Ships of the Roanoke Voyages

16th-century illustration of ship ropes
16th-century illustration of rigging on a vessel

Folger Shakespeare Library

No plans for vessels used in the Roanoke voyages are known to exist, but reasonably accurate inferences about those vessels can be drawn from contemporary paintings, construction and performance records, woodcuts, and maritime treatises.

The wooden sailing ships of the period, while much trimmer and sleeker than their tub-like fourteenth-and fifteenth-century ancestors, had considerable strength, durability and maneuverability. Rather than battering and slamming their way through the forces of a North Atlantic gale, the typical sixteenth century English ship was able to slip and bob through the waves with comparative ease.


Admiral (flagship): a ship of any type on which the commander of the expedition sailed. It was usually the largest, best, or safest ship in the fleet.

Bark: a relatively small sailing vessel, generally around 50 or 60 tons, having three masts, of which the fore and main were square-rigged, and the rearmost (mizzenmast) was rigged fore-and-aft.

Boat: a small, undecked craft propelled by oars or a small sail on a short mast. Ships' boats varied in capacity and size, but always had a shallow draft. They were used to haul cargo, supplies and personnel to and from shore. Carried aboard ships in the fleet during the Atlantic crossing, the versatile and maneuverable ship's boat played a major role in the exploration of the shallow sounds and rivers of northeastern North Carolina.

Captain: the commanding officer of a vessel, with absolute authority on board. Captains were not necessarily skilled in navigation or seamanship. Ship owners and company appointees were frequently styled captain of a ship in the fleet.

Consort: a ship of any size or type that accompanied another vessel, generally in accordance with an agreement to share any loot seized from other vessels.

Flyboat: a large ship of Dutch origin, having a high stern, broad beam, shallow draft, and one or two masts; generally square-rigged, and around 600 tons.

Frigate: a light, swift vessel, generally around 10 tons, having one or two square-rigged sails.

Galleass: a fighting vessel, with provisions for oar and sail power, favored by the Spanish but not by the English.

Galleon: a large, heavy, square-rigged ship, having a high stern and three or four levels or decks. The galleon design was developed primarily by Sir John Hawkins, but Spain adapted it and used it as the mainstay of its American treasure fleet.

Master: a professional mariner responsible for all aspects of sailing and maneuvering a ship.

Pilot: an experienced mariner responsible for plotting courses for ships of the fleet, particularly through coastal waters.

Pinnace: a small vessel of around 20 tons, generally having two square-rigged masts. Pinnaces were small, fast, and maneuverable and sometimes carried oars. They were frequently used as message boats within fleets and were also highly regarded by the English for scouting coastal waters. Some small, undecked pinnaces were technically boats, for they could be taken aboard larger vessels.

Shallop: a large, heavy undecked boat with a single fore-and-aft-rigged mast.

Ship: a generic term for any square-rigged vessel having a bowsprit and three masts.

Tiltboat: a small boat with a canvas awning at the stern to provide protection from the sun.

Wherry, double wherry: an open boat used originally to carry passengers on the tidal reaches of the Thames. Noted for their great speed, wherries were sometimes called "light-horsemen" and ranged in length from around 14 feet for a single oarsman to 25 feet for four oarsmen. The Grenville expedition of 1585 used both the tiltboat and the wherry to explore the sounds around Roanoke Island.


1584 Reconnissance Voyage of Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe

Two vessels described in Hakluyt's Principal Navigations as "barks well furnished with men and victuals."

1585 First Expedition of Sir Richard Grenville, Which Planted the Lane Colony

Dorothy, "a small bark" (described as a pinnace in other accounts) owned by Ralegh and possibly captioned by Barlowe.
Elizabeth, a vessel of 50 tons; Thomas Cavendish, Captain.

Lyon (Red Lyon) of Chichester, "a hundred tunnes or thereabouts"; George Raymond, Captain.

Roebuck, a flyboat of about 140 tons; John Clarke, Captain.

Tyger, a ship of "seven score tun, " the admiral of the fleet; commanded by Sir Richard Grenville, with Simon Fernandez chief pilot and master. This was probably the Tyger originally built as a galleass in the mid-1540's and rebuilt in 1570. Its tonnage is given variously as 140, 160, and 200.

Two pinnaces, 20-30 tons each, names unknown, "for speedie seruices. " One was lost on the outbound leg, so Grenville's party built its replacement at Tallaboa Bay, Puerto Rico.

Prizes: Santa Maria de Vincente (300-400 tons), Alonzo Cornieles, captain; a large frigate owned by Lorenzo de Vallejo; and a small frigate, used by Ralph Lane to carry salt dug at Cape Rojo, Puerto Rico.

1586 The Main Ships in Sir Francis Drake's Fleet, Which Evacuated the Lane Colony

Aid (200-250 tons), the Queen's ship; Edward Wynter, captain.

Bark Bond (120-150 tons); owned at least in part by John Hawkins, Treasurer of the Navy; Robert Crosse, captain.

Bark Bonner (about 150 tons), apparently owned by William Hawkins; George Fortescue, captain. This is the vessel that Drake offered Lane after a storm had dispersed much of the fleet.

Elizabeth Bonaventure (600 tons), the Queen's ship and Drake's flagship.

Francis (70 tons), owned by Drake and under the command of Captain Thomas Moore. Drake offered her to Lane, but she was driven out to sea by a storm.

Leicester (Ughtred), a 400-ton galleon captained by Francis Knollys.

Minion of Plymouth (100-200 tons) probably owned by a consortium of Plymouth and Bristol merchants; Thomas Cely, captain; John Newsome, master.

Primrose (300 tons), part-owned by John Hawkins and captained by Martin Frobisher; its journal is an important source of information about the voyage.

Sea Dragon (140 tons), owned by Sir William Wynter, the Queen's Surveyor of Ships; Henry Whyte, captain. Evidently one of the vessels scattered by the storm that arose while the fleet rode at anchor off the Outer Banks. In any case, on her return, she required new anchors and cables.

Speedwell, a merchantman of 50-60 tons; probably not the vessel of the same name that accompanied Mayflower in 1620. She returned to England after a storm separated her from the fleet.

Talbot, a bark of 150-200 tons owned by George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury; [Walter?] Baily, captain. This may have been one of the vessels scattered by the storm that arose while the fleet rode at anchor off the Outer Banks.

Thomas (Bark Hastings, Thomas Drake, Thomas of Plymouth), a vessel of 100-200 tons owned by Sir Francis Drake; Thomas Drake, captain.

Tyger (200 tons), under the command of Captain Christopher Carleill; not the Tyger of 1585.

White Lion (140-150 tons), a private man-of-war owned by Charles Lord Howard of Effingham. Lord Admiral of England; James Erisey, captain. She lost an anchor and cable off the Outer Banks during Drake's attempt to render assistance to the Lane colony.

Eight pinnaces and a dozen or so other vessels of various kinds, including prizes.

1586 Relief Voyages for the Lane Colony

Name unknown: a supply ship of 100 tons, owned and sent by Raleigh. She arrived after 19 June 1586, found Lane's settlement deserted, and soon left.

Names unknown: a fleet of two large vessels and four or five smaller ones commanded by Sir Richard Grenville. Grenville arrived shortly after Raleigh's supply ship had departed. He left a holding party of fifteen men with food for two years.

Prizes: Brave (Peter); Julian of St. Brieuc (60 tons), Peter Godbecin, master; Martin Johnson of Amsterdam, a flyboat; and a bark, name unknown, taken in the Azores.

1587 The Voyage to Plant a Second Colony in Virginia (The Lost Colony)

Lyon (120 tons); the admiral, captained by Governor John White, with Simon Fernandez as master and pilot. A flyboat of 20 tons, Edward Spicer, Master. A pinnace under the command of captain Edward Stafford.

1590 Attempt by Governor John White to Relieve the Roanoke Colonists (The Lost Colony)

Conclude, a pinnace of 20-30 tons owned by Thomas Middleton and partners; Joseph Harris, captain; Hugh Harding, master; consort of Moonlight.

Hopewell (also known as the Harry and John), 140-160 tons; Abraham Cocke, captain; Robert Hutton, master. Governor White booked passage on this vessel. White's account of the voyage suggests that the company barely tolerated his presence even as a passenger with no real authority.

John Evangelist: a pinnace, captained by William Lane.

Little John (120 tons), Christopher Newport, captain; Michael Geare, master.

Moonlight (formerly Mary Terlayne), 80 tons; owned by William Sanderson, commanded by Captain Edward Spicer.

Two shallops lost under tow in the waters just off Plymouth.

Prizes: Buen Jesus of Seville (300-350 tons), Trinidad (60 tons), and two Spanish frigates (one of 10 tons).

Last updated: August 23, 2017