In the days of sailing ships, a vessel would carry several ship’s boats for various purposes. One of these boats would be a longboat, an open boat to be rowed by eight or ten oarsmen, two per thwart. The longboat was double-banked; its rowing benches were designed to accommodate two men each pulling an oar on opposite sides. Other boats sometimes embarked on a sailing ship included the cutter, whaleboat, gig, jolly boat, launch, dinghy, and punt.
The longboat has fairly fine lines aft to permit its use in steep waves such as surf or wind against tide. Like other ships’ boats, the longboat could be rigged for sailing but was primarily a pulling boat. It had the double-banked arrangement in common with the cutter. This was possible as it had a beam similar to a cutter’s but broader than that of a gig, which was single banked.
The longboat was generally more seaworthy than the cutter, which had a fuller stern for such load-carrying work as laying out an anchor and cable. In a seaway or surf therefore, the cutter was more prone to broaching. Longboats would have been used by settlers to penetrate deeper into river waters.
The Oxford English Dictionary notes the word first came into use in 1515. In later years, particularly in the Royal Navy, the longboat tended to be replaced by the whaler.