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.