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The Book of Old Ships: From Egyptian Galleys to Clipper Ships

The Book of Old Ships: From Egyptian Galleys to Clipper Ships

by Henry B. Culver

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Of all the ships human beings have constructed to navigate the waters of the world — from a hollowed-out log sharpened at both ends to modern ocean liners weighing thousands of tons — those powered by the wind are among the most interesting and beautiful.
In this classic review, noted maritime artist Gordon Grant has created 80 magnificent line


Of all the ships human beings have constructed to navigate the waters of the world — from a hollowed-out log sharpened at both ends to modern ocean liners weighing thousands of tons — those powered by the wind are among the most interesting and beautiful.
In this classic review, noted maritime artist Gordon Grant has created 80 magnificent line illustrations of some of history's most important sailing ships, beginning with a graceful Egyptian galley (c. 1600 B.C.) and ending with a splendid five-masted clipper ship of 1921. Also depicted are a Roman trireme, a Viking longship, a sixteenth-century caravel, an East Indiaman of 1750, an early nineteenth-century brigantine, a New Bedford whaling bark, and dozens of lesser-known vessels, among them the galleass, carrack, buss, and flute.
Henry B. Culver, well-known authority on naval history, has provided a detailed, meticulously researched text for each vessel, describing the materials and details of construction, how the ship's design matched its function, the period in which the vessel flourished, romance and lore surrounding the craft, and more. Naval historians and model shipbuilders will value this work as an excellent sourcebook and reference with much information on the evolution of sailing vessels, the origins of shipping, customs of the sea and other pertinent matters; sailing enthusiasts will find it a wonderful browsing book, offering an informative, handsomely illustrated look back at 3,000 years of sailing history.

Editorial Reviews

Reprint of The Book of Old Ships: and Something of Their Evolution and Romance, published by Doubleday, Page and Company, Garden City, New York, 1924. Presents 80 line illustrations of important sailing ships, accompanied by meticulously researched text for each vessel. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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By Henry B. Culver, Gordon Grant

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-15689-7



THE galley was one of the earliest types of vessel. Its existence antedates all historical records. Oars were its principal dependence for motive power, and sail was originally employed only with a favouring breeze. Its form was primarily long and narrow as best suited for propulsion by rowers. Its simplicity of form has been one of its chief reasons of permanency.

Jal, whose name will be often used and from whose writings liberal quotations will be made in this work, in his "Glossaire Nautique" devotes several pages to the presumptive derivation of the word "galley"—gallée, in the old French, modern French galère; and after dismissing several sources as ridiculous, gives as the most satisfactory origin, the Greek word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], meaning a rowing vessel.

As distinguished from the ancient round ship whose proportions were about two and one half to three times as long as it was wide, the proportion of the length of the galley to its breadth or beam was as five, six, seven, eight, or even as nine is to one.

As oars gradually displaced paddles and the size of rowing vessels increased, it became necessary to extend the fulcrum so as to facilitate the employment of longer oars. For this purpose an outboard platform or gallery called "apostis" was constructed along the side of the vessel. It provided also a greater space for free circulation along the longitudinal axis of the craft inboard from the oarsmen, as well as for the more convenient and useful disposition of the rowing benches.

This arrangement was chiefly employed in the galleys of the southern European countries. The gallery or apostis seems not to have been adopted generally in northern ships. The loose-footed square sail, extended upon the single yard of early times, was later replaced by one or two lateen sails and it is in this form that we trace the galley to the date of its practical disappearance from Mediterranean waters in the late 18th Century, although a few specimens seem to have survived until as late as 1805. The speed of the galley when rowed and the fact that it could manoeuvre in a calm made it the chief instrument of naval warfare from the most remote past until a considerable time after the use of gunpowder by the Western World. The early galleys of the Mediterranean countries, armed with their deadly metal or metal-sheathed beaks, and propelled by scores of oars in the hands of highly trained and well-disciplined rowers, sought to gain their first advantage by ramming their adversaries. The shock of the impact was terrific and often must have been almost as disastrous to the attacker as to the attacked. When this coup failed, boarding was resorted to. Extending from the vessel's side the apostis offered a more easy access to the attacking forces. The ancient Roman galleys had wooden drawbridges raised vertically upon the sides so arranged that they could be dropped upon the deck of an enemy. Spikes extending from the under side, striking with the full force of the weight of the falling structure, effectively grappled or fastened together the two contending vessels and provided the means of engagement in a body-to-body combat. Military tops, after the yards had been lowered (for these vessels almost always furled sail before engaging), gave a position from which darts, stones, and flaming liquids could be projected down the enemy's decks. The carnage in these ancient sea fights was frightful.

Much nonsense has been written concerning the supposed arrangements of the oars in the larger ancient galleys. And it is one of the curious commentaries upon either the accuracy of the descriptive powers of the ancient writers or upon the apparent lack of understanding of their subsequent translators and would-be elucidators, that the question has never been satisfactorily settled.

Many ingenious theories have been advanced, some ludicrously impossible from purely physical standpoints.

It is not the intention to discuss here any of these attempted explanations or to comment upon the etymological and grammatical discussions upon which most of them are based, but it may be safely stated that not more than two rows of oars could be successfully superposed vertically on separate decks. Recent opinion is that the trireme, the war vessel most employed in early times by the Mediterranean nations, and the most highly developed, was operated by oars extending from the vessel's side in groups or sets of three, emerging from practically the same oar port or opening and operated against three separate thole pins, or through openings separated by not more than a foot in the horizontal plane, each successively higher by a few inches. Such an arrangement applied to a bireme may be seen in the pediment of that masterpiece of classic sculpture known as the Winged Victory of Samothrace. In said pediment, two depressions each about eight inches long by three inches high show where the oar blades were intended to be thrust through the openings in the overhang of the apostis. This plan might have been developed to the limit of its physical possibilities. The theory is plausible and offers an explanation to many supposed and actual difficulties, besides being easily reconciled, it is claimed, with many of the more baffling points in the texts of the ancient writers. Be this as it may, the form of galley which we know from reliable pictorial descriptions and from actual examples, the galley of almost our own day, had only one row of oars all in the same place.

But the galley had the deficiencies of its merits. Its low freeboard and length made it a poor sea vessel, for it is obvious that such a long hull demanded a wide arc for turning. It could only be effectively used in comparatively calm weather. It was strictly a coastwise vessel, and although long voyages in the open sea were sometimes engaged in, such was not the usual course of its employment. When the advance of naval science and the use of firearms changed all the canons of naval warfare, the galleys still lingered for a time, useful as the scouts or eyes of the fleet. But soon the further improvement of hulls, sails, and rigging robbed them of even this function, and their last principal employment was almost as ignoble as their early career had been glorious. They were used chiefly as the means of providing a safe repository for criminals where the physical powers of these unfortunate creatures could, through their labours at the oars, be turned to the advantage of the State.


1600 B. C.

THE Nile region has always been a land of romance. Its antiquity and mystery fired the imagination of the Greeks and Romans. Successive later generations have acknowledged its thrall. The systematic scientific research of modern times with its discovery of the key to the riddle of the hieroglyphic writings has lifted the veil and permitted us to catch glimpses of the wonderful civilization and accomplishment of those far days, but has dispelled none of their romance.

On the walls of the temple of Deir el Bahari near Thebes are sculptured whole fleets of ships. In the illustration we see one of the vessels sent by famous Queen Hatshepsut of the 18th dynasty, to the Land of Punt. The exact location of this elusive country has not yet been determined by the Egyptologists. The name was probably generic, conveying the meaning of a far-off land, sometimes signifying one place, sometimes another.

Nothing can be more graphic than these temple pictures with their accompanying text. Note how similar to the Venetian gondola is the prow or stern, how graceful the stern terminating in a lotus decoration. The ship, clincher-built of cedar wood and probably about sixty-five feet long, was strengthened by a hog truss formed of wooden crotches supporting an immensely strong cable. This effectively prevented the hull from sagging or straining in a sea-way, particularly when heavily laden, because these vessels evidently were cargo carriers. The mast was probably provided with a tabernacle, so that when the yard was down, it could be lowered to offer less resistance to a contrary wind. The upper yard was fashioned of two arms or antennae lashed together, a method persisting in certain Mediterranean types of sailing vessels until to-day. The lower yard acted as an extension for the tacks of the sail and was useful in holding down the foot. Parrels confined the yards to the mast. The upper yard had its braces, and the ropes attached to the outer end of the lower yard acted as sheets. Lifts sustained both yards; when hoisted the upper yard was suspended from two, and when lowered, several sub-parts held it up, similar to the lower yard. These upper yard lifts show in the drawing in graceful curves. At the masthead an arrangement of cleats and battens furnish the means of leading the halyards, running and standing lifts for both yards.

Halyards hoisted and sustained the yard at the masthead and probably served also as backstays. In furling sail, the upper yard was let down. No forestays are shown in these relief delineations but they were certainly in use, as they appear in the Mehenkwetre models now in the Cairo Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art at New York.

The rudder is shown on the starboard side. Perhaps there were two rudders, a very common practice. Largely employed in the shallow waters of the Nile, it was of prime importance that the rudder should be adjustable to the depth of the water. The rudder post was quite long, sufficiently so to enable the tiller to be rigged vertically downward. The lower part of the post was confined to the counter by a stout rope through holes pierced in the gunwales and the upper part held by a similarly arranged loose lashing to a socket or crotch at the top of a stout post, while still farther up the tiller entered it and was rotated vertically. Ropes were made fast just above the blade or loom of the rudder and belayed inboard. By this means the whole rudder could be lowered or raised as occasion demanded. These details appear fully in the Mehenkwetre models. In experiments recently made by Mr. H. E. Winlock, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who was one of the discoverers of these models, every rope connected with this rudder rigging was found to have its purpose, the strains nicely calculated and so arranged that practically all tension was taken from the rudder post when the boat was under way.

The form of these boats with their long overhang fore and aft was admirably adapted for landing in shoal water, necessitated by the river navigation in which they were principally engaged.

The success of the Punt expedition proves how capable were the naval architects who planned these vessels of more than thirty centuries ago, how skilful were the workmen who constructed and the mariners who manned them.

Upon the return of the ships to Thebes, laden with precious woods, incense, resin, gold, silver, and ivory, furs, live animals, and slaves, as temple-wall writings tell us, it is not to be wondered that all the people chanted hymns of praise to the power and magnificence of their heaven-born queen and to the supreme majesty of Amon-Ra, Lord High God of the terrestrial thrones!


500 B. C.

NEARLY everyone will admit that among the sculptured productions of antiquity none are more satisfying in beauty, in sentiment, and in romantic interest than those from Greece.

Many of the older Greek works were produced so long ago that it almost seems as if they might have been part and parcel of the legends and myths that have come down to us from those remote times. And although they are lacking in the technical excellence attained in later Greek works of art they still show qualities of beauty and romance in embryo, especially in their association with the romantic characters that many of them portray.

Among those legends one of the most appealing is that of "Jason and the Golden Fleece." What a pity it is that the wonderful figurehead of Jason's vessel, the Argo, could not have been preserved. You will recall that it represented Pallas Athene and was carved from a branch of the Talking Oak of Dordona by some precursor of Praxiteles and Phidias.

Let us assume that it might have been petrified by the Medusa's head she carried on her shield. Still endowed with the all-pervading power of speech of her divine parent (for all things are possible to the gods, and what is more common than a speaking likeness, be it on canvas or in stone?) the goddess might have told us poor mortals of an age far removed from those golden days, and of the vessel over whose destinies she ruled.

Instead of being compelled to rely on ancient vase paintings, distorted by the conventions of the decorator's art, on minute seals, and on descriptions composed by authors untutored in the technique of naval affairs, she might have described to us at first hand the form of the Argo, her rig, the details of her construction, her decorations, and given us other information, now sadly lacking.

We can form some idea of the size of the Argo, because you will remember Jason summoned fifty Greek heroes to man her oars.

Assuming one hero (and they were all mighty men) to an oar, a length, according to other credible standards of comparison of about one hundred and twenty-five feet might be inferred: not so bad, for, oh, so many centuries B. C!

And then she might have told us something about Medea and Jason (for even goddesses are not above gossip) and how she had to chaperon them on the voyage back to Colchis. Perhaps she was a little jealous of Medea; and so would any one be who did not have an enchantress for either wife or sweetheart.


MONSIEUR JAL had the satisfaction of visualizing his idea of the appearance of the ancient Roman galley. The French Government, of which Napoleon III was then the head, authorized the construction of a trireme at Clichy, one of the districts of Paris, on the Seine. The plans were drawn under the direction of the Ministry of the Marine of which M. Jal was the historiographer and the decorations were designed under the supervision of an eminent classic antiquarian. Skilled ship carpenters from one of the French naval depots were entrusted with the actual work of construction. The launching took place on March 9, 1861, in the presence of the Emperor and a distinguished company. The vessel thus produced was about 130 feet long, 17 feet broad, and 10 feet deep. Two rows of oars were stated to have been arranged upon two superposed decks with one row between the two decks.

From woodcuts appearing in the contemporary English illustrated newspapers from drawings made by artists on the spot, it would seem as if Jal's theories appear to better advantage in print than in a concrete example.

Firstly, there is no evidence of the apostis, a fundamental part of the galley.

Secondly, Jal asserted in his "Archéologie Navale," published in the year 1840, that he could admit that oars could be successfully operated from two superposed decks or stages but not from three. This he reiterates in his "Glossaire Nautique" (1848–50). And yet the cuts show three superposed rows of oars and the text accompanying the said illustrations confirms this arrangement.


Excerpted from THE BOOK OF OLD SHIPS by Henry B. Culver, Gordon Grant. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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