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What Is a Hoy?

By Christian Petersen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A hoy is a type of ship, first appearing in the 16th century in Europe with Dutch and English navies. Different types of ships were classified as hoys, including sloop-rigged, one- or two-masted coastal ships and heavy sailing barges. These cargo ships generally displaced around 60 tons and were used for short-hauling cargo or passengers from port to port along the coast or, rarely, across the English Channel. They were not designed for sailing on the open ocean and were sometimes employed ferrying passengers and cargo from shore to larger vessels.

The word hoy is derived from the original Dutch word hoey. In its original form, a hoy was often a single masted vessel, spirit-sail rigged, used as, among other things, a cargo hauler and a light warship. These vessels were intended to be deployed in coastal areas. English and Dutch hoys varied in design, as English hoys usually had one mast, and the Dutch boats were outfitted with two masts. These boats were heavy hulled and not built for speed but to optimize cargo capacity.

By the 18th century, hoys were generally outfitted with sloop-rigged sails, although the preferred configurations of single masts for English ships and double masts for Dutch ships persisted. The role of these ships in the 18th and 19th centuries remained unchanged, however. They were primarily still heavy-hulled cargo and passenger ships meant for use in coastal waters, although some continued to be outfitted as warships for coastal defense.

As ship design evolved, hoys also changed. In the early 19th century, the English navy outfitted a small fleet of these ships as coastal defense warships to counter a perceived threat of attack by the French. These boats were armed to varying degrees. Some had only one gun, but some were outfitted with a number of small and medium cannons. While several countries used hoys as warships, the majority of these boats remained merchant vessels.

This type of ship was especially prevalent in the coastal estuaries of the River Thames, in England, and along the Dutch coast. Larger ships relied on hoys to ferry cargo and passengers from shore as they were unable to navigate the shallow waters of these areas. Hoys also were commonly used along the coasts to to transport cargo and passengers short distances from port to port. Along the English coast, it was not uncommon for people wishing transport to hail hoys from shore. This may be the source of the exclamation, "Ahoy!"

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