Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Privateer in Art

Recently, I undertook work on a series of pieces showing the the construction, fitting out, and sailing of a privateer from the late 17th century. The ship itself is of Dutch design, fairly typical in fact for many Low Country vessels of the time. These are the final products. As our fictional vessel grew, so did the technique. I proceeded from pencil to pen to paint.

Concerning Blackbeard's Ship

Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard the Pirate.
Certainly looks like a pleasant enough fellow.
"Queen Anne's Revenge."
While many experts have spoken about the identification of the shipwreck found in Beaufort inlet, speaking for myself, I have lingering doubts. And they won't readilly go away.
First is the location of the wreck. It was found in what many scuba would be considered fairly shallow water, over twenty feet. That is actually plenty deep for a sailing ship of that size. Historically, Blackbeard is said to have run the Queen Anne's Revenge aground. In other words, this is simply too deep.
The easy response to this would be that perhaps the ship could have shifted into deeper water in time. But there are problems with this. If that had been the case, the wreck would have been scattered over time. What we have here are aritifacts that are fairly concentrated. This implies a ship that sank in deeper water, thus not matching the records.
While there is much in the wreck that seems to indicate that this is Edward Teach's flagship, the questions that are raised by these little problems seem to point to just two possibilities - 

  1. This is the Queen Anne's Revenge and the historical record is wrong.
  2. This is simply not the Queen Anne's Revenge.

I, for one, remain skeptical.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Columbus' First Voyage Reconsidered

It's Columbus Day again here in the United States, which means of course that this very polarizing figure is celebrated in some circles, reviled in others, and more than likely completely misunderstood by both. That there were many terrors visited upon the aboriginal peoples during his governorship of the islands he landed upon is tragic enough, and while there is ample evidence to support that he was implicit, the truth is probably more complicated.
But my interest in Columbus lay not in his skill as a governor, for clearly, he was awful, but in his skill as a navigator, his vessels, and most importantly, how he managed to sail across one of the widest points in the Atlantic, why he chose that path, even in the face of skepticism. 
Many scholars were convinced that he and his crew would probably die at sea. It must be remembered that the old knowledge that the Norse (and perhaps earlier) voyagers had about the lands to the west was all but forgotten, and where it was remembered, was assumed to only point towards strange lands in the north, possibly a large island. What most scholars assumed was that there was no land here at all. 
There were many stories about lost islands in the Atlantic, but Columbus wasn't looking for just islands; he was looking for a path to the Orient. 
Take a globe. In this map, we'll include some of the areas of North America that are believed to have been known by the Norse.

Now, imagine that there is no North or South America, just that large group of islands the Norse discovered.. What you have now is a truly vast ocean, the Ocean Sea, and it stretches for many thousands of miles, and depending upon the route you choose, you might not see land again until you reach the east coast of Africa.
If we look at the sea route for his first voyage, it must have seemed like certain death indeed for those cartographers and philosophers who didn't buy Columbus' ideas. 

So why did he take that route? Why those corrections? It was very well known at that time that China was further north than that, though the position of Zipangu (Japan) was mostly speculated.
One possibility is that another European had found the islands before Columbus.
This is not beyond the realm of possibility. On the 4th of November, 1493, during his second voyage, his crew found a sternpost on the shores of the island of Guadalupe. There is also a tale of an iron pan being found later. It is possible that the sternpost might be accounted for by currents, though this is doubtful. The iron pot, though, is a mystery altogether.
Perhaps it was the Portuguese. If anyone could have accomplished a voyage like this, the Portuguese are the most likely suspects. They also kept many of their voyages secret. We can only speculate.
Regardless, the route he took flew in the face of what was known and agreed upon in most of Europe at the time. If there had not been a continent there, he might have indeed ended up sailing on, lost in a seemingly endless sea, to vanish from its surface and from history as well.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Sea Witch Update

I've spent part of this evening repairing some of the smaller parts, bits and what have you, and then turned my attention to the hull.
As I lamented before, the person who undertook this model such a long time ago used a lot of glue. So much, in fact, that I doubt that I will be able to remove all the vestiges of it. Still, this model is worth the effort, and I am working, cautiously, to remove as much of it as I can. I suspect that plenty of sandpaper will be used here shortly. 
Another problem has to do with any long, thin parts. As Lloyd McCaffrey complained about in his diatribe against polystyrene models, I see here; this model is exhibiting all of the deterioration that he predicted. Interestingly, I've got older models that don't show any problem like this. As recent experience with some model railroad equipment has taught me, though, is that the quality of polystyrene seems to vary. Some of the older models I have are rock hard brittle, others still fairly soft, none of them showing signs of warpage. 
Not so here. While the plastic has become brittle somewhat, the masts are now completely unusable, having become twisted and severely warped. As I normally do, they will be replaced with wood, probably birch and cherry. 
This is much harder than simply picking up a kit, granted. What makes this worthwhile isn't just that it is such a rare model, but the scale (about 1/120). This makes for a great compromise, not too big, not too small. I might one day pick up the Aoshima (Imai) Cutty Sark (1/120, though very pricey), or the slightly smaller Airfix kit (1/128). 
In the meantime, work proceeds, slowly.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Aurora Sea Witch

Before I became interested in the ships of discovery, I had a long love affair with the clipper ship, those greyhounds of the sea that set records and would define the future of ship design. Of those, my long favorite was the ship they considered to be the first, the Sea Witch. 
I won't cover the history of that wonderful vessel here; you can either go to the Wikipedia page, or check out Howard I. Chappelle's "The Search for Speed Under Sail". Regardless, its impact was notable, and still retains a record, the fastest time from Hong Kong to New York for a single hulled sailing vessel, 74 days, set in 1849.
The Aurora model is one of their better sailing ships, if not the best. It is in the same group as their whale ship "Wanderer" and Revolutionary War "Bonhomme Richard", both of which are rather questionable in detail (especially the latter). This model is also some what controversial in model ship circles because of its fate. After Aurora went out of business, many presumed that the Sea Witch that was produced by Lindberg was in fact the same. It isn't. The Lindberg kit was derived from the Marx kit, with changes being a plastic deck instead of a lithographed sheet metal one. This has led some to speculate that the Marx kit and the Aurora kit are also the same. Again, they are not. The Marx/Lindberg model is 1/96 scale and dates to the 1950's. In appearance, it is simpler in hull and deck detail when compared to the later Aurora kit. The 1966 Aurora kit, on the other hand, is around 1/120, and has a hull that features planking, if somewhat oversized, though no attempt to replicate the coppering has been made.

My model was started a long time ago, and judging from the amounts of glue, by someone who was probably a novice. The masts are more than likely a write off, having warped. I've only seen this once before, and is one of the primary reasons I replace plastic masts with wood.

The rest of the kit appears to be there, but again, many of these pieces will be set aside when construction commences.

One of the nicest aspects of the kit, though, is the box art. This example's box is in great shape.

The painting of the Sea Witch underway is one of the nicest representations from that period I have ever seen.

I am not sure as to when I will begin this little project. One thing is for certain, though, This kit has plenty of potential, and should produce a fine model of the first true clipper.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Maritime Research via Google Maps

I use Google Maps quite a bit, and seldom for finding my way. Normally, I use it in satellite mode to look for large geological formations, such as meteor craters.
One thing I had never thought of using it for was maritime research on an individual ship. In this case, the vessel is a replica of the Niña, based upon the work of Professor Luis M. Coín Cuenca, Cadiz. This is replica has fascinated me since I read about it in the late John Dyson's "Columbus: For Gold, God & Glory". I won't go into the book, as it deals with something of a controversial subject ("The Unknown Pilot"). The Niña used in this book (and television special) was built in the early 1990's, and subsequently sailed across the Ocean Sea; it graces the book's cover.
I lost track of the ship in my research very early, knowing that while it did make it across, the question was did it sail back?
My reason for being interested in it has to do with its design. This Niña is very lightly built, almost an open boat (an old theory about Columbus' caravels, long since discredited for over a century and a half). It looks almost frail, and compared to the Sarsfield Niña/Santa Clara, is downright small.
Nevertheless, it is still a caravel, and true to my nature, must be researched.
Enter Google Maps.
I decided to look up the aforementioned book, and re-discovered the historian involved, Professor Coín Cuenca. After that, it was a matter of time. 
I found a picture during a search. It was somewhere in El Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain. Once the location was pinned down, I used Google Maps to locate the caravel.
She was located in a traffic roundabout on the N-IV, on the south side of the Rio Guadalete.
This is where the research comes in. The overhead satellite view gives us the deck layout - 

Google indicates that there are plenty of images from the location, but instead I chose to use Google Street View to "drive" around the caravel and get images - 

(Side note - I can't help but marvel at how much this part of Spain looks like south Florida!)
These images, combined with information gleaned from the City of El Puerto de Santa Maria's website, give us a better idea of the vessel. This particular replica Niña is 21 meters long, 5 meters in beam; 68' 10 3/4" in length overall, 16' 4 7/8" in beam.
There is still some more research needed, and with any luck I will be able to reach out to Prof. Coín Cuenca for more information.
One thing to keep in mind; when the images are first pulled up in Street View, there is a bit of distortion. The moment you begin to zoom in, the distortion is minimized; you are going from a forced wide-angle image to a more standard view.
In the mean time, the images gained give us a little more information as to how this little caravel appears. They may not be blueprints, but they provide us with more insight into this small caravel.
It also provides us with another use for the maps program in basic research, lacking the means to be there ourselves.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Models, Replicas & Interpretations - How Do You Proceed?

There are plenty of different model kits of historic sailing vessels, in both plastic and wood (as well as more unusual materials like metal, card and even paper). Most of these models can be traced back to research done by maritime historians and artists. Some of the models that are produced of some historic vessels can be traced to replicas based upon the work of the aforementioned historians and artists.
This is where the conundrum comes in, especially in the case of even older vessels; in most cases, these are not models of the vessel per se, but of an interpretation, even a full sized replica. You are building something based upon someone else's work.
This isn't a bad thing at all, but can be a little confusing. 
Many of the model builders I run into endeavor to "correct" the vessel. Things like rigging, deck and hull details, color scheme, et cetera. They  research how vessels should be rigged for the period and try to include these in the model. Many times, they draw from multiple sources to complete the model.
The question is, are they really building the model as it was meant to be, or as they think it should be?
Again, this isn't a bad thing; much of what the model builder as artist really comes down to what they want, they apply their own artistic license to the product. 
When you encounter vessels like the Santa Maria, or other vessels from the 16th century and earlier, you run into real problems. While there are only a few different interpretations of vessels like, say, the Mayflower (four that I am aware of, and two are very similar), the Santa Maria has around ten different interpretations. 
Aside from the wooden kits, the two most common Santa Maria interpretations found in kit form are the Fernandez Duro/Spanish Commission version from 1892 and the Julio Guillen y Tato version from 1929. If you pick up a Santa Maria kit from the Duro design, say one of those fairly simple wooden kits from Scientific, and want to correct or enhance the rigging, how do you proceed? Do you pick up a copy of Wolfram zu Mondfeld's "Historic Ship Models" and study the rigging section? Do you do a Google search for "Santa Maria"?
Unless you know which version you're building, this can be a conundrum. You're building this version, but you're finding rigging information for ships that don't look like the same. The manufacturers seldom include notes about the origin of the design (some exceptions are the original 1/75 Heller Santa Maria, where they thank Julio Guillen y Tato for his assistance). The Scientific kit is the Duro 1892 version, and is significantly different in appearance, let alone rig, to the Guillen 1929 version.
It can be done, and oftentimes the end result is lovely.
Possibly incorrect, but lovely (though I will admit that "incorrect" is a bit of a harsh term; after all, we really know nothing of the Santa Maria's true appearance). 
In a way, you end up with your own interpretation when you go this route. This is neither right nor wrong; again, it is up to you how you wish to proceed.
But if you want to build the model based upon the work of that original design, you need to know which one it is.
The end product is a model of that interpretation. It can be thought of as a model of a model.
If that's what you want. It's all about choice, I suppose.
And that's a good thing.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Proper Santa Maria Model... As A Radio?

During my occasional eBay searches, I come across some very unusual items that still fall into the purview of maritime history, and even modeling.
For a long time, I was fairly convinced that if you wanted to build the Santa Maria as proper nao in plastic, you could either 1.)buy the old small Pyro/Life Like/Lindberg Santa Maria and be content with the fact that it while it is based upon one of the more popular versions, it is probably way off in reality, 2.) buy any of the various Guillen y Tato Santa Maria's and add a forecastle, 3.)buy the small Imai/Aoshima Santa Maria, a veritable gem of a kit based upon Bjorn Landstrom's first version from bis epic tome, "The Ship", 4.) Buy the somewhat scarce Heller Caracca Atlantica and use it as a starting point (base kit is their Guillen Santa Maria) or 5.) Shell out even more money for the rarer still Pyro Venetian Carrack and convert it. For some reason, models of the Santa Maria with the proper features of a late 15th century seem to evade manufacturers.
Interestingly enough, there is a Santa Maria in plastic that has many of the proper features, though with some wildly wrong ones to boot. In fact, it is one I had seen in my youth many times.
In the 1970's, you could buy novelty radios in all sorts of forms. I had one that was a locomotive (the 4-2-4T wheel arrangement historic Central Pacific locomotive C.P. Huntington, and it was good enough a representation in 1/32 that I converted it into a working model for my garden railway. Anyway, whenever I visited our local Pic-n-Save Store, I would see them over in electronics, but generally paid them no mind. In one of my searches on eBay, I stumbled upon this - 

It is a Santa Maria transistor AM radio!
The price was very right, and it became a Christmas present for me.

The rigging was a mess, hung from solid steel masts. It also had anachronistic features such as gun ports, a figurehead and a ships wheel - 

And, of course, it is a radio.
But look at that hull. 
I did not buy this because I needed an AM radio. The hull won me over to its cause. So, I stripped out the radio and all of the anachronisms, taking it down to just the hull - 

So, what we are left with is a model that borrows from the Martinez-Hildago Santa Maria as well as a few other interpretations. Proportionally, it works out very closely to the uno-dos-tres rule; the keel is almost twice the beam, and the length between perpendiculars almost thrice the beam. As far as shape is concerned, it is lovely. It is two pieces; an upper and lower hull, separated along a lower wale. Scale is between 1/100 (for the smallest interpretations) to 1/130. 
There are still issues, however. Deck planking is too wide, there are slots where the tuning and volume wheels used to be, the decking is closed between the main and quarterdeck, the remnants of the gun ports have to be filled and removed. 
But it has plenty of potential, and will one day be a good solid start. 
My apologies to all vintage radio collectors.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Monleon's Other Santa Maria

In discussions about the appearance of the Santa Maria, a frequently discussed item is the shape of the hull. Aside from Julio Guillen y Tato's 1929 version (which he considered a caravel), the Santa Maria is usually considered to be a nao, a small carrack.
At this point, it would probably behoove us to explain exactly what a carrack is.
Carracks were vessels that first appeared in the Mediterranean area in the 15th century. They contained both northern and southern design elements. The square sail was reintroduced to the area after northern cogs visited southern Europe in the 14th century, in the form of pirates, apparently. The sail form and single stern rudder would soon be added to southern vessels, leading to what might be considered the proto-carrack. Unlike the northern ships, these vessels did not use clinker or lapstrake hull construction, where the planks overlap. Instead, these new vessels used the normal edge on planking over a frame, or what is sometimes referred to as carvel planking. Not only is the hull smoother, it is also stronger.
By the early 15th century, the carrack had grown to three masts; fore, main and mizzen. In the Iberian states, carracks were frequently referred to as naos (Spanish) or naus (Portuguese). 
The Santa Maria was one such nao.
Most of the reconstructions of the Santa Maria referred to the vessel as a nao. Even Rafael Monleon y Torres, who believed that the word "caravel" was simply a colloquialism to describe small vessels, referred to the Santa Maria as a nao (confusingly, not only did he believe that the term "carabela" was applied to most small vessels, he also believed that proper caravels did exist as well). When he was working with the Spanish Commission in the early 1890's, he collaborated with Cesareo Fernandez Duro in working out the appearance of Columbus' vessels, but not the Santa Maria. The official Santa Maria was a collaborative effort, and the resulting ship, while beautiful, was controversial; it had features that were from later periods.
Monleon, of course, had his own version. 
His Santa Maria was, on the whole, a better design.

Still, it had that square stern.
This was not his first Santa Maria, though.
In 1885, seven years earlier, he did a large number of paintings showing the history of ships. One of these showed Columbus' "armada de la Indies".

This Santa Maria shows perhaps a little too much decoration astern, but does capture the appearance of a nao very nicely.

It's the shape of the stern, though, that sets this version apart. Unlike his final version, this Santa Maria has a round tucked stern.

Enhanced view of Santa Maria's  stern.
In other words, his early attempt had some features more correct than his later work.

Monleon's Santa Maria  in "El Centenario", vol. II, 1892.

Why the change? We can only guess. The only reconstruction of the Santa Maria from that period that had a round stern was the E. A. d'Albertis version, which also had the honor of being the largest design. Monleon's earlier Santa Maria still had some details wrong, but it was a step in the right direction, and much closer than the officially sanctioned replica.

ADDENDUM - 10 January, 2016 -
A little further information. The painting is a watercolor, and depicts the fleet off of Palos. While it may not be a true design, I am adding it to a list of Santa Maria reconstructions as the very first serious attempt.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Concerning the Topsail

As I continue my research into the ships of Juan Ponce de Leon, questions are beginning to arise about the vessel that served as his "capitana", his flagship. This caravel, the Santiago, undoubtedly carried the square rig that had become common on the larger of this class, and quite likely carried four masts as well. The question becomes one of total number of sails, and did it possibly carry a topsail.
Currently, there are a number of replicas of vessels from the late 15th and early 16th centuries. One of the newer ones is a replica of the Pinta, built in Brazil for the Columbus Foundation. Like their Niña, or Santa Clara, it was given four masts and standard square rig; fore and main masts square, mizzen and bonaventure masts carrying lateen. Not long after being launched, the larger Pinta was given a topsail, somewhat trapezoidal in form. The reason given had to do with handling and performance.
This is not the first time a "Pinta" was given a topsail; both Monleon (who believed that the Pinta was more of a nao than a caravel) and de Albertis gave their interpretations topsails at various times. Considering just how close the Pinta was to the size of the Santa Maria, this seems logical. She was in all likelihood a newer vessel, and had been rigged square even later. While many have illustrated the Pinta with a simple square rig (three masts, two carrying single square sails while the mizzen was lateen rigged), in truth there is not enough information to verify just what sort of rig the Pinta carried. In light of the discovery that the Niña carried four masts after conversion to a square rig, it is possible that the Columbus Foundation's replica is somewhat closer to the truth; if the smaller Niña needed four masts, the larger Pinta certainly would have needed to have carried more canvas. The Pinta had been mentioned as being a fairly fast caravel, and this replica is perhaps the closest approximation to Ponce de Leon's flagship.
But could it have carried a topsail, especially a trapezoidal one?
Some time in the mid fifteenth century, the steadily evolving square rigged ship developed a new type of sail. This was an interesting time in the development of the ship. In the span of a century, southern and northern European styles began to merge, and from this synthesis a truly seaworthy vessel began to emerge. By 1460, a variety of rig could be found; single, double and triple masted vessels were common, with the latter rapidly replacing the older, simpler rigs. A big change occurred sometime around mid century.
The large main mast had carried only one sail, and larger vessels frequently carried a flagstaff from the very top. Much like the way the fore mast evolved from a flagstaff, it was a logical step to try mounting a sail from the flag staff. 
These initial sails were quite small and quite simple in rig. The shape in some of the first illustrations can only be guessed at, as the sails are furled up to the new top sail yard.
One of the first illustrations from the 15th century that shows us not only the rig of a three masted vessel but the an unfurled topsail is an Italian engraving from circa 1475. The unusual thing here is the shape of the topsail; it is an inverted triangle, bent to a yard that lacks topping lifts.

As we move further into the fifteenth century, the sail evolves into one that is more rectangular, almost square. 

Many maritime historians believe that the main topsail would remain rectangular, or approximately thus, until at least the early sixteenth century. However, some sources point towards a change around the end of the fifteenth century. 
At that time, the topsail grew from rectangular to trapezoidal. This resulted in an increase in sail area that facilitated better rigging of the yard. These first changes were in the form of single line topping lifts. With the heavier trapezoidal sail, these lifts grew as well, with blocks appearing at the end of the topsail yards.
Many smaller vessels, or vessels that carried smaller topsails, show no topsail topping lifts at all, and in fact probably didn't need them. These smaller rectangular topsails were more than likely meant to be flown in very light weather and were possibly handled by a person in the top.
By at least 1482, though, this was changing. Two sources show us how the topmast was evolving. The first is a map by the cartographer Grazioso Benincasa from 1482. On this map is a small carrack or nao carrying a topsail whose shape is difficult to determine, but is hanging from a topmast that shows shrouds, standing rigging for steadying the mast.

The next source is a painting by Vittore Carpaccio from 1490. 

In the "Arrival of the Pilgrims in Cologne", we have several large Italian carracks, in remarkable detail. One shows a top mast with standing rigging again, but now with simple topping lifts. 

No sail is bent on this yard, but far in the background we see other carracks carrying rectangular topsails.

With the improvements in the topmast, it was inevitable that increasing the size of the topsail would be the next logical step.
From many of the illustrations of this period we find that the topsail normally had its sheet lines leading directly to the top. This again leads us to speculate that the smaller topsails were handled from the top. A modest increase in the size of the topsail put the lower corners, and therefore the sheets, further out from the top. Leading these lines back to the top would be illogical, so they were likely lead down to the mainsail yard. This step inevitably would allow the topsail to grow in size, with an increase in rigging that would now have to be handled from the deck below instead of the top. The outcome would be trapezoidal topsails.

If we assume that the Pinta had started life as a three masted caravela latina and then was converted into a four masted caravela redonda some time before 1490, it would be logical to assume that she would be rigged with the most modern rig possible.
But what of the Santa Maria?
If the Santa Maria had been built around 1460, then yes, the topsail would have started out small and rectangular, typical for the period. As to whether or not it remained thus is open to speculation, though we do have a drawing of three ships on a map of the island of Hispaniola from the very early 16th century, attributed to Ferdinand Columbus, that shows two square rigged vessels and a one lateen rigged. Both of the square rigged vessel carry topsails, with the larger one being very much a "nao" in appearance. This is the similar to the rigs the vessels carried when they left on the first voyage. 
These topsails are trapezoidal. 

It could be possible that, much like the Pinta, if the Santa Maria had been modernized prior to the voyage, a newer trapezoidal sail may have been fitted.
This is all clearly speculation, of course. 
By the time of Juan Ponce de Leon's voyage in 1513, the topsail was firmly established on all larger vessels, and by the 17th century, the topsail would grow to being of equal importance to the main.

"Portuguese Carracks of a Rocky Coast" , circa 1520. This painting shows a large carrack, possibly the Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai. Note the proportions to which the main topsail has grown in just a few decades.

The full rigged ship had truly arrived.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Caravelon

The second largest ship in Ponce de Leon's little fleet, the Santa Maria de Consolacion, has been variously called a caravel and caravelon (or carabelon). Most sources point towards the latter, but what exactly was a caravelon?

According to later sources, a caravelon was a small caravel. The Portuguese name for the same class of vessel was caravelao. The suffix in both cases normally refers to something larger, but most caravelons were small vessels, running anywhere from twenty to fifty tonels (casks of wine). These vessels were about the size of the first caravels that Prince Henry of Portugal ran down the coast of Africa, starting in the mid 15th century. 
In Bjorn Landstroms "Bold Voyages and Great Explorers", he has various illustrations of these first generation caravels of exploration, and I think that they are very good representatives of how caravelons appeared. For myself, I see these caravelons of the second decade of the 16th century as being single decked with a small structure at the stern. Two masts are stepped, lateen rigged. They are light and nimble enough for the task of exploration. We know that by this time, the Caribbean had a number of caravelon serving in various capacities.

Unlike the bergantina, the caravelon is easier to guess at. These are still just studies, the color pencil one a little rougher than the pen drawing. Soon, I hope to have a final appearance set for this fascinating variant of the caravel family.