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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

William Davis, A Day in Old Athens


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The Peiraeus and the Shipping













Page 6

The Merchant Shipping


    We can now cast more particular eyes upon the shipping. Every possible type is represented. The fishing craft just now pulling in with loads of shining tunnies caught near Ægina are of course merely broad open boats, with only a single dirty orange sail swinging in the lagging breeze. Such vessels indeed depend most of the time upon their long oars. Also just now there goes across the glassy surface of the harbor a slim graceful rowing craft, pulling eight swiftly plying oars to a side. She is a "Lembus:" probably the private cutter of the commandant of the port. Generally speaking, however, we soon find that all the larger Greek ships are divided into two categories, the "long ships" and the "round ships." The former depend mainly on oars and are for war; the latter trust chiefly to sail power and are for cargo. The craft in the merchant haven are of course nearly all of this last description.

    Greeks are clever sailors. They never feel really happy at a great distance from the sea which so penetrates their little country; nevertheless, they have not made all the progress in navigation which, considering the natural ingenuity of the race, might well be expected. The prime difficulty is that Greek ships very seldom have comfortable cabins. The men expect to sleep on shore every night possible. Only in a great emergency, or when crossing an exceptionally wide gulf or channel,[6] can a captain expect the average crew to forego the privilege of a warm supper and bivouac upon the strand. This means (since safe anchorages are by no means everywhere) the ships must be so shallow and light they can often be hauled up upon the beach. Even with a pretty large crew, therefore, the limit to a manageable ship is soon reached; and during the whole of the winter season all long-distance voyaging has to be suspended; while, even in summer, nine sailors out of ten hug close to the land, despite the fact that often the distance of a voyage is thereby doubled.

    However, the ships at Peiraeus, if not large in size, are numerous enough. Some are simply big open boats with details elaborated. They have a small forecastle and poop built over, but the cargo in the hold is exposed to all wind and weather. The propulsion comes from a single unwieldy square sail swinging on a long yard the whole length of the vessel. Other ships are more completely decked, and depend on two square sails in the place of one. A few, however, are real "deep sea" vessels—completely decked, with two or even three masts; with cabins of tolerable size, and forward and aft curious projections, like turrets,—the use whereof is by no means obvious, but we soon gather that pirates still abound on the distant seas, and that these turrets are useful when it comes to repelling boarders. The very biggest of these craft run up to 250 gross tons (later day register),[7] although with these ponderous defense-works they seem considerably larger. The average of the ships, however, will reckon only 30 to 40 tons or even smaller. It is really a mistake, any garrulous sailor will tell us, to build merchant ships much bigger. It is impossible to make sailing vessels of the Greek model and rig sail very close to the wind; and in every contrary breeze or calm, recourse must be had to the huge oars pile up along the gunwales. Obviously it is weary work propelling a large ship with oars unless you have a huge and expensive crew,—far better then to keep to the smaller vessels.


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