Join the Athenian Navy and see the Edge of the World

During the Summer of 1988 I had a rare opportunity to combine my interest in travel, with my drawing of aTrireme from my loginterests in experimental archaeology and the ancient world. I joined the ancient Athenian Navy.
           I had read a very interesting article about John Coats in WoodenBoat magazine, and how he and a group called the Trireme Trust was trying to build an actual 170 oar Trireme so that they could do a series of experiments to find out how it was rowed, how fast it would go, and how well it could maneuver. Cool.
           Several weeks later while reading another periodical, an advertisement caught my eye, it read: “Join the Athenian Navy and see the Edge of the World”.  It appeared the Trireme Trust were recruiting crew for the sea trials of the Trireme I had read about. The actual trials would take place in the Aegean Sea, near Athens. I made a phone call; and yes, I joined the ancient Athenian Navy over the phone.
           The 50 members of the crew from the United States met in Boston Massachusetts to spend a couple of days training as a group with the ship’s boats of the U.S.S. Constitution, and to fly out together for Greece. This alone was quite the exercise in cultural adjustment as we were going from training and experimenting with 19th century technology while under the jurisdiction of the modern U.S. Navy to training and experimenting with the technology of 250 BC while under the direct jurisdiction of the modern Hellenic Navy.
           The arrival at the naval base where we were stationed in Greece was very exciting, particularly as we got our first look at our ship, the Olympias. At 120 feet long, she had the appearance of both a thoroughbred and a predator. Jet lag seemed to dissipate as our excitement grew and we wondered allowed how, and if, we could get 170 oars rowing together. What would be our flank speed? How long could we maintain a constant cruising speed and what would that speed be?

Drawing from my log of the stern of Olympias

           As is the case with any large-scale expedition involving a ship, there was some friction between certain personalities, there were a few malcontents, and even a few sea lawyers. However, what I remember the most were men and women from a multitude of backgrounds who were willing to put aside personal likes and dislikes and who were also willing to endure heat, lack of space, lack of privacy, and physical exhaustion in order put the goals of this archaeological experiment first.
           That summer of 1988 was remarkable, the previous summer, two weeks sea trials following the launch of Olympias, had provides few answers and a longer list of questions. We, the 88′ crew, had arrived with a punch list of experiments to execute with the goal of collecting some hard data that could then be examined and analyzed. 
           Because of my background in boat building, I got to be part of the repair crew as well as a Thranite (rower on the third, or top tier). After taking the ship out, the repair team would meet to mend the numerous things that can break on a wooden ship. Being part of that team turned out to be a wonderful learning opportunity because it allowed me a first hand look at some of the problem solving that went on after each rowing session.    

Normal stoke of the triad of rowers

           I could fill an entire web log with stories from this adventure to Greece, but I will limit myself to a few observations that made a lasting impression on me.
           First, as we set about tackling one problem after another, I was impressed by how often the best solutions came from totally unexpected directions and were often proposed by people who had no preconceived notions about how this “should” work.
           Second, by far the most interesting people, with the most interesting ideas, were consistently the most humble and the least interested in credit.
           Third, the part that, for me anyway, was the most impressive was the combination of sound and motion that defined the Trireme underway. The motion of 170 oars lifting and falling in unison matched by a rhythmic deep booming sound made by all those oars coming down against the gunnels and tholepins at the same time makes a terrifically powerful impression, one that I have never seen adequately captured on film or video.

OLympias under way

           By the way, the concept of keeping the rowers in time using a drum is pure Hollywood. A drum cannot compete with the deep rumble of oars rubbing on gunnels and tholepins. Through trial and error, we found that a flute is about the only sound that could penetrate the din below decks, which should not come as a surprise because, as our archeologists pointed out (after the fact), “auletes”, or flute players, were mentioned in ancient texts as part of Trireme crews.  

Olympias at the dock

           In the end, the information we gathered left me astonished at how much can be accomplished with wood, leather, rope, and teamwork. We were able get 170 rowers, all three tiers, working together with a coordinated skill. We achieved flank speeds of better than nine knots, a cruising speed of seven knots with two tiers rowing and one tier resting, and we were able to maintain this speed for hours. With practice, we could board an entire crew of over two hundred officers, rowers, coaches and sailors, and get under way in less than fifteen minutes. If you are interested in the technical data, or more information you should check out the site of the Trireme Trust.

Drawing of Triremes launching from my log

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4 Responses to “Join the Athenian Navy and see the Edge of the World”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Is there any video of Olympias in action? Can you suggest a link?

  2. dovetails Says:

    I have not found any video of the trireme underway except that at one point the Trireme Trust had some on their web site. They would be the ones to contact.
    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Nelson Jonnes Says:

    Do you know where one can buy plans of the Olympias design, and/or a kit for construction of a model?

  4. dovetails Says:

    Hi Nelson,
    I do not know of any model kits of the Olympias. If you were going to build a model from scratch, I would recommend the book The Athenian Trireme by J.S. Morrison and J.F. Coates ISBN 0-521-31100-4. It has good scale drawing of the ship in plan and in elevation. It also has some good detail drawings. On the whole, however, the book is about the Athenian Trireme in the broader sense and not specifically about the Olympias. The other source that may be more useful for making a model is an old issue of WoodenBoat Magazine on the construction and design of the Olympias (see issue #75 published some time in the late 1980’s, back issues are available from Woodenboat.com), including commentary by John Coats who oversaw the construction of the replica ship.
    Good Luck, and thanks for the comment,
    Dovetails

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