shipMessing about in boats

Humans have tended to live near water, and it is natural to make use of things that float. Logs or bundles of reeds can be lashed together to form rafts; hollow trunks can be improved to become dugout canoes. Once the principle of a watertight hull is understood, animal hides or the bark of trees can be attached to a framework of bamboo or wicker to make a simple coracle.

Boats of all these kinds have been made by technologically primitive communities, and many continue to be made into the 20th century.

If planks are added to raise the edges of a dugout canoe, with wooden struts to hold them in place, the primitive boatbuilder is already on the way towards the only design of wooden capable of being built on a large scale. This consists of a keel to which a ribbed frame is attached – much as animal ribs curve outwards from a backbone.

Planks are attached to these ribs. They either overlap (clinker-built) or are fastened edge-to-edge (carvel-built). These remain the basic designs for large boats and until the gradual introduction of metal hulls in the 19th century.

Egypt and Mesopotamia: from 3000 BC

Both the earliest civilizations, the Egyptian and the Mesopotamian, make extensive use of boats for transport on the Nile, Euphrates and Tigris. The Nile in particular provides a superbly predictable thoroughfare, for the wind always blows from north to south and the current always flows from south to north. Egyptian boats sail upstream, hoisting a large rectangular sail, and then are rowed back down the river.

This distinction is even reflected in the Egyptian hieroglyphs for travelling south (a boat with a sail up) and travelling north (a boat being rowed).

The Egyptians, with access to the Mediterranean, also use larger seagoing vessels. These become known as ‘Byblos’ boats, revealing that their trade is with the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. Byblos is the main port for the export of the valuable cedar wood of Lebanon, essential for Egypt’s architecture and for boat-building. One of the earliest known boats, buried beside a pyramid at Giza and dating from around 2500 BC, is made from planks of cedar; it is 143 feet (44m) long and 20 feet (6m) wide.

By around 1100 BC Byblos is a Phoenician port, and the Phoenicians have become the greatest seafarers of the ancient world.

Phoenician design: from 1100 BC

The Phoenician fleet contains two markedly different designs of ship. A squat and tubby sailing vessel, rounded at both ends, is used for carrying goods and passengers. A longer boat, also rounded at the stern but with a sharp battering ram for a bow, is for war; this warship is a galley, propelled by oars, making possible bursts of speed and rapid manoeuvres.

Ramming an enemy ship is the main tactic of naval warfare throughout the Phoenician, Greek and Roman periods. A thousand years after the first Phoenician example, Roman warships have a bronze beak beneath the prow, below water level. They are themselves protected from this form of attack by belts of metal around the vessel.

The only way of increasing the all-important speed of a Phoenician warship is by adding more oarsmen. To some extent this can be achieved in a longer ship, but there comes a point at which extra length brings structural weakness. The solution is to have banks of oarsmen. By 700 BC the Phoenicians are using two banks, one above the other, in the type of vessel known as the bireme. Within the next two centuries a third bank is added, probably by the Greeks, to provide the trireme.

The trireme is the vessel used in the first war to be decided largely by naval power – the conflict in the 5th century BC between the Greeks and the Persians. By the time of the Punic wars, galleys are even larger.

The first Roman navy: 260-255 BC

During the opening skirmishes of the first Punic War the Romans capture a Carthaginian warship which has run aground. It is of a kind only recently introduced in Mediterranean navies. As a quinquereme, with five banks of oars (rowed by 300 oarsmen), it is larger and heavier than the triremes which have been the standard ship of Greek warfare. Since victory at sea involves ramming other ships, the extra size is important.

Rome’s new navy is to consist largely of quinqueremes, copied from the captured Carthaginian example. The senate orders 100, together with 20 triremes, and sets the astonishing delivery time of two months. Even more astonishing – the order is apparently met.

Rowing into battle: for 2000 years

The main ingredients of naval warfare remain essentially the same throughout the classical and medieval centuries. Long, narrow ships, powered by banks of oarsmen, circle each other attempting either to ram the enemy or to grapple a ship so that marines can board it and slaughter the crew. Such encounters continue until 1571, when the battle of Lepanto is the last great engagement between warships propelled by oars.

The only refinement in these centuries is a famous Byzantine invention. It proves so devastating that it has retained, even today, the status of a terrifying mystery. It is Greek fire, first used in the 7th century.

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