dhow

THE MYSTERIOUS SEA

Ferdinand C. Lane (1947)

“SHIPS”

Raising the pin wood mast, they set it in the hollow socket, binding it firm with forestays, and tightening the white sail with twisted ox-hid thongs. The wind swelled out the belly of the sail and round the stern loudly the rippling waves roared. – Homer

 Water is a natural barrier. And yet the first apelike man who floated upon a log embarked on that adventurous quest which has transformed the once impassable seas into the highways of the world.

           Advanced cavemen lashed several logs together. Peruvian Indians make rafts of balsa reeds, while natives of Madras and Manchuria venture into rough waters on makeshifts quite as crude. Abraham Lincoln took his one long voyage down the Mississippi on a raft.

           Ships are only a larger edition of these crude rafts. The first recorded specimen appears upon the wall of an Egyptian tomb more than six thousand years old. With its half-moon hull, its single mast and rowers seated in the waist, it differs little from craft that sail the Nile today.

           The Phoenicians were the first nation, except perhaps the Cretans, to gain supremacy by seamanship. Their long galleys were dependent partly upon sail, but more upon oars, for with the muscles in his shoulders has man conquered the sea. Perhaps these hardy Argonauts never rounded the Cape of Good Hope as Herodotus Hints, but they did explore the sinister African coast beyond the Equator, and braved the boisterous North Atlantic perhaps to the shores of the Baltic. Unfortunately their priceless heritage of sea lore has been lost. The most graphic account of a Phoenician voyage survives in the Book of Jonah, which bequeathed to all seafaring men that personification of bad luck, a sky pilot!

            The Vikings called their longer craft serpent ships, those less pretentious sea dragons. They bore the distinguishing Figurehead, for builders of all ages have adorned their cutwaters with shapes pleasing or frightful, from siren to Medusa. Chinese even now provide their junks with grotesque eyes to “see their way about”.

           Viking ships were of oak and could be dragged ashore. Through undecked and carrying neither chart nor compass, they were better provisioned than Greek galleys, and often transported living cattle for food. Although provided with a mast and sail, the savage sea kings hung their shields along the bulwarks, bent their shoulders to the oar, and ventured out into the Atlantic even in winter. They rounded North Cape, Colonized Iceland and Greenland, and explored Labrador and Nova Scotia five centuries before John Cabot viewed those forbidding coasts. With little shelter from the elements, drench with icy spray, singing songs of blood and pillage, steering by sun or stars or by blind instinct, they issued their ringing challenge to the sea.

          The glorious Age of Sail dawned with the packet of clipper ships of the early 1800s. The East India Company first designed them for passengers. The cabin class, who paid from ninety-five to two hundred and fifty pounds sterling for a long passage from England to India, provided their own furniture and bedding.

           The full-rigged ship was the queen of the seas, a sight beloved by every old salt, as she scudded like a cloud before the wind. Modifications of masts and rigging introduced the whole race of barks and barkentines, brigs and brigantines, and even sloops. Unfortunately square-riggers have gone out of fashion. Only a few still linger as grain carriers from Australia around the Horn. Square yards provided a certain balance, and ships could remain more closely bunched in convoys. But economy and ease of management evolved that more familiar type, the schooner. Her sails could be hoisted from deck and reefed with comparative ease. There was no going aloft to hang like flies on a swaying yardarm in howling gales; hence a smaller crew was required.

           The first schooner seems to have been built by Andrew Robinson, of Gloucester, in 1745. She had two masts, the familiar yachting rig, and was destined to become the model fishing vessel of the future. Schooners with three masts were built to carry freight, and then gradually enlarged until the peak was reached in the seven-masted Thomas W. Lawson that registered 10,000 tons. She too came to rest in Day Jones’s Locker, off the Scilly Islands, in a gale in 1907.

           Disreputable pursuits played no little part in ship design. The first “clipper” seems to have been built for the opium trade of China, where speed above all else was a requisite. Malay craft with rakish three-cornered sails, light of draught and swift, could sail far closer to the wind than the average square-rigger. From converts in Borneo they darted forth like killer whales to prey upon some merchantman becalmed in Makassar Strait. Nor were the white man’s hands less dyed with blood. No ships were of more evil repute than the slavers, which eluded waiting gunboats by superior speed and seamanship, leaving their trail of manacled corpses cast to the sharks.

           The genius of China created the junk, high fore and aft, her sails of bamboo strips. Yet in such ships the great Admiral Cheng Ho, long before Columbus, made voyages that totaled seventy-five thousand miles, to spread throughout the Orient the superior culture of the Ming Emperors.

           Arab art centered in the dhow, with forward-slanting masts and three-cornered sails. One may still observe them, clumsy but seaworthy, in Mombasa, or Ceylon, whence they have voyaged across the Indian Ocean. Moored in harbor, and surrounded by lesser craft, they awaken memories of Sinbad the Sailor and The Arabian Nights.

(The texts are from the aforementioned book and the photos are from the internet… )

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