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Boating Through the Ages - Part IV

February 27, 2020

In the last issue, we saw how the Roman pleasure barges provided the basic design concept for all recreational boats to come. The recent popularity of deck boats ⎯ a scaled-back and modernized version of the pleasure barge ⎯ demonstrates that repeating history is not necessarily to be avoided, provided the original chronicles are sound. Not all old ideas are bad ideas and the benefits of cruising around with friends while eating, drinking and orgying have withstood the test of time. But all boat designs are an exercise in trade-off and compromise, and the configuration of pleasure barges made for poor transoceanic platforms. Believe it or not, sea keeping, speed and fighting ability became paramount concerns as nations started setting out to irrevocably alter the course of history and wreak havoc upon unsuspecting new shores and the inhabitants thereof. This trend gave rise to the development of grand ships of the line, which carried European explorers and conquerors to the new worlds.
Historical revisionists have tried to paint Christopher Columbus in a bad light. These nay-sayers claimed that Columbus was some profit-seeking adventurer, not a devoted and pious explorer in service to the Crown of Spain. Well, du-uh! Think about it. People of the time thought the world was flat and that if you sailed too far you’d fall off the edge into the gnashing jaws of some reptilian serpent that would use the masts and rigging to pick and floss his fangs. Columbus’s flagship was all of 90 feet long. Heck, most Palm Beach yachts under 100 feet never leave the confines of the ICW for fear of running out of ice or being rocked by a passing jet ski. Columbus was one gutsy guy and nobody’s fool, and he understood the risk-and-return relationship. He was the first true mariner to embody the motto, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing for a profit.” I, for one, think he deserves a parade in his name. The same goes for Magellan, Amerigo Vespucci and Marco Polo. A manufacturer of fine navigation electronics has honored Magellan; Amerigo got the country named for him, and Polo has been immortalized with a wildly popular line of designer clothing, so I consider all honorary accounts settled.
With all those explorers sailing around in search of riches to seize and peoples to subjugate, things were bound to get a little confused ⎯if not heated ⎯out on the bounding main. Generally speaking, after one of these small expeditionary forces sent word back about what they had found, great flotillas would be dispatched to establish permanent and uncontestable claims in the name of this or that monarch. The problem was, satellite communication systems of the time were a bit slow to down-load so it sometimes took years for letters and orders to be received and answered. Plus, some ships sank, taking the missives to the bottom with them. E-mail it wasn’t. The result was that the commanders of the great military fleets never really knew who they were at war with let alone who was an ally, so it became prudent to attack any and all ships encountered just in case the word was due in a year or two that the battle should have been joined. “Shoot first, ask questions later,” became the rule of thumb. This situation suited everybody just fine since it was oodles of fun to chase down unidentified ships, fire cannons at them, shoot musket volleys from the mast tops and jump onboard stabbing everything in your path with a boarding pike. Like the old admiral’s drinking toast goes, “Here’s to a willing foe and sea room.” That situation, coupled with the tradition of issuing grog rations (grog was watered-down booze served to the crew to keep their mood just right), was all it took to maintain a ship company’s fighting trim (or from mounting a mutiny). Case in point: Captain Bligh, famed explorer of the South Seas, Mutiny on the Bounty and all that. Bligh served grog to his crew but, as an explorer sailing off the beaten path, never encountered any enemy ships. The crew⎯as desperate to shoot off a few rounds of cannon fodder as a kid with a book of matches on the Fourth of July ⎯took his ship and set Bligh adrift in a lifeboat. Bligh had previously taken exception to his men prying the nails from the ship to use as trinkets with which to purchase the favors of the Tahitian ladies, so we have all the historical evidence necessary to conclude that Captain Bligh was apparently a very unreasonable man who deserved to be marooned after all. Bligh and his predecessor, Captain Cook, are generally acknowledged as the ones who discovered the heavenly islands of the South Pacific and it is unfortunate therefore that these two gentlemen must then take the rap for almost ruining −if not, at least permanently sidetracking −over 2000 years of boating development.
Remember that cannibal king in our last episode who sent his tribesmen to search nearby islands for a wood to build canoe seats from that would not rot and give him splinters in his butt? Well, they found such a wood and returned to Cannibal Cay to present it to their king.
“We found ‘em new wood, King. It no rot and splinter in butt cheek.”
“You done good, Head Shrinker. Where find this wood?”
“On island toward where sky-fire set. We have no luck first, so stop for drink at island tiki-tiki bar. Sit on stools for long time, no get splinters, so ask barmaid ‘What wood this that no splinter in butt cheek’ and she say, it special wood for tiki-tiki bar stool. By end of night it too hard say tiki-tiki wood, so we just say teak wood.”
“You done good. Now we do tribal chant. Everybody: "Tee-key, tee-key, tee-key...”
And just out over the horizon sailed captains Cook and Bligh, ready to commandeer this tropical island and return its spoils to the old world. Boat construction and maintenance would never be the same again. Stacks of teakwood would soon be on the way to the boatyards of Europe!
 
Next Time: Teakwood (or, Boating Takes a Bad Turn).

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