With the exception of certain ports in New England, there was no place to see a "pirate ship" already built and waiting for your custom Jolly Roger flag. Although some were previously paid for or later paid off, the best pirate ships were the ones most easily available.
This usually meant stealing a ship or boat and customizing it: removing forecastles, upper structures, and cabins for extra speed, stripping interior bulk heads for more crew space and guns, changing the mast and sail arrangement, and adding gun ports. Space was hard to come by on a pirate ship, because so many more men were needed both to fight with superior forces and to sail any vessel taken in battle.
Pirate ships could start off in great condition, but regular maintenance was vital to keep them in shape. In some remote cove or river inlet, the vessel would be run aground in a way that would leave the hull exposed at low tide, prepared for careening. After pulling the ship over for optimum exposure to the cleaning routine, it was scraped clean of all barnacles, weeds, mold, and any other extras which increased drag. Any planks were replaced which were too damaged from teredo worms, rot, battle wounds, or age, and the renewed hull was then coated with a layer of sulfur, tar, and tallow to help slow down any sea beasties which would destroy the ship.
Authorities would often wait to strike until the pirates were more vulnerable during the ship's careening, when their ship was out of water and their pants were around their knees.
Common Pirate Ships
Sloops- The favorite little wonder boat of Caribbean and Atlantic pirates in the late 1600's was first produced in large numbers by master builders in Jamaica, and her single-mast configuration was later changed by Bermudans in the 1700's. Although usually rigged for a larger fore-and-aft mainsail, it could easily be altered for various sail combinations. The huge bowsprit also added more canvas area for more maneuverability.
Thirty to sixty feet long with a top speed of over 10 knots, a crew of 20 to 70 men could easily work this father of the modern sailing yacht for lightning-swift attacks, avoiding broadsides, and outrunning pursuit. In spite of weighing as much as 100 tons and having perhaps 15 cannons, its draft was amazingly shallow at eight feet. This allowed it to find safety in shallower waters far beyond any warship's range. A shallow draft was also was the reason that those entrusted to pursue pirate ships often favored the sloop to get access to their hiding spots. (more info)
Schooners- The two-masted schooner was another of the favored pirate ships in the Caribbean and Atlantic. With many of the same features of the sloop such as terrific speed, maneuverability, and gun capacity, this swift American variant was first built in the 1700's with a narrower hull and a shallower draft of only 5 feet. This meant it could easily take a large haul and 75-man crew further inland to hide or to divide the booty, but a smaller hold stored fewer spoils. (more info)
Brigantines- This shallow-draft, two-mast brigand's ship gave terrific maneuverability and speed from its various square and fore/aft-rigged sail variations. It was prized in the Mediterranean, where its earlier versions sometimes included oars that were better for diminished winds. Heavier, longer, and roomier than the smaller sloops and schooners, it was usually first choice for prolonged battles instead of quick hits. Adequate firepower and a larger hold meant the versatile pirate ship also saw widespread use as a trade ship. 70-80 foot length, 125-150 tons, 100+ men, 12 guns... (more info)
Square-rigged Pirate Ships-
With their large square sails hanging from arms on the three masts, these would be rightly called ships, or merchant ships, for those outside of Naval use. Pirates knew merchant ships were fairly slow, full of valuable goods, and under-gunned because of skinflint owners. For crossing large bodies of water, a few versions may have been fairly swift for their size, but that size meant they were not agile - they could not turn on a dime...or a dollar. Owners and captains would try to compensate with more cannons, traveling in convoys, and military escorts.
Faster- The Merchant Carrier was a 275-ton, 80-foot- long variety with a more streamlined hull. It gained a reputation for rapidly ferrying passengers as well as cargo across the Atlantic in a month or less. The weak point was that such a large ship could usually have a small crew of 20 or less, and they could rarely fire more than a few of its possible 16 guns.
Fatter- The Dutch Fleut was so well-designed that it became the prototype for cargo carriers. This was a broad, flat-bottomed, and strong ship with a weight of 300 tons spread over only 80 feet. It could also carry 50 percent more cargo than other designs. Merchants on the tightest budget loved that the Fleut was inexpensive to build and to man, as only twelve men could make a crew. With the same weak defense as the carrier, there was no way for the crew to sail and fire very many of its twelve cannons.
Monster- An East Indiaman was by far the largest and best for long voyages. This titan was twice as large as a Fleut and weighed in at 700 tons! A pirate would spy this pregnant guppy on the horizon and get doubloon $igns in his eyes. Any East Indiamen as pirate ships needed a large crew of 300, a number possible only after successful runs in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. The top gun capacity of 54 was often reduced to make room for more loot. (more info)
Galleons- These famous Spanish-designed trade and treasure ships rejected the light defense notion of other merchant vessels and were truly a force to be reckoned with. No amount of cannons, however, would deter the pirates attracted to the vast wealth they carried. With a crew over 200 on two or three decks of over 70 cannon, numerous swivel guns, and even archers' platforms on the masts, this virtual fort on water would use resistance only as a last but terrifying resort - broadsides were deadly. The pirates were not swayed, because the top speed of perhaps eight knots could not overcome the irksome design features which made it difficult or impossible to maneuver well in less than glassy seas. With huge square sails that prevented sailing into the wind, the hull narrow at the top and broad at bottom, and a tiny keel, it responded more like a washtub than a warship, and someone was always waiting to drain it dry.(more info)
Predating the galleon, the Spanish and Portuguese sailed huge carracks on their trade routes. These three-masted ships were well-defended and large at over 1100 tons. A carrack could most always defend itself well against pirates. (more info)How To Draw A Pirate Ship
Other Pirate Ships:
Galleys- The Barbary corsairs in the Mediterranean used a variant of this ancient, long and lean vessel during the 1500's and after. The sails provided only secondary power, because the main propulsion was by up to 30 large oars rowed by several men apiece below the deck. One or more masts would attempt to take advantage of the occasional wind with lateen sails. Captains of the corsair galley first employed manpower to approach the prey, then if necessary, several cannon in the bow to assault, and finally on the large number of 100 or more marines or pirates to overcome the enemy.
Captain William Kidd sailed The Adventure Galley, made in England in 1695. Three masts of square sails, 46 oars, 34 guns, and a nearly 300-ton weight made it more like a frigate than a galley. (more info)
Junks- There really was no other real ship in the Far East but a junk for many centuries. Although the flat-bottom design was unimposing, it was highly adaptable to merchant, military, and pirate demands alike.
Among its distinct features were its very high stern, flat bow, wide breadth, and adjustable rudder height. Chinese Junks could range in size from 45 to 100 feet and have two to four main masts, as well as several heavy guns. (more info)