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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How Accurate Was Tim Severin's ARGO?

The Argo in Istanbul. All images in this post are from The Jason Voyage by Tim Severin. Click any image to enlarge.
In The Jason Voyage: The Quest for the Golden Fleece , Tim Severin describes his recreation of the legendary Greek's quest. As in his other books detailing his reenactments of other legendary voyages, Severin's main objective is tell a rousing tale. While his reenactments all seek to demonstrate that the original voyage described in the legend was feasible -- and thereby lend credence to the legend -- Severin doesn't overdo the argument. He retains his credibility by never pretending to be doing serious science, the way that Thor Heyerdahl did. Instead, Severin combined an  adventurer's urge with a fascination for voyaging legends and a skill at writing exciting first-person narratives into a tremendous career which I can only envy.

To the extent that a date can be ascribed to any truth that lies behind the legend of quest for the Golden Fleece, 1300 BC is the best guess. But no Greek ships of that era have ever been recovered, and the only evidence of their form comes from sketchy, stylized illustrations found on pottery of the era. We do have firm archaeological evidence for Greek ships from several hundred years later, however, and that evidence drove the design of the new vessel, which was drawn by British naval architect Colin Mudie, who had designed the curragh for Severin's previous project, The Brendan Voyage (also discussed in a prior post).

While Jason's Argo had 50 oars, according to the epic poem of Apollonius, Severin's Argo would have but 20, making the vessel considerably smaller and more economical to construct and campaign. Severin felt that if a 20-oar vessel could complete the voyage of reenactment, that would more than demonstrate the feasibility of the original legendary voyage. 

As discussed in a previous post, the form of Greek warships of even Homer's date is debatable, so the form of a ship of Jason's era is even less sure. With this uncertainly permitting flexibility on Mudie's part, he designed the vessel with an eye toward safety, with fairly full lines, high gunwales and even higher ends. The new Argo was an aphract -- a vessel with all the oars on one level -- 54' LOA, 9' in beam, and 3' of draught. As shown above, the hull is lovely in profile, and only moderately slender in plan view. 

All this is a kind of preface to asking: just how close did Mudie come to an accurate reproduction?
Argo struggles against the current in the Bosphorus -- the most difficult rowing of the voyage.
Ships with 20 oars -- the smallest mentioned by Homer several hundred years following Jason's quest -- were used "for ordinary transport and dispatch work," according to Lionel Casson in Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Dispatch-carrying, of course, demands speed. But the new Argo did not prove notably swift. Although driven without too much trouble in calm airs (ten men pulling could move the boat at 3 to 4 knots and make 20 to 30 miles a day), Severin found it nearly impossible to make progress against the slightest headwind, blaming the windage of the high bow. Could Greek military units  have abided such delays in communication, or were they willing to sacrifice safety -- and accept the more frequent loss of a dispatch -- by giving their 20-oared dispatch-runners a lighter, narrower, lower, and generally sleeker hullform? (In contrast, 50-oared ships -- later known as penteconters [i.e., "fifty-ers"] were the "common troop transport" of Homer's day. I suspect that their greater horsepower would have failed to make up for their greater burthen in terms of sustained speed over long distances.) 
Severin holds the construction model of Argo. Note how the extended bow appears to be added on to a bow of more conventional form.
Looking at the profile drawing, the ram-shaped bow appears to be added-on to a conventional bow. From the upward run of the planks near the keel just abaft of the hawsehole, it looks as if the bow has a conventional run below the waterline, and that the extended bow was created by overlaying "cheeks" of partial strakes between the extended stem and the hull's main strakes where they begin to curve inward at the bow. I suspect that a real, conventional, aft-curving stem lies hidden beneath the triangular cheeks, and that the forward-curving stem is a false stem that ties into an extended keel. This appears to be confirmed by the construction model held by Severin in the photo above. (Severin's shipwright followed this model and did not work from plans.) One wonders if the area inside the cheeks, between the two stems, was filled with buoyant material or left hollow as a watertight buoyancy chamber. Either way would appear to be a breeding ground for rot.

I have never seen any depiction or description of ancient Greek ships that suggests this approach, and I don't know of any reason to believe it correct. The more logical approach by far is for the hull's strakes to run directly to the visible stem, with no hidden stem and no cheeks filling out the hollow waterlines. I can only guess that Mudie and Severin thought they'd have better luck finding a Greek shipwright who could build a conventional bow and then add a false front to it, than one willing to experiment with an unfamiliar reverse-curving stem and the attendant unknowns about how to plank up to it.
Argo under sail. A single helmsman manned the two tillers, moving them in opposite directions to steer.
With a shallow keel and no other lateral plane, Argo performed poorly under sail, unable to maintain even a broad reach until it was discovered that by moving virtually all stores and crew onto the after deck, pointing ability improved by 15 degrees. And this was without the heavy bronze fitting that would have tipped the ram on a real warship. Argo was also difficult to turn, the extended bow tending to keep the boat heading in its current direction regardless of the position of the dual side-rudders. (By the way, both rudders broke twice during the voyage, although this may have been a failure of execution, not design.) It's interesting that Viking ships managed with a single side-rudder although, without the extended bow, they were probably easier to steer in the first place.
Planks were joined edge-to-edge with free tenons ("mortise tongues") in matching mortises in the facing plank edges. All was held in place with wood plugs through the planks and the tenons.
As in  Homer's  vessels, the hull was built shell-first, with frames added only after the planking was complete. Plank-to-plank fastening was done with the mortise-and-tenon method, as illustrated above and discussed in a previous post. Although it is an effective fastening method, the high intensity of labor that it requires is well recognized. Severin disagrees, however, claiming that it was quite efficient. But one gets the sense that he says this as a tribute to his shipwright's skill, for he also acknowledges that, where the shipwright handled every other aspect of construction single-handedly, using only hand tools, the free tenons were cut by a helper, who also did the mortising with the help of a machine. 

The "Jason voyage" was successful in its objective of traveling from Greece, across the Aegean Sea, through the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosphorus, and along the entire southern coast of the Black Sea, to Poti, Georgia -- a distance of some 1,500 miles. (And Severin later used it  to recreate the tale of the Odyssey in The Ulysses Voyage: Sea Search for the Odyssey.) But partly because the questionable accuracy of the boat in which the voyage was accomplished, the validity of any conclusions that may be drawn from the voyage are questionable as well. 

This is not to imply that the new Argo was poorly designed or in any way deficient. We simply don't know enough about the ships of Jason's era or their performance, and Severin's experiment provides a useful benchmark against which future research can be compared. And all technical issues aside, the book is still a fine adventure, stirringly and sensitively told.


  1. I hadn't seen an analysis of his build and it does raise the interesting problem that using an experienced shipwrights can cause. We saw this with the skin boat built in Denmark where the builder reverted to techniques he was familiar with that were not used in antiquity. Of course amateurs suffer from lack of experience with tools, stamina and even strength.

    I have seen alternatives for the construction of the boat of Odysseus with lashing or pegging and the use of symmetrically split trees for eith side of the hull strakes.
    The Greeks at Troy did after all find the cords of their boats rotted.

  2. I don't know if you're interested, but this year (June 2014) is the 30th anniversary of the Jason Voyage in 1984 (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1212465.The_Jason_Voyage). I was one of the crew, and last October the Georgian National Tourism Administration got in contact with the surviving Argonauts about a week's events celebrating the voyage, which begins on June 29th 2014; we're all heading out there and apparently they're going to name a street in our honour...

  3. Jon-- That's cool! Please let us have more info from the celebration. And photos!

  4. WHOA! A reply from one of the Argonauts - you guys are legends!! What a trip. Mindbogglingly cool. One thing that interests me - what about the return trip - Severin, in his book, suggests they traveled by land (I think), but the Argonautica suggests otherwise, I believe via rivers, perhaps the Danube. The scenic route back, I take it. Any recent research on that?