Naval History

An intro to naval history

Prehistoric boats, dugout, canoe rafts, reed boats, skin boats. The Polynesians pioneers

From skinboats to …flying ships

From prehistoric times, when probably someone falling into a torrent hang on a trunk and discover a much faster way to travel, or later go fishing on improvised rafts, man used the sea and lakes for survival and later convenience. Basically in these very early times linked to the last ice age, the first kind of “boat” ever devised was a dugout, carved from a rough trunk. In effect, it defined for the future two family of boats, one destined to stay confined to leisure (now made with composite materials), the one piece boat, and one composite boat destined to conquer the seven seas and probably an early exemple of complex technology that also led to the conquest of space. Nowadays, ships are greener, roomier, with better automation. They are also faster with hybrids like hovercrafts, and hydroptères has long been seen as the way to go for light ships. A sailing one proved that it could reach 100 kph, only relying on wind power. More promising and even faster are other hybrids like wing-in-ground effect crafts.

Part I: Dugout Canoes

It is undoubtedly the simplest and most common boat type still encountered in hot, woody countries. It was also the standard in Europe during the Ice Age as a construction project digging deep unearthed by chance probably the oldest European boat, a canoe dating back 10,000 years time from the banks of the Seine, at a time tribes known an hunting area where woolly mammoths quench their thirst. The word “Dugout” (dug out) is also known as Pirogue (Fr) Piroge (German), or Latin Trinchera, coming from “Piragua”, a Guarani word literally meaning “water that goes over the water”, the term date of the discovery of Columbus, shared by all the Caribbean Indians. Crafted for an indefinite time in the great forests to serve on large rivers like the Amazon and its tributaries, but also Zaire, Zambezi, and many others around the equator, the dugout embodies simplicity itself.

Caribbean Indians Piragua of the Guarani

Dugout boats arises from a hollowed tree trunk; All species do not permit that, far from it: It must a light essence, solid, non-porous, because waterproofing techniques did not existed at first, except, however, the “bucanning” technique, by wooden fire, or a coating based on vegetable wax or sap. The typical tropical canoe was often made in Balsa wood, coated with sap, heated over a wooden fire, which gave it its dark color. On Zaire river, Mahogany trunks, Framiré, and especially Iroko, as essence often used, whose life once dried was 10 years old. In North America (pacific coast indians), canoes were often made of red cedar, a huge and strong tree.

These large canoes were painted in bright colors. Shapes varied widely by region but overall, dugouts made of tropical timber had limited sizes and a tapered shape, dictated by the empiricism of speed. African canoes were often diverted to a flexible wooden type assembled from three main parts: Flat bottom, two lined plates and two crosses. This is the type which is currently manufactured, including throughout West Africa.

prehistoric dugout
european dugout
European Dugouts, 10,000 bc.

Although early dugouts really were emptied trunks, roughly carved, empiricism commanded nicer, curvy shapes of the front and rear resulting undoubtedly a lesser water resistance. European dugout discoveries as well as live archaeological reconstructions tell us about their construction technique: A typical Mesolithic dugout measured 6-8 meters by 50 centimeters, its weight could range from 250 to 750 kgs. Its cross-section perfectly married the shape of the trunk, including its imperfections. Therefore the choice of a straight, perfect trunk was important, especially as nodes were all potential waterways. Also conifers were preferred, being both a waterproof timber and having a certain lightness, ease of the work, besides being straight, and without knots on the bulk of the log (high branches).

polynesian piragua
A typical Polynesian dugout with balancing float

They had probably a stone anchor (found with the remains of dugouts) and propelled with improvised paddles. For their construction, were used flint adzes, wedges, sledgehammers and wooden hammers but also scissors bone and antlers, wire tracing and a lighter flint with tinder for method burning by digging. First was marked the upper edge notched on the sides (pre-cut with scissors and measured using the wire), and the content this slice sections were notched in V with an adze and then removed to the using wooden wedges tapped to ground, or a stag corner.

The thickness was measured using a bow-shaped instrument, then finishes were proceeded by burning: Suppressed splinters and treated wood against pests naturally. Finally, sealing was done by a mixture of beeswax hot vegetable fibers on the cracks. The lower part was generally thicker, as the central part of the stern and the bow, to prevent the wood from splitting when drying.

Toba boat

In the Pacific Islands, canoes has unique characteristics: Thin and flexible, because of the nature of the trees used, and generally higher than wide. It necessarily carries a balance to ensure stability, the “float” being connected to the set with light wood, solid and flexible (such as bamboo). The catamaran solution (a Polynesian word) came from this concept, combining the advantages of the raft and finesse of dugout hulls. It is definitely implanted today throughout the pacific.

Poynesian Catamaran priests travelling across Kealakekua bay for first contacts rituals
Poynesian Catamaran priests travelling across Kealakekua bay for first contacts rituals

In Polynesia at least three types of canoes are known: The Fishing Celle, single or double pendulum is sub-distinguished between the small Va’a (the most common equivalent for “piragua”), for fishing in lagoons, the Va’Motu for inshore fishing, and Va’a Tira for deep sea fishing.

Tuamotu Islands catamaran
Tuamotu Islands catamaran

Transport was performed with catamaran type, and sub-distinguished between the Tipaerua, ranging from 13 to 25 meters and sometimes double hull, for passenger transport and inter-island commercial transportation and the Pahi, wider and longer and often given 2 sails, operated by 6-8 men. Finally the Tama’i, a Pahi catamarans of war, a little thinner (thus faster), decorated to be both aggressive and flamboyant. In common a large central paddle at the stern of the raft was used in cases, the “hoe”, a scoop, and a stone anchor. The Tipaerua-like Pahi was considered by the Polynesians as their “fenua” their territory, bearing the name of their lineage. Landing on a virgin island, it took the name of the boat.

Part II: Kayaks – Skinboats from the North

A Kayak Eskimo from Greenland.

The Canoe, a composite boat, unlike the basic dugout, existed throughout the North American continent, and a variant called Kayak (kyak, kyack, Kaiak, qajaq), a palindrome reflecting the symmetry of the boat, was also used by peoples of the Arctic circle. The Lapps, Inuit (Eskimo), Aleuts, Chukchi, Koryak, all used it dating back at least 4,000 years. We found these boats in the south of Greenland, in Eastern Siberia and Alaska. It is very likely that this skinboat was born during the Ice Age as the construction methods found everywhere were probably close. It was traditionally made of floating woods (found on the shore) and reindeer bones linked by tendons and sinews and skins of marine mammals, covered with skins sewn with a sealing made of a mixture varying depending on the regions. Kayaking is the most famous boat the Arctic Circle. It is lightweight, easily transportable on the back of one man if needed, almost symmetrical, along about four meters wide by 50-60 centimeters, and only opening is a manhole whose solidarity with the anorak paddler is provided by a completely tight skirt. A necessity because the boat is very fast but also quite unstable.

Baidarka wooden Aleut Siberians (of French Anthropology illustration, late nineteenth century)

One of the basic techniques of its handling was indeed the “Eskimo” technique which consisted to recover by using the body and paddles when turned upside down. The double paddle is also a feature of this boat. Greenlanders are said to have invented several techniques of this type, especially because of their particularly fine and narrow boats. Despite a ballast for stability, they were going to hunt, could turn even an experienced hunter. But other techniques exist, only in a hunt group or other kayakers could intervene quickly. In one of these techniques, the kayaker waiting to be returned by a partner or, failing that, until the others arrive, a paddler boat if permitted, enter the capsized kayak and breathe the air trapped inside waiting to be rescued.

The kayak was primarily an individual boat for fishing and hunting, probably the best. Not only it was very fast but also very stealthy and perfect for the ambush and pursuit of marine mammals, but also for group hunting like stalking caribou crossing a river. The kayaks were maintained with the utmost attention and the coating was carefully oiled every 4-8 days in order to keep its seal, flexibility and prevent cracks to happen. The skin was shaved carefully because holes could let air pass once the decomposed body hair, and treated before assembly with a mixture acting as a glue creeping into any orifice. Harsh climate conditions required treatment at this level…

Each nation had its own kayak construction material subtleties. Some used more wood when it was abundant, and in North America fully wooden kayaks appeared. Thus, in the Aleutian and Alaska were building a two-seater variant of the kayak, called Baidarka. This type of canoe was little used because of the relative strength of two paddlers and difficulty staying the course of a boat of this type. Some were even triple Baidarka and appeared on the Siberian area, used as transportation by the Russians Orthodox missionaries (no paddles).

Inuit traditional Kayak in Greenland

According to other theories, kayak would have derived from Umiaks, an oldest, “bridged” version, and faster. It was not uncommon to see Umiaks (or sometimes Baydar) and kayaks hunt together, the vast hull of the first used to carry preys and supplies… Kayakers were able to take off, crossing the already impressive waves, chasing whales… Hunting equipment varied depending on the desired prey. Thus, the harpoon, large multi-tip spear were attached to the boat, finer, the two are often used with a throwing stick similar to the South American atlatl. To increase the strength and scope pitcher of darts, light enough for catching fish and even birds, a spear was used to kill the animal closely and naturally finish it off with a knife. The meat was brought to the village in several ways. If the boat was fairly large and the prey small enough, it was loaded on the front or back deck. Quick solution but which made the whole very unstable. More often, especially because of the size of the prey, the animal was cut into pieces on the ice and stored evenly inside the boat. The prey could also have been towed, inflated to prevent it from flowing, and assist the kayak, fastened like a float.

Kayaking, whose knowledge in the West really started in the late nineteenth century, has gradually become a popular sport in the second half of the 20th century, from 1959 when the modern copy of an Eskimo kayak was made and sold in Scotland. Shapes and building materials have adapted to the modern world. Fiberglass, plastic, plywood, have become common materials, modern Eskimos themselves having no recourse to ancient building methods whose expertise continues yet again.


Naval History on wikipedia
About the dugout canoes on wikipedia
About the Kayak on wikipedia
Boats history on wikipedia

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