Airship versus sail ship combat - how would it work?

Hey all.  I'm working on a steampunk novel and have come to this question, how exactly would a Georgian era naval battle work if one side was airborne?  And I thought it would make a fun exercise for people to flex their minds as well as ease my research ;)

In your opinions how would it play out?  What factors would effect both sides?  What would be the likely outcome?  Obviously a lot of this depends on many variables, but let's just leave the absolutes out for now.

The way I'm seeing it, the weather would be a major factor.  Too little wind and the sea-based ships would be becalmed, making easy targets for the airships, unless of course the airships don't have their own mode of propulsion.  Too much and the reverse would be true; the airships would be harder to control.

The there is the actual manner of contact; how could one side damage the other?  The regular batteries of a frigate would be useless against airborne targets, and it would seem sensible that some kind of deterrent measures would have evolved to ward off airships.  Likewise, what kind of weapon would an airship be able to carry would could damage a much larger, more solid warship?  Perhaps they would have to rely on hit and run tactics against sole ships, attempting to board and overrun them with weight of sailor numbers before other ships in the fleet came to their assistance?

Anyway, those are my beginning thoughts.  What are yours?

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I've been reading a lot about airships lately. I'm not even sure that such a thing as an 'airship' as I understand the term would be even remotely possible. By that I mean you would  have a tough time wrangling fact and fiction to encourage the required suspension of disbelief, although that might not matter to others. If you had balloons and frigates, then yes, but wouldn't a better story come from how such a battle would be disrupted by the weather and the narratives that would result?

Airships are large targets and rather fragile. This has two implications. First, they cannot carry heavy ordinance themselves. The recoil would tear the airframe to pieces. Second, they would easily be damaged by enemy fire.

One might assume that the airship would stay at considerable altitude to avoid being hit and drop high explosives on the targets below. Rockets migh also be used in place of cannon since rockets do not have a recoil (though they do have that dangerous tail flare).

The warships would probably use a variation of grape shot to respond. Do not underestimate the ability of ocean-going vessels to fire back. Even though their guns are not be designed to fire at airbourne targets, sailors are experts with rope and rigging. Give them enough motivation and they will have cannon pointed skyward is short order. Also, ships at sea might be able to hide there exact location using smoke.

On the whole, considering the amount of abuse a sailing ship is designed to endure, it would be difficult for the airship to do any significant damage to the hull or deck except by a lucky shot. The sails, on the other hand, might be a better target. Greek fire might do the trick.

Well, if you're talking about the real world, an airship might make a somewhat effective bombing platform, though to do so from a safe range would mean extreme inaccuracy. The nice thing about bombs is that they can be almost all payload since they don't need to survive the rigors of being fired. Since an airship is attacking decks, not armor bands on the side and waterline, it is much easier to score crippling hits. That's why in WW2 dive bombers replaced torpedo planes. And incendiaries are effective because fire is always a nightmare to ships. 

If you're talking about a world where there is a better way to float airships than hydrogen or helium, how the fight goes really depends on you. With enough lift concentrated in a small enough place, airships could, theoretically, mount cannon that are effective.  Of course, unless you're going completely bonkers, even the most effective system of lift won't be able to float the tonnage of a surface ship. 

As for firing back, surface ships would probably mount smaller secondary batteries, like they did in WW2, to deal with aerial attackers.  If surface ships have been vulnerable to airships for a while, you'd also see a redesign to include armored and enclosed decks. 

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