Last summer, Dan, my goodly neighbor on Oak Island, was taking a boatload across the lead to the parking lot dumpsters. Being short of space in his 19 ft. Carolina Skiff, I decided, without giving Dan a proper a heads up, to move from the center of the craft to sit on the port side gunnel. Captain Dan immediately reacted, as he should have. ‘’Whoa! Too much ballast on the port side, mate!’’ he calmly commanded as the craft began to dip low as the soon to be neglected treasures shifted with me.
At a former 6’1’’ tall (I’m shrinking) and a mighty 240 lbs. (Not shrinking there!) I realized the foolishness of my act. You ALWAYS tell the Captain of a big move you are going to make on a small boat because shifting can cause a loss of control. I quickly recentered myself to stabilize the boat. Being a boater, I should have known better.
“BALLAST”! A word and use of I thought I knew well, Dan now imprinted in my brain. Soon I was exploring its history while I continued with my other literary and artistic projects. Questions spun in my mind. “Is it a worthy subject’’? Can I make it interesting”? As I gathered the info needed I decided to take it on! It was as if a stone was lifted off my head (Ugh! - I know.)
By definition “ballast’’ is a noun meaning “a heavy substance (such as rocks, sand or water) placed in such a way as to improve the stability and control of a ship, balloon or submarine. The first recorded use of the word was in the early 15th century (1400-1500) when it related purely to ships. The word was a derivative of the Viking word meaning “load”. The Britons were often raided by Vikings seeking gold, silver and jewels from castles and monasteries dotting their coast. In payment, the Vikings left the roots of the word “Ballast”’ which was a semi-rotten deal at best.
HOW DID BALLASTING BEGIN
Using ballast in boats and ships began in the year --- Guess what? No one knows for certain! If I were to guess, it was when an unknown Prehistoric mariner delivered the first boatload of firewood to a Mediterranean town. The load was heavy so the boat tracked true. Once he off-loaded his 900 lbs. of firewood, he was paid in 50 lbs. of fine beadwork that he could sell or trade in his village for a handsome profit! In truth, the wood he sold was stolen, piece by piece from behind the huts of his own villagers at night over the period of a month. He was the first “Double-Dipper”. Ah! Capitalism has such ancient roots.
He stored the beadwork in his shirt and began the trip home with a smile on his low browed, hairy, toothless, face. As he sailed, his craft reacted sloppily in the water. He struggled controlling its direction. She rode high in the water leaving much of her gunnels exposed to wind and had too little hull submerged to have a proper ”Bite” to keep on a course. In nautical terms, she was “tender’’. A storm came up and with such little control, he feared sinking and drowning. I know you want him to drown because he was a nave and scoundrel, but he did make it home.
Once home, he began stealing hides off his neighbors curing racks. He realized that upon trading all 2,032 lbs. of hides, if paid in lighter goods, he would have to add weight for the return trip to make up the difference and keep his small craft seaworthy. Since his village was built in a poor sandy area and the trade village was in a stony area, why not return with stones? He could sell to his neighbors who lived in miserable thatched hovels. Perfect! Our entrepreneur killed three birds with one stone, selling stolen hides for a huge profit, taking free stones at the trade town where everyone already lived in stone houses and were surrounded by fields too stony to plow. They were more than glad to get the stones out of their way. The stones would stabilize his craft on his return trip and he could sell them to his fellow villagers for a larcenous price. A win, win, win, situation with a bonus win. His roguish greed pushed him to invent “Ballast” and yes, thievery is often “the mother of invention”! By the way, this was way before the recent age of tariffs!
Ballast was used throughout the growth of military and commercial seafaring. As trade grew in the Far East, Chinese and Japanese vessels used ballast the same way the Ancient Mediterranean, European, and Nordic seafaring cultures did. The bigger the ships grew, the more important balance and weight became. Balancing cargo and men with heavy materials in the bottom inside of the keel was a standard of seamanship. The Greek writer, Homer, wrote that during and after the Trojan War, Odysseus, the war weary adventurer, plied the oceans for years trying to get home. His vessels used sand and stone for proper balance. The nautical term for sand, stones, tiles, etc., is technically “Solid Ballast” even though it can be removed in pieces, as you need to. Therefore it is not really “solid” but I have learned that sometimes there is no accounting for nautical terms. As the civilization expanded under Greece and Rome, larger ships were often ballasted with Amphora pottery filled with wine, olive oil, and a fish oil paste called “Gorum Occorum” which was so tasty you can still find it on restaurant menus absolutely nowhere in the world today.
Amphoras, when filled, were heavy, up to 4 ft. in height and took up to three men to lift. They were sealed at the top, and carefully stored and nested low in the hull with hay over each level. This weight formed the basis of “Ballast”. Ships laden with Amphora placed lighter goods above them, such as wheat, nuts, fruits, woven materials, etc. Even when tin was imported from far off Britannia, the ships traded their heavy filled Amphora and sailed back with heavy tin as ballast. This on-off loading took place all over the Mediterranean, coastal Iberia, the Aegean, Ionian, Black Seas region and beyond. Once off-loaded the Amphoras were emptied and destroyed. They were useless after one trip as the oils, vinegar, wines, etc. would spoil the inside. Other heavy goods substituted for Amphoras were marble stone from Carrera in Rome used to surface grand buildings all over the empire, plus woods to be used in areas that lacked the forests that the Roman Peninsula had at that time.
The method of using heavy trade as ballast goods continued through the ancient, middle age and renaissance periods in the West and Far East. Things changed when the Western Hemisphere was discovered. Well, it wasn’t really discovered since folks were actually already living here and the man we celebrate discovered it, actually didn’t.
BALLAST IN THE AGE OF COLONIZATION
Every wooden ship sailing to the New Colonies carried ballast whether they were Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch or English. Primarily, it was in the shape of blocks of granite. They were sized about 12’’ long, 6’’ wide and 5’’ deep though the size can vary. When traveling to the “New” world, ships tended to be light in the hull when carrying immigrants, supplies and sundry goods. Certainly they did not carry enough weight to keep the vessel from being tender. The granite blocks were called “Belgium Blocks” from the area where they first quarried. As trade grew, millions of “Belgium” blocks ended up being left in ports like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans and throughout the islands of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
As the American colonies grew and produced more and more heavy goods to be transported back to Europe, the balance between the weight of goods shipped requiring ballast stones and the weight of the freight returning that didn’t need as many ballast stones. You might say that the colonists were getting stoned all the time.
WHAT TO DO WITH ALL THOSE STONES?
As the ballast stones were being left on docks, quays and alleys it was evident a severe problem needed to be solved. Sailors, pirates, women of ill repute, sail makers and dock drunks were tripping over the darn things and falling into the chilly drink. Since Dutch New York was the major operating port in the America’s at that time, the Dutch, known for their tidiness, were fed up with their muddy streets and shoddy dwellings. Legend tells of an entrepreneur named “Granite Van Stoop” coming to Peter Stuyvesant, (the first mayor you might say) proposing he alleviate the problem by using the ballast blocks to pave the disgusting, sloppy, sewage covered roads and sell the extras to build homes, bulkheads, and government buildings. Soon lower Manhattan, and later other cities, were being paved and built up with millions of ballast stones constantly coming into the ports.
If you visit Boston, lower Manhattan, Philadelphia or other early cities you can still find original streets paved with ballast blocks. When I went to high school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, its streets and those of Brooklyn Heights, Red Hook and many other areas were stilled paved in Belgium block. Today most have been displaced and disgraced by asphalt, which to me, is a pity. You will find it repurposed in driveways and as flowerbed borders and garden paths. They go for hefty prices today.
Smaller wooden sailing vessels naturally needed less ballast and by the mid 19th century many used lead blocks called “Slag” to ballast their boats. These could be secured in the inside of the keel with iron straps and bolts so they could not shift. Many restored sailing vessels, built during the late 19th century, continue to use this method. Lead slag weights are still readily available. The oyster sloop Priscilla at the Maritime Museum in Sayville, Long Island uses this method.
With the rise of steel hulled ships from the 1860s onward, new approaches to ballasting ships were on the horizon. Water, so accessible at sea to stabilize a ship, was the “Wave of the future”. (I know. Think it. Don’t say it!) These modern approaches continue to be developed and will be the material for a future article. Stay on the level, my seafaring friends!
C. 2019 Article and Illustrations by Mark C. Nuccio
All rights reserved.
You can contact Mark –mark@ designedge.net.