Friday, December 28, 2012

The Bergantina

Bergantina overtaking a felucca, by Henri Sbonski de Passebon,
ca. 1700.
Courtesy Harvard College Library
In maritime history, we are frequently faced with vessels for which no description beyond what type they are. Sometimes, there is just enough information to make informed guesses as to their appearance; caravels, for instance. Other times, you simply have a class name.
One such vessel is the bergantina. This vessel appears to fill the gap between pure sail and a oared. We know that they had one or two masts, and had anywhere between eight and sixteen benches with one or two oarsmen to a bench. This meant sixteen to thirty two oars, and seldom did these vessels reach more than forty feet (13 meters) in length. They were also shallow, drawing as little as eighteen inches (45 cm) of water. It was that latter attribute in particular that made the bergantina especially suited for exploration.*
It is likely that many bergantinas were built here in the New World in the first few decades after Columbus' arrival, but earlier they were probably carried over in knocked down form, and quite possibly consisted of only a keel, stem and stern, the rest being made from locally obtained sources.
Bergantinas played an important role in the European discovery of Florida. Juan Ponce de Leon needed one for his journey in 1513. He used three vessels on his voyage - 
Santiago - caravel, quite possibly square rigged.
Santa Maria De Consolacion - caravelon. This is a smaller caravel, though we do not know her rig.
San Cristobal - the bergantina.
We can at least guess as to how the San Cristobal appeared. In preparation for the five hundredth anniversary of the European discovery of Florida, I've begun a series of studies of these vessels. For the bergantina, I picture a single mast carrying a large lateen sail. A total of twenty oars provide propulsion when the wind is not strong enough, or for when sailing is not appropriate, such as exploring shallow waterways.
If we refer to the Sbonski de Passebon painting, it would be fairly easy to extrapolate the rest. Being as that painting is from circa 1700, it would be simply a matter of imagining what a less refined vessel would look like; oared vessels evolved differently than those that were pure sail, and many of their features were frozen in design centuries before.

Is it possible that this is how the San Cristobal appeared that spring day five hundred years ago as it approached this new found land?
(* - Morison, The European Discovery of America, The Southern Voyages 1492 - 1616, pages 549 - 550)

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Caravels of Rafael Monleon y Torres

(Elsewhere in this blog, I have mentioned the work of Rafael Monleon y Torres, but I feel that it is important to delve deeper into his ideas on the appearance of Columbus' vessels, mainly the Niña and Pinta - R.L)

In 1892, three replicas left Spain in hopes of sailing across the Atlantic to the Americas; only one of them did so. The replica of Columbus' flagship "Santa Maria" was capable of sailing, though it wasn't great at doing so. The remaining two, the Pinta and Niña, ended up needing to be towed.
The designs for these vessels came from the board of Rafael Monleon y Torres, an artist employed by the Museo Naval in Madrid. As an artist, he was talented. He was appointed by the Spanish Commission to assist in the design and construction of the vessels, as well as being an artist for the publications being produced. He concentrated on the two smaller vessels, and came to some interesting conclusions.
In the opinion of Monleon, caravels were not really a distinctive type of vessel. Instead, he felt that the word "caravel" was a blanket term applied to smaller vessels. In his opinion, even the Santa Maria could be considered a caravel, even though he also considered it to be a small nao. In his work on the Niña and Pinta this philosophy carried over with some interesting results.
There remains, though, some confusion as to what Monleon really believed the vessels to be. In a two part article he wrote for "El Centenario", "Las Carabelas de Colón", he states, repeatedly, that the Pinta left on the voyage as a lateener, which is to say with the large, triangular sails instead of square rig. This is not really unusual; the most common copy of his log at that time mentions that the Pinta was re-rigged in the Canaries. Later copies of the  Columbus' "Diario" corrected this mistake, and in various places so did Monleon. But in the article in context here, he refers to the Pinta as the lateen rigged vessel.
Monleon felt that this square rigged Niña was nothing more than a smaller nao, and rigged her thus. His lateen reconstructed Pinta, however, looked more like what a caravel should. In fact, on paper (and canvas) it doesn't look bad at all. Henceforth, we shall refer to Monleon's initial concept as the caravela latina, and it will be the primary focus here.
Before we look at his reconstruction, however, it must be necessary to look at the other sources he had on hand at the time. There are many images from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century that show caravela latinas, including one on a chart of the island of Hispaniola. The image, brown with age, is faded in places. When the Commission recreated the image, they added details, namely a bowsprit. It is unclear whom the artist was who did this copy. The caravela latina is the vessel to the left.

From "La nao Santa María, capitana de Cristóbal Colón"

However, other recreations of that image are different. In E.A. d'Albertis' "Le Costruzioni Navali e l'Arte Della Navigazione al Tempo di Cristoforo Colombo", the same caravela latina is drawn without the bowsprit.

From "Le Costruzioni Navali e l'Arte Della Navigazione
al Tempo di Cristoforo Colombo

A closer examination of the original also reveals that a bowsprit simply is not present.

From Casa/F. Colon map in the Biblioteca Columbina, Seville;
Image edited from National Geographic, November 1986

Consider that few other images of caravels rigged thus exist. Regardless, it was this style rig that Monleon used when he came up with some of his initial artwork showing such a vessel.

By the time the Spanish Commission began construction of the replicas, Monleon had returned to considering the Niña the lateen rigged vessel and set about designing it. In their initial designs, both the Niña and Pinta had the potential to be good sailers. When it came time to building them, however, short cuts were taken.
The person who oversaw their construction, an American naval Lieutenent C. McCarty Little, found that the budget would not allow for full construction. Working with the Miguel Cardona shipyard in Barcelona, they found two small vessels that had made trans-Atlantic passages before. In appearance, though, they were far from looking correct, so their hulls were shortened astern.
The end effect was dreadful. Both vessels proved difficult underway. Ultimately, they ended up being towed by naval ships to the Americas.
A quick look at the caravela latina, which was now the Niña, shows that while it looks good in profile and in rig, the hull, and in particular the below waterline and stern, are the wrong shape. This is actually the case with both vessels; their flat sterns go too deeply below the waterline, cutting the runs and producing poor qualities. The larger Santa Maria, while square sterned, did not have this problem.

The profile of the caravel found at the New York Public Library reveals much about the original thinking. 

Based upon the run of the wales, the stern appears to have been planned to end above the waterline. If the Segal Niña plans are acceptable evidence, that was the original intent.

The lines on the Segal drawing also appear to show a good run, certainly better than the replica, and the proportions are acceptable, though closer to a nao than a caravel.
That was not the fate that awaited the 1892 Niña. Instead, due in no small part to shortcuts taken, it was a miserable vessel. We have to rely on what information remains available to deduce whether the original plans could have produced much better results.
Just a little over twenty five years after being launched, both the 1892 Niña and Pinta were gone, followed in a few years by the larger Santa Maria. Oddly, these replicas left an unexpected legacy, in the form of artwork and models based upon the work of the Spanish Commission. 
In that sense, the Monleon caravel latina lives on.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mislabeled Caravels

When it comes to maritime historical research, one can never be too cautious. 
Living as I do in northeast Florida, I lack access to many sources of information locally. Simply put, there is a serious dearth of such here in Jacksonville. Therefore, I rely on books and the Internet, as well as the libraries (which, sadly, seem to be on the decline lately). In any field, primary source information is always preferred, though not always practical to obtain.
In trying to confirm the validity of lateen rigged caravels with bowsprits, I made a mistake that many of us make.
That is to say, I took an Internet source at its word.
In truth, the source is probably unaware of the error as well; it is likely that this error has been propogated for a few years, and typical of such, has effectively developed a life all its own.
The problem to which I am referring is my recent discovery of a model of the caravel Niña that was attributed to a design by Julio F. Guillen y Tato, who is generally known for an interpretation of the Santa Maria. I did some research and located plans by Luis Segal for the same version of the Niña, and in examining them, felt that they looked feasible.
There remained an issue with confirming their authenticity, however. As much as I searched, I could find no evidence that Admiral Guillen y Tato ever made such a study.
Amazingly, whilst looking for something else at the New York Public Library Digital Collection site, I stumbled upon this - 

Below the image of Columbus you find two ships. On the left is the Santa Maria, and to its right you find a caravel, labelled "The Original Rig of the Niña and Pinta". This caravel looks familiar, and indeed appears to be the source of the Segal Niña plans. The image of the Santa Maria is of the Rafael Monleon y Torres interpretation. The style of both ships is similar.
As it turns out, the collections to which the image belongs predate Guillen y Tato's work by a few decades.
That is to say, the Niña that we see there is the Monleon y Torres version. If you compare an image of the 1892 replica to the Segal drawing, you can clearly see the strong similarity.

What does this mean for caravela latinas with bowsprits? There is still enough evidence to support an argument for their existence. However, there are other issues with Monleon's research that remain, and we will examine these later. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The First Caravel Replicas

All three of the 1892 replicas, circa 1905
Background to foreground -
PintaNiña Santa Maria - All images courtesy
U.S. Library of Congress

As previously mentioned in this blog, a caravel replica is under construction in St. Augustine, the Espiritu. This is being converted from the former fishing vessel "Apple Jack", and in many aspects looks like a decent enough project.
The first time caravel replicas were made from existing vessels, though, the results were less than satisfactory. 
We have to go back to 1892 and the work being done in preparation to the 400th anniversary celebration of Columbus' voyage. The Spanish Commission, under its chairman Fernandez Duro and chief researcher Rafael Monleon, had arrived at a final design for the replica Santa Maria. The caravels were treated almost like a secondary consideration. Monleon, an artist by training, felt that caravels were really just smaller vessels, not a separate class altogether. While quite a bit of attention was paid to the Santa Maria, little thought appears to have been given to the Niña and Pinta.
As the date approached, it was apparent that there were insufficient funds to build replicas of the two caravels from the keel up. An American naval officer attached to the project, Lt. C. McCarty Little, worked with the main shipyard involved with the project and found a simple solution. They chose two coaster vessels that had already proven capable of crossing the Atlantic. They were deemed satisfactory for the project, and the conversions commenced.
The problems began with the hull modifications. To make them appear more fifteenth century, the hulls of both vessels were shortened. The effect was a change in the runs below the waterline. The resultant vessels ended up being miserable sailers as a result.
Other problems also existed. 

Niña of 1892

While the Niña at least looked like a caravela latina, the Pinta more resembled a nao or small ship. It looked more like a smaller version of the Santa Maria, from the forecastle to the topsail. Again, this is in keeping with Monleon's belief that caravels were just smaller ships, not a different class.

Pinta of 1892

All three vessels proved to be difficult; while the Santa Maria did make the voyage under canvas, the caravels ended up being towed across the Atlantic. After the 1892 Columbian Exposition, they were to languish on the Great Lakes for the remainder of their days. By 1919, both caravels were gone, one being lost to fire, the other sinking.

Pinta, partially submerged

There are certain lessons here. First was Monleon's insistence that caravels were not a distinct class of vessel. His contemporary, Enrico d'Albertis, considered the caravel to be a wholly different type of vessel, distinct from naos, the class to which the Santa Maria belonged. While d'Albertis worked with the various commissions for the Columbus anniversary, his were not made in replica form, aside from models, though clearly being superior. It appears as if this lack of consideration led to the Niña and Pinta replicas being given secondary status in the reconstructions.
The next lesson has to do with the way sailing vessels operate. By this point in the 19th century, a better understanding of ship design certainly existed. Simply cutting off the rear of vessels, and as a result having runs that ended abruptly and fairly deep at flat sterns, is going to result in poor sailing. Even the flat sterned Santa Maria replica of 1892 had a run that ended closer to the waterline than did the two caravels. Somebody at the shipyards involved should have changed the hull runs; simply tucking the planking below the waterline up and narrowing off the sterns of the vessels would have resulted in better performance under sail. There were still plenty of caravel-like vessels afloat that should have served as reminders. Alas, they did not.
In the case of our Espiritu, the hull is fairly similar to what we might expect a caravel's to be. One major advantage, though, is the engine, something the 1892 replicas could have used but a necessary anachronistic consideration. 
It is not known if the Espiritu is going to be capable of truly sailing, but if the lessons of 1892 are an indicator, it is certainly superior, at least in hull build. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Of Caravela Latinas & Bowsprits

The notion of bowsprits on caravela latina is an unusual one for me. On purely lateen rigged vessels, bowsprits should serve very little purpose. Yet, is it possible that some caravela latina carried them?
It was when I purchased a copy of Robert Marx's "The Voyage of the Niña II" in 1991 that I had my first view of such a rig. The Niña II, built by Carlos Etayo, was a hybrid, capable of carrying both square and lateen. Based upon the rather critical review given it by Jose Maria Martinez-Hidalgo in "Columbus' Ships", I, too, gave it very little consideration, though I did build a model of it.
I started giving this slightly more consideration in 2000, when examining a drawing found in "Columbus' Ships". On page 20, there is a drawing, an "artistic interpretation" by Joaquim Melo, of a Portuguese caravela latina with a bowsprit. This is based on an original located in the Convento da Madre de Deus in Lisbon. The caravel carries a bowsprit as well as an unusual spritsail that appears to be bent directly to the bowsprit.
I did an interpretation of the drawing, changing the spritsail to a more regular design. Otherwise, I tried to keep the details as close as possible to the original. This is where the problems arise.

Portuguese Caravel, interpretation by Joaquim Melo

R.Little interpretation, July 2000

On Melo's interpretation, there is a mainstay running from the bowsprit to the top of the main mast. Such an arrangement would interfere with the operation of the huge main yard. This isn't to say that it can't be done, but the way the caravel tacks would have to be considerably different. 
A similar rig is to be found on a piece by artist Joseph Wheatley in "Historic Sail". His "A Caravela Latina of 1480" carries three masts and a bowsprit. The text states that the drawing is based upon models found in Lisbon and Faro, Portugal, but trying to pin down a prototype has proven difficult. In  many ways, the design is similar to the d'Albertis Niña, but more closely resembles the replica built for the 1892 four hundredth anniversary. That vessel was considered an abject failure; it was a converted sail coaster, and was almost completely unsailable. This was due to the fact that the stern was shortened during the conversion, leaving the run of the hull too short.

Niña, 1892, Courtesy US Library of Congress

It seemed, therefore, that the subject of the model used by Wheatley was based on the 1892 replica, leaving the subject of bowsprits and caravela latinas a potential dead end.
It took researching another caravel interpretation for me to stumble upon yet another bowsprit equipped caravela latina. I was researching the d'Albertis caravel designs and decided to see how they influenced later designs. It was when I did a search for information by Adm. Julio Fernando Guillen y Tato, who designed a replica of the Santa Maria as a caravel, that I stumbled upon a page that showed a model of the Niña designed by Luis Segal and based upon the work of Guillen y Tato.

A little more searching, and the plans themselves were located online. These plans date back to 1945, and are really meant for a model. The rigging plan, though, makes sense, and the bowsprit figures into the plan logically. When I investigated further, I found that I had seen this design before, in an illustration  by John  Bachelor for the Time-Life book "The Explorers". As before, I assumed this was based upon the 1892 design.
This plan appears to be very similar to the caravela latina model used by Joseph Wheatley, though it also appears to be more a source of inspiration. If, indeed, the Segal design is based upon the work of Guillen y Tato, then we can at least rest assured that there is a fair degree of scholarship behind it, though his work was wrong about the Santa Maria (something he later admitted). I must admit, however, that I remain skeptical as to this caravela latina model's heritage; it is simply too similar to the 1892 vessel.

The Luis Segal (Guillen y Tato?) Niña, from
"Modelismo Navale", 1945

The second item was an order for a "calavera" by one Gracia Amat in 1465. Martin Malcolm Elbl, in his paper "The Portuguese Caravel And European Shipbuilding: Phases of Development and Diversity", has, on page 571, an appendix dedicated to the subject. There, based upon the information from the initial contract, is a line drawing of the vessel. It is rather caravel-like in appearance (one can't help but wonder if calavera was a transcription error; it means "skull"), and carries a bowsprit as well as two masts. According to Elbl, it may have carried a square sail (pg. 563), and was fairly small.

"Calavera" of Gracia Amat, 1465,
by Martin Elbl

This design was clearly an inspiration to Carlos Etayo and his work. In the line drawing, you can see how very closely it resembles Etayo's Niña II (and later Niña III). 
So, we come full circle, back to Etayo.

Whether Etayo's design was faulty or not, it does appears that he had a basis for the mounting of a bowsprit. We can only speculate on how common a feature this was though it does show how diverse a category caravela was.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A New Caravel Considered

As previously mentioned, there is a caravel building in Saint Augustine, the Espiritu, a caravela redonda from the early 16th century. I only found out about this recently, and from reports, they are already fairly far along.
I did have some initial concerns about some of the details of the vessel. The fact is that caravels are still somewhat enigmatic, at least from the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and of course all references prior. This was when the age of exploration was well underway, and the caravel was, paraphrasing Dr. Roger Smith in a talk he gave in October 1992, the equivalent of the space shuttle. What had started out as a humble fishing and cargo vessel had become the preferred vessel for exploration along the coasts of Africa and the New World. 
Looking at the images of caravels from that period, one thing is clear; there may have been common features, but it is very likely that individual caravels were probably unique. The most common features, such as the rig, were based not just on tradition but on experience. There are many images from that period that show a variety of subtle differences to the hulls as well, such the presence or absence of fender cleats, or bows that were either sharp or bluff. Some appear to have had fairly short quarterdecks, if any at all, whilst others had fairly long ones. 
The caravel was essentially a large boat, and had a hull that looked very boat-like. That modern wooden fishing boats would carry on that shape is simply a given, especially those that followed traditional designs yet slowly evolved in time. 
That is the case with many small vessels built in parts of Latin America, and of course Saint Augustine, where Majorcan shipwrights carried on their traditional building and passed these techniques on to future generations. In other words, strip away the cabin, the booms, engines and screws, and the remaining hull is an evolved descendant of those vessels that plied the oceans so long ago.
I wanted to compare the Apple Jack/Espiritu to one of my favorite replicas, the Santa Clara, also known as the Niña. This vessel has been afloat since December 1991, and is considered by many the most accurate caravel replica built. It carries a four masted rig, based upon findings by Dr. Eugene Lyons of Saint Augustine in the 1980's. I have had the pleasure of having visited this caravel several times. 

Santa Clara, AKA Niña, image courtesy The Columbus Foundation

Lacking a set of working drawings of the Espiritu, I decided to take the newspaper image of the hull design and do some image correction. 

Espiritu, original image Rhonda Parker, The Examiner

Clearly, the lines of the Espiritu are not too bad. Some still might grumble about the false rudder, but I understand in this situation that some allowances have to be made. 
I hope to be visiting the Espiritu soon. When I do, you may be certain that images will be posted here.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Bruegel's Mystery Ships Revisited

It was none other than Bjorn Landstrom in his classic "The Ship" that may have opened up another possible explanation for the Bruegel "galleons". This is found on page 118, illustration 297. It is actually a thought I had myself; it has to do with the shape of the bow, as well as the flags the ships are carrying. 
These might be the ultimate incarnation of the caravel, and sadly an end in themselves.
I've speculated several times that the Spanish and Portuguese sought to combine the best qualities of the larger naos with the lighter, shallower caravels, and that this may have led in turn to the Iberian galleons. By the time of Bruegel's engraving, the ship that could be defined as the predecessor to their galleons, though, was already afloat.
The caravel was still in use, in various guises. A comparison of the Bruegel vessels to the larger Portuguese carabela redondas is interesting in what it reveals. In many aspects, they are clearly similar, save for the rig and the long, multi-decked sterncastles of the Bruegel ships. In essence, these could be the ultimate form of the Spanish caravela redonda. As to why the ships were built in the first place is open to speculation.
Clearly, they were heavily built for their class, whichever class that was.
My interpretation attempts to clean up the original somewhat, and I readily admit that some of the rigging is sketchy. However, this may be a fairly good guess as to what these vessels may have looked like. So many other questions remain, as no other illustrations can be found of them. They can be best thought of as an experiment. 
They are singularly unique. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Caravel for St. Augustine

Not quite sure how I missed this, but apparently there is a caravel being built in St. Augustine. "Built", really, is not the term, but converted. In this case, they are taking the last wooden shrimper built in St. Augustine, the Apple Jack, and converting it into a caravela redonda, similar to the Santa Clara, though stepping only three masts. She will also carry a top sail, trapezoidal in shape, typical for the period.
This isn't such a bad idea, really. I had dreams of doing something similar myself, due to the fact that, at least above the waterline, a shrimper looks quite a bit like what we expect a caravel should have looked like. I do worry, though, about the sail plan she'll carry, and really hope that plenty of thought has gone into that, as there are other "caravels" afloat that, if not laughable, are hysterically wrong in appearance. 
Based upon one of the images, though, it appears as though some serious consideration has been made to the hull and the masts rake, as well as "detail" above the waterline.

Image credit Rhonda Parker,

There are some things I could quibble with, such as the length of the quarterdeck and the shape of the bow (should be rounder), but overall I think this is an interesting project. Why Florida, and especially St. Augustine, have never had a permanent Spanish ship from this era has always puzzled me. At least the Espiritu is a start, and hopefully will do us proud.

The story in pictures - 
Applejack to 'Espiritu': Spanish Caravel will ready for upcoming celebrations

Monday, October 22, 2012

Bruegel's Galleons

In the mid 16th century, Dutch artist Peter Bruegel did a series of ship engravings that give us an idea of what some of the vessels of that period must have looked like. They are extremely intricate in their detail, and when compared to what is known about ships from that period, appear to be fairly accurate.
Most of the vessels appear to be fairly conventional in appearance, but one engraving , known as "Two Galleons" "Three Men of War In A Tempest Sailing To The Right, With Arion", shows vessels that seem to fall between classifications.
The hulls are fairly typical, for the most part, except for a beak-like projection at the bow. This beak is very similar to those found on galleys and some of the English race built warships. But, the vessels also appear to have what almost constitutes a typical late carrack forecastle.
In the engraving, they are seen ahead of a larger vessel, leading one to believe that they certainly are warships; their numerous guns also reinforce this. They are heavily built, and appear to be around 300 tons.
They initially look to be more than just offensive projections. When I first looked at these vessels, I thought that these beaks were probably for the handling of the headsails. In looking at the engraving in more detail, doubts have emerged. What had once been, for me, a step in the evolution of the sixteenth century sailing ship has now become a branch unto itself.
Indeed, I had seen vessels thus equipped before, and had somehow forgotten. . In R.C. Anderson's  "The Sailing Ship", he has illustrated not just once but thrice vessels with these beaks. There is a potential fourth vessel in his work as well, an English "galeass", Henry VIII's "Great Galley", though this began life as a rowed and sailed vessel, eventually being left a regular sailing vessel and thus renamed the "Great Bark".
This seems to indicate that, in the case of Bruegel's ships, they were most likely offensive rams.  They even appear to be reinforced at their points.
Did they lead to the latter beakhead found on later ships?
Perhaps. Mariners are practical people, and with the increase in rig at the bows, it probably became a logical to work them from this location.
Bruegels ships, though, appear to be compromises. They embody features found on several different ship types. They are unique in our record, perhaps only a few like them were made. That Bruegel saw fit to illustrate them in what was surely their intended mission is to our good fortune.

Edit 28 Oct. 2012 - The actual title of the piece is "Three Men of War In A Tempest Sailing To The Right, With Arion"; this has been corrected - R.L.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Of "Clippers" & Columbus

The word clipper ship has somehow come to be synonymous sailing ship. I've
noted this for a couple of decades now. It does not matter whether it is a
schooner or galleon or whaler or, yes, clipper, they are, in the minds of
many, clipper ships. I can't help but wonder if at some future epoch large
portions of the populace refer to all of our automobiles as Fords or
It has been a while since I've followed up on the status of the replicas
built for the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage of discovery.
Currently, I am aware that the "Santa Clara" or "Nina II", an unofficial
replica but probably the most realistic, has a sister in a "Pinta"
replica. Both vessels are doing fine.
The official replicas, however, were not, the last time checked. The
official Nina was last seen rotting in the waters off of Texas, whereas
the Santa Maria has been brought ashore entirely, no longer seaworthy.
I've lost track of the Pinta.
That this has been allowed to happen at all reflects poorly upon us. That
I have failed to keep track as well reflects poorly upon me.

(Sent via handheld)
Edit - As I mentioned, it had been some time since I last checked on the status of the replicas, and that piece was written whilst I sat on the back porch. A search, a short time later, revealed this; all three ships are being restored, and the Pinta, like the Santa Maria, is now ashore. For more -

Columbus Replica Ships to Visit Corpus Christi in March

Friday, September 21, 2012

Some Thoughts On A Replaced Replica

In 1957, two replica sailing ships were launched celebrating the
colonization of North America by the English; the Mayflower, launched in
Brixham, England, and the Susan Constant, launched in Newport News,
Virginia. In addition, two other replicas were launched in Virginia as
well, the Godspeed and the Discovery.
All of these vessels were replicas of late Elizabethan ships. The larger
two represented typical merchant ships of their classes.
Of those replicas, only one remains afloat, the Mayflower. The original
replica Susan Constant, as well as the smaller two, were replaced after
suffering deterioration. The new Susan Constant is an impressive sight,
but the previous replica was interesting as well.
That the previous replica Susan Constant deteriorated is not the point I
want to raise. The first replica had an interesting pedigree. Unlike the
replica Mayflower, the Susan Constant was designed by a relative unknown,
one Robert Fee; the Mayflower replica was designed by William Avery Baker,
a name well known in nautical research circles.
In the Transactions of the Society of Nautical and Maritime Engineers,
January 1958, quite a bit of space was dedicated to the Jamestown
replicas. The first section dealt with their design and construction,
written by Fee himself. The second section told of how the vessels sailed. It was
here that William A. Baker gave a fairly critical review of the designs.
This seems a bit harsh, in retrospect. When I first read the reports, I
was something of a W.A. Baker fan; I still am. But, I've also learned that
people are people as I've matured, and everyone has a competitive streak
somewhere inside. Now whether or not that was the case here is hard to
gauge. What is apparent, though, is that Mr. Fee seems to have moved on.
There are questions, though, that still persist. The Fee Susan Constant
seemed to have borrowed heavily from R.C. Anderson's Mayflower, yet as I
recall no credit was given. What of the hull section, why that design? The
Baker Mayflower was designed to cross the Atlantic; could the Fee design
have done the same.
Sadly, we'll never know. The old Susan Constant has long since been
scrapped, and I am having difficulty finding anything else out about Mr.
Fee. The new Susan Constant, based upon research by Brian Lavery, is the
last word on that ship's appearance. Still, the old design was as close as
we could ever get to knowing if Anderson's Mayflower could have sailed.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Latest Project Gallery - LifeLike (nee Pyro) Mayflower

 The little Pyro Mayflower was tooled, like many of their model ships, in the mid 1960's. It is one of the few representations of the R.C. Anderson version available and works out to around 1/300.
 This kit is crisply molded in white; originally was tooled in brown and white.
 For the most part, it does capture the feel of Anderson's version, if somewhat simplified.
 The markings on the quarterdeck were accomplished with colored marker on single ply smooth Strathmore Bristol board.
 The stern decorations were handpainted. All the colors used were regular craft store acrylics. The strakes were accomplished with 1/16" vinyl tape. There is still some touch up needed here.
 View of the port side. You can just make out the grating over the hatch on this shot. I created this grating with Microsoft Windows Paint, reduced it and printed it on regular paper. I used brown marker to color it. The same paper was used in the beakhead.
By this date (20 September, 2012), the hull is basically complete. Beams were added across the hatch for the ship's boat to rest upon. Two pumps were added just forward and abaft the main mast, and the poop deck railing is a replacement. Should be a lovely little model upon completion.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Of Gold Gilded Galleons

Today, as I do every so often, I did a little on line maritime research on French ships of the 16th century. This is the period of the "galleon", those magnificent vessels we too often associate with treasure fleets and the Invincible Armada. Again, as is usual, I came across many illustrations from the period, usually the Theodor de Bry etchings or small drawings of French ships from maps and charts. There was a time when I had a good deal of information in a number of folders, however that was some time in the past and those folders have long since been lost. Many, if not most, of those images could be found amongst that information, so for me they are no strangers and nothing new.
However, it is the occasional modern interpretation that I run across that bother me. These are usually done by very good artists who have no idea of how these vessels should look. Indeed, most maritime researchers will rightfully tell you that, in most cases, we can only guess, though they may be educated guesses. One illustration that I see quite a bit is of a French galleon in a storm off the coast of Florida. It is a striking painting, done by William Trotter. However, aside from being inspired by Willem van de Velde the Younger's painting "Resolution in a Gale", there are many anachronisms in the work, none as telling as the stern; it is gilded, in much the way vessels would be in the later 16th and well into the 18th centuries. It is also much too rectangular and blockish.
He was not the first to make this mistake, and it is doubtful he will be the last. There are many other interpretations of vessels from this period that make the same mistakes. Even the F. Alexander Magoun interpretation of the "Mayflower", which borrows from the superb R.C. Anderson version as well as a version by Prof. J.R. Jack that seems more like a vessel of the latter part of the 17th century, makes these mistakes, primarily due to the latter interpretation.
We want to romanticize these ships. When we think about the 16th century, we do tend to think about the royal splendor of all the major powers of Europe. Nothing says power and prestige like gold gilding on ships. As a practice, however, it did not really begin until later in the century. Gilding a ship was an expensive affair, especially for something that was very likely to be lost. The high point of these decorations can be found in the English ships of the early 17th century, followed immediately by France. Both of these naval powers had to prove their mettle on the high seas, so both undertook building programs that were a bit grandiose in scope, if not in size. Both England and France built what were super ships during this period, with the French receiving aid from Dutch naval architects. The irony is that Dutch ships of this period were relatively sparse in their decoration, as well as smaller.
Decorations reached their ultimate realization on the English three decker "Sovereign of the Seas", ordered by King Charles I and designed by Peter Pett, launched in 1637. This ship carried an amazing amount of gilding, and was so costly that it played a major role in the King being deposed. It is said that the ship was designed not so much as a warship but as a statement of English, and specifically the King's, power on the seas. She was so overloaded with decorations that she was impractical, and was cut down and modified not once but several times, and ultimately served for sixty years.
These ships, though, were the exceptions. While it is likely that many ships of the late sixteenth century and later carried gilding to varying degrees, it is far more likely that the vast majority of these ships carried little or none, and made do with either paint or perhaps no decoration at all.
Those romantic images we have in our heads, of those resplendent galleons sparkling like jewels on the water, is simply romantic.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

For The Love Of An Old Pyro Bomb Ketch

When it comes to plastic models, most builders would prefer that the kits be pristine, untouched. Sometimes, that is not an option, particularly when those kits are becoming somewhat scarce.
The first sailing ship model I ever built was a Pyro kit, their Göta Lejon, a Swedish warship of the eighteenth century, back in the fall of 1976. At this point, the Pyro dies had been passed along to LifeLike, and at our local hobby shop, Art's, the kits were being sold in a mixture of Pyro and LifeLike labeling. Pyro tooled most of these smaller sailing ships kits in the 1960's, with a heavy concentration in the middle of that decade. As for quality, it is assuredly mixed. Some of the better models, though, are sought after, such as the Göta Lejon, or in the case of that image, the British Bomb Ketch.
Trying to pin down a specific prototype for this model is difficult, but many suspect, as do I, that the people at Pyro lifted the plans from a wooden kit. The scale is therefore variously listed between 1/144 to 1/180. Aside from being simplified, it is actually not bad, and with a little work can turn into a lovely model. This is the second time I've had this kit, the first being a Revell-Germany release from the mid-1980's.
Nevertheless, it is lovely, and growing scarce. My newest one was had very cheaply via eBay, and was started long ago. The kit appears to have been put away after only a few pieces were assembled. This model comes from that period where the box says Pyro, but the instructions say LifeLike. Fortunately for me, the person who started it did so sparingly with the cement, so dismantling the major assemblies was easy, the only damage being to the quarterdeck port railing.
I have no idea when I will actually begin construction of the model, but simply having this kit in my collection is good enough.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

El Navio Moves To The Internet

I believe that the best way to begin is with a brief explanation. While it is true that I have a good many hobbies, one of them has been fairly consistent for better than three decades, and that is a love of ships. This has taken various forms over time, from model building to artwork to writing and research. Among other things, I consider myself very fortunate in having worked in the nautical history field as well, being involved with our local maritime museum in the 1990's.
Now, as I find myself wanting to venture back into these waters, I feel it necessary to share my work here. Recently, I have made the decision to do more maritime art and find a market for it. This is unusual territory, to be honest, given this day and age. Yet I believe that inside everyone there lurks a need to be close to the sea, their "mare nostrum", to borrow the Latin term for "our sea".
"El Navio" was my maritime research diary, my second one. It deals primarily with the miniatures and artwork I've done, and soon will have its pages filled. This blog is an extension of that diary, and here I will share in my work from time to time.
Please be sure to visit...