vote on the new captain or whatsoever.

The ships won't drift away from each other and anarchy wouldn't ensure (at least, I hope). But maybe the captains might not be able to vote? (Then there will be WAR).

Good luck and hope this helped!

There is always ONE Exception to the Rule.
We called it RAFTING and did it every Summer for about two weeks on the Chesapeake Bay. It was mostly dom=ne so that we could have all hands gathering for the Daily Cocktail Party/Dinner/Sleep function while travelling between Marinas. Typically the lead three boats will drop their anchors (Primary hold point, secondary and tertiary fail safes). You don't want to be drifting or a lone Ship in a remote part of the Bay, at night and while your asleep.

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    can you explain what rafting is? It doesn't help me knowing you did it for cocktail parties... – L.Dutch Sep 26 at 3:36

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