Sailing the Period Seas:
A Brief Look at Period Sailing Vessels

By Lord Cynwrig ap Meurig (mka Cody Sibley)

     The following text provides brief descriptions of several period sailing ships ranging from 800 BC through the 15th Century.

Greek War Galleys
800 - 500 B.C.
     The Greeks, as well as others, used galleys for warships.  The galley was a long and lean ship with either one, two or three rows of oarsmen. Those with two levels of rowers were called biremes, and those with three levels of rowers were called triremes. Triremes were powered by as many as 180 oarsmen.
     Greek War Galleys used one large square sail which was fixed (meaning that it could not be turned) and therefore only useful when a following wind was blowing. Strong metal points, called rams, were used on the front of these ships. They were attached at the waterline and used to break the hulls of enemy ships.

Viking Long Ships
10th Century
     Viking Ships were called long ships or drakkars and were long, light and strong ships which easily slipped through the water.  Drakkars were up to 75 feet long and 16 feet wide and had one mast in the center of the ship with a square sail. Forty oars were used to increase the ship's power, and it was steered by a long paddle which hung over the aft (rear) starboard (right) of the ship.
     The Vikings decorated their ships with mountings which were often gruesome and frightening, and heads of monsters and dragons rested atop their bows.  The Vikings believed that such ornamentation aided in protecting them from sea creatures and other enemies.

English Cogs
1200 - 1500
     In the early 13th Century, as trade in northern Europe began to show marked increase, traders and merchants needed bigger ships to carry more cargo. English ship builders built the cog ship which was to become the most popular cargo ship in all of Europe. The cogs were designed to sail rough waters, and usually had platforms called castles built on their sterns and bows. These castles were used as protective coverings as well as offensive attack points during battles.
     The first cogs had one square sail, but later cogs used a lateen, or triangular, sail which was discovered to have the ability to catch the wind better when turned appropriately. In addition, the cog was the first ship to use the more effective rudder instead of a paddle for steering.

Chinese Junks
13th Century
     The design of the Chinese Junk has not changed in thousands of years.  The same colorful boats which were seen by Marco Polo in the late 13th century can still be seen in China today.  The paintings of these brightly colored vessels have specific and purposeful meaning to the Chinese.  Their beliefs range from the painting of a phoenix to make a boat last forever to the painting of eyes which help guide the boat through stormy seas. A junk is usually about 75 feet long and 22 feet wide. It generally has three masts, and the deck and bottom are perfectly flat making it easy to beach.

Spanish Carracks
15th Century
     The most well know Spanish Carrack was that on which Columus sailed to America in 1492 - the Santa Maria.  Most Carracks were merchant ships which were built high in the stern and bow, held three heavy masts, and reserved a hollow hull for expansive amounts of cargo.
 In addition, most Carracks had square sails and upper decks which kept water from getting into the bilge (inner hull).  The amount of cargo in which a Carrack could hold was measured in "tonelados".  One tonelado was equivalent to one ton of wine.  As example Columbus noted in his log that the Santa Maria was 80 tonelados which meant she could carry 80 tons of wine in her cargo bay.

    University of Wales, Bangor, School of History, Nautical Archaeology Website.
    Loades, David: The Tudor Navy Scholar Press.  Aldershot, 1992.

Copyright 1999-2001, Cody Sibley. All Rights Reserved.

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