Certain ships during the great age of sail tended to lend themselves to only one specific task: the man-of-war, the bomb ketch, the coal barge. Their names even tell you what they are up to. But today’s ship, the origin of whose name is anyone’s guess, could just about do it all. The snow worked hard in the merchant service for more than four hundred years beginning in the 16th century with the last of her kind retiring in 1909. But her talents were such that she found herself working for more than one master.
By the 18th century the general type of the snow had been perfected. She was a two-masted brig-type ship, usually of no more than 1,000 tons. Her hold was not remarkably large but, if her cargo was stowed correctly, she could carry a lot of merchandise and deliver it quickly. Merchants also favored her for her economy; she could be manned by a very sparse crew of as few as 35 hands. Her speed and ease of handling was due in large part to her slim lines, relatively shallow draft (about 10 feet) and the unusual set of her masts and sails.
The snow carried square rigging on both of her masts with a trysail on her main. Originally this last was loose-footed but around 1800 the trysail was routinely fitted with a boom at the bottom, allowing for a larger sail and more speed. Another unique feature of the snow was the bracings of her mainmast. These were led forward and made fast to her foremast rather than backward as in most brigs. Finally, and perhaps most unique of all, the snow had a smaller third mast which became known as a “snow mast”.
This mast, also called a trysail mast, can be seen in the picture at the header. It rose only to the maintop and was blocked and bolted there. The trysail would be the only sail carried by this “mini-mast”. In some cases, particularly later in the snow’s history, the snow mast would be replaced by a jackstay on the mainmast. This was often the case when the snow found herself in the service of the navy.
This ship was popular with the French Navy, coming into service during the Revolution and continuing through the Napoleonic Wars. The Royal Navy made good use of the snow, as did the U.S. Navy, but she was especially loved by the French on both sides of the Atlantic who called her a corvette. This is a good place to note that the snow’s speed also made her a favorite of pirates and privateers. In the Gulf of Mexico during the early 19th century she would often be rerigged to resemble a hermaphrodite brig. The Laffite brothers’ ships Dos Hermanos and Dorada as well as Renato Beluche’s La Popa and Dominique Youx’s Tigre were probably all originally merchant snows.
As with most sailing vessels, rebuilt snows – or corvettes – can be found to this day. They handle remarkably well and are a joy to sail. If you ever get the chance to take a cruise on one, don’t hesitate. You’ll find it a delightful experience.
Header: Thane of Fife, a snow in Royal Navy service c 1810