H.M.S. Captain - 1869
Masted Turret Ship

Illustration of HMS CAPTAIN in stormy seas
Contemporary depiction of the Captain wallowing in a Biscay blow.  Enlarge

Until the introduction of the triple expansion engine in the late 1880s, steam propulsion was quite inefficient and undependable. Contemporary ships were too small to carry the enormous amounts of coal for complete ocean cruises without auxiliary sail. The 7,770-ton Captain was an unsatisfactory compromise between the need for auxiliary sail power to augment unreliable steam engines and small fuel capacity, and the need to deploy movable turrets far from home. Captain was the result of a highly public dispute between Capt. Cowper Coles, inventor of the turret system used in Royal Navy ships, and Director of Naval Construction Edward Reed. Coles had discovered the possibilities of floating rafts with shielded guns on a turntable during the Crimean War, but had languished on half-pay since then, promoting his inventions to Parliament and the press; despite Reed's resistance, and the fact that he had already built a rigged ship with Coles' turrets (HMS Monarch, 1868), Coles had enough influence in the Admiralty and with the public to get the chance to build a masted turret ship to suit his own fancy. The project got the nod in 1867.

Coles contracted with Laird's of Birkenhead, near Liverpool, to create his dream ship. It was designed with a freeboard of 8', two 12" gun turrets on the main deck 8 feet above the waves, Model of HMS CAPTAINand a "hurricane deck" or flying bridge extending over the turrets' tops, practically the whole midsection of the ship; bulky forecastle and stern deckhouses connected by the narrow hurricane deck, with bridge above it and a single funnel just before the mainmast. To avoid problems with aiming the guns through the rigging, the masts were stayed to the hurricane deck, with thin struts tying the lower masts to the outer hull (struts shown in the model, rigging omitted for clarity.) The building of the ship was problematic, with lax supervision (Coles was ill during much of the construction) and she completed 740 tons over her designed weight, bringing the actual freeboard down to 6'2". In profile the ship looked like a sailing frigate with plumb stem, but the illusion of a normal sheer was due to the height of the hurricane deck, which was open underneath for the turrets. In fact the main deck was often awash even in light seas. Captain had a high center of gravity due to her towering rig (50,000 sf of sail) amply justifying Reed's concern about her stability.

Still, at first, Captain appeared to be a practicable ship. Under steam her twin screws churned her ahead at 14.2 kts on trials. She made a couple of short round trips to Vigo before joining the Channel fleet. During her shakedown cruise in the Bay of Biscay, the commanding admiral visited the new ship and noted with concern that she ran with her lee rail perpetually awash. On the night of Sept. 6, 1870, while sailing off Cape Finisterre in a freshening gale, Captain abruptly capsized and sank like a stone. She took with her 473 of her crew, including Captain Coles, who was on board as an observer on the voyage. Midshipman Leonard Childers, son of Sir Hugh Childers (Coles' principal patron at Whitehall) also died, as did the Captain's commander, Hugh T. Burgoyne, VC. Burgoyne had ordered shortening of sail just before the capsize. He survived the sinking, but was not among those rescued. There were only 18 survivors of the disaster, all of whom made it to a boat which wrenched free of the sinking ship. They were rescued late the following day.

Plan and Specifications

Digital Profile of the 1870 CAPTAIN

Specifications for the Captain:
Dimensions: 320' x 53'3" x 25'6" Freeboard: 6'7" Armament: (4) 12" MLR, (2) 7" MLR Armor: 10"/9" turret, hull 8"/3" belt, 1" deck; main armor belt backed with 12" of teak. Engines: (2) 2-cylinder Laird trunk engines developing 5772 IHP, shafted to twin screw. 50,000 sf of sail; ship rig, 1st class scale. Crew: 500.

Metric Specs:
Dimensions: 97.5m x 16.23m x 7.77m. Freeboard: 2.1m. Armament: (4) 305 mm MLR, (2) 178 mm MLR Armor: 254/229 mm turret, hull 203/76 mm belt, 25 mm deck; main armor belt backed with 305 mm of teak. Engines: (2) 2-cylinder Laird trunk engines developing 4,304 kW, shafted to twin screw. 4,645 square meters of sail; ship rig, 1st class scale. Crew: 500.


The Captain affair became a long-lived naval controversy, and immediate steps were taken to improve the stability of warships built for the Royal Navy. This was not the most decisive time in finding an ironclad warship design that worked, and the Captain controversy -- replete with political recriminations -- did little to clarify the vision of naval architects and strategists. In fact, the period was later dubbed the "Age of Indecision". In truth, the period was one of experimentation, leading to many freakish-looking vessels (especially in the French and Italian navies). Most capital ships retained vestigial auxiliary sail until the early 1880s (the early 1890s in the Russian fleet). The disappearance of sail coincided with the advent of more reliable engines and the development of fueling infrastructure: the Royal Navy, particularly, established coaling stations worldwide to maintain its global fleet, with courtesy service provided to fellow imperial powers.

A Captain Gallery

Watercolor of HMS CAPTAIN at provisioning docks
The Captain depicted in a watercolor at the Portsmouth provisioning docks.

Period chromolithograph of the CAPTAIN under full sail
Commemorative chromolithograph of the Captain by W. Fred Mitchell. Enlarge

Woodengraving of HMS CAPTAIN in a blow