The almost unbelievable galley

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Galley drawing from On the High Seas – click for a larger image

Idly reading my first edition copy of On the High Seas by E Keble Chatterton, I was astonished to find this drawing of a galley.

The book itself is a largely unstructured collection of salty yarns about mutiny, exploration, slavers, pirates and high adventure – the chapter headings themselves tell a story, for they include: Chpt 1 Deep Sea Roving, Chpt IV The Profession of Piracy, Chpt VIII St Helena and the Slavers and Chpt XI Gambling with Death.

I can’t be sure that the proportions of the tippy-looking vessel shown are truly representative, but for me at least, this drawing of a galley from the chapter on the Profession of Piracy raises some practical points. It has a rig that would normally be expected to be best in beating rather than running – but I suspect sailing upwind was not its main purpose. For one thing I imagine the rowing galleries must have been vulnerable to digging-in when heeled, causing a kind of wild reverse-broach; for another I’d guess that like one of Pete Culler’s recreational skiff users, the commanders of these craft would row upwind when it was faster than sailing.

The power question is interesting. By my count there are two galleries of 27 oars here, each with six oarsmen. If well trained and well they fed, could theoretically deliver 0.2hp each – and by my calculation hat’s 324 oarsmen who, in my calculation should be able to deliver a total of 65hp. That’s not a huge amount of grunt for a ship this size, but even this figure would have to be reduced by some factor because it must have been difficult for the oarsmen at the inner and outer extremes of each oar to deliver their theoretical maximum, either because of the lack of travel or because of too much.

Surely, the man by the gunwale must have been chosen for his massive strength and the man at the far end for his height and span?

The detail shown here is fabulous. Just look at the warlike group on the forecastle and the three guns. I’d hate to see one of these coming my way, particularly if I had no wind to escape!

Here’s what Keble-Chatterton has to say:

‘The corsairs of Tunis rarely emerged from the Mediterranean, but sailed about off the south of Sardinia, or Cape Passaro at the heel of Sicily, or that historic pirate area among the Ionian Islands. The latter was a risky sphere, for the Venetian naval galleys with sails, masts, big crews of oarsmen, and with bow-guns, wsere not infrequently to be met with. The Moors feared these Venetians as their deadliest enemies, nor was the Battle of Lepanto yet forgotten. Using handy lateen-sail feluccas, with plenty of men to row as required in light or head winds, the Tunis pirates had and endless series of bays, creeks, and islands wherein to creep for rest and recreation. Such islands as Candia, Lampedusa, Rhodes and Cyprus could be used; but Tunis itself, being an open roadstead with inadequate protection from the fort, was not for them an ideal base. Algiers, on the contrary, was protected by a mole and a citadel; and there was a light showing to enable the rovers to get home from the sea.’

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12 thoughts on “The almost unbelievable galley”

  1. What an interesting picture. I can't believe they had five rowers per oar – the oars would have been so long they would have either been too heavy to lift or so delicate they would break every time you had a clash.

    But lateen rigs were universal on Mediterranean galleys. Do they beat well? The lateen has to be transferred from side to side when tacking, doesn't it? So perhaps they were used mainly on a broad reach rather than into the wind.

  2. The Stockholm Maritime Museum has a collection of models, some more than 2m long, of galleys like this, not 6 men to each oar though. Some had a line of cannon down the centre aimed alternately port and starboard over the heads of the rowers. Whole wars were fought between Baltic countries using these craft, right up to the Russo-Swedish war of 1809.

    1. That's later than one might have supposed – and of course it means there's likely to be a literature about how they were to be handled. I wonder whether my guesses are right?


  3. The replica of the 'Real'–the flagship that led the Christian alliance in the Battle of Lepanto–at Barcelona's Maritime museum features an interesting video projection that superimposes rowers over the boat. This galley required four rowers to each oar and in the projection you can see how the inboard rower had to stand and walk backwards on the pull stroke and walk forward at a crouch on the recovery. It was only the outboard rower that could remain sitting throughout the stroke, but he must have had a gruelling time of it all the same. Conditions aboard must have been utterly appalling and the life span of a galley slave at the oars was apparently about a month.

    ChrisP may well be right that the lateen sails were more commonly used for sailing off the wind–the galley's main advantage over ships of the British Navy, for example, was that it could row directly into the wind where sailing boats couldn't follow.

  4. Lateen sails in general work reasonably well to windward. But I would think that if the hull was optimized for rowing, a galley like that would make a lot of leeway, maybe enough to eat up most of the sail's pointing ability.

    I can't imagine how one could shift the long, main, yard over to the other side of the mast though, it is as long as the galley, its mast is amidships, and it must be enormously heavy. It can't have been easy or quick even to get the front end around the foremast when tacking, if they just let the one or the other sail back against the mast on one tack. But if you look closely, the two yards are on the same side of their masts, when one might think they would be on different sides of the mast if they did that. But perhaps they only horsed the fore yard around on each tack certainly had the manpower to get it done.

    It would be really interesting to read how it was all done.

  5. Brian's comments on the masts and yards raises the question of how accurate the drawing may be. The yards seem so large as to be out of proportion, i.e., inaccurate. If that's the case, then other aspects of the drawing may be as well — like the number of rowers per oar. While it's a nicely detailed drawing, that doesn't mean the details are right.

    1. The rowing boat doesn't look quite right either. But if the proportions are wrong, it might be that they're harder to draw and get right than rowers are to count.

  6. This sort of drawing was made by an engraver who lived in Amsterdam or London and would have had the galley described to him, probably at about fifth hand (how many Westerners got to look at a Moorish pirate galley close to and lived?). Think about Durer's rhinoceros, which he drew without ever seeing one.

  7. CP and BH are almost certainly right. A lot of replicas have been made in part on the basis of old images, everything from pictures of boats on old maps to illuminated manuscripts to depictions of Homeric galleys on Greek pottery: Tim Severin's and Colin Mudie's multiple collaborations spring immediately to mind.

    I am lending a hand in a very small way when I get a chance on the reconstruction of a 14th century river workboat (a scute) on the Cher River a couple of hours from my home here in France that was drawn from a few ribs and a section of bottom and from various medieval visual sources, including even graffiti of boats carved into a rock quarry, apparently by boatmen picking up loads of stone.

    But sure, an early 20th century engraving of a 17th century galley can not be relied upon for accurate details without knowing the sources.

    Though interestingly, speaking of Durer's rhinoceros, if you compare it to an African rhino, it is way off, but in fact the drawing is of an Indian rhino, and amazingly, is actually very good, much better than many much later drawings of birds and animals made for scientific and identification purposes.

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