Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sailing Ships

Anybody that reads this blog, on a steady basis, knows that I like wonders of science and technology. I especially like big machines. I also love to hear tales about history, and mans struggle to adapt and survive. The icing on the cake is stories about man using his technology to advance his condition, to satisfy his curiosity, or fulfill his sense of adventure. Nothing meets all of the above named conditions like the hand-crafted sailing ship.

The story of the sailing ship reads like an adventure story. “Once upon a time a person dared to dream of adventure aboard a sailing ship“. In the age of the sailing ship, a person was born in his village, lived in his village and died in his village. The only thing that the person might know about the outside world was from a traveling minstrel that moved from town to town and told his tales of high adventure. Most people could only dream of travel, or of seeing other places. Access to a sailing ship changed all of that. The lure of adventure aboard a sailing ship stole away many a young mans heart. There are many poignant stories of a woman watching her man sail off into the sunset, sometimes never to return, and sometimes to come home filled with wealth and adventure.

In the age of the sailing ship, the ship was the fastest means of transportation. There were no jet aircraft that could transport the average man at almost supersonic speeds. There were no high speed railways. There were no cars or buses. Indeed, there was not even bicycles. Other than a ship, the fastest means of travel was a horse, or an oxcart. Also, it wasn’t safe to travel, unless you traveled in a group for safety.

The swift moving sailing ships sailed groups of people to almost anywhere in the world. The ships traveled day and night, day after day, week after week. The ships didn’t tire and need rest and food like animals. All the ships needed to travel was movement of the wind, then they could move in any direction.

The sailing ship was man's finest technological achievement for many years. From the invention of the first sail, to the industrial revolution; the sailing ship was a machine of the ages. No wonder a ship was built with such perfection. Owning a ship was a high-status symbol. Nothing freed mankind from his boundaries like the sailing ship. Ships were the fastest moving machine for centuries. Both men and women worked to build the fine ships. Men used their brawn, and women used their dexterity, but they both used their intellect.

I think the thing that I like the most about ships is that they weren’t designed and tested by some computing machine. They were designed, built, and sailed by man’s own intellect, skill, and hard work, by the sweat of their brow, the bend of their knees and the strain of their backs.

The ships that the old ship-rights built couldn’t be built today. The material that they built ships from doesn’t exist in abundance today like it did in the days of the clipper ships. The wood used in ships was hand selected and cut in the forests adjoining the shipyards. Often the shipyards were moved next to a forest where the trees could be cut and hand-hewed into the pieces that they needed to build the ship. The laying of the keel was the first and most important step in building a ship. The keel is the foundation that the ship is built upon.

The keel was made out of the strongest and most defect free wood that they could find. In addition to that, the keel needed to have the exact curve to form the bow. Then the ships ribs were fastened and blocked onto the keel. The ribs came up the sides of the ship. The deck was fastened to the ribs to form a circular-strength tube-like structure, the full length of the ship. The deck was fasten to the ribs by “ships knees”. The ships knees are made from pieces of a tree that form a right angle, or “ell shape”. Not many trees have that fitting in nature. Oaks provided most of the “knees”, because they were the strongest and the most likely to provide that shape. Strong ships knees were one of the most critical fittings on the ship.
Tall straight trees formed the masts and spars, trees like fir, spruce, and hemlock. The ships decks and side planking had to be made out of clear, straight boards. The decks and shiplap provided the lateral strength of the ship, much like the fuselage of a modern aircraft.

The sails were woven on hand-made looms, then pieced and sewn together. The ropes were hand spun and twisted together. I have often speculated that sail making was done by women. Women have traditionally been the makers of textiles and cloth. Most sails for the Galleons were made in the Philippines from the local cotton.

From Manila Times, (Philippines): “Ilocos from historic times has been a weaving center with every other house possessing a loom. In the days of the Spanish galleons they supplied the sails made from the cotton they grew and exported. Modern times with their cheap fabrics and disappeared galleons have altered weaving markets. Now abel (also known as inabel), the Ilocano woven stuff, is used in households as bed linen, furniture covers, clothing.”

The iron fittings were hand forged over hot fires and hand hammered to the right shapes. The pulleys were made from pine knots with holes drilled through them. The newer fancier ships had steel sheaves in their blocks and tackle.

Enough with the boredom (or, to me, excitement) of building a ship. The sailing ship opened the door for mankind to explore the rest of his world... he was no longer confined to the village of his birth.

As I was writing this, the words from Whitesnake's "Sailing Ships" kept humming through my mind, just in case you would like to listen to it, I included it below. It's a beautiful tune, but listen carefully to the words. The ache for love and adventure is in the song, but it's more about life than sailing.

And... But, of course, no story about sailing ships can be complete without - John Masefield's
    "I must go down to the Sea"
I must go down to the sea again,
to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star
to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the sea again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the sea again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

Wouldn't it be great if we had an adventure, today, like stepping onto the deck of a sailing ship of yore...



Anonymous said...

Once the keel was laid the speed of the ship was set forever.


Rose said...

Great music to start the morning - thanks, Ernie.

Ernie Branscomb said...

As a side note, a sailor in the sailing ship days was called a “tar”. A British sailor was called a “Jack Tar”. It was a term that they were proud of. Its is believed that the name came from the amount of tar used in sailing ships. The ropes that they used were often made of hemp or cotton and it rotted easily. They coated the ropes in hot tar to soak and preserve them. Also, the ship plank cracks were “corked” with hemp and tar to water-tight the ship.

Sailors with long hair would rub tar on their braided hair to keep it from getting tangled in the ropes and other equipment about their ships. The early sailors coated their clothes in tar to water-proof them. Tar coated cloth was woven for sailors to make clothes out of. The cloth was called “tarpaulin”. It was also handy to make tents and waterproofing coverings for shipboard loads.

The tar was made from extracting pitch from heated wood. The process yielded tar, turpentine, and methanol. The by-product was charcoal. Most tar was made from pine trees, but the birch tree yielded a particularly light and oily tar called “Russian tar”. It was used in the manufacture of leather, and the treatment of cloth and other light materials.

Tar was one of Sweden’s main exports. Records of tar exports goes back as far as the 1400’s. Sweden exported 13,000 barrels of tar in 1615 and 227,000 barrels in the peak year of 1863. The last half of the 1800’s is when steel hulled ships and steam power came about, sealing the doom of the proud sailing ships.

“Roof tar” is not tar at all, it is really asphalt, or bitumen. It is a mineral based product. Real tar is made from tree sap and pitch.

Sailors must have been pretty gooey. Did I say that I can’t stand being “sticky”?

e. said...

Whitesnake's Sailing Ships is one of my all-time favorite songs. Can never get enough.

Jon said...

Gosh darn you Ernie. Thought you was gonna have a sparky little history recalling tale for all of us about the Shipwrights of Humboldt.

So rip open a can of Spinach an tell of the Masters of Fairhaven and the families that survive in the Branscomb Humboldt Saga*.

*Saga as in long heroic narrative.

olmanriver said...

From the Redwood Record, October 13, 1983: Estella Harris: "In those days (my note...pre-1900)there was a lot more water in the river...they ran ferries and boats that used to come up to Sylvandale delivering freight and things that came in by the sea".

Anonymous said...

Ernie, I was sure you would have posted a scary ghost ship story.


charlie two crows said...

Can you picture sailing ships ankored off ocean house. Waiting to pick up tan oak bark from the mattole valley. There was a pier out to those rocks. Has anyone read night crossing?

Anonymous said...

Storms took that wharf down in 1913-4. Here is a picture of a schooner getting loaded.

Ross Sherburn said...

I'd like to hear more about Sylvandale and Estella Harris?

olmanriver said...

I just grabbed that Estella Harris quote from Mrs. Cooks histories at the library. I have a vague recollection, which I wish Ernie or Ben would correct or confirm, that there is a photo of a little schooner at a small dock in Phillipsville?
I found a small mention of a "town" named Silverville on a narrow flat south of Phillipsville, and wondered if Sylvandale evolved from that first name.

Ross Sherburn said...

I read where Sylvandale was about 6-7 miles NW of Willits???

Anonymous said...

Ross, Sylvandale is North of Garberville.


Ross Sherburn said...

Oregon,Sylvandale sounded real familar to me,But the darn encycopidia got me screwed up,saying it was NW of willits!!!
I sent you a PM about it!

Anonymous said...

Ernie is on vacation, still rebuilding the store, sick or dead.
I just hope you are having fun wherever you are Ern.


gail l said...

I really love this music.. thanks!

olmanriver said...

Actually, or not, Ernie and I have been very very busy trying to contact Fox Burns by Ouija board, but each of us thinks the other is purposefully moving their hands to spell out what they want to hear... so the results of our divination have been conflicting.

Ernie... thanks for all the tar info... I am still stumbling on the long haired sailors using tar in their hair?!! Were feather pillows banned on sailing ships?...I am seeing a movie scene here... maybe the next Pirates of the Caribean sequel...

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that if the sailors cut their hair it wouldn't get in the way..


Ross Sherburn said...

When some of the first Hippies showed up in Weaverville,the local Boys put STP in their hair!!!

olmanriver said...

Most of those long-haired sailors wore their hair in pigtails, tarred. The big square collar on a navy jacket was to protect the rest of the uniform from the tarry pigtails.
The hands of the sailors using the tarred materials stayed somewhat black to the extent that the official Naval salute was changed to hide the palms, once one of the Queens complained about seeing the darkened palms.
(I don't know if the salute info applies to the American navy).

Anonymous said...

Like it, like it, like it!!!

Breathtaking and beautiful were the ships & schooners off the Mendocino and Humboldt coastlines. Absolutely amazing, especially the people loading by way of the trapeze when surf was rough..

Can't imagine tar in ones hair!!


Fredy Champagne said...


In your blog, speaking of sailing ships, you said: Wouldn't it be great if we had an adventure, today, like stepping onto the deck of a sailing ship of yore...

How about going sailing with us on the Golden Rule, the 30' ketch that attempted to stop the atmospheric nuclear testing in 1958? We are restoring this vessel in Fairhaven, across the bay from Eureka. Look at our website at:
http://www.heritech.com/goldenrule/goldenrule.htm Maybe you'd like to go see her and write a piece about this boat? Fredy Champagne, Coordinator and fund-raiser, Golden Rule Project

Regards, Fredy Champagne, 707.599.5378
Coordinator, Veterans For Peace Golden Rule Project

Anonymous said...

"Stepping onto the deck of a tall ship"
Every year there are one or more tall sailing ships that travel the West coast. It/they stop in Cresent City and folks can go out to sea for an afternoon. Bring Dramamine.
I don't remember the schedule but I know Robin could tell y'all the dates.


Capn Clyde said...

Luv It !

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mr. Branscomb. Both your blog and your comments on the blogs of others have given me a perspective on SoHum that I haven't discovered elsewhere. Without it, I'd likely leave. Sigh. The Whitesnake link only makes it better.

Keep on keeping on. Please.

Yours Truly,

A Fan