Authored By Staff Writer (Updated: 4/8/2013): The Greek vessel type "Penteconter", or "50-oared", was developed as perhaps the first true fighting warship - a galley of ancient history that was in use during the Archaic period (800 BC - 480 BC). The ship was long and sleek and crafted with a running length of up to 108 feet (33 meters), a beam (or width) as narrow as 13 feet (4 meter) and, for sailing or rowing close to shore, a shallow draft of just 3.2 feet (1 meter). Individual vessels were most likely named by the shipbuilder themselves though these particular identifiers have long fallen to history. The Penteconter was one of the first large-oared vessels ever built and construction methods are speculative and chiefly unknown in modern times. Early ships were likely sewn together before use of mortise and tenon joints was adopted.
Strong planking was hand cut for the hull and these held together via various methods while being hand-fitted for watertightness. The ship's crew was open to the sea and weather as Penteconters were finished without a solid deck. There were 25 evenly-spaced plank "seats" that stretched from side-to-side and doubled as reinforcement for the overall structure of the craft. The plank seats of the Pentekonter were used by 50 rowers, seated 25 men per side, and all rowers facing the stern. Each oar was of the same length, roughly 9 feet. Strong rope was used to hold the oars to the gunwale - the top ledge of the sides of the boat. The rowers were not part of the warriors assigned to the boat if the ship was to be used as a ram against other ships (for subsequent boarding combat); they were essentially the "pistons" of the "engine" that drove the ship. Sail power was secondary and utilized when the winds were the favorable choice of propulsion.
The ship had a single mast approximately 70 feet high and set amidships about equal distance between the bow and stern, rigged out for a single large, square trapezoidal sail. The sail was made from smaller sheets sewn together and attached to a top wooden yard spar that was mounted horizontal to the mast. The sail was raised or lowered using ropes connecting to the yard spar and this was removed during battle and left ashore as there was no room to store it aboard the ship - the mast remaining connected to the keel.
If the ship was to be used as transport, the rowers could also become warriors (marines) once the ship was beached. A small forecastle was mounted on the bow that could hold three marines who were assigned as spearmen or these could be replaced by four archers. The space on the craft left little room for extra oars and food or water plus additional weapons - these would have to be stored under the two small bow and aft castles. There was little room for walking from stem to stern except along the planks fitted between rowers. During battle, this area would have become even more restrictive due the rowing action of the men and the need for the oars to work in synergy during the commotion.
Normally there was a tall beam on the bow that was connected to the keel of the boat allowing the planking to be attached and it supported the ram at the water line. The ram was separate and attached to the bow beam so it could break away during ramming so as not to damage the ship's own sea worthiness. The ram was made from a large timber that would project forward at the waterline and, at times, was covered with bronze as reinforcement, the assembly possibly weighing more than 400kg. Many vessels featured a figurehead on top of the bow beam simply for religious reasons or symbolizing the Greek city state the men represented. On the stern was a small aft castle for the two rudders, one port and one starboard, steered by two helmsmen. A captain or coxswain would shout out the rowing cadence, or beat a drum, for the rowers to stroke in unison and decrease/increased rowing speed as needed.
Navigational methods at night were the stars and during the day, ancient mariners stayed in sight of the coastlines for safety, relying on their knowledge of coastal currents and prevailing winds. Due to the space-strapped confines of the ship, there proved a frequent need for resupply of freshwater and food for the crew. The open design made the Pentekonter vulnerable to rough seas. For the ship to work as designed (fast and maneuverable) the hull had to be low so the men could sit and row efficiently. This prevented use of an any high freeboard to stop heavy waves from coming into the boat. As such, she was best suited for calm days or in harbors, rivers and lakes where her shallow draft could be put to excellent use.
Evidence indicates the Penteconter was used by the Greeks and others until the Hellenistic period to which then they were accordingly replaced by larger, more advanced and modern designs.
Text by JR Potts, AUS 173d AB; Illustration by Dan Alex