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The Chinese junk: 12th century - 15th century

The design of the Chinese junk (a western word from the Malayan djong, meaning 'boat') is perfected during the later part of the Song dynasty, when the loss of the northern empire increases the importance of overseas trade. A merchant fleet, and a navy to defend it, become essential. The resulting junk is an ideal craft for the South China seas.

The region suffers violent typhoons, so a strong hull is essential. The Chinese achieve this by means of the bulkhead - a partition across the interior of the hull, and sometimes along its length as well. Bulkheads make the hull rigid and also provide watertight compartments - invaluable when a leak at sea needs repair.

The Chinese junk has other pioneering features later copied elsewhere. Traditionally built without a keel (allowing access to shallow waters), the junk is ill-equipped to sail a straight course until an important innovation of the Song period - the addition of the sternpost rudder. This is a large heavy board which can be lowered on a sternpost when the junk moves into deep water. Coming below the bottom of the boat, and capable of hinging on its post, it fulfils the function both of keel and rudder.

Until this time, throughout the world, the conventional method of steering a boat has been by means of a long oar projecting from the stern.

Another important innovation on the Chinese junk is multiple masts. Marco Polo describes sea-going junks as having four masts, with a further two which can be raised when required. Each mast has square-rigged sails. They concertina on themselves, when reefed, in the manner of a Venetian blind.

These ships are huge. Marco Polo claims that sixty private cabins for merchants can be built on the deck, and archaeological evidence suggests that by the 15th century a large merchant junk is about 450 feet from the bow to the high poop in the stern - six times the length of the contemporary Portuguese caravel. In 1973 the discovery of a junk of the 13th-century confirms much of what Marco Polo reports from the time of Kublai Khan.

Multiple masts and sails: 15th century

The humble European cargo ship - slow, tubby and propelled by a single sail, as opposed to the sleek lines of a galley with its crew of oarsmen - has changed little in design since the ships of the Phoenicians. In1400 such a vessel still has a single mast in the centre of the ship. And it still carries a single sail, in most cases a rectangle of canvas set square against the mast.

This type of ship would have been familiar to Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and crusaders as the standard vessel of Mediterranean trade. But in the 15th century, with attention turning increasingly to the Atlantic, there are rapid developments.

A second mast is added, and then a third. By the middle of the 15th century three masts are standard on the larger sailing ships, some of which are now of considerable size. In 1418 the Grace Dieu is built at Southampton for Henry V. Her remains, found in the mud of the nearby Hamble river in 1933, reveal that she was 125 feet long and 50 feet wide.

At the same period it is discovered that the main mast can take a second smaller sail at the top. By the end of the 15th century there are ships with four masts, carrying between them sometimes as many as eight sails. The development is under way which will lead to the massive weight of sail on the 18th-century East Indiaman and man-of-war.

The most effective sailing ship of the 15th century is the caravel, developed in the Mediterranean but subsequently adapted by the Spanish and Portuguese for service in the Atlantic. Caravels are considerably smaller than the Grace Dieu built early in the century for Henry V (they are usually about 75 feet in length), but they are sturdy and relatively fast.

When Dias, Columbus and Magellan set off on their great expeditions, their ships are caravels.

Carracks, galleons and galleys: 16th century

The largest European sailing ship of the 15th century is the Spanish carrack, easily outdoing the caravel in tonnage (more than 1000 tons compared to an average of 250 for the caravel). The carrack becomes the standard vessel of Atlantic trade and adventure in the mid-16th century, until an important modification is made to its design.

The carrack has unusually high castles in bow and stern, but the English trader of slaves John Hawkins discovers in the 1560s that the forecastle seriously hampers sailing. The great bulk of it, catching the wind ahead of the mast, has the effect of pushing the bow to leeward - making it very difficult to sail close to the wind.

From 1570 Hawkins experiments with a design in which the high forecastle is eliminated. He proves that a ship with high stern and relatively low bow is faster and more manoeuvrable. With an official post on the Navy Board, he is able to improve the English fleet dramatically before the encounter with the Spanish Armada in 1588 - when the agility of the English vessels wins the day.

Hawkins' 'low-charged' design, which acquires the general name of galleon, becomes the standard form for all large ships, whether merchant vessels or men-of-war, and remains so until the late 18th century.

The development of the galleon, the warship of the future, overlaps with the final chapter in the story of the galley - a vessel with some 2500 years of service in naval engagements.

In 1571, while Hawkins is improving the design of the carrack, a fleet of Christian galleys engages with the Turks at Lepanto in the coastal waters of Greece. Using the ancient tactics of ramming and boarding, the Christians rout the Turks - sinking some 50 galleys and capturing another 117. It is the last and the largest encounter in which ships are rowed into battle. Some 15,000 enslaved Christians, rowing the Turkish galleys, win their freedom as a result of the victory.

East Indiamen: 17th - 18th century

The great value of trade from India and the East Indies prompts the various East India companies - and particularly those of England and Holland - to invest in magnificent ocean-going merchant ships. They need to be capacious to store the cargo; they need to be strong and well-armed to fight off pirates or even the ships of rival companies; and they need to be comfortable for their captains and for important passengers, busy making fortunes in the east.

Beautifully carved and gilded, these are the most splendid ships of the time. The largest class, outdoing even the biggest warships, are 1200 tons.

These vast ships are not fast, as their statistics reveal. The largest are 165 feet long and as much as 42 feet wide, a ratio of less than 4:1 between length and width. These are the portly aldermen of the high seas. While the East India companies enjoy a monopoly of trade, speed is not of great importance. Each ship completes just one journey out to the east and one back each year, using the trade winds to help it in each direction.

But in the 19th century the monopolies end, bringing competition, urgency and speed - in the age of the clippers.

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