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Boating Through the Ages - Part III

January 31, 2020

We have learned it was the Romans and their pleasure barges that made the most of the potential for fun afloat. Man had come a long way from Neanderthals floating astride logs and slurping down happy tree sap, while trying to entice the Beast-Women into shedding their deerskins. Thanks to those Romans, the sub-species Homo-boatnik-erectus was irrevocably cast into the gene pool. We Boatniks had finally come into our own.
In time, the novelty of cruising about the Med, drinking, orgying and sacrificing Christians wore thin. For the same reason we modern boaters take weekend cruises and charter yachts in exotic places, people back then wanted to find new places to take their boatloads of debauchery. This was the dawning of the Great Age of Exploration.
The legend of the lost continent of Atlantis was just as appealing back then as now, so it naturally became the first popular cruising destination. Unfortunately, no one ever found their way there and all the pleasure barges that attempted the trip were lost at sea. It was not easy being a travel agent back then.
“Will that be a slaving or a non-slaving cabin, Mr. Spartacus?”
“Slaving, please, Ma’am.”
“Very good, very good. Now, do you know about the midnight buffet and sacrificial orgy?”
“You bet. I can’t wait. By the way, what’s the cruise return date? I’ve got a big match-up with a barbarian during the Festival of Saturnalia.”
“Did I mention the midnight buffet and sacrificial orgy, Mr. Spartacus? It’s all you can slay, you know...”
It soon became apparent though that pleasure barges made very poor transoceanic vessels and experimentation began to develop a craft that could survive the trip. Of course, the oceans back then were great mysterious voids chock-full of unknown hazards, perils and serpents, so the new type of oceangoing vessels concentrated more on armaments and seaworthiness than wench and wine design. The cumbersome, un-sea-kindly square barge shape was abandoned in favor of a pointy bow that would cleave through turbulent seas, while sails erected topside took the place of the rowing slave racks below.
Thank the gods we have Homer’s Odyssey, a most marvelous and complete account of antiquity’s first real voyage of exploration, providing details of run-ins with storms, bandits, sea monsters, Cyclop’s, sirens and sea nymphs with very shapely tails who tried to lure Odysseus’s fleet onto the rocks. This book, figuratively and literally, remains the most accurate cruising handbook ever written for boaters and what they should expect to encounter when voyaging through strange, unknown or uncharted waters.
After Odysseus returned and word of his momentous voyage got out, every boatnik for hundreds of hectares around Ithaca wanted to try to “Out-Odyssey the Odyssey.” This went on for centuries and few had any luck until the age of the great oceanic explorers.
As is usually the case, science–particularly chemistry–provided the impetus for progress, and it was no different with boating. Was it new boat building techniques? A higher grade of metals and fasteners that held the hull planks together? Was it stronger fabrics from which the sails were sewn? Well, those things no doubt helped but, more specifically, it was the inventions of gun powder and distilleries that made it possible for men to summon the intestinal fortitude to venture farther and farther out upon the open sea. The ability to remain courageous in the face of splintering hulls, fraying sails and bloodied body parts ⎯ while at the same time being able to shoot at things and blow them up ⎯ makes all the difference in the world when you’re soused enough not to care what you hit...whether you skillfully aimed at it, or merely ran into it. But medieval Loran systems, chart plotters and GPS still lacked the precision and sophistication we enjoy today, so mariners of the time didn’t get very far.
For the next millennium or so, a period fraught with plagues, Crusades, Purges and Inquisitions, boating became less popular which explains why this span of history came to be known as the Dark Ages. Then the Renaissance (definition: “run to the sea”) kicked in and things were once again back on an even keel.
Great strides in metallurgy, woodworking, sewing, distillation (this is about when Scotch was discovered) and the production of LOTS of gun powder meant grand ships were built that could transport people far beyond the horizons to conquer new lands while providing all the comforts of the thatched roof hut back in the moors. The individualistic spirit of the times gave way to a philosophy of cruising with friends, and these great flotillas of Galleons and Caravels became known as Armadas (definition: “Are these really all my friends?”).
But around the other side of the world some South Sea island king was picking at a splinter he had gotten in his behind from sliding across the seat in his outrigger canoe. Rotting wood was a constant problem for cannibals in moist, sub-tropical regions and the king commanded his tribesmen to paddle to nearby islands in search of a better salve for his butt and a tree whose wood would not dry and rot. But that naive cannibal king had no idea that someday soon his people would find such a wood. He also didn’t know that the armadas of Europe, armed with guns, cannons, 20-grit sandpaper and thick varnishes, were making their way around Cape Horn and entering the Pacific in search of lush tropical islands to plunder where their descendants could take cruises while gorging themselves on midnight buffets.
Next time: Discovering New Continents, Great Sea Battles and TEAKWOOD


 

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