In 1688 the most powerful navies were the French, English, and Dutch; Spanish and Portuguese navies had suffered a serious decline in the 17th century. The largest French ships of the period were the Soleil Royal and the Royal Louis. Both these were rated for 120 guns but never carried their full complement. These ships were too large for practical purposes. The former only sailed on one campaign and was destroyed at La Hogue; the latter languished in port until sold in 1694. By the 1680s, French ship design was at least equal to English and Dutch counterparts, and by the Nine Years' War they had surpassed ships of the Royal Navy, whose designs stagnated in the 1690s. Innovation in the Royal Navy, however, did not cease. At some stage in the 1690s, for example, English ships began to employ the steering wheel, greatly improving their performance, particularly in heavy weather. The French navy did not adopt the wheel for another thirty years.
Combat between naval fleets was decided by cannon duels delivered by ships in line of battle; fireships were also used but were mainly successful against anchored and stationary targets while the new bomb vessels were best used as shore bombardment. Yet sea battles were rarely decisive and it was almost impossible to inflict enough damage on ships and men to win a clear victory: ultimate success depended not on tactical brilliance but on sheer weight of numbers. Here, Louis XIV was at a disadvantage: without as large a maritime commerce as benefited the Allies, the French were unable to supply as many experienced sailors for their navy. Most importantly, though, Louis XIV had to concentrate his resources on the army at the expense of the fleet, enabling the Dutch, and the English in particular, to outdo the French in ship construction. However, naval actions were comparatively uncommon and, just like battles on land, the goal was generally to outlast rather than destroy one's opponent. To Louis XIV, his navy was an extension of his army whose most important role was to protect the French coast from enemy invasion. He used his fleet to support land and amphibious operations or the bombardment of coastal targets, designed to draw enemy resources from elsewhere and thus aid his land campaigns on the continent.
Once the Allies had secured a clear superiority in numbers the French found it prudent not to contest them in fleet action. At the start of the Nine Years' War the French fleet had 118 rated vessels and a total of 295 ships of all types. By the end of the war the French had 137 rated ships. In contrast the English fleet started the war with 173 vessels of all types, and ended it with 323. Between 1694 and 1697 the French built 19 first to fifth rated ships; the English built 58 such vessels, and the Dutch constructed 22. Thus, the Maritime Powers were outbuilding the French at a rate of four to one.
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