The History of Wooden Ships

The dugout canoe was man’s first attempt at building ships and boats. Old documents tell us that the Egyptians first built ships of papyrus bound together with ropes. Later on, they built wooden ships, but lack of trees stopped them from progressing further. Later civilizations in the Mediterranean built merchant ships and fast oar-driven war galleys that were solidly-constructed. Roman ships had a high stern to ward off following seas. These ships were no good for the Northern European coasts and the Scandinavians developed their own long ships to voyage beyond their own shores. The Norse wooden ships were broad and shallow with double ends. In fair weather a square sail was used , but oars were used when the winds were the wrong way or they went into battle. The Norse long ships voyaged to Iceland and further, but because of their design could not carry much cargo and were not much use for trading purposes.

In the Middle Ages, an arising interest in trade produced the round ships which were short , high-sided wooden vessels that were only three times as long as they were wide. Oars were gotten rid of except for steering and the one square sail could be only used in a following wind. They made long voyages to trade big cargoes in their holds. Round ships traded with the Continent. Rulers of the time could not afford to maintain warships, so merchants provided monarchs with round ships for a certain length of time each year. To turn them into warships, they added temporary fore and aft castles from which soldiers could board enemy ships and fire arrows at them.

During the reign of Henry the Eighth, ships with two and three masts carried main and top sails, lateen mizzen sails and spritsails set under the bowsprit. These ships could sail closer to the wind than the round ships and voyaged a lot further. Henry VIII wanted large guns to go in the castles but these would have made the ships top heavy. Shipwrights solved the problem by cutting gun ports in the hull at the level of the main deck. This caused a loss of cargo space for the merchants and costed them heaps.

Government gradually assumed the responsibility for the upkeep of a full time maritime navy to fight sea battles. There was slow change because the fleet which defeated the Spanish Armada was largely made up of merchant ships impressed into service. The introduction of the jib sail into big ships further improved their sailing ability and the length and tonnage increased as armaments developed. High poop decks, which came from the castles, gradually disappeared and ships of the Napoleonic period seemed almost flush to the deck.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth century ships of the line carried 65 to 100 guns, on 2 or 3 decks. They had blunt bows and were slower than the later clipper ships which raced home with tea cargoes sixty or seventy years later. At the battle of Trafalgar for instance, these wooden sailing ships proved that they had become a deadly fighting force when efficiently handled and sailed.


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