Ships & Shipping In History


Today, just as in the past, much of the world's commerce depends upon ships. In a typical year ships transport some 3.7 billion tons of cargo between the nations of the world. They carry food and textiles, bulk supplies of coal, oil and grain, paper, chemicals and steel, machine tools and personal computers--all the things that sustain us and enrich our lives. Ships transport people as well, though airplanes have largely supplanted ships as transoceanic passenger carriers.

Ships were no less important in the past. Much of the world was explored because people set out in ships to find new trade routes. The men and women who settled the New World came by ship from the Old World. Wars have been fought so that ships of commerce might freely sail the seas.

Ships Through the Ages: A Brief History

 The ship of today is a large, sturdy, self-propelled vessel in which people transport goods across seas, oceans, and lakes. It is the product of countless centuries of development.

To cross small bodies of water, primitive peoples used any available materials that would float. Early forms of the boat included rafts of logs or bamboo, bundles of reeds, air-filled animal skins, and even jars and asphalt-covered baskets.

The First True Boats

Among the first true boats was a fairly simple frame of sticks, lashed together and covered with sewn hides (a joint in a ship's hull is still called a seam). Such boats could carry substantial loads. Examples include the bullboats of the North American Plains Indians, the kayaks of the Inuits, and the coracles of the British Islanders.

Another early boat was the dugout, a log hollowed out and pointed at the ends. Dugouts ranged up to 60 feet (18 meters) in length.

Paddles, Poles, Oars, and Sails

People propelled the earliest inflated skins by paddling with their hands. Poles, pushed against the bottom, moved rafts in shallow water. Widened and flattened at one end, the pole became a paddle for use in deeper water. Later came the oar--a paddle pivoted on the side of the boat.

The sail was one of the great inventions in history. It let the strength of the wind replace the action of human muscle. While rowboats could carry little more than a few days' food supply for the oarsmen, sailboats could make long trips with payloads. Early sailing vessels carried square sails, which were best suited for sailing downwind. Fore and aft sails, better suited for tacking to windward, came later.

Dugouts were not wide enough to carry sail without capsizing. Ultimately they were stabilized with outriggers--floats attached by long poles to one side. In such canoes the Polynesians ranged thousands of miles across the island chains of the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Ships Assembled from Small Parts

The early Egyptians developed advanced sailing cargo ships. Lacking the great trees needed for large dugouts, they built their ships by lashing and sewing together small pieces of wood. Such ships could transport great columns of stone, weighing up to 350 tons, for use in monuments. Egyptian ships also traded across the Mediterranean and Red seas.

A dugout could be built with stone tools and the aid of a fire to hollow the log. The invention of metal tools provided means of shaping logs into timbers and splitting or sawing timbers into planks. With these, builders enlarged their dugouts. They fastened upright timbers to the inside of the dugout, extending them above its sides. To these they attached lengthwise planks. They caulked, or filled, the seams between the planks with pitch and fiber.

Too little evidence has survived from prehistoric times to determine who developed the planked wooden ship. Among the earliest of such ships, however, were those of the Phoenicians. It is probable that the Phoenician ships of some 2,500 years ago were constructed much as were the wooden sailing vessels of later centuries.

In the hands of the Phoenicians, the log of the dugout became a lengthwise keel of sturdy timbers. Uprights--a stempost at the front and a sternpost at the rear--rose from the ends of the keel; between these, curved frames, or ribs, rose at right angles to the keel. Planks with caulked seams covered this framework. Sails and oars provided power.

With such galleys, built of Lebanon cedar, the Phoenicians dominated Mediterranean commerce for centuries. As galleys grew larger, rowers were arranged on two levels. Such craft were called biremes by the Greeks and Romans, who also built triremes--galleys with three banks of oars.

The ships of northern Europe are the best known of the period around AD 1000. Several well-preserved Viking ships have been dug up. Three are displayed in an Oslo, Norway, museum. Open, with high, pointed bows and sterns, they were built of oak planks that overlapped like shingles. Such construction, called clinker building, remained standard for large ships of northern Europe until after 1450. Both sails and oars propelled the Viking ships, which were steered with an oar fixed to the starboard ("steerboard"), or right, side. The left side is port.

Later ships were covered with decks. For defense, platforms for archers were built at the ends. Eventually these fore-castles and after-castles were incorporated into the hull structure; the raised forward part of a ship is still called the forecastle (fo'c'sle). The rudder, hinged on the sternpost, replaced the steering oar in about 1200.

Ships of the Age of Discovery

The smooth-planked construction technique --called carvel building after the Mediterranean caravels in which it was first employed-- reached northern Europe about 1450. At about the same time, ships began to carry as many as three masts. In the middle was the largest ("main") mast, which carried a square sail. A smaller "fore" mast near the bow also carried a square sail. A "mizzen" mast, near the stern, carried a fore-and-aft sail. Soon another sail was spread beneath the bowsprit, which extended forward from the bow, and smaller topsails were set above the mainsail and foresail. Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and other explorers of their time sailed in ships so rigged.

Wooden ships, carvel-planked over frames, were built all over the world by European settlers. The woods most used were the oak of England and northern Europe, the live oak and white oak of eastern North America, and the teak of India. The white pine of New England and the Douglas fir of the Pacific Northwest were highly prized for masts.

Wooden sailing ships reached their highest level of development between 1840 and 1905. Notable ships of the period included the "wooden walls" of the sailing navies, the clippers which brought gold prospectors to California and Australia, the Down Easters built in Maine for trade with California, and the five and six masted schooners which carried coal from Virginia to New England.

Seamen - Yesterday and Today

In the days of sail, seamen lived and worked under conditions unimaginable today. At sea they worked "watch and watch" (4 hours on and 4 off for a total of 12 hours a day) with unpaid overtime whenever "all hands" were called. Aboard ship, their food was scant and poor, their quarters dirty and unheated, if quarters even existed at all. They were commonly beaten and bullied by the ship's officers. Ashore, the seaman was often "shanghaied," or kidnapped--delivered, drunk or drugged, aboard a ship about to depart on a long voyage. For all the wrongs he suffered, the sailor had little hope of redress in the courts.

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