The Ancient Ship

In addition to the plank ship, the Egyptians are given credit for the sail (it was of use in navigating the Nile since the prevailing winds assist craft moving upstream). Improving on the Egyptian models, the Phoenicians evolved two types of ships.

The warship or galley was of shallow draft, with a long, narrow hull, built for speed and maneuverability. The Egyptian wooden snout used for ramming (ramming and boarding were the principal naval tactics for centuries) was replaced with an iron one. Since oars were more reliable than sails and speed a necessity for fighting at close quarters, oars were the main means of propulsion, although sails were used in cruising. The Phoenicians evolved the bireme, and to man bigger ships-the trireme, quatreme, and quinquireme -- the Romans merely added more banks of oars. The oar-driven galley remained the world's principal fighting ship until gunpowder came in. The last important naval battle in which such craft were used was Lepanto, in 1571, in which Spain and Venice joined forces to defeat the Turks. So little change had occurred in the fighting ship between the battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. and Lepanto that a sailor who had served under Themistocles could have stepped into one of Don Juan's galleys at Lepanto.

To cope with the calms that a ship might encounter in the Red Sea, many Egyptian merchant ships had been equipped with oars as well as sails. Because oarsmen took up valuable cargo space and had to be rested, Phoenician merchantmen took to sail, a development that made sailing at night possible. The Greeks and Romans followed Phoenician models, adding more sail as their ships increased in size. It was, however, the old Egyptian square sail increased in width, since too tall a sail was dangerous. Navigation was limited, and many ships were beached in winter. Without the aid of compasses, charts, and lighthouses, and in almost constant danger of pirates, seamen rarely ventured away from the sight of land.

Merchantmen continued to lumber before the breeze. If the wind was unfavorable, they had to wait until it changed or take to oars. Until seafaring men learned how to "beat to windward" or to "sail into the wind" by tacking (that is, to zigzag with the wind first on one bow and then on the other), they were never able to venture out into the open sea.

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