Welcome to Sail Freighter Fridays! This article is part of a series linked to our new exhibit: "A New Age Of Sail: The History And Future Of Sail Freight In The Hudson Valley," and tells the stories of sailing cargo ships both modern and historical, on the Hudson River and around the world. Anyone interested in how to support Sail Freight should also check out the Conference in November, and the International Windship Association's Decade of Wind Propulsion.
For today's Sail Freighter Friday, we're going to go back a ways further historically than last week, but only about 2,100 or so years. This week, we'll be looking at the type of sailing cargo vessels of the Mediterranean Sea which built much of the ancient Greek, Roman, and Carthaginian empires of the classical world. They were advanced sailing craft plying well developed trade routes, and supplying some of the largest cities of their time with food, stone, metals, ceramics, timber, wool, cement, firewood, glass, charcoal, livestock, and more from all over the Mediterranean basin. In tonnage and fleet strength, they were likely unsurpassed from the decline of the Roman Empire until the Renaissance, a period of nearly 1,000 years.
Ships in this period, roughly 2300-2000 years ago, were wooden, constructed in what we would now call a mortise-and-tenon, shell-first construction, with frames added second. They usually also had an additional layer of planking on the inside of the frames. This is rarely used today, but was stronger than "stitched" or "sewn" construction of previous eras, and allowed for much larger vessels of up to 600 tons to be built routinely. Their wide, relatively shallow hulls were reasonably stable, and propelled by up to three square-rigged masts.
The size and number of ships on the Mediterranean Sea in this period began to increase, as cities grew in population and trade increased. Grain, wine, and olive oil from Egypt and Syria, as well as Spain and North Africa, were essential to keeping Rome fed, and the voyage could take weeks against contrary winds, resulting in the need for a large fleet with seasonal availability. It also meant that the ships had to be tough and seaworthy, which they were, but they weren't necessarily fast: Some made an average of barely 2 knots per hour when sailing against the wind. Downwind, they could make average speeds of just over 6 knots.
These sailing craft were the result of many generations of development and cultural exchange between the Greeks, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Iberians, Romans, and Latins, ideally suited to their environments and available materials. Without them, the cultural and material exchange which allowed these cultures to flourish would have been impossible, as would many of the future developments in navigation and shipbuilding which are discussed in this series. Unfortunately, they also had a profound ecological impact: Despite their being built of wood, a renewable resource, the demand for ship timbers and fuel was higher than the forests growth rates at many points, and led to deforestation and desertification which still has effects on the local ecosystems today. With a modern understanding of forest management, this can be avoided, but there is a limit which must be worked within to keep both a healthy forest, and a healthy fleet.
If you're interested in these ancient ships, their construction, and use, I recommend starting with Sailing From Polis To Empire, available free as an E-Book at the link.
Steven Woods is the Solaris and Education coordinator at HRMM. He earned his Master's degree in Resilient and Sustainable Communities at Prescott College, and wrote his thesis on the revival of Sail Freight for supplying the New York Metro Area's food needs. Steven has worked in Museums for over 20 years.
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