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Fluyts and Katts


I am quite sure that all members of the Society are fully aware that all four vessels commanded by James Cook on his three voyages of discovery and scientific observation had been converted Whitby Cats, (to use the English spelling).

All had been constructed in the first instant at Fishburn's Yard that had stood immediately up stream from the present location of the Rail Station in Whitby. For the first voyage Endeavour had been classified as a Bark because of Cook's commissioned rank of Lieutenant. The three subsequent ships under his command had been all reclassified as Sloops of War because he had been made Commander for the second and was already in the rank of Captain for the third.

But precisely what was a Katt, which was a common enough sight in northern European waters by the early 18th century? Most assuredly they had all been utility bulk carriers with generally a fairly short life span, intended for the less glamorous end of mercantile trade. Good timber ships of the Baltic the manifest could be stone, grain, alum, even barrels of urine for that trade and, of course, coal from the Tyne. Tough ships, with burthens that ranged from 200 to 600 tons; the vast majority being between 300 and 400 tons.

The principal of the design had originated with the Shipwrights of Hoorn in the Netherlands (the town that gave its name to Cape Horn), in the last decade of the 16th century. This was the forerunner of the Katt and they named it a Fluytschip (Fluyt), which can be seen in plate 1. As with the later Katt any available hardwood was used for the Keel, Kelson, Frames, Beams and Stringers. All planking had been of softwood, usually pine but any would do. Cross sectional area of timbers tended to be greater than the norm for the work that they would do. The Hull shape as can be observed in plate 2 had been bulbous and fairly flat-bottomed but its cross section until after 1669 has been compared to that of a Chianti bottle. The reason for that odd shape came about because of the practice of the customs house at the Oresund Strait, gateway to the Baltic. Officials at that location basing their toll charge on just the length and width of the upper deck and not on the capacity of the hold. This changed in 1669, with the effect that the Fluyt became more slab-sided with the merest hint of tumblehome.

Plate 1 shows reef points on the topsails and the footropes that are part of the reefing system. However the date for these would be for a merchantman the mid 1640s. There is the point of view that they originated on the Fluyt and could be earlier because of the very small crew numbers, but that is not provable. What is not in any doubt at all is that Fluyts generally went unarmed. However, like the later Katts a few gun ports were normally included so that light cannon could be deployed on that rare occasion. Members will be aware that Earl of Pembroke had had four such ports in the after fall (not deployed on Endeavour). Lack of armament, compared to normal merchantmen of the time, would help with running with a smaller crew, as would the very simple six sail rig of minimal area. So, there we have the nature of both of the types; very cheap to build and very cheap to man. Some fell prey to piracy, and a fair number had been captured by the English Navy during the three maritime wars of the 17th century. For the most part each vessel had recouped costs after the second voyage. Most Merchants did not lose too much sleep.

Around 30 years after the introduction of the Fluyt, Dutch Shipwrights came up with a smaller version of the utility bulk carrier. They gave it the name Katschip. It was the beginning of the Katt (Cat) and as we can see from plate 3 it had been quite small and of extremely shallow draft. Clearly this model was for river and estuarial work.

The drawing shows the upper (main) deck to have been stepped fore and aft; these were the main deck falls that would remain a feature of the Kat. Strangely that was not a Dutch improvisation in the instant for it had been used by English shipwrights to lower the upper works of most of the Queens Galleons that had defeated the Armada in 1588. Because of the size of these first Kats there had been no lower decking or structural beams in the hold. The low foc'sle head provided space for the anchor cables and bosun's stores on the fore fall. At the Aft fall we see the accommodation areas for cabins for the Skipper and Mate together with a mess deck for the small crew.

The original contemporary material that formed the basis of plate 3 gave no indication as to whether a galley (Fire Hearth or Cook Room) had been included. Perhaps not fitted on an Estuarial vessel. I have included a sketch of the bow as it makes the point that the extreme bluffness of the bow of all Kats was present from inception of the type. As to how these first small Kats had been rigged, I fear it can be only conjectural. The best assumption would be three pole masts and a sail plan of the Herring Buss, which could also mean that the masts were pivoted on a pedestal. This would make sense for a vessel that had to navigate in rivers.

Certainly by the close of the 17th century the Kat was growing in size and soon to begin to eclipse the Fluyt, which other northern countries had copied. England had constructed very few but had captured many from the Dutch. So with the Kat; it also was widely copied in northern waters. The Danes had been quick of the mark with the realisation that a Kat of the size and layout as seen in plate 4 would make an ideal timber carrier. Twin loading ports cut in the stern below the counter leading strait into the hold was a great improvement over earlier timber ships that had also carried a stern port.

Coal had been carried in various vessels with some that could best have been described as barges from the Tyne to the Thames since the 14th century. By the early 18th century London was growing a pace with a major increase in the demand for coal. English shipwrights from the North East and Yorkshire coast were not slow to realise what a wonderful collier the Kat would make. They would produce these vessels with burthens of between 200 and 600 tons but with the majority in the 300 to 400 ton range. Plate 4 and plate 5 are of this size of Cat. At this size the total depth of the hull amidships was around 20 feet (6 metres) hence the need for a fair number of heavy supporting beams within the hold. However to have totally covered them with decking and small hatches would have seriously impaired the easy loading of a Cat. Coal had been loaded in through side ports onto the gangways amidships from barges known as keels at the mouth of the Tyne.

Again referring to the drawing of the interior there had been decking to a point just aft of Fire Hearth. Thence side gangways to the decking for the companion ways aft of the main mast within the well of the ship. Continuing aft on much narrower side gangways, giving access to ventilation ports for the coal dust when loading, to a stern platform by the stern timber ports. The original conversion plan of Endeavour in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich shows very clearly in red that a new full 97 foot deck had been laid over those very beams.

Like the original Kat the anchor cables had been stowed on the fore fall with decking beneath providing berthing for a dozen to eighteen seamen and apprentices. Mess tables at either side of the fire hearth with bunks and stowage in the low headroom forrad. Master and Mates together with the occasional passenger berthed on the aft fall beneath the quarter deck; headroom getting better as you proceed aft. Another Kat feature is to be found at the ends of the lower hold. It is platforms that provide buoyancy chambers beneath and thus also reducing the weight of cargo at the ends. That would greatly help in reducing the risk of Hogging to which all wooden ships were extremely prone. A note of interest is in the conversion plans of Endeavour in that the forrad platform had been retained to provide the floor of the powder magazine.

Plate 5 is of the rigging plan of an 18th century Cat. For a vessel of around say 360 ton burthen at 5000 square feet, after conversion Endeavour carried almost double that. The topmasts are pole in that the topgallants are carried without crosstrees. The rig of a Cat just had to be simple because of the small crew that worked them. As we have seen owners made a fortune out of running Kats and clearly ships Masters did quite well. One has only to seek out the number of affluent 18th century houses in Whitby. One of the unsolved mysteries of life; many theories abound on that subject; as to why James Cook should refuse a Masters position to join the Kings Navy as an able seaman. However as our Society Members and others are aware, what a bonus that decision had been for his Country, which Captain Cook had served so well.

Joe Wheatley

Historisch Scheepvaart Museum, Amsterdam.
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
"Historic Sail 2000", Wheatley and Howarth.
"Ships taken up from Trade", Cook's Log, page 45, vol. 28, no. 2 (2005).


The Plates

Plate 1

Plate 2

Plate 3

Plate 4

Plate 5

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 5, volume 30, number 3 (2007).

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I would like to know what were the best boats for merchant shipping 1590 - 1639 and the cost at that time to build,
Would like detail of cost for shipping in 1600
By Coulson on 10/3/2012 6:25:44 PM Like:0 DisLike:0

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