Skip to main content
 Previous Next
  • Zoom In (+)
  • Zoom Out (-)
  • Rotate CW (r)
  • Rotate CCW (R)
  • Overview (h)
Early Vessels in Arctic Exploration and Voyaging: Encyclopedia Arctica 9: Transportation and Communications
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Early Vessels in Arctic Exploration and Voyaging

EA-Transportation and Communications
(Howard I Chapelle)

EARLY VESSELS IN ARCTIC EXPLORATION AND VOYAGING

In an examination of shipping of an earlier period than is covered by
the shipbuilding reco r ds now known, there is always the danger of under–
estimating the technical progress of the age under discussion. In the past,
it has been assumed that all ships, of the ages before technical records
of ship design were preserved, were weak, crude, unseaworthy, and cumbersome.
The reasons for this are obvious to anyone who examines the pictorial evidence
of one of these pearly periods. Pictorial evidence of shipping on coins, or in
sculpture, or in pottery decoration, or even in funerary models, of the pre–
Christian era, for example, would indicate that ships were very short, high–
sided and fitted with fantastic decorations. This apparent cumbersomness
becomes more marked in the pictorial evidence of later periods, up to and
including the first two centuries, seventeenth and eighteenth, in which the
plans of ships began to be preserved.
The seaman, shipbuilder, or naval architect examining this evidence
would find it inconceivable that ships, such as represented, could have accom–
plished the voyages indicated by historical records and archaeological dis–
coveries. That something is wrong, in the pictorial representations, is
commonly evident for they lack proportion; not uncommonly the crew are drawn so
large that the ships could not possibly carry them. It is apparent, then,
that these early pictures of shipping were drawn without regard to perspective,

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

proportion, or scale. The artist, to emphasize importance in his composition,
made the human beings in his picture larger than life, in comparison to ships,
buildings, or other background material without regard to correct proportions
or the dictates of perspective. In the same manner he also shortened or con–
tracted ships and buildings to fit them into the space available. Gradually
a convention was accepted, that importance was shown by size of a person in
a composition and that inanimate objects might be prepresented out of all
scale or proportion, though otherwise represented in laborious detail. Error
in detail existed, no doubt, since it is improbable that artists and sculptors
were any better fitted to interpret what they saw in a ship in ancient times
than in more recent ages. The conventions of art, as represented in the
pictorial evidence under discussion, was accepted for many centures; indeed,
until within nearly four hundred years of the present century. Though the
distortions and lack of proportion in ancient ship drawings, or sculpture,
are obvious, the modern observer certainly receives an impression that the
ancient shipping must have been nearly as cumbersome, awkward, and ill-formed
as the ancient artists indicated. Trained in accurate delineation, the modern
scholar and student of subconsciously accept the idea that the ancient artist
drew what he saw to the same accuracy in the proportion of the ship's hull that
he indicates in small details of fittings, structure, or rigging. Yet there
are logical reasons for doubting the accuracy of such impression . s.
In the same manner, literary references to shipping matters by ancient
writers have proven unsatisfactory. In ancient times, even the historian was
permitted to indulge in exaggeration and flights of fancy – particularly
in the description of the size of objects. Though there may have been ancient
treatises on shipbuilding, as there were on military engineering, for example,

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

unfortunately nothing of the nature has been preserved. Therefore we have
no better technical information in ancient literature than the relatively
scant notes of the scholars, philosophers, or playwriters, and these, it
must be remembered, were neither seamen nor informed on shipping matters.
Nevertheless, their works represent the "literature" of the day rather than
technical [: ] treaties, just as at present popular emphasis is placed on
nontechnical books. It is as impossible, therefore, to reach conclusions
on the technical aspects of shipping by use of the ancient "literature" as
it would be by use of the modern popular novel, play, or poem, the "crative
literature" of our day.
Many studies of ancient shipping have been attempted, employing literary
sources, but it is fully evident that incomplete and confusing results have
been obtained. The use of pictorial evidence alone has also led to many
difficulties. Archaeological discoveries, particularly of portions of ancient
ships, have been rather scanty but are of more importance in such studies than
has been fully realized. All sources, combined, should serve to give a grasp
of the probabilities, at least, of technical progress in shipbuilding in any
age within the last 6,000 years.
First, it must be understood that the arts of boat and shipbuilding are
very old in human development and extend far beyond the dawn of recorded
history. This statement is not a mere opinion; it is based upon archaeological
discoveries within the last hundred years. It must also be accepted that boat
and shipbuilding techniques change with remarkable slowness and therefore an
ancient nation did not suddently become great in shipping matters; such promi–
nence was an age-long process. As to this, it is interesting to attempt to
discover how long the methods of boat and shipbuilding used at present, in

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

wooden construction, have been in use; if it could be shown that these
methods have been developed a number of centures ago, it would give at
least some idea how gradual development has been in the shipbuilding arts.
In the year 1691, a Swedish shipbuilding treatise (Skeps Byggerij eller
Adelig Öfnings Tionde Tom, A Å ke Classon R a å lamb, Stockholm, 1691) shows the
ship and boatbuilding methods, then employed, in one large plate and the
ship-carpenter's tools then in use in another. The plate showing the methods
of setting up ships and boats would be perfectly understandable to a modern
boatguilder, for this old book shows the use of stocks, moulds, and braces,
(to shape the hull during construction) and the methods of bending and clamping
timbers that are basically the same as are used today. Even the tools are
familiar; in fact, the majority of the ship-carpenter's tools have changed
little since the year this book was written. If we knew more about the history
of carpenter's tools, so that a date could be established for the invention
of the various types of saws, adzes, hewing axes, and drills, we might be able
to estimate the development of shipbuilding in ancient times with far greater
accuracy that is now possible.
The evidence of this old book shows that the common tools and methods
now employed, in this year of grace [: 1600 ] 1950, in boatbuilding of the con–
ventional type, have been used since the 1600's with only very minor refine–
ments. It cannot be accepted that what is shown in the treatise of 1691 had
only just come into use. Indeed, it is commonly accepted that changes in
building technique in ships in past ages were more slowly accomplished than
in the last century; since the last two centuries and a half have shown no
important change, how many centuries before 1691 were required to reach the
level for that year?

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

But this is only a published source, comparatively recent in recorded
history. A number of Viking ships and boats have been recovered from
burial mounds, whose estimated dates are in the ninth and tenth centuries;
one large boat has been found that is believed to be in the third or fourth
century. In addition to these vessels from northern Europe, there have been
discoveries of remains of Mediterranean craft; the Lake Nemi discoveries are
of particular value for they are craft built in the first century. These
were not seagoing craft but nevertheless are instructive. The Westminster
ship, of the third century, was a seagoing Roman galley. Remains of other
vessels, prehistoric and later (such as the Sutton Hoo burial ship of about
A.D. 630), and numerous dugouts also are evidence.
These early ships give part of the answer to the question set up, for
the ships of northern Europe, and the Westminster and Lake Nemi craft, show
not only very high workmanship but a well-developed structural design. The
craft were not all small craft; the Viking ships and the Sutton Hoo vessel
were 70 to 90 feet in length while Caligula's Lake Nemi houseboat was well
over 200 feet in length, and over 72 ft. beam; the Westminster galley was
about 90 ft. long and 18 ft. beam. These craft were built by well-trained
professional builders and their structural details testify to the manual
skill of their constructors. The Caligula houseboat shows a hull construc–
tion not dissimilar in fundamental structural design from modern wooden
hulls, employing keel, keelson and sister keelsons, and sawn frames. Due
to the hull form, two bilge keels on each side the main keel were employed.
The planking was smooth or "caravel" with thicker garboards than the rest
of the bottom plank. Ceiling plank was placed inside the frames but in this

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

the builders departed from modern practice in having the ceiling strakes
separated by air spaces, making the ceiling plank more like large battens
than an inner skin. This may have been intended to allow air circulation
to eliminate rot as much as possible. This craft was certainly built on
construction methods not far different from what would be employed today
in a large, lightly built wooden hull. Both the Lake Nemi vessels and the
Westminster galley show that sharp, serviceable carpenter's tools were used
in their building.
The Viking ships and the Nydam Boat of A.D. 200-300 show seagoing ship
construction of a high order; they were clench planked with hewn or sawn
frames from natural curved timber. The fitting of the planking was very
skillful. The laps in the clench planking were iron riveted in the fashion
still prevalent; the frames were nailed to the plank above the turn of the
bilges but lashed to the lower or bottom plank by lacings passed through the
frames and through lugs on the inside of each strake, giving a very flexible
and strong structure. It is evident that these vessels must have been set
up and formed in the manner still used in lonech-built craft; instead of
moulds to shape the hull, the Vikings and North Europeans may have used a
few control frames; or they may have formed the ships "by eye," holding the
plank in position by "wedge-clamps" and skin-rope to pins driven in the
ground alongside the ship.
Anyone who has examined the remains of these ships or the carefully
measured and drawn plans of the Gokstad ship of the last half of the ninth
century, or of the Oseberg ship of about A.D. 800, will realize that they
represent a highly developed shipbuilding technique of long standing at the
period of their building. These are not the crudely designed and built craft

EA-Trans. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

of unskilled builders but the work of craftsmen of the highest class.
Furthermore, the design of the hull-forms used was of a high order, pro–
ducing ships of great seaworthines and ones capable of high speed under
sa i l e or oars. The finish of these ships as in the case of the Roman craft,
attest to the existence of excellent tools.
Were such evidence insufficient, the prehistoric dugouts recovered
give additional evidence of marked skill on the part of their builders and
indicate that craft existed before the dawn of recorded history which were
capable of long voyages. Some idea of the probable capabilities of the
prehistoric dugout may be obtained from the huge log dugouts of the old
Maoris of New Zealand, or the fine dugouts of the Indians of the Northwest
Coast of North America. These craft were not only well built but well formed,
and capable of long voyages.
The use of logs in construction of boats has ceased only in very recent
times among civilized builders; these log craft were commonly built of a
number of logs, hewn to shape and bolted together with wooden and metal pins.
The now extinct Picataqua River Gundalow of New Hampshire and the still common
log canoe of the Chesapeake are well-known examples of a mode of construction
suggestive of that shown in some Egyptian paintings of shipbuilding of about
2000 B. C., though the hulls are unlike in form.
Once it is recognized that shipbuilding knowledge and building tools
of a very high order have existed since the beginning of recorded history,
and even earlier, the possibilities of very early voyages of exploration,
migration, and trade not only become understandable but wholly reasonable.
With the rise of shipbuilding skill there was apparently an equally great
increase in seamanship and navigation. The evidence of prehistoric migrations
and of later ones, such as that of the Polynesians in the Pacific, indicates

EA-Trans. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

that the Stone Age may well have seen periods of trans-ocean navigation in
dugouts, skin craft, and even planked boats by skillful sailors and navigators.
The application of this understanding to arctic exploration and voyaging
can but lead to the acceptance of the possibilities of voyages of exploration
and trade to the polar seas before the period of recorded history. The
literary evidence that the early Irish were in Iceland before the age of the
Vikings, in an age when the Irish were believed to have employed skin boats
or "curraghs," is but one possibility; it is equally possible and highly
probable that others may have ventured northward, the prehistoric Scandinavians,
Finns, and Russians. If the Irish could have made such voyages within the
period of recorded history in skin boats, the ability of other primitive
peoples to equal the voyages of the skin curraghs must be accepted. Certainly,
the Eskimo umiak was fully as capable of long ocean voyages as the curragh
and the lashed-plank hulls of the Scandinavians, or skin boats of the Russians
and Finns may have been equally capable.
On the evidence of prehistoric dugouts it is apparent that many Stone
Age people were acquainted with the use of the sail; once this knowledge had
been obtained, long voyages by craft having comparatively small crews became
feasible. However, the paddle alone did not deny a primitive people of
"Cruising range," for they were capable of withstanding great hardships and
so could cover great distances under paddle alone, as is evident in the
traditions of the Maori. With the craft of the Stone Age type, that have
survived into modern times and are recorded, there are many that would sail
and paddle at comparatively high speed under reasonably favorable weather
conditions — and some, such as the kayak and Northwest Coast log canoes, that
would move fast even under relatively unfavorable conditions. In view of

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

this, it seems apparent that prehistoric navigation would have been possible
in arctic waters so far as the capabilities of Stone Age craft were con–
cerned.
Historically, the first arctic explorer and voyages who left a literary
record was Pytheas, who is thought to have voyaged from what is now Marseille,
France, to Iceland and a hundred miles or more beyond, to the edge of the
arctic ice, floating south in the Greenland Current, about 330 B. C. This
voyage has been a matter of controversy, for its details are not clear; the
original book of Pytheas describing his voyage, The Ocean , has been lost and
only portions of it on third or fourth-hand quotations, have survived. These
quotations have largely been by ancient writers who deemed Pytheas a liar and
quoted him only to hold his claims up to reidicule. Without entering into the
question of whether Pytheas reached Norway or Iceland, the suitability of
craft of his time for an arctic voyage to Iceland from Europe can be explored.
Most writers, in discussing the ship that Pytheas might have used, have
entered into a description of the oared war galley of his age, deeming that
his ship would be of this description. Others have been led to discuss the
large merchantmen of the age, assuming these to have been the most likely type
for such a voyage. It hardly seems reasonable that either a large war galley
or a large merchant ship would have been Pytheas' selection, any more than
a battleship or cruiser, or a liner or large freighter would have been
selected by a modern explorer. Large ships required too many men to feed and
were too expensive to operate; they were too cumbersome in narrow, shoal waters
where great length and draft would handicap an explorer. On the other hand,
Pytheas lived in an age when unfriendliness among strangers was the rule
rather than the exception and where the "civilized" adventurer rarely possessed
the advantage in weapons over the "savage." Hence, an explorer venturing into

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

unknown lands had to have enough men to resist attacks by small bands of
men armed with weapons equal to those available to the explorer. Sword, lance,
bow and throwing dart, and stones thrown with a sling were the common offensive
weapons; breastplates, helmets, and shields were common implements of protection.
With variations in efficiency and serviceability, these were known to all
peoples, cultured and uncultured.
We know, from the sagas, what size of crew the Viking exploration craft
usually had; 20 to 35 men were considered adequate. It is probable that
Pytheas would have placed a similar limitation on the size of the crew he took
along and this would determine, certainly, the size of the ship required.
In the age of Pytheas, there were many craft in common use on the Mediter–
ranean that were fitted to row and sail well and capable of being manned by
such small crews. One type was the actu a riae , small craft of various models
suited for scouting and usually fitted to row and sail equally well. Sub–
divisions of this general type appear to have been the celoces , or "recehorses,"
a small sharp ship fitted for carrying dispatches; another was the cercurri ,
a type designed to serve as war galley and merchantman; and a third was the
lembi , a small vessel used in piracy and for carrying dispatches. There was
also the Phoenician hippi , merchant ships having figureheads of horses; in
the time of Pytheas these were in use at Cadia and in the [: ] African coast
fisheries. It was this type of ship that is supposed to have doubled Cape
Good Hope, as wreckage of one was found on the African east coast about 112 B.C.
and the ship was supposed to have hailed from Cadia.
Some of these types carried rams but this appendage would have been of
little value to Pytheas unless he expected to have to fight his way past the
Strait of Gibraltar, where the Carthinginians had long maintained a blockade
to prevent trade through the Strait. However, Pytheas would have realized

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

that this would be foolhardy with a small crew, so, if the blockade existed
at the time of his voyage, he undoubtedly would depend upon speed to run
the blockade, as have blockade-runners since ancient times. It is probable
that he employed either a cercuri or a hippi . In either case, his ship
would have been about 60 to 70 ft. over-all and 15 to 17 ft. beam; a low
galley hull with one mast and square sail, rowing perhaps 15 cars on a side
and decked at the ends. Such a ship would not have been greatly dissimilar
to the later Viking ships except in model; the Mediterranean galley usually
had flaring sides, rounded bilges, and rather flat bottom, smooth planked,
(caravel) with sharp lines fore and aft.
Such a vessel as this would not only carry the size of crew that is
probable but also a quantity of provisions and some trade goods. She would
have a speed under cars alone of about 3 knots for an extended time, with
an extreme speed of perhaps 5 knots for a very short period of time. Under
sail she would be very fast, reaching and running — under favorable condi–
tions she might be driven 10 knots, with the possibility that she might
average as high as 7 or 8 knots for prolonged periods. To windward she
would be poor, neither pointing high nor fetching her course; it is doubtful
that she would make more than 2 knots on her course close-hauled. The shape
of her hull and the out and form of her sails would make speed, when close–
hauled, improbable, particularly when there was any sea. Though these
vessels had an outside keel, it was probably shallow and rather ineffective
on the wind in preventing leeway. In this respect the Mediterranean galleys
were far less efficient than the Viking ships having reverse curve in their
floors, as in the Gogstad ship. Beaching qualities were too important in
the Mediterranean types to make any sacrifice to obtain Weatherly character–
istics desirable; the long calms met in the Mediterranean made rowing far

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

more important than sailing. Nevertheless, in Pytheas' time it is highly
probable that craft existed in the western Mediteranean that had some
weatherly qualities; and the hippi were probably on such a model.
It has been said that the ships of Pytheas' time were larger and safer
than those of Columbus; in justice it must be said that the actuariae and
the Viking ships were more seaworthy and faster than the vessels given to
Columbus, but this is true only because Columbus had neither the fastest
sailers nor the most seaworthy ships of his time; his vessels were poor for
his purpose. It is doubtful that Pytheas would have used ships larger than
those of Columbus; it is highly probable that the former's ship was not one
of the largest of his time, any more than Columbus' ships were for his age.
Living aboard the partially decked Mediterranean galley was no more of
a hardship than on board the Viking craft; the exposure in both was not as
great as in the crowded whaleboats that have been used in escaping from ice–
bound whalers on countless occasions. Both the galley and the Viking ships
had decked holds, at bow and stern, that could be used to keep bedding dry
and for other dry storage. The open waist could be closed over with a
ship's lent; this however was rarely done at sea. Normally, the crews slept
on or under the rowing thwarts covered with tarpaulins of some kind, often
skins, in addition to their bedding. Cooking hearths were of course used at
sea. Some of the Mediterranean galleys and Viking craft had a cabin aft for
the commander and a low forecastle into which some of the crew could stow
themselves in cold weather. With adequate clothing and bedding, the crews
of these ships probably felt themselves fortunate compared with the soldiers
and peasants of their period.
In discussing the inherent differences between Mediterranean galleys
and the vessels of northern Europe, it has often been said that the weather

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

conditions met on the Mediterranean produced little heavy sea and, by
referring to the "sunny" climate, the inference is given that the seamen
did not suffer from cold weather. This whole outlook is contrary to fact;
the Mediterranean is subject to violent storms and to cold weather; and
ancient seamen there had to have almost as much protection from cold weather
as the northern Europeans in their open, or partially decked, shipping. In
addition, the shipping of the Mediterranean had to be very seaworthy if long
voyages were made, particularly in the western portion. Throughout the
period of sail, the small craft of Italy and southern France, that were em–
ployed in the open Mediterranean, were notable sea boats. When the war
galleys grew so large and long that they were endangered by rough water it
is to be noted that they became fully decked below the rowing thwarts; this
began in the large multi-banked galleys of the pre-Christian era.
The lack of scale models or plans of the ancient Mediterranean craft, such
as the actuariae or the older hippi , does not prevent us from obtaining some
idea of their hull-form. There are enough pictorial and sculptured, as well
as archaeological, remains to give at least a general idea of the model of
hull most commonly used. On this evidence it is apparent that most of these
craft were sharp at both ends but with the stern so built as to mask this to
some extent by use of carvings or a "tail," often of a water bird. While
some of the vessels may have had their stern formed round, in copy of the
after portion of a duck or swan, the majority appear to have been sharp and
to have shown the sea-bird stern by profile build. The bow look many forms;
some had rams, some overhung in a sweep from the keel, some seem to have had
what is now known as a "clipper-bow": which later was well developed in the
galleys of the 15th-18th centuries. Some vessels, represented apparently by

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

the hippi , had hull profiles approximating those used in the known Viking
ships of the Christian era. So far as we can determine now, all the Mediter–
ranean craft were smooth planked (caravel), and clenchwork was not used.
Dugout boats were common in the smaller sizes. The midsection form has been
described and was apparently a U-shape with a somewhat flattened bottom and
flaring sides. The practice of the Vikings of carrying shields along the
sides to protect the rowers seems to have been practiced on the Mediterranean
at times, so it is highly possible that the sight of Pytheas' ship at sea
would not have caused any surprise to a Scandinavian seeman met on the voyage.
Though the voyage of Pytheas in 330 B.C. is the first of which we have
any still existing recorded mention, there is no reason to doubt that there
may have been others from the Mediterranean who reached arctic waters. These
may have coasted northern Europe to the Arctic by way of Norway, or may have
gone overland to the Baltic and then northward. At least this much can be
said with certainty; the early Mediterranean peoples such as the Phoenicians
and Carthaginians possessed ships fully capable of making such voyages and
had seamen who would have dared. Even the unsatisfactory surviving literary
evidence gives strong indications that there were many periods, in pre-Columbian
ages, when long voyages of exploration were common and when trading voyages
of great length were the general rule. These cannot be discussed as fables
because they contain imaginary monsters and sea conditions; there is the much
established fact in these accounts for them to be discounted. Propaganda was
not unknown in ancient times and, by telling fearful tales, many traders and
their governments hoped to prevent competitors from following and exploiting
the newly discovered lands and trade routes.
With the possibilities of the voyages of the Scandinavians of a later

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

period — such as Ottar's coasting voyage around northern Norway into the
White Sea, in A.D. 890 and the discovery of Greenland between about 875 and
900, the voyages to Labrador or the North American mainland by Leif, and
later voyages in the eleventh and twelfth centuries — there can be no
question so far as the capabilities of Viking shipping are concerned. With
the discovery of very complete remains of Viking craft, we have too complete
knowledge of their ships and shipbuilding practices to doubt the ability of
daring, hardy seamen, such as the Scandinavians were known to be, to cross
the northern Atlantic at will.
The Irish discovery of Iceland may have taken place in the sixth century;
at any rate the Vikings found them there in the tenth century, as has been
mentioned earlier, when the Irish apparently left in their vessels. According
to Tacitus, Ireland was well known, compared to England, because of the trade
there; the ancient Irish were sea traders in the first century then, and
probably had been for some time. They appear to have employed curraghs in
their long ocean voyages, as apparently did some other of the Celts. We
must judge the capabilities of the curraghs, as the Irish skin boats are
called, by the modern survivals; however, there is some reason to believe
that these are decadent and that in ancient times these boats were of far
larger dimensions. If this were the case, the long voyages described or
indicated in the Irish tales were surely possible. The record of the Irish
voyages are too vague to be certain that there had not been extensive Irish
discoveries before the first century; indeed, the Tacitus mention infers
that they were. So far as the capabilities of skin boats and early European
dugouts are concerned, existing evidence pertaining to these boats gives no
reason for doubting the possibilities of rather long ocean or coasting voyages.

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

Very little is known about the explorations of the early Russians in
the eastern Arctic. When the English voyagers first reached the White
Sea in 1553 they found Russian sealers and walrus hunters and there is no
reason to believe this was anything new so far as the Russians were con–
cerned. Their boats, lodias , were much like the Viking ships, though cruder
in build and design. These vessels were apparently 40 to 60 feet in length
and could be both rowed and sailed. They carried crews of 15 to 30 men, as
a rule, and employed 10 to 20 carsmen; they had one mast and a square sail.
It was noted that running free the lodias outsailed the English. As late
as 1898 many of the Russian boats in the White Sea had their planking fastened,
or "sewn" together, with bark and sinew lacing. Judging by later models, the
lodias were clench-planked, double-ended, with a shallow V-bottom and flaring
Sides; their stems either were sharply raked forward and nearly straight, with
a high, unadorned stem-head, or curved inboard above the waterline with a
strong, rounded tumble-home. The sternpost was usually straight, with varying
rakes depending upon the district in which the boat is found. Most of this
class had hide or canvas shelters flush with the rail at bow and stern. The
boats seem to follow the Norwegian construction in general except for the
more extensive use of lashings. The lodias and their more modern sisters
had shallow keels, but could sail on the wind to some extent and were
strong, seaworthy craft. It is probable that many unrecorded voyages were
made by these Russian craft; the early English navigators found Russian
White Sea navigators acquainted with Novaya Zemlya as well as much of the
coast to the eastward along the main: it was obvious that this was of rather
long standing except for Novaya Zemlya perhaps, the "New Land" of the Russians.
The voyages into the Arctic in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
are well recorded — such expeditions as Cortereal, 1500-01; Frobisher, 1578;

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

Davis, 1585; Berents, 1596-97; and Hudson's Button's, and Hawkeridge's
voyages in the early years of the next century — and the shipbuilding of
the period is more readily explored. In these centuries there are not only
extensive pictorial representations of ships to be examined but also the
evidence of primitive plans. In spite of the material available, it has
been customary to seriously underrate the qualities of the ships of these
centuries, just as it had been for the ships of earlier periods. The
voyages show that, on the whole, many of the vessels employed sailed quite
well and were seaworthy, though there were individual cases where the
vessels used in exploring were poor. However, the use of a poor ship in
an exploring expedition cannot be accepted as proof that all ships of the
date were equally low in quality. As in more recent times, slow and unsea–
worthy ships might be used in an expedition because of lack of funds to
obtain better ones, or because the sponsors of the expedition knew no better,
or because the ships selected were believed to have other necessary qualities
of great importance.
The most serious fault, perhaps, in many of the ships of those centuries
was in the fashion of raising the after portion very high to obtain additional
quarters. This "over-charging" was more marked in Latin vessels than in those
of northern Europe, but in both areas there were vessels in use, at the same
time as these high- [: ] sided craft, that were relatively low and Weatherly.
This variation in design was traceable to the requirements of use. Many of
the merchant craft, particularly in the smaller sizes, were not fitted with
the high "stern-castles" and the lower, but often burdensome, "fore-castles,"
as such appendages were not required; also the ships were sometimes too small
to carry them. War vessels, on the other hand, had these structures because

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

they not only gave additional quarters for officers and important personages
but also because the height of those "castles" was useful in the sea-fighting
of the period. Naturally, the fighting ships were more attractive to artists
and so we find men-of-war, and large ones at that, more commonly represented
in pictures. Because of this, the impression is readily received that all
shipping followed these vessels in build. However, it is now known that
there were many types of ships in which the "castles" were suppressed or
made so low that they were not objectionable from the standpoints of speed
or seaworthiness. From the context of many of the contemporary accounts of
the early English and Dutch voyages it is apparent that the ships used were
not extremely "overcharged" with superstructure.
In g e neral, it can be said that the Mediterranean ships, of the larger
types, were cluttered with high superstructure, while ships of northern Europe
were commonly without these high and burdensome structures. The Spanish
appear to have been among the worst offenders in this respect, as many of
their large ships in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were not only
fitted with lofty stern cabins and heavy forecastles but also were very
high-sided amidships. But even this nation had many ships that were without
such structures; apparently two out of the three vessels of Columbus' squadron,
on his first voyage to America, were low-sided. There are strong reasons for
doubting that the reconstructions of Columbus' vessels exhibited at the
World's Fair in 1892 were correct; however, these reconstructions have been
widely accepted and representations of them have been used in many school
histories.
In pictures of ancient ships and boats, extreme awkwardness of build
or excessive "bluntness" at the bow should not be accepted to [: ] literally.

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

While blunt lines were quite common, many craft were sharp; for steam–
bending of plank was not very common until after 1720. Before steaming
became accepted it was the practice to "stove" plank. This method con–
sisted of taking a green timber or plank and, after wetting it thoroughly,
to "cook" it over a large fire until it was supple. While such a method
allowed an increase in the bend of a timber or plank, over that obtained
with an unseasoned stick alone, it did not equal the bend that can be
obtained by steaming or actually boiling timber. The earlier the ship or
boat before 1720, the less likely would be extreme bluntness.
Small boats, throughout the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth
centuries, were commonly well built and on good models. The whaleboat came
into existence, some time in the first half of the seventeenth century per–
haps, though there were similar boats in use earlier. Ship's boats followed
the lines of small shore fishing craft in being suitable for both rowing and
sailing. Shallops, or "sloops," "slups," or "soutes," were the forerunner
of the later "longboat" or "launch" of naval usage; these boats were wide
and deep square-sterned open craft of good capacity and fitted with one or
more sails and masts. Such boats were capable of making long voyages in
open waters. Another type of small boat mentioned in the accounts of early
arctic voyagers was the pinnace; this was usually a rather long open boat
with a very narrow square stern, fitted to row and sail. There were a
variety of "pinnace," ranging from ship's boats to large seagoing vessels;
the features that identified a large, decked "pinnace" (some were ship-rigged)
have yet to be discovered. With respect to the small boats of the Viking
period, they were very much like the 4-oared Norwegian skiffs or "yoles"
still in use; lap-strake boats almost a V in the midsection; easily rowed,

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

light and seaworthy. Because of their lightness, it is probable that
these boats of the early Scandinavian seamen were far better craft in
arctic seas than the small boats used by later explorers; certainly they
were superior to those used by the Dutch in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries, and far better than the boats taken into the Arctic by some of
the nineteenth century expeditions.
The ships used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for arctic
exploring and trading, are represented by surviving plans and models; they
are too modern to be discussed here.

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. Abell, Sir Wescott. The Shipwright's Trade , Cambridge University
Press, 1948.

2. Boebmer, George H. "Prehistoric Naval Architecture of the North of
Europe," Report of Smithsonian Institution, 1892, Washington, D.C.

3. Du Chaillu, Paul B. The Viking Age , 2 vols., London, 1889.

4. Furtenbach, Joseph. Architectura Navelis , 1629.

5. Holmes, Sir Geo, C.V. Ancient and Modern Ships (Part 1, "Wooden Sailing
Ships"), London, 1900.

6. Hornell, James. British Coracles and Irish Curraghs , London, 1938.

7. Hovgaard, William. The Voyages of the Norsemen to America , New York, 1914.

8. Jal, A. Archeologie Navale , 2 vols., Paris, 1840.

9. O'Kelly, J.J. Ireland; Elements of Her Early Story , Dublin, 1921.

10. "Report upon the Participation of the United States in the International
Fisheries Exposition, held at Bergen, Norway, 1898." Senate Document No.39,
56th Congress, 2d Session. Washington, 1901.

11. Paris Vice-Amiral. Sourvenirs de Marine , 6 vols., Paris.

12. Stafansson, Vilhjalmur. Great Adventurers and Explorations , Dial Press,
New York, 1947.

13. ----. Ultima Thule , The Macmillan Co., New York, 1944.

14. Torr, Cecil. Ancient Ship , Cambridge University Press, 1894.

15. Van Koni [: ] nenburg, C.I. von E. Der Schiffhau Seit Seiner Entetahung ,
Internationaler Standiger Verband der Schifahrts-Kongresse,
Brussels. 3 vols., 1895-1905.

16. Jahrbuch der Schiffbauteehnischen Gesellschaft, Band 43, Berlin, 1942.

17. The Mariner's Mirror . Anderson, R.C. "Italian Naval Architecture about
1445." Vol. XI, No.2, April 1925, London.

18. ----. Sottas, Jules. "A Phoenician Ship of the First Century A.D.,"
Vol. XIV, No.1, Jan. 1928, London.

19. ----. Speziale, [: ] . Lt.Com.C.G. "The Roman Galleys in the Lake of Nemi,"
Vol. XV, No.4, Oct. 1929, London.

EA-Transp. & Commun. Chapelle: Early Vessels

20. The Mariner's Mirror . Denham, Lt. Com.H.M. "Caligula's Galleys,"
Vol.XV, No. 4, Oct. 1929, London.

21. ----. Hornell, James. "Construction Parallels in Scandinavian and
Oceanic Boat Construction," Vol.XXI, No.4, Oct.1935, London.

22. ----. Phillips, C.W. "The Sutton Hoo Burial Ship," Vol, XXVI, No.4,
Oct.1940, London.

23. ----. Wright, E.V., and Wright, C.W. "The North Ferriby Boats,"
Vol.33, No.4, Oct. 1947, London.

24. The Yachting Monthly . "The Shipwrights of Rome," Vol.XII, London.

25. Plans Nydam ship, Oseberg ship, Gogstadt Ship, Sutton Hoo ship.

Howard I. Chapelle
HomeEarly Vessels in Arctic Exploration and Voyaging : Encyclopedia Arctica 9: Transportation and Communications
 Text Only
 Text & Inline Image
 Text & Image Viewer
 Image Viewer Only