Launch (boat)

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1910 Mathis launch, 15 horsepower universal engine, at Saranac Lake, New York 1910 Mathis Launch.jpg
1910 Mathis launch, 15 horsepower universal engine, at Saranac Lake, New York
A police launch operating on the Thames
A police launch operating on the Thames
The steam launch Branksome, at the Windermere Jetty museum Steam launch Branksome, at the Windermere Jetty museum in Windermere, Cumbria.jpg
The steam launch Branksome, at the Windermere Jetty museum

Launch is a name given to several different types of boat. The wide range of usage of the name extends from utilitarian craft through to pleasure boats built to a very high standard.


In naval use, the launch was introduced as a ship's boat towards the end of the 17th century. On each warship, the launch was usually the largest boat out of those carried aboard. It could be propelled by oar or sail, with this type remaining in service into the 20th century. Steam launches were introduced on a trial basis in 1867, but as steam-powered ship's boats became more common, the majority were steam pinnaces.

Other military examples were the various motor launches used in the 20th century, employed for harbour defence, anti-submarine patrols, escorting coastal convoys, minesweeping and recovering aircrew from crashed aircraft. Generally, these were decked boats, some of which were capable of fast speeds.

A powered boat operated by a regulatory or official organisation may be termed a launch such as the police launch or a harbour-master's launch. The size range and capabilities vary according to the precise role.

In private use, a launch is invariably a powered boat, using a steam, electric, petrol or diesel engine. Some are built to a very high standard of finish, with large amounts of varnished hardwood and polished fittings. [1] Various local historic types are kept in use by enthusiasts and museums.

A US Navy launch of the 1940s (Three sailors on motor launch in San Diego bay.) - NARA - 295580.jpg
A US Navy launch of the 1940s


The word launch is derived from the Spanish lancha, which may be translated into English as "pinnace". It has been suggested that lancha is in turn derived from a Malay word. The first instance of "launch" being used as a boat type in English was in 1697. [2] :168


The launch steadily replaced the long-boat in the Royal Navy over the latter half of the 18th century. Both were usually the biggest boat carried by a warship or a merchant vessel in the age of sail. The transition from longboat to launch was influenced by the East India Company successfully experimenting with this change. [3] :41–43

Launches were preferred as having greater carrying capacity, though they could be considered less seaworthy. An important role was the carrying of drinking water. For example, a 33 foot launch of 1804 could carry 14 large "leaguers" (barrels containing 150 imperial gallons (680 L) each), making a load of just over nine and half tonnes of water. A warship's launch would also be fitted with a windlass that allowed a ship's anchor to be carried or to be weighed (raised). A ship's boat would often be used to kedge a ship out of a harbour or away from a hazard such as a lee shore before steam tugs were available to move sailing vessels. [3] :41–43

The launches issued to naval ships varied in size depending on the size of the ship they equipped. An 1815 schedule of ship's boats showed the range of 15 different lengths for launches from 34 feet (for a ship of 100 guns) down to 16 feet for a 200 ton sloop. As steam power became common in the navy, the need to transport drinking water (which could be distilled in the engine room) and transport anchors and cables to move a sailing ship both disappeared. By the last quarter of the 19th century, launches were only issued in one length, 42 feet. [3] :62,71

Launches had double-banked oars [lower-alpha 1] The usual sailing rig for much of the 19th century was a two-masted ketch rig. A schooner rig was in use from 1878 and the de Horsey sloop rig was adopted from 1884. [3] :91–97

During the Demak Sultanate attack on Portuguese Malacca of 1513, lancaran were used as armed troop transports for landing alongside penjajap and kelulus, as the Javanese junks were too large to approach shore. [4]

In 1788 Captain William Bligh and 18 crewmen were set adrift by mutineers in Bounty’s 23-foot launch. Bligh navigated the open boat more than 4000 miles, losing only one man  Tonga to Timor, 3,618 nmi (6,701 km; 4,164 mi). [5]

Civilian use in the UK

On the River Thames the term "launch" is used to mean any motorised pleasure boat. The usage arises from the legislation [6] governing the management of the Thames and laying down the categories of boats and the tolls for which they were liable.

Military use in the UK

Motor Launch was the designation for a type of vessel used in World War II by the Royal Navy and some other navies[ citation needed ] for inshore work defending the coast from submarines. They were typically 60-to-115-foot or 18-to-35-metre long and carried relatively light armament – a few depth charges, a gun and a few machine guns.


In competitive rowing the term "launch" is used to refer to any motorized boat used by the coach to follow practicing boats during workouts. [7]

See also


  1. A double-banked boat has two oarsmen seated on each thwart, each operating their own oar on their side of the boat. This contrasts with a single-banked boat, with just one oarsman on each thwart operating a single oar, with the side on which the oars are worked alternating along the length of the boat.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Brig</span> Sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bermuda sloop</span>

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Warship</span> Ship that is built and primarily intended for naval warfare

A warship or combatant ship is a naval ship that is built and primarily intended for naval warfare. Usually they belong to the armed forces of a state. As well as being armed, warships are designed to withstand damage and are typically faster and more maneuverable than merchant ships. Unlike a merchant ship, which carries cargo, a warship typically carries only weapons, ammunition and supplies for its crew. Warships usually belong to a navy, though they have also been operated by individuals, cooperatives and corporations.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gunboat</span> Naval watercraft designed with the sole purpose of carrying and utilizing firepower

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sloop-of-war</span> Type of warship

In the 18th century and most of the 19th, a sloop-of-war in the Royal Navy was a warship with a single gun deck that carried up to eighteen guns. The rating system covered all vessels with 20 guns and above; thus, the term sloop-of-war encompassed all the unrated combat vessels, including the very small gun-brigs and cutters. In technical terms, even the more specialised bomb vessels and fireships were classed as sloops-of-war, and in practice these were employed in the sloop role when not carrying out their specialised functions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Longboat</span>

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Steam frigate</span> Type of steam-powered warship

Steam frigates and the smaller steam corvettes, steam sloops, steam gunboats and steam schooners, were steam-powered warships that were not meant to stand in the line of battle. There were some exceptions like for example the French Napoléon class steam ship of the line was meant to stand in the line of battle, making it the world's first steam battleship. The first such ships were paddle steamers. Later on the invention of screw propulsion enabled construction of steam-powered versions of the traditional ships of the line, frigates, corvettes, sloops and gunboats.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cutter (boat)</span> Type of boat

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rating system of the Royal Navy</span> Historical category for Royal Navy vessels, based on number of guns

The rating system of the Royal Navy and its predecessors was used by the Royal Navy between the beginning of the 17th century and the middle of the 19th century to categorise sailing warships, initially classing them according to their assigned complement of men, and later according to the number of their carriage-mounted guns. The rating system of the Royal Navy formally came to an end in the late 19th century by declaration of the Admiralty. The main cause behind this declaration focused on new types of gun, the introduction of steam propulsion and the use of iron and steel armour which made rating ships by the number of guns obsolete.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Full-rigged pinnace</span> Type of ship in use in the 16th and 17th centuries

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This glossary of nautical terms is an alphabetical listing of terms and expressions connected with ships, shipping, seamanship and navigation on water. Some remain current, while many date from the 17th to 19th centuries. The word nautical derives from the Latin nauticus, from Greek nautikos, from nautēs: "sailor", from naus: "ship".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gig (boat)</span>

A gig is a type of boat optimised for speed under oar, but usually also fitted with a sailing rig for appropriate conditions. The type was in use by Deal boatmen in the 18th century. It first occurred as a naval ship's boat after Deal boatbuilders recommended a different design to boats ordered from them by the Royal Navy to equip the cutters purchased in the 1760s to combat smuggling. The captains of larger warships soon sought permission to substitute a gig for one of the heavier boats which were then used; some even had a gig built at their own expense. The gig therefore became part of the usual complement of ship's boats used in warships.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hoy (boat)</span> Small sloog-rigged coasting ship

A hoy is a small sloop-rigged coasting ship or a heavy barge used for freight, usually with a burthen of about 60 tons (bm). The word derives from the Middle Dutch hoey. In 1495, one of the Paston Letters included the phrase, An hoye of Dorderycht, in such a way as to indicate that such contact was then no more than mildly unusual. The English term was first used on the Dutch Heude-ships that entered service with the Royal Navy.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pinnace (ship's boat)</span> Watercraft

As a ship's boat, the pinnace is a light boat, propelled by oars or sails, carried aboard merchant and war vessels in the Age of Sail to serve as a tender. The pinnace was usually rowed but could be rigged with a sail for use in favorable winds. A pinnace would ferry passengers and mail, communicate between vessels, scout to sound anchorages, convey water and provisions, or carry armed sailors for boarding expeditions. The Spanish favored them as lightweight smuggling vessels while the Dutch used them as raiders. In modern parlance, "pinnace" has come to mean an auxiliary vessel that does not fit under the "launch" or "lifeboat" definitions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ship's boat</span>

A ship's boat is a utility boat carried by a larger vessel. Ship's boats have always provided communication with the shore and with other ships. Other work done by such boats has varied over time, as marine technology has changed. In the age of sail, especially for warships, an important role was the collection of drinking water. A large enough boat may be needed to carry an anchor to some distance away from the ship, so as to kedge out of a harbour or away from a hazard - and also to recover such an anchor afterwards. Warships have always used their boats as an extension to their military role. This includes the provision of a means of escape for the crews of fireships, the landing of troops, or the "cutting out" raids that were used by the Royal Navy, especially during the Napoleonic Wars. All these requirements competed with the need to be able to stow the boats on board in a way that did not interfere with the normal operation of the ship.

<i>Rose Hill Packet</i>

Rose Hill Packet, was a marine craft built in Australia to serve the second place of European settlement in Australia, "Rose Hill", the furthest navigable point inland on the Parramatta River. When launched the vessel was named Prince William but was later named the Rosehill Packet by the convicts. The boat design was later called a packet boat, because its use was that of running the first Parramatta River trade ferry, passenger, cargo, and mail service between the Sydney Cove and the Rose Hill (Parramatta) First Fleet settlements after she was launched in Sydney Cove in September and commissioned on 5 October 1789. She was the first purpose-built sailing vessel constructed in Australia. She later earned the nickname 'The Lump'. Some authorities believe that a 1790 drawing by First Fleet MIdshipman George Raper shows the vessel in the centre of Sydney Cove.

This glossary of nautical terms is an alphabetical listing of terms and expressions connected with ships, shipping, seamanship and navigation on water. Some remain current, while many date from the 17th to 19th centuries. The word nautical derives from the Latin nauticus, from Greek nautikos, from nautēs: "sailor", from naus: "ship".

This glossary defines the various types of ships and accessory watercraft that have been used in service of the United States. Such service is mainly defined as military vessels used in the United States Navy and United States Coast Guard, as well as the defunct, incorporated, or renamed institutions such as the United States Revenue Cutter Service. Service of the United States can also be defined in this context as special government missions in the form of expeditions, such as the Wilkes Expedition or the North Pacific Exploring and Surveying Expedition. The scope of the glossary encompasses both the "Old Navy" of the United States, from its beginnings as the "Continental Navy", through the "New Navy" and up to modern day. The watercraft included in the glossary are derived from United States ships with logbooks published by the National Archives and Records Administration.


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  2. Mayne, Richard (2000). The language of sailing. Chicago, Ill.: Fitzroy Dearborn. ISBN   978-1-579-58278-4.
  3. 1 2 3 4 May, W E; Stephens, Simon (1999). The Boats of Men of War (2003 publ Caxton Editions ed.). London: Chatham Publishing. ISBN   1-84067-4318.
  4. Winstedt, Sir Richard (1962). A History of Malaya. Marican.
  5. Frost, Alan (2004). "Bligh, William (1754–1817), naval officer and colonial governor" . Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/2650. ISBN   978-0-19-861412-8.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  6. Thames Conservancy Act 1932
  7. "Electric coaching launches benefit athletes and air quality". Retrieved 2022-09-23.