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What Is a Xebec?

J.E. Holloway
J.E. Holloway

A xebec, also called a zebec, is a two- or three-masted sailing vessel common in the Mediterranean from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Xebecs were used mostly for trading, but could also be found as naval vessels and pirates. Like several other types of Mediterranean sailing vessel, they also sometimes used oars for propulsion.

The characteristic shape of the xebec comes from its protruding bowsprit and stern. These overhang the ends of the vessel, giving it a very long silhouette for its comparatively small size. Few xebecs displaced more than about 200 tons, although some naval xebecs could be larger, such as the 260-ton Indiscret, which served in the French navy in the second half of the 18th century.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

Typical vessels of this type were lateen-rigged, meaning that they carried triangular sails set on yard running fore and aft at an angle to its masts. Lateen rigs allowed for greater maneuverability with a contrary wind than a square-rig. These vessels were not as fast or efficient running before the wind.

Although the main rig for xebecs was the lateen rig, some xebecs carried square-rigged sails. The polacre-xebec carried square-rigged sails on its foremast, with lateen-rigged sails only on the main mast and mizzen mast. The same was true of xebecs used for naval operations by European navies. Although they had the characteristic overhanging stern and bowsprit of xebecs, these vessels were square-rigged like frigates and were referred to as xebec-frigates.

The xebec was a popular vessel among the pirates or corsairs of the Mediterranean. Its maneuverability was useful in combat and pursuit, and its oars allowed it to be rowed to catch vessels which had been becalmed. Corsair xebecs could mount up to 40 guns, although many carried no more than 16 or 20, and carry a crew of as many as 400.

Probably the most famous naval action involving a xebec was the battle between Spanish xebec-frigate El Gamo and the British aloop HMS Speedy, which took place on May 5th, 1801. El Gamo displaced 600 tons, mounted 32 guns, and a crew of over 300. Despite El Gamo's superiority in both firepower and crew, British commander Lord Thomas Cochrane was able to use the element of surprise to capture the enemy vessel by boarding after a lengthy gunnery battle.

Although most xebecs sailed in Mediterranean waters, the fledgling U.S. Navy included one. USS Champion was an eight-gun xebec which formed part of an American squadron operating in the Delaware River area. It was burnt by its own crew in 1777 to keep it from falling into British hands.

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