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Sea History - Ships

Prehistoric boats might simply have floated or perhaps were poled, but by the time of classical civilization, sails were added, although rowing remained important, as shown in historical pictures. A trireme had three banks of oarsmen in addition to sail; a bireme had two levels of oars.

Another simple hand-propelled craft pictured historically is the canoe. Polynesians and other seafaring natives developed outrigger canoes, sometimes adding sails. The dhow is a traditional Arab boat design, using a characteristic lateen sail. Historical pictures show simple sailboats have been in use since ancient times. A special use was as fishing boats, in addition to simply providing transportation across water.

Historical pictures of ancient Roman ships show the addition of a rudder to improve steering, but medieval ships remained unwieldly with high towers above the deck both fore and aft--the forecastle and sterncastle. Caravels were the choice of Columbus and other early explorers, employing a square sail and a lateen sail. The caravel was an early type of galleon, which became the major supply ship pictured in colonial harbors in the New World.

In maritime history, the age of sail reached its height with the clipper ship, carrying an enormous amount of sail to enhance speed, used primarily as a merchant vessel. Historical images of sailing ships show the decline of wind-power for sea travel after the middle of the 19th-century, when steam-power replaced sails as a means of propulsion on land as well as at sea.

Historically, ship designs for naval warfare added artillery, first a few cannons on deck and then rows of cannons on lower decks. Warship images include the man o'war, the frigate, battleship, the gunboat, and other specialized craft. Perhaps the most famous frigate in history is the USS Constitution, fondly known as Old Ironsides. In the 1800s, navies replaced sails with steam engines, and wooden ships were reinforced with ironclad hulls. By the end of the 19th century, the US fleet was steampowered, fast, and could bombard a seaport from a great distance, as seen in images of the Battle of Santiago, Cuba, in the Spanish-American War.

Steamships which carried passengers developed into luxury liners for the wealthy, although historical pictures also show immigrants crowded into "steerage" on lower decks. Also, some low-budget passengers booked passage on older sailing-ships, which had no deluxe passenger facilities. By the mid-1800s steamboats carried freight and passengers on rivers and oceans, and the noise of engines replaced the slap of sail or dip of paddles on waterways everywhere.

Sailboats of many designs have been in use since prehistoric times, as known through historical pictures and archaeology. Yacht design created a special type of sailboat focused on speed, particularly for the America's Cup yacht races that began in 1851, named for the yacht America, the first winner of the ongoing contest of ship design and seamanship.


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