ancient mediterranean ships/boats history(4-14th century)

The history of shipbuilding in southern Europe can be traced back to the Cretans who had accepted the civilization from the eastern Mediterranean coast. The Cretan ship in the mid-2nd century BC had upwarped bow and stern, one mast and one square sail. In the following millennia, it was the basic ship type in the Mediterranean. Drawings of ships with trees were also discovered in the ruin sites of almost contemporaneous Mycenaean civilization. The trees might be used as masts and sails. During the whole period of ancient Greece and Rome, there was new development in the shipbuilding industry based on the Egyptian and Phoenician technologies (for both warships and merchant ships). And two major ship types, galley and the round ship, basically formed.

Galley was originally a kind of open-deck ship, which was as long as about 30 meters and propelled by a row of 50 paddles.

During the Battle of Salamis in the Greco-Persian Wars (480 BC), the longest Greek warship was as long as 45 meters. It had tholes installed on the outer side of the gunwale, making the ship six meters wide; as well as two or three rows of paddles in different lengths. Later, galley evolved into a big and clumsy ship with complete deck and a ram. It was called “quinquiremes”, as it had five rows of paddles. A mast was built on this ship, but the sail was only occasionally used when sailing downwind. Paddles played a more important role in the battle, because they could control the speed and direction without being restricted by the power and speed of wind. Galley did not have much space, as it was long but narrow. Therefore, it could neither store water and food nor carry cargos, and was only used for military purpose.

  The round ship was mostly used for commercial purposes. The round ship had a length-width ratio of about 5:2 or larger. It had a deeper draft than galley, a lower bow and a higher stern; and its both sides of upper deck were latticed. At first, it had only one mast and one sail. After the Christian era, a small mast and a small sail were added to the bow. Sometimes there would be two small triangular topgallants; or a big yard leaning towards the front in a certain gradient, which was used for directional control when a small square sail was set on it. The halliards were also applied as the auxiliary struts of mast. A thick band was attached along each inner side of the gunwale to replace the lashings. This large and clumsy ship was mainly propelled by sails. Although it could not go against the wind, but it could change the direction of sail so as to make use of the crosswind within the 45° away from the stern. Besides, the ship could also be propelled by paddles when the steering oars on both sides of the stern were used to control the direction. The round ship could carry more cargos. For example, the Roman grain ship was larger in size: it was 27 meters long, 9 meters wide, and could carry 250 tons of cargos or 300 passengers.

  During the Middle Ages, southern European ship inherited the traditional design of ancient Mediterranean ship, and was also influenced by the contemporaneous Arabic ship. Its principal characteristics were that the shell plates were joint close and nailed to the ribs; the cracks between the shell plates were filled with asphalt; the ship had a smooth ship shell and was decked. But ships in different countries and different times had different characteristics.

  Around the 9th century, Byzantines built a kind of ship with a smooth ship shell and a new lateen rig (based on Arabic technology). It was able to sail within an angle of 60° away from the bow. Its round shape and smooth shell reduced the friction between hull and water, ensuring the good quality of navigation. This ship could go basically along the predetermined direction while there was no need to mind the wind direction. In the subsequent two or three centuries, this kind of ship evolved into the larger and heavier “Nef” ship, which had two or three masts, lateen rigs and a displacement of over one thousand tons. The Italian ship had castles on both the bow and stern. In the High Middle Ages, the “Tarida” ship, which combined the characteristics of both galley and sailship, was widely used. The characteristics of galley was combined because merchant ships at that time had to deal with the pirates. This kind of ship could go in the absence of wind, and had some warship function.

  The Genoa ship had two decks in the mid-12th century, and three decks in the late 13th century. Three lateen sails were set on the taller and larger foremast and mainmast; while two lateen sails were hung on the mizenmast. The best mast was made of rigid cotton cloth or flax canvas manufactured in Genoa or Marseille. In the mid-13th century, some Mediterranean ships were as long as 30 meters. The device used for directional control was the quarter rudder. There was a pair of quarter rudder installed near the stern, and precisely, on each side of it. In the 14th century, stern rudder began to be used on the Mediterranean ship. Meanwhile, the Norse-style “Cog” ship emerged in the Mediterranean in the 13th century.

In the early 14th century, Italians had widely built such single-mast ships for oceangoing cargo transport.

  After the late 14th century, the characteristics of both Norse ship and southern European ship were combined to produce a kind of new large ship, the “Carrack”. Later, as it could be used for both military and commercial purpose, it became the original model of the western European seagoing ships and the most typical ship in the western world before the Age of Sail (from the 16th century to 18th century). It was said that, the combination of the characteristics of both ship types could be dated back to the Age of Crusades, when Crusades had the chances to look into different ship types and learn how they were built. The Shipboard rigging technology from northern Europe (such as the fixed cabin and single-side sail) and the hull construction technology from southern Europe (such as the abutment joint technology for deck plate) were both considered advantageous and applied to the new ships. The “Carrack” ship was first appeared in Venice, Genoa and Spain. It had a deeper and wider hull, a higher stern; its huge forecastle jutted from the bow. The hull was very smooth, and the whole profile was like the Norse ship in the past which had an elegant circular arc. The rudder was no longer installed on one side of the hull, but on the center line of the hull.

After the 15th century, “Carrack” ship evolved from an one-mast ship into a three-mast ship. Its three masts were foremast, the lowest one; mainmast, the tallest one; and the mizenmast. At first, a lateen sail was set on the foremast. Later, one more mast was installed at the bow for a square spritsail, so that the foremast could be moved backward and heightened. Some shrouds were also added for auxiliary purpose, and the ladder used to climb the masts was replaced by ratlines (bound to the shrouds). As sailors found it difficult to control the large sails during the voyage, a series of small sails were used on ships. At first, three sails were set on the mainmast on some large ships, which in the order from bottom to top were, the course, the topsail and the topgallant. Later, there were three sails hung on every mast. There also appeared the four-master ship where there were several square sails hung on the foremast and lateen sails hung on the other three masts. Later on, some reefing methods were invented. The square sails were no longer shrunk by reefing as before, instead, they were bound with pennant-shape small pieces of canvas and could be removed by loosening the tie when not needed. Some thin cloth strips were tied to those small pieces of canvas in case larger sail area was needed when there were only breezes. In the 15th century, the length of a “Carrack” ship with rigging device was generally varied between 24 meters and 27 meters. The “Carrack” ship, which had three masts and multiple sails, established the basic design of rigging device on the sailships during the Age of Sail (from the 16th century to 18th century).

  The Portuguese ship referred to the lightweight “Cararel” ship. It was derived from a kind of fishing boat called “Barca”, which weighted only 20-30 tons. “Cararel” ship was not so deep as “Carrack” ship. It used more fore-and-aft lateen sails, so that it could go in the crosswinds. Using both kinds of sails in combination could effectively utilize the wind direction. One rigging method was, setting square sails on the foremast and mainmast, a square topgallant above the course, and a lateen sail on the mizenmast. Square sail was set to sail downwind, while lateen sail was set for tacking. And there was a kind of “Cararel” ship that used only lateen sails. The ship used by voyager Henry Woods in his later years, was a special three-mast ship with a so-called angulated sail rigging device. Its sails were triangular, or were triangular in the upper parts.

And they were usually set in parallel with the keel. The Portuguese ship was very fast, and its speed was up to 22 kilometers per hour when the wind was fair. It was light and easy to manipulate. When sailing against the wind, it could go forward in a curve course: sometimes turned one side of the ship to face the wind, sometimes turned the other, making the course a zigzag.

  Despite that “Carrack” and “Cararel” were utterly different, both of them were suitable for seagoing voyages and could go anywhere. Pinta and Nina, two ships in Columbus’ fleet, were light and flat-keel “Cararel” ship; while Santa Maria was a well-rigged “Carrack” ship. The ships used by Vasco da Gama in his exploration of the new route to India between 1497 and 1499, were almost the same as Columbus’ ships, and basically of the two ship types above.

However, regardless of the ship type, the medieval European ships were of small tonnages, and much smaller than contemporaneous Chinese ships. In comparison, the Norse ships were smaller while the Mediterranean ships were larger. The ship used by Normans to sail across the English Channel in 1066 could carry no more than 30 tons. In the early 14th century, the average load capacity of English ships was 200 tons, and 300 tons at most. The ships provided by Venice for Crusades could carry about 500 tons on average. After the 14th century, Venice began to build merchant fleets. The ship they used was galley, whose original tonnage was 100 tons, and up to 300 tons later. In 15th century, some “Carrack” ships from Genoa could carry more than 1000 tons. In the early 14th century, the tonnage of an ordinary Hanseatic merchant ship was about 75 tons. In 1440, the Hanseatic merchant ships were mainly “Holk” ships, which had an average load capacity of about 150 tons. Thirty years later, “Cararel” ships, which were of an average tonnage of about 300 tons, appeared in Hanseatic merchant fleets. In the French and English alcohol trade, no ship could carry more than 100 tons of alcohol in the early 15th century. But in the middle phase of this century, the ships from Bordeaux could carry 150 tons on average, and some of them could carry up to 500 tons. In Venice around 1450, a ship that had a tonnage of more than 200 tons was regarded as a large one, but for the most “Cog” ships in later times, 400 tons was only a normal tonnage. In the mid-16th century, the tonnages of some “Carrack” ships from Venice could be up to 600 or even 700 tons. Between 1450 and 1550, the average tonnage of Portuguese ships was at least twice as much. The Dutch, who were engaged in grain trade in the Baltic, used several types of ships in the 15th century, including the keelless and round-hull “Holk” ships, whose tonnages varied between 200 tons and 400 tons; and the long fast ships, whose tonnages varied between 250 tons and 500 tons. The navigational capacity could not be judged simply by the ship size, even the flagships of Columbus and Vasco da Gama could only carry about 150 tons. The seakeeping and cruising ability were also very important.

What was more important was the seamanship (mainly the navigation technology).


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