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What is a Pinnace?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The term “pinnace” refers to two different types of watercraft. Pinnaces can be ships or boats, depending on the type of craft under discussion, with pinnace boats being in widespread use around the world today, while the ships are less common. Both types of watercraft appear to have originated in Europe, and they have been mostly supplanted by other types of craft developed in the modern era. However, pinnaces are still of interest for historical reasons.

The larger pinnace ship was developed by the Dutch and used between the 17th and 19th centuries. These pinnaces were classically square rigged and modest in size, and were used primarily in northern waters. Some were used to accompany fleets traveling to the New World, and they were also used as relatively maneuverable craft in coastal waters. A number of replicas of pinnaces are maintained by organizations interested in the history of ships and sailing.

Several contemporary records illustrate the confusion between various types of ship, as some people who definitely traveled on pinnaces referred to them by other names. The nomenclature for different ships and boats has fluctuated and evolved over the course of time, and sometimes the rigging of historic sailing craft confused their identity for people who were not very familiar with watercraft.

In the smaller sense, a pinnace is a lightweight boat which is traditionally moved by oars or sails. These pinnaces were designed for communications between ship and shore, or from ship to ship. Maneuvering a pinnace was significantly easier than handling a large ship, allowing goods and passengers to be quickly loaded and unloaded. Multiple pinnaces could be used to transfer loads simultaneously for efficiency and safety. Utilizing a pinnace could also protect large ships from pirates who might be lying in wait in port. These boats are also sometimes known as “tenders.”

In the modern era, the term “pinnace” is often used to refer to a small boat which is associated with a larger ship. The pinnace is not designed to act as a launch or lifeboat, and can be used for a variety of purposes. People can also use a pinnace for near-shore operations such as casual fishing or recreational boating, and historically, the pinnace was used by some pirates as a lightweight craft which could be used to quickly attack and make off with booty from an unwary ship which wouldn't realize it was being attacked until too late.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By elizabeth23 — On Oct 02, 2011

I have an uncle who is really into boats, and he has one that he calls a pinnace. It really just looks like a little canoe or row boat or something to me, but I don't know as much as he does. At any rate, it's a fun boat to go around a pond in, though it wouldn't be very safe in choppier water.

By lluviaporos — On Oct 01, 2011

If you've ever watched the original Disney's Peter Pan, a pinnace was the boat in which they rowed away Tigerlily.

It's often used in pirate movies, where they have to go to shore, or carry some treasure somewhere or whatever. Sometimes it has a little sail, but usually they show them rowing it.

I think they often kept it above the water and lowered it when they needed to use it. That makes sense because it's generally pretty large. It would slow them right down if they kept it in the water, dragging behind the tall ship.

By indigomoth — On Oct 01, 2011

@pastanaga - Depending on where you were, you may have been in more danger than you realized. After all, a crocodile isn't likely to bother a boat, even a very small boat, simply because he won't see it as food, and therefore not worth his while.

Unless you've got your fingers trailing behind!

But, a hippo can and will make matchsticks of any kind of little boat foolish enough to enter its territory when it's feeling combative.

Hippos are known to be one of the most dangerous animals in Africa for precisely this reason.

I would have to have a lot of reassurance by locals that there were none anywhere near a river before I would attempt to cross it in one of those tiny pinnaces.

By pastanaga — On Sep 30, 2011

When I was traveling in Africa, we referred to the boats people used to cross rivers as "pinnaces". Often they didn't look all that different from what you might call a rowboat. Sometimes they looked closer to a canoe or a pirogue.

And sometimes they were much bigger and looked like those outrigger boats that people in the Pacific use, although usually without the outrigger section.

At any rate, they were a lot of fun to ride on, generally quite sedate, although you knew at any moment there might be a dangerous animal under the water that was sliding close to you.

That sounds cheesy, but it's true! There were crocodiles and all sorts of thing there.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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