The earliest representation of a ship under sail

The earliest representation of a ship under sail

Sailing vessels harness the energy of the wind to propel their hulls through the water. They catch the wind in sheets of cloth or fiber, called sails, suspended from wooden or metal poles called masts. The invention of the sail revolutionized the ship and dominated the course of ship construction until the 19th century.

Considered the best shipbuilders of the time, the Phoenicians designed boats that depended more on wind than on manpower. Phoenician ships could carry more cargo than galley ships, which needed room for oars and rowers.

The earliest representation of a ship under sail appears on an Egyptian vase from about 3500 BC. Early Egyptian sailing vessels consisted of a wooden framework covered with papyrus reeds or wood lashed together with rope. Large trees did not grow in the region, so Egyptians imported timbers from nearby Lebanon or lashed small wood blocks together and secured them with pegs. The wood swelled when submerged, forming a nearly watertight seal. Smaller sailing vessels harnessed the wind with two sails. Larger Egyptian sailboats captured the wind with a single square sail and were steered with two steering oars mounted on the stern.

Phoenician Gall

Maritime historians know a good deal about ships of this period because the Egyptians sometimes buried pharaohs with ships to transport them in the afterlife. One such funeral ship was unearthed in 1954 during excavation of the Great Pyramid of Giza. This ship was constructed for the pharaoh Khufu, also called Cheops, around 2600 BC. Remarkably well preserved, it was constructed from wood planks and timbers and measures approximately 38 m (125 ft) long. Historians learned a great deal about Egyptian shipbuilding techniques from this vessel, which has come to be known as the Cheops ship.

The most able shipbuilders of ancient times were the Phoenicians. They constructed merchant vessels capable of carrying large cargoes between the colonies that rimmed the Mediterranean Sea, such as Carthage in North Africa and Cadiz in Spain. Phoenician merchants built hulls from sturdy wood planks and partially covered them with a platform, or deck, that protected the crew and cargo from weather and ocean spray. Merchant ship design steadily improved, enabling the Phoenicians to navigate beyond the Mediterranean Sea as far as the British Isles and the Canary Islands.

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