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Fascinating “This American Life” piece on the launch of underwater archeology

Our colleague Andrew Cohen popped in the other day asking if we heard a This American Life episode that re-aired recently about “shipwrecks or something.” We had not and he was good enough to send it. What we got was a fascinating fifteen or so minutes hearing about two men who basically created underwater archeology starting in the late 1960s. One took a chance dive on a wreck in Turkey and, 50 years later, they are still unraveling clues about what they came to discover was an important Byzantine ship. Along the way the rewrote our understanding of Byzantine shipbuilding and commerce. This story is definitely worth a listen.

In defense – at least a little – of the traditonal working scow

We at Chine bLog have very much been enjoying reading Howard Chapelle’s American Small Sailing Craft, even if the writing is a bit trying. After musing about the types and origins of colonial watercraft, Chapelle turns, in chapter 2, to the simplest of boats, the scow.

“Scow.” The word seems to say it all (unless one is an aficionado of the racing scows of the Midwest) – it sounds like an epithet, even if it isn’t. In fact, flat-bottomed, blunt-ended sailing craft we popular working boats in 19th century America, and they were respected in that role. More than carrying a load of rock, bricks, hay, etc. well, though, Chapelle notes that the boat below, taken from the book:

… appeared a very fast sailer, considering her heavy load. She was heavily canvased, was well-handled by the crew of two, and seemed to be very quick in tacking… The master… claimed that he could weather deep sloops if he kept the scow sailing hard…

The boat in question is a Maine / New Brunswick type of scow sloop, just shy of 40′ LOA with a 12+’ beam. The rig appears to be a gaff sloop.

Maine / New Brunswick type of scow sloop

Chapelle praises these boats as working craft, but then feels the need, at a couple points, to denigrate their appearance. He writes “… the type has never become popular in the pleasure fleet, even in those areas where it was well known and most useful, for it was not a thing of beauty and only appealed to the most practical sailor.” While calling scows “fast” and “weatherly,” he also cites their “clumsy appearance.”

Look, we are not going to say the boat above is going to stack up against DORADE on a beam reach, but Chapelle seems a bit heavy-handed here. The scow above is utilitarian, but she has a gentle sheer and nice overhangs. Set with a nice big gaff main and moderate jib, she’d please the eye. Even the boxy pilot house does not, to our eye, look so off that “clumsy” is in order. This scow is pretty, in her own way, and certainly interesting, even in the pre-generic-mass-produced-sloop years in which Chapelle wrote.

Chapelle is surely accurate that such a boat would never be in fashion, but “in fashion” too often equates to “ordinary” and “ho-hum.” Traditional working boats like this scow are ripe for rediscovery and reinterpretation. Let’s remember more of the graces Chapelle cites and not knee-jerk to disparage these craft.

Gap filled – Chapelle’s “American Small Sailing Craft” now resides at Chine bLog HQ

American Small Sailing Craft
It was shameful. Howard Chapelle’s classic treatise on American traditional boats, “American Small Sailing Craft: Their Design, Development and Construction,” did not exist in our bookshelf here at Chine bLog headquarters. Until a week ago, that is, when Mr. & Mrs. Chine bLog Senior filled this gaping hole. Merry Christmas to Chine bLog!

We have started reading it already. It already seems like it is going to provide so much information that we’ll be even more embarrassed by its absence a month from now. Oh well, at least it is here now.

“The Sea & Civilization” impresses as a comprehensive maritime history

The Sea and Civilization
One of the responsibilities we face here at Chine bLog is reviewing books related to traditional boats. We get no less than one request every… how long have we been doing this?… seven years. Even with this taxing set of demands, though, we agreed to accept the publisher Knopf‘s offer of a complimentary copy of a new book called “The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World” by Lincoln Paine. The Knopf representative was willing to work with our strict editorial policy of not writing about any subject until we got around to it, and sure enough, Mr. Paine’s work arrived within a few days.

We will confess, from the outset, being a bit unnerved by anything with “History of the World” in the title (and Mel Brooks not in the credits). Two connotations come to mind:

  1. A gigantic tome of numbing dense-ness that is two parts endurance for every one part education, or
  2. A coverage of the world where “the world” means the Mediterranean, Western Europe, and post-Columbus North America.

Happily “The Sea & Civilization” is neither. Mr. Paine packs a broad, well-organized overview into 600 readable, engaging pages (with some illustrations and a set of maps at the beginning.

Mr. Paine allayed our fears regarding the scope of the book right off the bat: chapter 1, “Taking to the Water” begins with its first section, “Oceana,” describing population of the Pacific and the technology that supported it in a fair manner that is consistent with scholarly work on the subject. Boom – you have our attention. He then moves, in his first chapter, to discuss early waterborne trade in South America and the Caribbean before giving due coverage to the traditional boats of North America, both the Arctic skin boats and the birch bark ones of the Northeast. Credit justly given. Next comes ancient Egypt, getting more play for its maritime exploits than we have seen before. From there, Mr. Paine is thankfully careful to balance Western advances with the developments in South, Southeast, and East Asia. The result is a fully credible world history.

Mr. Paine maintains a few interesting themes across all the eras and regions. Trade is of greatest importance to him, and he shows the many cases in which trade relationships led to cultural bridges. Military affairs in the maritime realm gets good attention, though the discussion is more about limitations of naval warfare than about huge changes in tides of battle, at least until he gets to the 20th century. We were pleased to see Mr. Paine try to weave boatbuilding styles and technologies into the work as another theme. It seems, though, that there is not much known about a great deal of the craft he covers, at least not to the level Mr. Paine was inclined to cite. We wished he’d engaged in a little more speculation of possibilities in some cases.

The only weakness of Mr. Paine’s book, in our view, is that he names so many place names around the world in such quick succession that it can be dizzyingly hard to follow. More detailed maps for each chapter might have helped; in general this is a reasonable cost of covering such a large swath of history in one book. We recommend the book highly, but know this is a drawback. Many thanks to Knopf for including Chine bLog in its outreach strategy.

Fun chance meeting with photographer Ellen Tynan

Last weekend we were out for a hikelet along the Potomac river and happened upon a woman enjoying the view of the marsh. We got talking and she mentioned, in particular, my Wooden Boat hat. She then revealed that she was a photographer who specialized in classic and traditional boats, and she noted she had been published in the magazine. Her name is Ellen Tynan and, on review, I am sure I have seen her work (also on Flickr).

She is hoping to publish a book in the not-too-distant future: “Boat Lines.” It will compile her photos of traditional boats from six regions of the world: Maori New Zealand, Ireland, Alaska and British Columbia, Peru, Indonesia, and Egypt. Good sampling, there, eh?

I’d suggest browsing through her work and getting a sneak peak at what might be in the book. A quick selection of works that jumped out at us, here at Chine bLog, includes (will open in new tabs/windows):

There are many more great ones. It would be well worth your time to browse them all on your own. Keep an eye out for this great sounding book.

The 2012 Mid-Atlantic Small Craft Festival – skin-on-frame party!

[Editors note: we are doing something here we loath, which is to back-post content to fill in a hole in time. Our only excuse is that the content is genuinely form the period in time, but we never got around to sharing it. Enjoy regardless.]

With the season winding down, we made it out to the 2012 Mid-Atlantic Small Craft Festival at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michael’s, MD. With the sailing rig on AL DEMANY CHIMAN complete, it seemed right to put her up for judging again, hoping to beat the second-place finish of two years ago. We also we looking to spread the new sail and try our hand at a race.

Judging looked tough from the outset. Looking around the little green, there was a bumper crop of skin-on-frame boats. Check out the pictures.

The one guy – I didn’t get his name – was showing three, including a Greenland-style kayak he had tricked out with faux-bone spears, mocked-up arctic tools, and even a neoprene “seal.” The others were more straight-forward, but were really well done. AL DEMANY CHIMAN held her own, though, impressing with uniqueness and creativity. We got many nice compliments again. In the end, though, that qajaq was too much, and we took a proud second again.

The race proved much less successful. It was blowing modestly, and for good measure we tied in a reef (worked great!) and headed out with the fleet. Things felt good, with the latest iteration of the leeboard bracket holding it down OK and seeming snug. But then… we came about and the board pivoted up. Athwartships. The bracket failed again in a new way. Ugh. Discouraged but resolute, we headed back in, more iterating ahead of us. In retrospect, we should have given the race a whirl anyway, lateral resistance be darned. But there is always next year…

Humanity’s Vessel: a new project that is as exciting as it is envy-inducing

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s. (Exodus 20:17)

So that final phrase is fairly open-ended, but is thy neighbor’s Watson Fellowship covered? Because if it is, we’re screwed. We say this after receiving an email this week from a visitor named Will Meadows. Mr. Meadows has recently graduated from university here in the U.S. and succeeded in winning the prestigious fellowship, which grants $25,000 for “a year of independent, purposeful exploration and travel — in international settings new to them — to enhance their capacity for resourcefulness, imagination, openness, and leadership and to foster their humane and effective participation in the world community.” And what will Mr. Meadows do with this gift? Here is where the envy part comes in. Dugout canoes at Tiwai Island, Sierra Leone He writes: “Traveling for a year non-stop as a Watson Fellow I will build and study traditional canoes on every continent (besides Antarctica).” No one told us we could do that when we were 21! We want a do-over!

In all seriousness, this is an amazing project and we truly commend Mr. Meadows for winning the fellowship and choosing this incredible topic. To be clear, we’d support almost any permutation of this project, but the particular itinerary / boat selection is a great mix. Meadows is covering many major styles and building materials, so the results will allow a great study of strengths and weaknesses as well as unique factors in the evolution of different boat types. In his words:

The global journey begins on lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia where at 12500 feet beautiful reed canoes are made throughout the lake. The native peoples of Titicaca live on floating islands of the same reed harvested in the lake ecosystem a. From there, I build in Zanzibar with the dugout builders of the island, traveling into mainland Tanzania and Uganda as well. After a brief stay in the United Arab Emirates with a palm frond boat builder, I work with Maori war canoe builders on the North Island of New Zealand. Canada calls next in the spring with the intricate birch bark canoes of the north woods. The year ends with a summer building traditional Kayaks in Norway and a stay on the Mekong in northern Laos.

We are, of course, eager to stay in touch with the project. You can too – Mr. Meadows is writing about his travels and sharing his knowledge at the Humanity’s Vessel blog. It’s on our RSS reader and should be on yours too. Please join me in wishing Godspeed to Mr. Meadows!

Final Tim Severin book reviews: “The Ulysses Voyage” and “The Spice Islands Voyage”

I wrote recently a couple of reviews of books by Tim Severin and promised a couple more. Well, behold.

As I noted in the prior post, Severin took a few months off after his exploration of the history behind the Jason and the Argonauts story and the returned to Turkey with the same galley he used to explore Homer’s “The Odyssey”. This is the story of “The Ulysses Voyage.” It seems scholars have been all over the Mediterranean map – literally – placing the scenes of Ulysses trip back from Troy, with a consensus, of sorts, involving Sicily for a great many episodes. Severin noted, though, that no one had ever taken a period craft and recreated the voyage, thus factoring-in realistic sailing / rowing speeds, navigation styles and abilities, weather patterns, etc. With a smaller crew than the Jason Voyage, and using mostly sail, he did this, ultimately placing the geography of “The Odyssey” much closer to its Greek home.

As is true of the Jason Voyage, this book is well worth reading. What it lacks in nautical adventure (there are, at best, minor scrapes here) it more than makes up for in discussion of how Bronze Age captains navigated, the complicated weather of the Aegean, and Greek coastal topography and features. In total, Severin presents an extremely tight argument, not only in favor of his new map but also against other versions, which include Sicily and other ports further afield. Severin shows it is not reasonable for a galley of that period, under command of a competent skipper, to have made it that far, nor do the features, seen from sea-level, fit the story nearly as well as do scenes from Greece. Really fascinating read.

Prahu kalulis ALFRED WALLACEAs far as I can tell, “The Spice Islands Voyage” is the last of Severin’s nautical adventures for me. As the name suggests, this voyage takes place in eastern Indonesia, tracing the path of Alfred Wallace, a naturalist who, at least, co-developed key concepts of evolution with Charles Darwin. While there are some interesting aspects of this book, mostly around hints that Darwin may have swiped theories from Wallace, it was, on the whole, a disappointment. The short story is that a great many places in the region that Wallace described had, by the time Severin and crew visited, suffered severe environmental degradation. While this story is important to tell, it is depressing as heck to read. Furthermore, Wallace’s story is not terribly interesting. He suffers from all kinds of maladies and was clearly brave, but malarial outbreaks do not make for racy adventure. Correspondingly, Severin’s voyage is not that compelling. There are again only minor scrapes and troubles. All told, it’s a little dry.

One interesting aspect that gets a little attention is the boat Severin and crew use. The boat, the ALFRED WALLACE, is a prahu kalulis, indigenous to the western part of the Indonesian archipelago. The boat is fairly shallow and beamy, looking not unlike a modern dingy-inspired racer. The rig, though, is made of a pair of square sails that have elements of a lug rig in them. Severin calls it a tilted rectangular, or layar tanja, rig. In fact, in tacking, the sails are brailed and the yards dipped around the mast. Severin indicated that the boat was fast and that the sails had a good deal of driving power, but that they are not easy to tack, especially in weather. Compounding this issue, there is not really a good way to reef the sails. Finally, the boat has no keel, so stability was also an issue. These craft were traditionally used for short transit in protected waters. They look beautiful, but they are not appropriate for being in a true sea. Severin and crew suffered only a couple near mishaps, and both seemed to be more a function of pushing the boat in not particularly outrageous weather.

Prahu kalulis ALFRED WALLACE

Aaaaannnnd while we’re at it, Tim Severin’s “The Jason Voyage”

I also read, in recent times, Tim Severin‘s “The Jason Voyage”, his attempt at following the mythical story of Jason and the Argonauts. He had a Bronze Age Aegean galley built using archeological evidence and historical texts. The ARGOThis was the real deal – it would have banks of rowers toiling away and the characteristic “ram” bow. He set off from Greece and headed for the Dardanelles, following the legend’s trail and, once again, finding evidence that the myth may have been based on reality. Among the most fascinating aspects of the voyage was that it debunked the longstanding reason for it being myth: a vessel of that era could not have transited to notorious currents of the Dardanelles and Bosporus. Severin, though, figured out how to use back-eddies and other local nuances of the waterway to successful complete the trip from the Aegean to the Black Sea. Once there, the voyage continued to current-day Georgia, wherein Severin and crew “seal the deal” by identifying the likely source for the golden fleece as well as numerous other facts that match the stories.

I was almost tempted to make this book second to The Brendan Voyage, if only because the myth-to-facts aspect of the book are so compelling. In the end, I gave The Sinbad Voyage the honor, but this is a close third. The year after he completed this voyage, Severin took the same boat on another voyage to trace Ulysses’s voyage in “The Odyssey”. That book is in the on-deck-circle on my bed-side table and I look forward to sharing a review with you all soon.

Catching up on readings past – Tim Severin’s “The Sinbad Voyage”

I have had some time to sift through the back catalog here at Chine bLog headquarters and noted that I never covered a few key books I read in the last couple years. In particular, after knocking off Tim Severin‘s The China Voyage and then his The Brendan Voyage, I moved on to his some of his other like books. Severin’s trip in BRENDAN, the authentic 9th century curragh, got his wheels spinning, it seems, and he hit on another mythical journey to test: the adventures of Sinbad.

The dhow SOHARIt was commonly accepted at the time (~1980), that these writings were pure myth. Severin arranged to build a replica 9th century dhow in Oman, scouring the Arabian Sea shores for period materials, especially the coconut husk fiber builders of the day used to lash the boat together. Yes, these were plank–on-frame boats that were fully lashed. He and a crew then sailed the boat from Oman to China, identifying sources for the supposedly mythical elements and, thereby, suggesting the Sinbad stories may have been based on an amalgamation of true events.

The first quarter or so of the book is all about the boat and its materials, and that alone makes it worth reading. The actual voyage is not as gripping as that of the BRENDAN, but it is still an engaging story. If you haven’t read any Severin, I’d start with The Brendan Voyage and then grab this one immediately afterwards. Here is a summary piece if you need more convincing.