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A hulk is a ship that is afloat, but incapable of going to sea. Although sometimes used to describe a ship that has been launched but not completed, the term most often refers to an old ship that has had its rigging and/or internal equipment removed, retaining only its flotational qualities. The term "hulk" can also be used to refer to an abandoned wreck or shell.

In medieval Europe

Originally, a hulk (sometimes spelled "holk") was a type of medieval sea craft somewhat similar to a cog and a technological precedent of the carrack and caravel. The hulk appears to have remained a relatively minor type of boat apparently peculiar to the low countries of Europe where it was probably used primarily as a river or canal boat, with limited potential for coastal cruising. The name hulk may come from the Greek word holkas, meaning a towed boat, which would be consistent with the use of the hulk as a river barge. The word hulk also has a medieval meaning of "hollowed-out" or "husk-like" which is also apposite for the shape of the basic hulk. In the fourteenth century the hulk began to develop until it was able to rival the cog as a major load carrier in the medieval economy. Whether this was a consequence of a perception of the cog's shortcomings or a result of a shift in the economic geography of Northern Europe towards the Dutch low countries is not easy to discern.

The weakest part of an enlarged hulk would be its stem and stern. Since it has no proper keel or substantial stem or stern posts those parts of the boat would have to be reinforced by the introduction of substantial apron and breasthooks, perhaps augmented by sacrificial stem and stern posts between which the unsupported hull planking could be sandwiched. Early hulks, like all of the other northern boat types, were initially shell-built using lapstrake or clinker planking which was subsequently reinforced by the insertion of grown crooks of timber as frames. Using these techniques, perhaps better understood as a result of technological transfers from architectural woodworking, shipwrights were able to extend the hulk in size until it rivalled and surpassed the cog.

In shipbuilding and ship repair

A sheer hulk (or shear hulk), in the days of sailing ships, was used as a sort of floating crane, primarily to place the lower mast of a ship under construction or repair. The masts of the hulk (known as "sheers") would be at an angle, and the ends could be effectively raised or lowered by rotating the hulk's hull, either by pulling on ropes attached to the hull, or by shifting the ballast within the hull. The lower masts were the largest and most massive single timbers aboard a ship, and erecting these masts was extremely difficult without the assistance of a sheer hulk.

Prison hulks

A prison hulk was a hulk used as a floating prison. They were especially popular in Great Britainmarker, the Royal Navy producing a steady supply of ships too worn-out to use in combat, but still afloat. The harbour location of prison hulks was also convenient for the temporary holding of persons being transported to Australia and elsewhere overseas. These were decommissioned in the mid-1800s; there are, however, current discussions taking place regarding the reintroduction of prison ships in order to alleviate overcrowding in UK prisons.

See also


  • Selections from History and Archaeology of the Ship - Lecture Notes, J.S. Illsley, 13 August 1999

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