It’s hard to believe that in the six previous episodes we’ve covered some 60,000 years of boating developments. Despite the historical ups and downs - which at times seemed likely to disintegrate the pleasure boating industry forever (especially when teak wood was discovered) - those eons saw things go full circle. From the rudimentary Boatnik behavior expressed by Neanderthals as they floated on logs and drank “happy tree sap,” through the era of the Roman pleasure barges, the Vikings, the Dark Ages of Boating, The Age of Exploration and the Period of Great Naval Armadas, we wrapped it up last time with those eminent and accomplished pleasure boaters from whom we should all take an austere lesson in the potential for fun afloat... the pirates of the Caribbean. Timeline-wise, things will slow down a bit now since, like much of technology, the bulk of boating progress worth noting has occurred in just the past century or so.
The reason things progressed so slowly and pleasure boating, in general, was viewed as a superfluous pursuit - at times even bringing persecution upon the participants (and rightfully so) - was that it all involved (it still makes me shiver to say it), sailing. Then one day, a guy named Fulton was watching one of those maritime contradiction in terms known as a sailing race, thought to himself “What’s the point,” and unconsciously whispered to a friend (much the same way Mr. Robinson, in the movie The Graduate, told Dustin Hoffman about plastics): “Steam, my boy... steam.”
Yes, my friends, STEAM - that motive wonder of the industrial revolution was about to make pleasure boating a legitimate pastime which any half-wit could enjoy. Gone would be the days of PULLING on all those halyards in favor of the quite natural Boatnik’s inclination to simply PUSH on the throttle. The exciting, progressive language of torque, horsepower and RPM would eclipse the arcane and tedious references to luff, lull and jibe. Deck cluttering crap like stays, turnbuckles and winches would be forever washed overboard, making room for a petroliferous bilge crammed with shafts, flywheels and stuffing boxes. It makes one shiver with odious delight just to think about it. We were no longer to be at the mercy of wind and tide to get where we were going. Instead, so long as there was something combustible aboard to shovel into the burner, we could bring the helm to bear and belch thick black clouds of smoke on the way there. If it meant Fulton had to make a deal with the Devil, then I, for one, am willing to let my soul stand in to burn some weekends.
Before propellers came into widespread use, and since boat wrights were reticent to bore holes in the hulls for shafts, boaters used steam power to improve upon the concept pioneered by our old friends, the Romans, who propelled those wonderful pleasure barges with slaves chained to rowing oars. (I neglected to mention in Part II that the credit for first having music onboard also goes to the Romans. Most people think of them as cruel and thoughtless persecutors, the type of folks that would crucify a Messiah, but they actually tried so very hard to make the working conditions for their galley slaves more pleasant by piping in music. Well, Muzak it wasn’t, but that steady drum beat kept the slaves boogying down.)
By sawing off the productive portion of the oars, the fluke, and affixing them in a cylindrical series, driven ‘round by the engine, the result was the side-mounted paddle wheel, best demonstrated on the Mississippi riverboats of Mark Twain’s day. Watching the pistons reciprocate and the paddle wheel spin around was not nearly as much fun as flogging the slaves, but an oily bilge was soon viewed as preferable over one ridden with feces and body parts, which also tended to annoyingly clog the bilge pumps.
The next major boating development went off on a strange tangent. Some cretin named Holland, in total disregard for the most sought after aspects of life afloat - that of being out in the fresh air and sea breezes whilst showing off the bevy of gals you've lured onboard - decided to try to construct a boat that could be… submerged. Is it any wonder that the only developmental path conceived for these “submarines” turned out to be military in nature, which uses for boats had previously usurped all the momentum of pleasure boating as we've seen, almost ruining the sport altogether?! More recently, submarines have discovered long lost wrecks which are far beyond repair (so what’s the point of finding them in the first place) and giant tube worms clustered around underwater volcanoes (most people have equally little use for either), so we may continue to discount subs as an even moderately important aspect of maritime history. Besides, those who crew submarines are said to be part of the “Silent Service,” again flying in the face of why people like to go boating, which is to be loud and obtrusive and drunk to the point of being just a little louder and drunker than the next guy. To those stuck on the dock, a rowdy boat passing by has the same inviting effect as a magnet on iron shavings, and there’s nothing that bolsters a boaters sense of accomplishment and self-worth more than consciously ignoring those poor wretches confined to the pier. If they don’t have the guts to take on boat payments, screw ‘em!
Next Time: Propellers, Whaling and the Great White Fleet