Sailing a Really Old "Good Old Boat" the Old-fashioned Way


Capt. Marvel's Wise Friend
Vancouverium BC
From the WAPO:

To study ancient seafarers, researcher built a replica ship — and sailed it

By Dave Kindy
September 17, 2022 at 7:00 a.m. EDT
The replica boat that David Gal and his team used to sail across part of the Mediterranean. (Courtesy of David Gal)
In 48 B.C.E., Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great were locked in desperate combat. The two generals led huge armies against each other in a civil war to decide the fate of the Roman Republic.
At Dyrrhachium in what is now Albania, Caesar attacked Pompey’s supply base on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Because of the vagaries of the wind, Caesar sent supply ships to several destinations across the Mediterranean Sea to ensure his own troops could be fed and outfitted in the coming campaign.
“For every day a large number of ships was gathering from every quarter to bring up stores, nor could any wind blow without their having a favorable course from some direction,” Caesar later wrote in his book “The Civil War.”
The reason for all this redundant planning had to do with a problem that has plagued Mediterranean mariners for at least 3,000 years. In the summer, prevailing westerly winds severely hampered the movement of sailing ships loaded with crops and other goods from the east back to Rome.
Yet the flow of food and supplies to the Italian peninsula continued unabated. Historians have wondered for decades how ancient mariners pulled it off.
An Israeli researcher wanted an answer. So first, he did what any academic might: He studied wind patterns and ancient texts about the weather. And then he did something more unusual. He and a team of experts built a replica of a 5th century B.C. boat and sailed it across part of the Mediterranean to test his theory.
The researcher, David Gal, a PhD candidate at the University of Haifa, published the results of his study this summer in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.
“We started with a trivial question: How did Roman ships visiting the Levant return to Rome?” Gal said. “One would simply say, ‘Oh, they turned them around and sailed the other direction.’ However, a windward journey was not practical in the kind of ships they used. So how did they accomplish these voyages?”
Gal believes these superannuated seafarers took advantage of brief reverses in wind patterns to sail to Rome and other western destinations. In addition, by examining Roman and Greek texts about the weather, he discovered that those breeze cycles are virtually unchanged over the past three millennia.
Gal said the sailors’ lives depended on anticipating weather patterns, so they knew when to begin a journey and when to find a safe port. They often waited days before catching the right winds to begin or resume travel.
“There’s an ancient story of two friends who are departing and going in opposite directions,” Gal said. “The blessing they give each other is, ‘May the Gods grant us both favorable winds,’ which is a contradiction. Waiting for favorable winds was a big part of ancient seafaring.”
The replica boat used to test theories of ancient sailing across the Mediterranean. (Courtesy of David Gal)
To understand how mariners managed to make their way across the Mediterranean, Gal and other researchers undertook a two-step process. First, they built a replica of a typical boat that sailed the sea between Europe and Africa three millennia ago, which they named Ma’agan Mikhael II. Its design was based on a shipwreck discovered off the coast of Israel in 1983. Rigged with a square sail, the new version was built by a team of experts led by Yaacov Kahanov, professor emeritus at the Department of Maritime Civilizations of the University of Haifa.
“It’s an exact replica of a 2,400-year-old ship,” Gal said. “We’ve learned a lot from sailing it, including the difficulties of windward sailing.” They sailed from Israel to Cyprus with a crew of six over the course of 74 hours in 2018.
The second phase of the study involved understanding the weather. In addition to reading 3,000-year-old texts, Gal reviewed modern records of the winds and waves around the Mediterranean. He collected data points from 7,000 different locations, taken every hour over the past 15 years. He compared these findings with the ancient data and made a surprising discovery.
“The wind and wave oscillations are the same as they were 3,000 years ago,” he said. “Once we could establish that modern winds equal ancient winds, we could use the data to analyze sailing mobility. We were able to look at routes the ships took with grain from Alexandria in Egypt, and found that in July and August they had to first sail northeast toward Turkey instead of west toward Rome.”
Gal found that ancient vessels were able to locate brief breezes blowing to the west that usually occurred in the early mornings and late evenings. Those light airflows would enable the ships to sail for a short time toward Rome. Once the winds stalled, the crews would drop anchor and wait until they started again.
Gal cited the biblical example of Paul the Apostle. The New Testament records how he was transported from the town of Caesarea in Judea to Rome for trial by Emperor Nero on charges of sedition. The Acts of the Apostles records a protracted trip that involved several vessels.
“It could take weeks to make the journey from the Levant to Rome,” Gal said. “Mariners did a lot of waiting in those days.”
Using computers, Gal crunched all the numbers — old and new — to run cruise simulations. He discovered hundreds of possible trade routes ancient seafarers may have used to crisscross the eastern Mediterranean during the summer months when winds were unfavorable.
Modern mariners can tack against the wind by setting the sails at sharp angles. That wasn’t feasible 2,400 years ago because sails were fixed then.
Gal spent 20 years as a pilot in the Israeli Air Force before taking an interest in sailing and meteorology. He said this research offers new insight into the complexities of sailing in ancient times and the impressive knowledge base of the sailors who plied those waters.
“In the summer, they had no option but to crawl their way across the Mediterranean and then start moving westward very slowly,” he said.
“Coastal sailing was difficult and dangerous. You might sit for 10 days waiting for a favorable breeze. It took tremendous expertise to do what they did back then.”


The boat design used and methodology is further explained here (courtesy

David Gal, a doctoral student in the Department of Maritime Civilizations at the University of Haifa, solves ancient Mediterranean mystery with the help of both modern and antique hardware

By Gid’on Lev | August 2, 2022
The apostle Paul...after converting to Christianity sometime between 31 and 36 C.E., Paul sailed throughout the Roman Empire and spread his message. His final journey was from Caesarea to Rome, where he was sent to be tried due to accusations by the high priest Ananias ben Nedebeus. The New Testament book The Acts of the Apostles describes the slow and prolonged journey by sea, in several different ships, to the capital of the empire, which ended prematurely when Paul’s ship was shipwrecked off the coast of Malta.
This description comes from one of the few detailed written accounts of sea voyages that remain from that period. “Until recently, we didn’t understand why the Alexandrian grain ship, that Paul joined in southern Anatolia, bound for Rome, chose that particular route,” says David Gal, a doctoral student in the Department of Maritime Civilizations at the University of Haifa.
The journey from the shores of Caesarea toward Rome was not an easy route. The winds in the Mediterranean are virtually all westerly, and researchers have never understood how sailors in ancient times sailed into the wind with the simple ships at their disposal.
Now Gal is proposing a solution to the riddle.
For years, researchers wondered how sailors in ancient times sailed westbound in the Mediterranean Sea, contrary to the prevailing wind. A University of Haifa researcher found the answer with the help of both modern and antique hardware.
In order to reach the solution, he used Big Data analyses of 750 million sets of weather data. He also embarked on a series of voyages in a replica of a merchant vessel that sank near Kibbutz Ma’agan Mikhael, just north ofCaesarea, some 2,400 years ago.
Gal summarized his findings in a study he wrote with Prof. Deborah Cvikel, a researcher of ancient sailing ships from the University of Haifa, and climate researcher Prof. Hadas Saaroni of Tel Aviv University, which was published last month in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.
Drawing on huge quantities of data, this is an exceptional study. The research is ultra-modern, while the journeys in the replica ancient ship turn it into a classical field study.
Taking to the waters
I found the replica ship, Ma’agan Mikhael II, anchored in the Shavit marina in Haifa, where the Kishon meets the Mediterranean. Early one morning, a team of about 10 volunteers, who also participated in building the replica ship, prepared the boat before it set out to sea. The crew members delicately unfurled the flax sail, which was treated with yellow ocher, flax oil and melted beeswax – traditional methods for protecting the fabric from damp and rot. They attached the heavy sail to the ship’s yard, which they raised to the top of the mast with a rope halyard.
With just the single sail, the ship’s navigational abilities are very limited. It setoff from the marina, dwarfed by huge containers for modern merchant ships, with the aid of a tugboat. Once in open waters, the tow line with the tugboat was severed, the yard diverted to an angle of 30 degrees to the southwest wind, and Ma’agan Mikhael II sailed toward Acre at a speed of 3.4 knots (3.9mph).
There were already major commercial ties in the Mediterranean 3,000 years ago and more, and some historians claim it was these maritime ties that enabled the development of civilizations surrounding the sea. Without the Mediterranean, ancient Greece and Rome would never have developed because there was no other way to transfer the quantities of merchandise required to maintain such large empires. Overland transport was extremely expensive and even more difficult.
Despite the importance of the maritime ties, very little is known about how sea voyages were carried out. “There are almost no written accounts on the conduct of sailings – maybe because the sailors didn’t know how to read and write,” Gal points out.
From the 13th century B.C.E. until around 700 C.E., sailors sailed in one-mast ships with a square sail like Ma’agan Mikhael II. These ships had no problem sailing from the Aegean region to the eastern Mediterranean (the Levant),with the help of the westerly winds. But they had very little ability to sail against the wind, so that it was never clear how they made the return journey.
One theory was that the sailors sailed close to the coastline, exploiting the daily breeze cycle, in order to creep northward from the Levant and to continue westward near the coast of southern Turkey. “Only when we sailed on Ma’agan Mikhael II did we understand the real limitations of the ship and the sailors,” Gal says. “We found that in many sections of the coast, the breeze doesn’t support this type of movement.”
Gal found a way to solve the mystery while sailing a yacht in the Mediterranean. He noticed that although the average wind direction was westerly, there was also variance in the wind that enables sailors to occasionally take advantage of winds blowing from east to west. “The problem was that we couldn’t know whether the variance in the wind would have been enough for sailing a ship all the way from the Levant to the Aegean Sea,” he notes.
He also had to check whether it is possible to rely on modern meteorological data to represent the wind regime that prevailed in the Mediterranean some 3,000 years ago.
Gal found a study that combined all the wind listings from the period of the Greek and Roman empires. “They described the winds and their seasonality very precisely, because they were very dependent on them,” he says. Gal also used studies that examined the climatological history of the major pressure systems in the Atlantic Ocean (which then govern the wind regime in the Mediterranean), with the help of plankton residue indicated sea surface temperatures.
An in-depth examination of the two sources indicated that there was almost no difference between the wind regime in the Mediterranean 3,000 years ago and of today.
“Over the years there are many fluctuations in temperature or in the amount of rain, but the wind regime remains almost unchanged,” Gal says. “That’s what makes the present study possible.”
Sailing bug
Gal spent 20 years serving as a pilot in the Israel Air Force, and after his retirement swapped his flying bug for a sailing one. Today he is also the meteorologist supporting the Israel Sailing Association and Olympic sailing team. He gathered wind data of 7,000 points in the Mediterranean region spaced 27 kilometers (nearly 17 miles) from one another, and timed at every hour for 15 years. That’s how he got slightly less than a billion sets of data. “I needed over two months just to download the wind data and data about the wave regime and ocean currents from updated meteorological databases, which use satellite collected wind data,” he recounts.
Based on the meteorological data, Gal – who also has a degree in computer sciences – carried out simulations of voyages in a virtual ship with characteristics similar to the ancient ships, on 224 different routes in the eastern and central basins of the Mediterranean. The sampling represents most of the sailing options in ancient times.
They conducted 5,479 virtual sailings on every sailing route – the equivalent of setting sail every morning on every route for 15 years – for a total of over 1.2million virtual sailings.
Gal examined the feasibility of completing each of the journeys, taking into account the winds, height of the waves and estimated number of days for the journey. He found that the average sailor had enough opportunities to sail westward in a reasonable manner. “We were able to map the seasonal potential sailing mobility on each possible route, and for example we identified when and why a grain ship would prefer to sail to Rome via southern Anatolia.”
“They didn’t sail counter to the prevailing wind, but waited for days with a favorable wind in the opposite direction,” he declares. “We found there were such days in a large meteorological sampling. Until now, scholars didn’t examine that but used low resolution meteorological averages that erase the variance in the wind.”
Gal adds that it’s only in the past 15 years that meteorological data of sufficiently high resolution has existed in order to discover this variance.
Furthermore, Gal used machine learning to examine whether the computer could predict when it was worth going out to sea based on the prevailing conditions on the day of departure.
It was found that the software identified 75 percent of the days when it was possible to set out for a safe journey, as well as 80 percent of the days that did not lead to a safe journey. “The ancient sailors certainly knew better how to decide when to set sail and when not to,” Gal says.
“We’re starting with the assumption that the ancient seafarers were reasonable people,” he adds. “In other words, they wanted to stay alive, and didn’t want to waste their time on a trip when they would most probably have to return to port. Just as modern-day fishermen know how to read the sky, and to estimate with high probability when the sea will be stormy and when there will be a lull of several days, we assume that the ancient sailors also knew how to read the sky and to identify with high probability when it was worth their while to embark on a journey from east to west.”
Prof. Cvikel notes that the study “changes what we thought until now. The sailors felt the sea, smelled the wind, knew when it was possible to sail. That’s something that’s passed down from grandfather to father to son, and everyone learned from a very early age. That enabled them to sail on the Mediterranean all year round and to maintain commercial ties.”
Gal tested his computerized analysis in real time. “Ma’agan Mikhael II has already set sail over 80 times, and on one of the trips went to Cyprus and back,” he says. “We have data about its performance in all wind conditions and how various currents affect it, and that enables us to conduct a reliable simulation of sailing. With its help, we acquired insights into the way such a ship is operated; we had a better understanding of how four people can sail from Greece to here and back.”
The original ship was discovered in 1985, buried at a depth of about 2 meters(6 feet, 7 inches) in the seabed near Kibbutz Ma’agan Mikhael, which was home to the ship’s researcher, Dr. Elisha Linder.
A large part of its hull was preserved, and after digging and preservation activities that lasted 15 years, researchers were able to reassemble it. The preservation of the wood alone took seven years. The original ship is now located in the Hecht Museum at the University of Haifa.
From the parts of the ship that were preserved, the researchers reconstructed a piece of its hull. In 2014, construction began on a large ship with the same dimensions, with the same materials and using the same construction methods. The work was conducted by a group of volunteers and was led by Prof. Yaacov Kahanov. Sadly, he died in 2016, a few days after the completion of the replica.
Today, Ma’agan Mikhael II is one of only two ships in the world that simulate a Mediterranean merchant sailing vessel from that period (the other is a replica of a ship that is about 100 years younger, which was found in northern Cyprus).
The original ship from Ma’agan Mikhael didn’t transport olive oil or wine, but an expensive cargo of 12 and a half tons of slate – stone that wasn’t available in the Land of Israel and was apparently meant for construction in the Greek colony of Tel Dor. The local real estate obsession is nothing new, it seems.
The theory is that the ship sank on its maiden voyage, since no remains of snails or marine flora were found on its side.
“It’s going back 2,400 years,” says Gal, reflecting about sailing on the replica. And in fact, boarding the deck of the Ma’agan Mikhael II is rather like entering a time capsule. Everything is amazingly simple. There are no electrical outlets, no plastic, no screens. The hundreds of nails that secure the planks were created manually, one at a time, from copper. And the ship sails.
“The elephant in the room in studies of seafaring is that all of the researchers are very divided regarding the capability of the ancient ships,” Gal says. “Some say they were entirely subject to the mercies of the winds, while another school claimed they were able to sail upwind, almost like modern yachts. Until now there were very hypothetical studies, and here we have a seagoing vessel with which we can really test that.”
Next spring, Gal is planning to sail the replica ship with the volunteer crew to Greece. “It will take three to four days to reach western Cyprus, where we’ll wait for another window of opportunity, and then another three to four days until Rhodes.”
A previous traveler followed a similar route. According to ancient records, Paul ended up staying in Cyprus for nearly two months.


Super Anarchist
New Orleans
Excellent topic, thanks T.

I've always respected Paul. More so now. Wasn't easy, and waiting out the westerlies meant anchoring near some shore, with the attendant risks of grounding or stranding.

Not for the faint of heart, but you gotta eat, and travel, so you risk it.
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