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Posted in Boats, Historical articles, History, Sea, Ships, Trade, Transport, Travel on Saturday, 25 May 2013
This edited article about seafaring originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 268 published on 4 March 1967.
The Mediterranean basin very early became the cradle of European civilisation. Both Greeks and Romans developed fleets of ships, but neither, as far as we know, ventured much beyond the Mediterranean.
There was one race of extraordinarily capable seamen at the eastern end of that sea. These were the Phoenicians, about whom we know very little, except that they developed ships at least up to Asian standards, and that they ventured outside the Mediterranean on ocean voyages.
In those far-off days, pioneering seafarers worked for hard-headed merchants who were not interested in the diffusion of knowledge, but only its suppression for their own greater profit. Trade to them meant monopoly, if possible. Seafaring was for the increase of trade.
Phoenician mariners are thought to have come to the small harbour by St. Michael’s Mount, off Cornwall, to trade with the Ancient Britons for tin, but they may – say the scholars – equally well have bought their tin somewhere on the French coast in the Bay of Biscay.
Seafarers who dared to sail across the Bay of Biscay knew their stuff, and it is a pity that we have no certain evidence of the appearance of their ships. There is a vague idea that they used oars as well as sails, were long, undecked craft with one big mast, and carried a high stem-post surmounted by the carved figure of a fearsome horse’s head.
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Posted in Engineering, Historical articles, Sea, Ships on Friday, 24 May 2013
This edited article about the Great Eastern originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 266 published on 18 February 1967.
At a time when steam navigation to the East and Australia was greatly handicapped by the lack of coaling facilities, a ship which could carry enough coal for a voyage to Australia and back was specially designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
The Great Eastern, originally called the Leviathan because of her enormous size, had been laid down in 1854. When completed, she had a length of 692 feet and a beam of 82.5 feet. She had engines totalling 8,297 horse power to drive her paddle wheels and propeller and give her a maximum speed of 15 knots. Six masts carried a spread of 6,500 square yards of sail. Precautions that her hull should have the requisite strength included giving her a double bottom and a tubular upper deck.
A delay of three months in the launching of the Great Eastern drove the company which financed her construction into liquidation, and, as a result, she was purchased for use on the North Atlantic, a service she was not designed for, and for which she was most unsuitable.
In 1860 she made the first of several voyages to New York, but she never paid her way. She was then used to lay Atlantic cables, and in 1887 she was broken up.
Posted in Boats, Historical articles, Industry, Sea, Ships on Friday, 24 May 2013
This edited article about seafaring originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 266 published on 18 February 1967.
Treasures of the sea – pearl fishing
The economy of the big Kuwaiti booms was very interesting. The captain had an owning interest in the boom’s earnings, however made, and carried ventures of his own as well.
All the carpets, pearls, rosewood chests, silver daggers and that sort of thing belonged to him. He brought them from Kuwait, and he sold them. But the general earnings of the ship on her buying and selling were shared among all, and so was the passenger money, except that the captain had the right, apparently, to bring friends and relatives along at no cost to the ship.
The 30 mariners shared what was worked out to be the net profit on everything when the voyage – it took about eight months altogether – was over, and when the food had been paid for. Shares went according to seniority, with the musician getting an extra share – for all the nights’ sleep he lost, I suppose, for I failed to see that his ‘music’ was worth anything.
The sailors sang a lot and chanted at their work, and they stopped often during heavy jobs to join in a hearty, deck-thumping dance, while the whole ship shook with the power of their great bare feet. There was no extra pay for this, of course. But it wasn’t just in the day’s work; it helped to make the day’s work possible: for this, I soon saw, was a form of Yoga.
All the sailors earned the profits from their own ventures, which they smuggled ashore in all possible places.
They worked very hard, but they had fun, too, especially in Zanzibar. They sang and they danced and they yarned. They chewed betelnut mixtures, smoked the bubbly-pipe (an awful thing: the smell of its Persian tobacco was appalling), drank lots of coffee, and prayed five times daily in the prescribed manner.
Few could read and fewer write. Sometimes in the evenings they would come aft on the poop and listen to the learned discourse going on between the captain, his brothers, and the senior merchants. Every evening these sat round the big bench there and discussed commentaries on the Koran – their Bible – and the state of politics, etc., in Europe and the East. They listened to no radio, and they read no newspapers.
We reached Kuwait before the coming of the hot summer winds, just as we scampered away from the Indian Ocean before the coming of the S.W. monsoon. Only one night were we caught in squally weather preceding the change.
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Posted in Adventure, Africa, Historical articles, Sea, Ships, Trade, Travel on Friday, 24 May 2013
This edited article about seafaring originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 265 published on 11 February 1967.
Zanzibar from the sea
The origins of Asian seafaring in the Indian Ocean are lost in pre-history. A Greek named Hippalus wandered there round about the dawn of the Christian era and reported the existence of the winds called monsoons.
He noted that in the northern area of the Indian Ocean, ideally placed to assist sailing-ship navigation in the heart of the rich spice trade, the ocean winds blew one way half the year and directly the other way for the other half. There was a NE wind to blow ships to India, and a SW wind to blow them back again.
So he began the myth that Asian sailing was of this primitive fair-wind kind. What he did not report was that the SW season was rough and stormy, quite unfit for primitive vessels, with sewn-together hulls and sails of mats. And he must have been a landlubber, for he failed to notice that the Asian ships of those days could go to windward (i.e., sail against the wind) almost ‘into the wind’s eye’, like modern yachts. These ships sailed both ways with the NE wind – with it behind them down to Africa, with it on the beam to India, close-hauled and punching into it on both ways back to the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and all South Arabia.
I found that out for myself – some 1,900 years later.
In the meantime, another Greek had wandered into the Indian Ocean and produced a sort of Seaman’s Directory of the tropic zone of that interesting sea. This has come down to us as the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, which is still in print, though the first edition came out in the first century AD.
The anonymous writer of this work deals mainly with information sufficient to identify the trading marts and ports where the Semitic mariners and merchants of ancient times found good profits.
I carried a copy of this work, liberally annotated, when I shipped with the Persian Gulf Arabs from the port of Kuwait at the end of 1938, bound on a trading voyage wherever they went in the Indian Ocean.
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Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Sea on Thursday, 23 May 2013
This edited article about Captain Webb originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 264 published on 4 February 1967.
Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel in August 1875 by John Keay
The vicious seas slammed into the flank of the little sailing boat, and spray covered the men peering anxiously to starboard in search of a tiny black dot in the water.
It was an important dot – a human being, struggling to be the first man ever to swim across the English Channel.
Nowadays the Channel is swum every year, with a fleet of escort boats with strong engines which can bring them alongside in a matter of seconds if a swimmer gets into trouble. But the only escort for Captain Matthew Webb on 24th August, 1875, was one cockleshell of a boat, which was in almost as much danger from the rough seas as Webb himself! Even the men aboard the boat thought Webb was a madman. They were there because they had been paid by a London newspaper, but they fully expected to return to Dover carrying the body of a drowned man.
Webb had begun with a spectacular dive from Dover Pier. He was a short, strongly-built man, already the holder of a Royal Humane Society Medal for trying to rescue a sailor who had fallen from a ship’s rigging in the Atlantic. Later, as a test before swimming the Channel, he had outswam a boat full of oarsmen on the Thames.
Now, with his body smeared with grease as a protection against the cold, he was fighting his way across against weather which grew steadily worse with every hour that passed.
He swam breast-stroke, as most swimmers did in those days. It took him more than three hours to cover the first four and a half miles, but even so he was in good spirits. A cup of beer was handed down to him, also beef tea, and a spoonful of cod liver oil.
He grinned up at the men in the boat, handed his cup back to them, and kept on.
Then, after eight hours, he let out a yell of agony.
“Cramp!” exclaimed one of the men in the boat. “Quick! Get alongside or he may go under!”
But when they reached Webb, it was not cramp that was causing the trouble. He had been stung by a jellyfish on his shoulder, and his arm was so numb that he was keeping himself afloat by treading water.
The men in the boat urged him to come aboard, to give up and try again another day. But Webb simply asked for brandy, and then swam on.
In time the pain in his shoulder eased. It was now the middle of the night. Instinctively Webb took advantage of the tide, and changed course. But he was weak now. Aboard the boat, a diver prepared for the possibility of having to rescue Webb if he lost consciousness and went under.
But somehow Webb kept going, even when at dawn the wind increased, the seas broke over him, and the boat was swept so far away from him that if he had given up there would have been little hope of rescuing him.
What saved him was the sudden arrival of a rowing boat from France, which took station on his weather side, to break the force of the seas.
With the French coast only two hundred and fifty yards away, Webb was swimming so slowly, with such feeble strokes, that even the most optimistic felt he could never make it. The boatmen flung a sounding line, and shouted encouragement to Webb – that in a few moments he would be able to touch bottom and walk the rest of the way. He waved back, felt for the beach with his feet, stumbled, and went under. Slowly, tottering, he came up again and staggered the last few yards to dry land.
A cheering crowd carried the swimmer to an hotel.
Thus Captain Webb founded a new sport. But there must be many swimmers, fighting exhaustion and cramp in the bitter cold of the Channel year after year, who wish he hadn’t!
Posted in Boats, Historical articles, Sea, Ships, Travel on Thursday, 23 May 2013
This edited article about sailing originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 264 published on 4 February 1967.
Arab "Dhows" on the Red Sea
I stepped back in history a thousand years or more, once, and sailed in Eastern seas much as the ancients did. The year was 1938-39. Like many other seafarers, I had often noticed swift Arab dhows in Red Sea ports such as Djibouti, Jiddah, Port Sudan, and in Aden. By mid-1938, when sailing-ships were becoming very scarce for Europeans to sail in, I decided to go to Arabia and sail with these dhows. I could find no record that any European had bothered to learn much about them since the days of Marco Polo.
I found the native port of Ma’alla, by the Crater in Aden, a fascinating place. Ma’alla beach had probably changed little since the Queen of Sheba passed by. It was packed with swift-lined, graceful little sailing-ships, distinctive with their raking masts, colourful built-up sterns (though some were ‘double-enders’ i.e., pointed each end), complete lack of modern improvements, and sturdy dark crews. Europeans called all these ships ‘dhows’ and left them alone.
On the smelly beach were larger vessels, too, big ships of 200 and 300 tons. These, I was told, traded to India and down the coast of East Africa. Some carried pilgrims into the Red Sea, to land at Jiddah for the Moslem pilgrimage to Mecca. One or two were Indian. Most carried flags with strange devices, red ensigns decorated with some passage in Arabic from the Koran, or crossed swords, or simply Arabic words for EL-KUWAIT.
There were over 2,000 such dhows around the coasts of Arabia then, and several hundred of them lay on, at, or off Ma’alla. Others were being built or repaired there by craftsmen who could have shared Christ’s workshop and His tools. At little stone quays or at anchorages, a profusion of dhows discharged dates in heavy big packages, or loaded salt in bulk, and cotton-stuffs in bolts, and all manner of trade-goods from the free port of Aden, for distribution into the nearer East African, Gulf of Aden and Red Sea ports.
All this trade and highly colourful coming and going went on regardless of the great ships of Europe lying off Steamer Point, hurriedly taking in bunkers for the continuance of their voyages to India, Australia and the Far East. The two worlds, though adjacent, were utterly separate. Laden dhows slipped silently seawards past big liners, their graceful lateen sails spread to the monsoon wind, their commerce, their outlook, their seamanship, their whole concept of living, out of date by at least a thousand years. The world had passed them by.
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Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Boats, Historical articles, History, Rivers, Sea, Ships, Trade, Transport, Travel on Wednesday, 22 May 2013
This edited article about seafaring originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 263 published on 28 January 1967.
Queen Hatshepsut's expedition to Punt with inset diagram showing details of the boat construction
How did seafaring begin? Who first made a raft, a dug-out, a bark canoe? We haven’t much idea, any more than we can find out now who first thought up the idea of making a wheel.
But it is pretty sure that the same materials available to men over much of the earth led to the development of the same sort of floating ‘vehicles’ – so much so, indeed, that many exceedingly primitive craft are still with us. After all, logs, burned-out hollow trees, curled bits of bark, rafts and even lashed-up reeds will float anywhere. So will blown-up animal skins and big baskets, woven and caulked with bitumen or tar, or just trampled-down grass held together with any gooey stuff that happens to be to hand, like resin out of trees.
Rock drawings; scratchings on stone; stylised decorations on ancient vases scarcely identifiable as any sort of vessel, actual models of very old Egyptian river-craft; all these still exist and we can make what we want of them. So do the vessels themselves on which the drawings and models were based, in surprising profusion: reed boats on Lake Titicaca in South America, for example, which are nothing but bundles of bulrushes in which a fisherman may sit and control a small sail of light woven reeds set from a bipod mast of sticks; basket-boats woven from bamboos and caulked with a mixture of cow-dung and coconut oil in Vietnam; the one-man rafts of small balsa logs lashed together which are used for fishing inshore along the coasts of Peru and Brazil; and dug-outs with or without outriggers; twin-hulled or single, large and small, still abound in parts of the South Sea Islands, and around the coasts of India, Ceylon, Burma, East and West Africa.
With one exception, none of these craft would ever grow into any sort of seagoing ship. Even the primitive Australian aborigines made a raft of mangrove poles, but they got no farther. Rafts, reeds and baskets did all that was needed.
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Posted in Africa, Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Sea, Ships on Tuesday, 14 May 2013
This edited article about Vasco da Gama originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 254 published on 26 November 1966.
Vasco da Gama rounding the Cape
In the 15th century, the people of Europe began to widen their horizons. Extending the range of their knowledge in every direction, they began to explore the world for themselves, stretching out long arms to encompass new empires across unknown seas.
Portugal, in contrast with the rest of Europe, was politically stable in the early 15th century. She was a nation alive with untapped energy, and it was in this century that her brave little ships challenged uncharted seas and currents. In July, 1497, four ships set sail from Portugal under the command of Vasco da Gama to complete the discovery of the sea-route to India, around the tip of Africa.
Vasco da Gama took with him all the latest navigational equipment, and he needed it, for much of the time no land was seen. An unknown member of the crew kept a record of the journey: “At last on Wednesday [22nd November],” he said, “at noon, having the wind astern, we suceeded in doubling the Cape [of Good Hope] and then ran along the coast.”
From that point onwards, the region was unknown, and the ships battled against the strong, adverse current. They paused at Natal, and noted the prosperity of the tall, friendly natives. They pulled out of Natal and edged their way up the east coast of Africa to Malindi. With a strong wind behind them, they sailed across the Indian Ocean, anchoring near Calicut in May, 1498. They discovered many of the wonders of the East – precious stones and spices – just as they had hoped.
Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea-route changed the shape of the world as it had been imagined, and showed the way for the beginning of direct trade by sea with the East.
Posted in Animals, Fish, Nature, Sea, Wildlife on Thursday, 9 May 2013
This edited article about marine animals originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 248 published on 15 October 1966.
Probably the commonest animals in the sea, after fishes, are those known as molluscs. The name itself is from the Latin and means ‘soft-bodied’.
The great majority of molluscs have this soft body enclosed in a shell as a protection. In some, the shell is in two parts and hinged; these are known as bivalves. Others have a spiral shell; these are the univalves, and are often called sea snails.
Not only does the shell of the sea snail protect the body of the animal that makes it, but when the mollusc itself dies, a hermit crab may make use of it. Unlike the more familiar crabs, only the front part of the body, as well as the claws and legs, of a hermit crab are armoured. The abdomen is soft, and to protect this the hermit crab takes over the shell of a dead sea snail and uses it as a ‘house’. It can do this without difficulty, because the hermit’s abdomen is twisted in a spiral that fits easily into the spiral of the shell.
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Posted in Animals, Nature, Sea, Wildlife on Saturday, 4 May 2013
This edited article about whales originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 242 published on 3 September 1966.
The Whale family
For centuries the great whales of the world’s oceans have been hunted for their oil and meat. It is only in recent years that whalers have realised there may one day be a scarcity of these mammals unless some form of protection is given to them.
Generally whales are regarded by people as a form of large fish that live in the sea. Apart from that, very little trouble is taken to learn more about them.
In fact, they are varied and fascinating animals which can be found all over the world, in Arctic, Antarctic, tropical, sub-tropical and temperate seas. Some members of the whale family even live up rivers in fresh water.
Whales are all true mammals, and so are much more closely related to dogs and cats than to fishes. They have lungs and breathe air just as animals and humans do, but instead of the usual nostrils, they have a hole on top of their head known as a ‘blow-hole’. This blow-hole has a valve which closes when the animal dives under the water (this is called ‘sounding’). The valve stops any water going down into the lungs.
Old pictures of whales show them blowing huge spouts of water from the tops of their heads, but after investigation this was found to be just a little water and warm air. The air inside the whale’s lungs reaches body temperature, then, when the used air is forced out through the blow-hole, it cools rapidly on reaching the air outside and becomes steam. A little water may be trapped in the blow-hole, so that from a distance the mixture looks like a small water-fountain.
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