I once saw a photo of a “reproduction” of the Nina, smallest of Columbus’ ships. Coming from a sea town, I immediately knew it was pure fiction. Large and modern, it had three tall masts and gunwales rising high above the water. The real Nina, like the Pinta — a name that means “painted” — was a caravel, 30 yards long, five wide, and fitted with slanted, lateen-rigged sails.
There was a good reason why those old ships were usually about 30 yards long, something the ancient mariners no doubt learned — as they learned most things — the hard way.
Prevailing winds blowing across the seas create swells which tend to max out at about 80 to 90 feet in length. The safe way to ride out the swell — if you want to call it safe — is to turn your prow into it. Why? Allowing those monster swells to take a frail wooden ship sideways is inviting a quick trip to the ocean bottom.
The ancients soon learned that if the length of a ship went over 80 to 90 feet they might find themselves in the unenviable position of finding the prow atop the crest of one swell and the stern atop another, with nothing supporting the ship at that critical moment except its keel — and a lot of good luck.
A sailor will tell you that relying on good luck is a quick way to a watery grave. So century after century our forebears built ships of about the same length. And even now, in the day of steel ships, the lesson can be repeated by an unforgiving ocean. Just recently the Coast Guard discovered that a poorly built steel ship exceeding the length of the swell can find itself with a severe crimp in its middle. Did they ever!
I refer you to a paragraph in the statement made by the Honorable Elijah Cummings, head of the House committee which investigated a “minor” glitch:
“What is remarkable — and completely unacceptable — is that a program costing on the order of $100 million intended to upgrade eight 110-foot legacy cutters, lengthen them to 123 feet, and extend their service lives has produced eight cracking hulks that are now tied up in Baltimore, unable to return to service, and waiting for the scrap heap.”
Right on, Elijah! The ocean does not forgive stupidity.
The ancients hugged the shores, but eventually “sea peoples” learned enough of the ocean to venture, little by little, out of sight of land. As I mentioned last week, they climbed tall masts to extend their view, learned to recognize the bright blink of ice — and hence land — over the horizon, followed the tracks of migrating birds, and sailed toward shore birds when they sighted them.
But while that may have worked well for sea peoples like the Greeks, the Vikings, and the Phoenicians, it interfered with the voyages of other ancients like the Egyptians and Romans. Here they were, peacefully skirting the land on safe, well established trade routes, when over the horizon came a multi-oared ship packed with sailors, a ship that could outrun — and outfight — them.
As if winds, storms, rock-ribbed shores, reefs, and waves weren’t enough, now the land people also had to fight people who had learned to sail the oceans.
I tell you, it was not a happy sight to see a Greek bireme or trireme suddenly row over the horizon. If you ran you got caught. If you fought back you faced the prospect of a sky black with arrows, followed by rocks and boulders, balls of flaming tar, and clay pots filled with “Greek fire,” a liquid that burst into flame when it came in contact with water — or with you, of course — and could not be put out. And if you lost, you lost more than your ship and your cargo, you lost your freedom, ending up as a display in a slave market, or — if slightly more lucky — as fish food.
And the Greeks were pussycats compared to the Vikings, who had a nasty habit of grappling a helpless trading vessel with ropes ending in multiple hooks, hauling it close, and leaping on deck with malice in their hearts and axes in their hands.
Can you picture that? Hacked to death with an axe? Ouch!
And when they weren’t doing that, they slipped across the seas at night in groups of four or five ships and raided coastal towns, taking whatever they wanted back with them — including the women. To understand how devastating those raids were, think of what it would be like in Payson even right now if 400 wild-eyed Vikings came howling out of the night in school busses. Trust me, they would drive off with anything they wanted.
Did you know that the Vikings sailed right up the rivers of Europe and hit towns nowhere near the sea? What troublemakers! They even sailed up the rivers into the very heart of Russia.
As time went on, nations began to build ships for the purpose of protecting their shores — or raiding someone else’s shore, of course. With the invention of the cannon came the era of “iron men and wooden ships,” a time when ships tacked and turned, using wind and wave and courage to come alongside and discharge broadsides of hot iron that swept away masts and sails — and men too, of course — and holing hulls made of the thickest oak.
Then followed the era of ironclad warships that stood off from each other and routinely threw 16-inch shells from incredible distances, measured no longer in yards, but in miles. Followed by the days when fleets battled each other from hundreds of miles apart, launching wave after wave of aircraft armed with bombs and torpedoes.
And now? The era of ship-launched, radar guided missiles that virtually never miss? And can sink the Rock of Gibraltar?
Think of the courage it takes to face that. If hit, your ship is almost certainly going to the bottom. And you with it. Those are tough odds. It takes very special men and women to face them. In every possible way, I applaud that special breed of courage.
And here’s a thought: Have you ever noticed that when you watch “Star Trek” or “Star Wars” they always speak of the “fleet?” And that all the high ranking officers are “admirals?”
Put’s a whole new meaning on “... all I ask is a tall ship and a star to guide her by.”
Not to mention “treading water.”