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
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. Istanbul
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:
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
harbour. Caravels, with their triangular ‘Latin’ sails were the ships that launched the Portuguese on their voyages of discovery in the fifteenth century: Lisbon
|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
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!