Sailing Ships Research Paper

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Sailing ships date at least to the ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians, although people probably used smaller sailing vessels earlier. Boats were crafted from reeds, skins, and wood, the earliest form of wooden boats being dugouts. Early sailing ships were built primarily of planks, with the planks either joined end to end by mortise-and-tenon joinery or joined in an overlapping fashion (clinker construction) and fastened by dowels or nails. Sails were made out of woven cloth (cotton, flax, or hemp), although some early Egyptian sails were made from papyrus fibers and other woven grasses. Many early sailing vessels were also outfitted with oars, which provided easier mobility and optional power when wind was absent. Early ships were lateen (square rigged). These methods provided more sail power but less maneuverability than modern rigging with triangular sails. Indeed, until the nineteenth century and the technology that powered ships by steam, using the wind to sail on rivers and seas was the most expedient way to move people (and the goods needed to sustain them) over long distances.

Antiquity–400 CE

Since the mid-twentieth century and the development of underwater archaeology, a huge expansion in people’s knowledge of sailing ships has allowed scholars to study the remains of ships from all periods of history. The earliest archaeological evidence for a water vessel is a birch paddle found at a prehistoric campsite in England from about 6000 BCE. The earliest evidence for a sailing vessel comes from a model sailing raft excavated in Chile. Rafts of logs bound together with a mast and sail were probably the earliest forms of prehistoric sailing watercraft. Skin boats, constructed of animal hides sewn together, were primarily found in northern cultures, particularly the Eskimo, Irish, and northern Russian. Eskimo kayaks and umiaks (open Eskimo boats made of a wooden frame covered with hide) were primarily rowed, although some evidence indicates sail use. Large versions of the Irish curragh, constructed of ox hide, were sailed and took early Irish travelers to the Hebrides, Shetland Islands, and even to Iceland. Reed boats were used primarily in the South Pacific, in the Americas, and among the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq. Dugout technology is ubiquitous through world cultures, but in the South Pacific large dugouts have outriggers that have sails in addition to oars. Many scholars believe that these sorts of craft made possible human migration throughout the South Pacific.

Plank construction allowing larger ships developed independently in a number of places, including Egypt, England, and China. The earliest evidence comes from Egypt, where vessels were constructed out of cedar planks joined edge to edge but with no internal framing or keel. Because of the unique river conditions of the Nile River, one could float downstream with the current and return under sail upstream. The earliest surviving Egyptian boat, the royal ship of Cheops, dates to 2650 BCE and was excavated in 1954 from a burial pit alongside the Great Pyramid. Many artistic depictions feature Egyptian boats, including seagoing vessels. These depictions invariably show both sails and rowers. Around 1500 BCE Queen Hatshepsut ordered the construction of a fleet of large craft similar to the Nile craft with rowers, a single large mast, and a rudder for a voyage down the eastern coast of Africa. A pictorial account of the voyage remains at a temple in Deir-el-Bahari.

In 1982 researchers found an underwater wreck of an early Levantine (relating to the countries bordering on the eastern Mediterranean) commercial seagoing ship at Ulu Burun off the Turkish coast, dating to 1350 BCE. It was a sturdier craft than Egyptian craft of the time, with a large keel and planks lashed together. Egyptian wall paintings also reveal evidence for Minoan and Mycenaean ships, showing them to be similar in design to Egyptian ships but having only sails and no rowers.

The greatest ancient seafarers, the Phoenicians, sailed ships throughout the Mediterranean Sea, and evidence points to some voyages along the Atlantic coasts of Africa and France. In form, their merchant ships were more similar to Cretan ships than Egyptian ships, with square rigging and often two banks of rowers. The Greeks developed a specialized high-speed warship, the trireme (a galley with three banks of oars, a sail, and a large battering ram on the bow just at the waterline), which could damage and sink enemy ships. The trireme had a single mast and sails that were square rigged, but during battle rowers were used for maneuverability and control. The Greeks used the trireme at the Battle of Salamis in the Saronic Gulf in 480 BCE, when the Athenians defeated a larger Persian fleet and won the Persian Wars.

Researchers have found Roman merchant ships in abundance in the Mediterranean and Black Seas; more than four hundred wrecks have been identified. Roman merchant ships relied exclusively on sail power and were used to transport all manner of goods, including wine, olive oil, marble, and grain. The majority of merchant ships were single or double masted, with square sails, and sometimes a triangular topsail on the main mast. The second mast, in front of the main mast, was rigged with a smaller steering sail called the artemon. These were medium-sized ships that could haul a cargo of around 300 metric tons. Most impressive in the Roman merchant fleet of the first and second centuries CE were the navis oneraria (transport ships) that carried grain from Egypt and North Africa to the Roman port of Ostia, sometimes 1,200 metric tons in a single voyage.

The earliest northern European planked boats date from 1217 to 715 BCE. They were relatively small river craft, about 14 meters long, called “Ferriby” and “Brigg” boats. They were discovered in the Humber River in Yorkshire, England, and have a complex, sewn-plank joinery. The earliest Asian evidence of planked construction dates to 50 BCE. The Hjortspring boat, discovered in a peat bog in Denmark, dates to 300 BCE and is constructed of plank with lashings holding the boat together and overlapping strakes (continuous bands of hull planking or plates on a ship). Experts think this boat was a forerunner of the clinker (overlapping plank) Scandinavian craft. All of these vessels exhibit shell-first construction, rather than frame-first construction, which would become the standard during the high Middle Ages.

Byzantine ships continued Greco-Roman building practices, including mortise-and-tenon joinery of the planks, as evidenced by the Yassi Ada shipwreck of the seventh century CE, excavated by George Bass in the 1960s. The earliest known clinker boat, the Nydam boat (310–320 CE), is of northern European origin and is about 23 meters long with a doubleended hull, a feature that the Roman historian Tacitus mentioned as characteristic of Scandinavian boats in the late first century CE. These early Scandinavian boats were rowed rather than sailed; sails were not introduced in Scandinavia until around the seventh century CE. With the introduction of the sail the true Viking age began; Scandinavian sailors traveled throughout the North Sea and Baltic Sea and eventually ventured as far as North America and the Black Sea. The Norman invasion of England in 1066 CE, long after the Viking raids had ceased, was carried out using longboats (large oared boats) in the Scandinavian style.

Beginning during the twelfth century in the northern European towns of the Hanseatic League (a league originally constituted of merchants of free German cities), a new kind of sailing vessel was created. The cog was a round merchant vessel with high sides, built for hauling cargo. Cogs included high structures called “castles” both fore and aft to house archers or gunners to help protect the ships from raiders. Single masted, square rigged, with a large centerline rudder in the stern, cogs required only a small crew to handle. By the twelfth century inexpensive, machine-sawn planks, made possible by the hydraulic sawmill, replaced split wood planks, and large ships that took advantage of this plentiful supply of planks appeared. Larger cogs were built with more masts, and by the 1400s clinker-plank construction gave way to edge-to-edge planking attached to internal framing.

1350–1700 CE

The Venetian galley, ranging from 39 to 50 meters long, often with two banks of oars and one mast with lateen-rigged sails, dominated the medieval Mediterranean beginning at the end of the ninth century. By the fourteenth century Venetians began building “great galleys”—bigger, longer vessels with two masts for commercial and passenger traffic. During the sixteenth century a new Mediterranean ship emerged, the galliass, a huge galley designed for warfare. Galliasses had both oars and sails and crews of up to seven hundred. Six galliasses fought at the Battle of Lepanto in Greece’s Corinthian Gulf in 1571, helping to defeat the Ottoman Turkish fleet. Galleys and galliasses also formed part of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The invention of the carrack during the mid-fifteenth century resulted from the combination of northern and southern shipbuilding influences. Carracks, created in the shipyards of Venice and Genoa, were large modified cogs, with three, four, or even five masts with a variety of sails, both square and lateen rigged. Multiple masts and combination rigging made carracks easy to control and faster than traditional designs. Another innovation was frame-first construction, where planks were nailed to the frame. Carracks were the largest merchant vessels of their time, hauling 362 metric tons, but by the sixteenth century they were hauling 907 metric tons. The English king, Henry VIII, beginning in 1509 built a fleet of “great ships,” including two large carracks. Both ships were heavily armed with artillery, and when the wreckage of the Mary Rose was discovered, two thousand arrows in neat bundles were found. Smaller and lighter than the carrack, the caravel also appeared during the fifteenth century, probably of Spanish or Portuguese origin. Primarily for commercial use, the caravel is known primarily for its use in the great exploration voyages of Christopher Columbus of Genoa, Italy, and Bartolomeo Dias and Vasco da Gama of Portugal.

Growing transatlantic trade during the sixteenth century resulted in the development of oceangoing vessels such as the galleon. Shorter than a galley, not as bulky or heavy as a carrack, the galleon had three or four masts, with both square and lateen rigging. It had high sides and castles for artillery. Large oceangoing sailing ships were also being developed in China as early as the tenth century CE. During the thirteenth century the Venetian traveler Marco Polo reported seeing four-masted merchant ships during his long stay in China. In 1973 a large thirteenth-century ship was found at Houzhou; it was about 35 meters long, with a keel and double cedar planking on the hull. Writings from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) describe the voyages made between 1405 and 1433 by the eunuch admiral Zheng He in a fleet of nine-masted ships 120 meters long, although researchers have found no such ships. Chinese shipbuilding suddenly ended in 1550 with an imperial ban on overseas commerce.

The founding of the Dutch East India Company in 1592 propelled the Dutch to the forefront of long-distance trading, eclipsing the Portuguese. The three-masted Dutch flute, a narrow merchant ship that was developed partially to avoid taxation related to the width of the vessel, remained the dominant cargo vessel into the eighteenth century and was soon being built in England, Germany, and Scandinavia. The English and French trading companies, created in response to Dutch maritime power, also owned their own fleets and militia. During the seventeenth century science entered the shipyards, particularly in France, with highly trained naval architects applying mathematics to ship design. Around 1670 the huge castles at the ship’s stern began to shrink to reduce weight.

Large naval fleets came to the forefront in warfare during the seventeenth century. The capture of Gibraltar in 1704 by the British was one of the great successes of the British fleet and gave England control of access to the Mediterranean. During the eighteenth century the construction and outfitting of warships took center stage as the rivalry between European powers was waged on the seas through exploration, colonization, and naval battles. In addition to the large warships, battle frigates, adapted from lean, maneuverable commercial vessels, became an important element of the naval fleets of Britain and France.

In 1750 shipbuilders in the British colonies in North America developed an entirely new form, the schooner—a small, fast ship with only two masts that initially was used for fishing and trade. The Revolutionary War brought a military dimension to the schooner, which navies used to conduct merchant raids and run blockades. Later slave traders used schooners between Africa and the Americas, particularly after 1820, when slave trade was outlawed by many world governments. The fledgling navy of the United States began with the commissioning of six such ships in 1794, one of which, the U.S.S. Constitution, is still docked in Boston.

Longer masts as well as jibs (triangular sails set on a stay extending usually from the head of the foremast) were introduced on European ships during the eighteenth century; all traces of forecastles and aftercastles disappeared; and poop decks were extended to cover the rudder and steering mechanisms, allowing the helmsman to be inside the ship. In 1760 the British introduced copper plating on the bottom planking of their ships to reduce the effects of corrosion and parasites on the hull.

The nineteenth century brought the rise of the large East Indiamen (50 meters long with a beam of 12 meters), which were built in England for cargo rather than speed—the round trip between England and China took about a year. Clipper ships appeared first in the United States in 1820 and were originally intended for the China tea and opium trade but were quickly adapted by British shipyards. One of the fastest British clippers, the Cutty Sark, is preserved in dry dock at Greenwich, England. Built in 1869 and famous for its speedy round-trip voyages from England to Shanghai, the Cutty Sark is 64 meters long and capable of sailing at 17 knots.

The Eclipse of Sail, 1850–Present

After regular transatlantic steam service began in 1838, only long-distance China trade remained open to sailing ships because steamers could not haul enough coal to make the journey to China and back. In 1869, with the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt, steamers began to take over the China trade as well, marking the end of the dominance of sailing ships. By the dawn of the twentieth century sailing ships were used almost exclusively as training and pleasure craft, soon symbolizing luxury rather than efficiency.


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