Thursday, 7 March 2013

Down to the sea in ships

I spend a fair amount of my writing time thinking about boats. Maritime history features quite prominently in my books and I try to get a clear sense of what it would be like to have been on a particular type of ship – and the life of the men who sailed, explored and fought on them. I’ll visit maritime museums at the drop of a hat to peer at seamen’s chests, charts, compasses, paintings and rusting pieces of iron salvaged from the depths.

The one thing that’s usually missing – when you go back more than a couple of hundred years – is the ships themselves. The sea is an unforgiving medium for wood. There is, to my knowledge, only one authentic galley still in existence – and that’s from the eighteenth century. It’s in the Istanbul naval museum – photographed at rather a curious angle it must be said – but it gives a good idea of the claustrophobia of the galley life.

All that’s often recovered from silt-covered underwater burial sites, are a few unspectacular fragments. Here’s the earliest recovered remains of a warship, which I saw last year.


It’s a Phoenician vessel sunk off Sicily in 241 BC in a decisive battle against the Romans during the contest for control of the Mediterranean. I guess it’s about typical of what can be retrieved. The rest has to be re-imagined. Archaeologists have reconstructed this:

Though the battle was made more vivid by the recovery from the sea bed of bronze plated fighting rams and Phoenician helmets:

Because of the sketchy physical evidence there seems to be lively debate among maritime historians and archaeologists about what many of these ships really looked like – how big they were, their steering devices, fighting equipment and so on. There are occasional fascinating projects to recreate vessels from the past. There was a famous reconstruction of a Greek trireme in the 1980s which settled an academic argument – proving that a three-level arrangement of oars was practical:
The trireme Olympias

And I’ve been interested by a recent recreation of a Bronze Age British boat, hewn out of oak, and caulked with moss and animal fat, to answer questions about seafaring 4000 years ago:
Here’s the launch. It leaked somewhat!

I hugely enjoyed stepping aboard a replica caravel last year in Lisbon harbour. Caravels, with their triangular ‘Latin’ sails were the ships that launched the Portuguese on their voyages of discovery in the fifteenth century:

The Vera Cruz

Good at sailing against the wind and shallow-draughted enough to sail up rivers, they enabled the exploration of the whole of the coast of West Africa and the decoding of the Atlantic wind systems. They paved the way for the final cracking of a route to India by Vasco da Gama in 1498. Stepping aboard, you get an idea of just how small these boats were,  as they ploughed their way through the mountainous ocean seas. The Vera Cruz is only 23 metres, 75 feet long. There’s precious little room for the crew working the enormous sails – the main mast is longer than the ship – in all weathers.

All that’s missing is a sense of the sheer toughness of the sailor’s life: the swamping seas, the terrible calms under the hot sun, the foetid squalour and stink of a vessel during a long voyage, the fleas and the rancid biscuits and the foul drinking water, the scurvy and the accidental drownings. In fact I realise I’m quite happy just to write about it all!


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