In the fall of 1988, I visited the privateer replica "Rattlesnake" for the first time. It would be the beginning of a relationship with that vessel that would last until 1995, long after the vessel had been impounded and turned over to a local maritime museum. Sadly, the vessel was allowed to deteriorate due to a combination of lack of funds for preservation and general neglect.
Still, it was the first replica ship I would visit, and played a crucial role in my developing love of maritime history. In the years since, I have learned much.
Generally speaking, replicas can be broken down into two main categories; simple replica and experimental archaeology. With simple replicas, it is enough to look like the vessel they are supposed to be representing. The experiments in archaeology, however, are built using the same techniques that the original builders may have used in an attempt to understand how these vessels may have operated.
From my personal observations, unfortunately these two mindsets tend to run afoul of one another, as if they are at cross purposes (which, perhaps, is true to an extent). The designer of the simple replica has a goal that is indeed simple; does the vessel represent a prototype? A good example here would be the "Bounty" made for the 1962 movie. While it was some 50% larger than the original, it still managed to capture the lines of the prototype, if a bit loftier in sail.
Ships made for movies, though, run the gamut, from the well thought out to bordering on ludicrous.. The spate of pirate movies of late has made an industry out of replicas. Sometimes, they look the part, mostly. Other times, they are simply poor representations of ships from those periods, You find features like ship's wheels on ships from periods before that method of steering had been invented. You find odd details, all for the sake of "art". Since these are usually representing fictional vessels, we should give them a pass. However, they still mislead.
Moving beyond entertainment, we find plenty of purported historic replicas afloat. Many times, these are wonderful representations of the prototype (at least to the best of our understanding, in many instances). Many of them are perfectly fine as they are. However, I am very wary of anyone who says that a certain vessel is a perfect representation; such lines are used in marketing and publicity, perhaps, but are utter hogwash to the historian.
Then there are the missed opportunities. These are perhaps the saddest of all. The best example that comes to mind is the original Jamestown ship replicas that were built in the mid-1950's*. The chief designer of the project initially made plans that were based upon the techniques for shipbuilding from the period, the early 17th century. That should have been sufficient by itself, however as the designer went an additional step and tested the designs in a basin, and then refined them. In modern engineering, this makes sense. However, as William Avery Baker observed in his critique of the designs, the original builders did not have access to such technology, and therefore would have simply gone with the lines they had laid out in the moulding loft and been done with it. While the ships certainly looked the period, they were not exact replicas. And yet they could have been superb pieces of experimental archaeology.
Indeed, opportunities have been lost since.
The real disappointment is that these replicas should be tools, not only for the tourist who wants to see period vessels, but for the researcher who wants to learn about how these vessels may have behaved underway, in short, experimental archaeology. If the least these replicas do is to inspire others to learn more about maritime history, as they did the author, then that might be enough. That they can do so much more and don't is the tragedy.
(* - Pages 5 through 66 in Volume 66 of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers' "Transactions", 1958, are dedicated to these replicas. Baker's critique of the designs begins on page 36, and is highly recommended reading - RRL)