There is no doubt that I would make a truly awful sailor. I don’t handle heights very well, I can’t swim, I don’t like being in water, and I become seasick on anything but the stillest of seas.
The pragmatist in me knows all of this perfectly well, however, I have also read a lot of history and stories where sailing ships play a major role. The romantic in me sees an adventurous life stripped of extraneous possessions, where daily decisions are based on practicality and self reliance. This whole delightful fantasy is wrapped in the beautiful paradox of the importance of details on-board a ship, coupled with the delightful freedom to pick a point on the map, and go where the wind blows.
This beautiful replica of a 15th century Portuguese caravel was built as a labour of love over a ten year period, and launched about three years ago. Being the type of ship which drove Europe’s age of discovery, it was a good deal smaller than I imagined. At 21 metres long, it is about the size of a fishing boat.
I was surprised at how heavy its construction feels. Made entirely from recycled timber, each piece of wood has been hand shaped with an adze. It is so magnificently tactile. It provides a real glimpse into what people mean when they describe a ship as a living thing. As far as I could see, it is held together with wooden pegs, rather than metal screws or bolts.
Notably, it has a crew of two, sometimes three. Although there is an engine hidden in it, this is a modern convenience rather than a necessity. Two or three is enough to sail it comfortably.
‘So why did they sail with a crew of twenty five?’ I asked. The ruthlessly mathematical answer is that ninety percent of them were spares. Mortality rates of the day were so high, it was considered prudent to leave on a long and dangerous voyage with as many men as you could pack on board, knowing that most of them wouldn’t return. A stoically pragmatic mindset, I just cannot think of a modern day comparison.
I am told the design was popular with both explorers and pirates alike, because of it’s relatively large hold, high speed, and maneuverability. It looked so dumpy and solid to me, that I could not imagine it getting up any speed. Apparently, it is all to do with the underwater profile and shape of the sails, making it a good deal faster than it looks.
The boys loved it, of course. They were running around in a barely controlled excitement. Despite the space being quite small, there are plenty of nooks and crannies to explore. I had to stand on the deck, while they ran into the hold and waved at me through the hatches. There is a small fireplace built under the forward hatch, with a hook for cooking pots, and a stone floor. The stairs were steep and narrow, well worth running up and down. We were all impressed at the details in the ironwork, although probably for different reasons. It was fun for the boys to work out that the masts went right through the decks and into the keel. The storage chests, of course, were a period design, and created a great impression.
I doubt the boys got quite the historical appreciation out of it that I aimed for. I did though, and we all certainly had fun.