Xebecs were similar to galleys used by Berber corsairs and Barbary pirates having both lateen sails and oars for propulsion. Early xebecs had two masts; later ones three. Xebecs featured a distinctive hull with pronounced overhanging bow and stern, and rarely displaced more than 200 tons, making them slightly smaller and with slightly fewer guns than frigates of the period.
Notable xebecs of the French Navy include four launched in 1750:
* Ruse, 160 tons, 18 guns
* Serpent, 160 tons burthen, 18 guns
* Requin, 260 tons burthen, 24 guns
* Indiscret, 260 tons burthen, 24 guns
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a large polacre-xebec carried a square rig on the foremast, lateen sails on the other masts, a bowsprit, and two headsails. The square sail distinguished this form of a xebec from that of a felucca which is equipped solely with lateen sails. The last of the xebecs in use by European navies were fully square-rigged and were termed xebec-frigates.
The British brig-sloop Speedy’s (14 guns, 54 men) defeat of the Spanish xebec-frigate El Gamo (32 guns, 319 men) on 6 May 1801 is generally regarded as one of the most remarkable single-ship actions in naval history. It was the foundation of the legendary reputation of the Speedy’s commander, Lord Cochrane (later Admiral Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, GCB).
Sea-going Mediterranean peoples greatly favoured xebecs as corsairs, and for this purpose built them with a narrow floor to achieve a higher speed than their victims, but with a considerable beam in order to enable them to carry an extensive sail-plan. The lateen rig of the xebec allowed for the ship to sail close hauled to the wind often giving it an advantage in pursuit or escape. The use of oars or sweeps allowed the xebec to approach vessels who were becalmed. When used as corsairs they carried a crew of 300 to 400 men and mounted perhaps 16 to 40 guns according to size. In peacetime operations, the xebec could transport merchandise.
Xebec is also written as xebeck, xebe(c)que, zebec(k), zebecque, chebec, shebeck (/ʃɨˈbɛk/); from Catalan: xebec, French: chabec, now chebec, Spanish: xabeque, now jabeque, Portuguese: enxabeque, now xabeco, Italian: sciabecco, zambecco, stambecco, Arabic: شباك, šabbāk and Turkish: sunbeki) Words similar in form and meaning to xebec occur in Catalan, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Arabic and Turkish. The Online Etymology Dictionary regards the Arabic shabbak (meaning “a small warship”) as the source form, however the Arabic root means ‘a net’, implying the word originally referred to a fishing boat.
The Spanish jabeque had only lateen sails, as portrayed in the Cazador. This ship was built and used by the Spanish crown in the mid eighteenth century to fight Algerian corsairs (privateers) in the Mediterranean Sea. Algerian Berber corsairs also used three-lateen-sail xebecs in their raids on Mediterranean trade.