Survival of the fittest at sea

The history of the world is often based on coincidences, but sometimes human beings have a hand in them, and this is especially true at sea.

For centuries, ships were the most advanced technical achievements of their time and served to make their owners richer, mightier or just allowed them to survive. What is today the rocket that conquers space was once the proud galleon that crossed the Atlantic. However, size and cannons were not always decisive. The skill of a captain, or lack thereof, as well as the appropriateness of equipment could decide over life or death and even if the ship sank, it is sometimes still possible to trace the reason for a disaster.

For example, when the Mary Rose wreck was excavated in the UK, its cannon doors were found open. These flaps, however, are only opened to shoot, as a violent turning maneuver or a gush of wind can cause the ship to lean to one side and seawater to penetrate the cannon hatches. But if a turn is necessary in combat, one should remember to stop firing and to close the hatches and not turn with open flaps like the captain of the Mary Rose apparently did, especially if the ship has become heavier due to additional cannons that were loaded on board to win the battle.

A similar mistake sealed the fate of the famous Armada, the fleet of Philip of Spain, which sailed to take England. The Spaniards had high, castle-like and, in their opinion, frightening stern superstructures on their ships, which however caused a high center of gravity, which had to be compensated by a greater draught. Yet, this draught made the ships slow and cumbersome. The high superstructures were moreover susceptible to wind and offered easy targets to the lighter and faster ships of the English forces. Of 130 ships, only 68 returned to Spain and many of them fell victim to the storm rather than the enemy.

It was thus essential to have the right ship for the right situation and humanity worked hard to get there.

In a coastal area of Spain, very special shipwrecks give an example to that effort. With the help of the submarine Ictineu, the remains of a wreck were located at Cala Cativa in Spain at a depth of about 30 meters. Looking at the timbers, archaeologists concluded that they were looking at a surprising example of Iberian naval architecture. Unlike Roman ships, the wreck’s frames were tied with ropes. Furthermore, the keel was totally flat. At that time, the Catalan coast was made up of marshes, and these local ships were designed specifically for sailing in that environment to transport wine. Their dimensions and mode of construction show that they were vessels made with indigenous naval techniques specially fitting for the purpose and thus superior to any much more sophisticated, but bigger construction.

Shipbuilding progress was thus crucial to help seafarers to win in the battle for the survival of the fittest. However, just in case and if all intelligence shouldn’t help… there remained still trust in the Almighty as a main seafaring help. Archaeologists thus found in the Spanish wreck, among others, a splendid Iberian coin from the 2nd century BC, from Arse or Bolskan, the present-day Sagunto and Huesca.

It shows the typical effigy of a knight holding a lance. The coin is an offering, which was placed in a hole at the base of the mast to attract good luck and god’s help.

U.C. Ringuer

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