Packet boats were small boats designed for domestic mail, passenger and freight transportation in Europe and its colonies, including North American rivers and canals. They were extensively used for much of the 18th century and in the 19th century, and featured regularly scheduled service.
Packet craft were used extensively in European coastal mail services since the 17th century, and gradually added cramped passenger accommodation. As early as 1629, the Dutch East India Company was carrying some passengers on the ill-fated Batavia from Texel in Holland to Java. Later, scheduled services were offered, but the time journeys took depended much on the weather. They are even found to be a subject of Daniel Defoe's 1724 novel Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress. In England the King maintained a weekly packet service with the continent and Ireland using 15 packet vessels. Their importance was evident in the Rose Hill Packet becoming the first craft built in the colony of New South Wales in 1789. In North America, when the Erie Canal opened in New York state in 1825 along the Mohawk River, demand quickly rose for travelers to be accommodated.
Over the two centuries of the sailing packet craft development, they came in various rig configurations which included: schooners, schooners-brigs, sloops, cutters, brigs, brigantines, luggers, feluccas, galleys, xebecs, barques and their ultimate development in the clipper ships. Earlier they were also known as dispatch boats, but the service was also provided by privateers during time of war, and on occasion chartered private yachts. News of "record passages" was eagerly awaited by the public, and the craft's captain and crew were often celebrated in the press. Behind this search for sailing faster than the wind however lay the foundations for a development in naval architecture and its science which would serve until the appearance of the steam vessels.
The American canal packet boats were typically narrow (about 14 feet) to accommodate canals, but might be 70–90 feet long. In the cabin space they could carry up to 60 passengers. Unlike sailing European and American that sought to attain greater speed under sail, the canal packet boats were drawn through the Erie Canal by teams of two or three horses or mules. Compared to overland travel, the boats cut journey time in half and were much more comfortable. Travelers could get from New York City to Buffalo in ten days, with a combination of sailing and packet boats. Some passengers took the boats to see both the Erie Canal and the natural landscapes. Significantly, thousands of others used packet boats to emigrate to Ohio and other parts of the Midwest. These boats were also instrumental in the settling of and travel within Upstate New York through the branch canals such as the Chenango Canal. Packet boats were also popular along the James River and Kanawha Canal in Virginia, allowing travel beyond the falls upriver.
- "Batavia's History". Government of Western Australia. Retrieved 12 November 2013.
- The novel contains numerous references to packet boats, and includes a section entitled "Sail in packet-boat to Rotterdam".
- A Collection of Voyages and Travels, consisting of Authentic Writers in our own Tongue, which have not before been collected in English, or have only been abridged in other Collections Vol I., 1745, p.120
- Deborah Fitts, "Hull of Packet Boat That Carried Jackson's Body Is Protected", Civil War News, Jan 2007, accessed 22 Nov 2008