Sailing Ships

Sailing Ships

I have never been particularly fond of the term “Tall Ship,” as it is a reduction to the lowest common denominator. It lumps together all traditional-rigged sailing ships (there’s a better formulation, although somewhat long on the tongue) based on one feature, the most obvious. Thus, almost all of humanity’s seafaring history is piled under one catch-all: triremes and cogs, xebecs and dhows, lordly swift frigates and unpresuming fishing smacks, middling large Marconi sloops and the leviathan Cape Horners. For better or worse, though, “Tall Ships” is the term in common use. This section of MaritimeArchaeology.com has been named “Sailing Ships,” but the tide, probably, will not be so easily stemmed.

What then do sailing ships have to do with Maritime Archaeology? A tall ship is implicitly a sailing vessel in active use, or not far from it. Thus a vessel like Vasa, by virtue of being a static, indoor museum display, and by being altogether too frail to put to sea, escapes the moniker. A steel barquentine, built today, to no specific historic design, is considered a tall ship. A tall ship may incorporate historic elements, but these are generally replaced as they wear out or rot away. There are 200 year old ships sailing today, but they are Ships of Theseus, with the great majority of the original fabric replaced, sometimes several times over. They pass further out of the archaeologist’s purview of historically authentic material culture with each loving caress of the carpenter’s Sawzall. To the archaeologist, they are site formation processes run awry.

The essential witchcraft of archaeology is speaking with the dead. The process is rational and empirical, but the result is nothing short of magic. Through a sherd of pottery or a rotted timber, and through the medium of archaeology, the mute dead may tell their stories. Active sailing ships give archaeologists the language they need to understand these stories.

Sailing a ship is an authentic experience, distinct from reenactment, with which it is sometimes conflated. Some elements have changed – surer navigation and better food spring to mind – but the essential experience has not. The ballet of classical mechanics, performed between the mutable sky and the timeless sea is the same as it was in Odysseus’ day. Further, technology structures life. In the same way that language and literacy carve the grooves in which we think, living inside the complete embrace of a floating world has very clear effects on the way humans relate to each other, which are nearly timeless. Ships, almost universally, have a pyramidal hierarchical social structure, riven by class distinctions and capped by a single monarch, the captain. Although the seaman’s talk may be colorful, in technical matters it is precise and detailed. In the heart of the mariner, certain themes play through the ages: fatalism, conservatism, superstition. All of this is not happenstance. It is the direct work of the ship and the sea.

Of what use, then, is the sailing ship to the maritime archaeologist? You can doubtless learn a lot about music from books and broken violins, but if you can get tickets to the symphony, by all means go.

Of what use, then, is the sailing ship to the maritime archaeologist? You can doubtless learn a lot about music from books and broken violins, but if you can get tickets to the symphony, by all means go.

Beardless on the BridgeJoseph Thaddeus Lengieza is Director of Marine Operations for the U.S. Brig Niagara, a USCG certificated Sailing School Vessel, which operates in the Great Lakes region of North America.  As a professional mariner, he has worked on historic and replica sailing ships in a variety of capacities throughout the Atlantic world.  He holds a Merchant Mariner's License and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Maritime History at East Carolina University.

Translate »