Re­liv­ing the times of the an­cient mariners

Greek navy of­fers taste of life in gal­leys about replica war­ship

The Sudbury Star - - LIFE - NI­CHOLAS PAPHITIS

ATHENS, Greece — For a NATO -mem­ber war­ship, Greece’s Olympias is pretty un­usual. It has a zero car­bon foot­print, no whalezap­ping sonar and an an­ti­quated propul­sion sys­tem.

The 37-me­tre (121-foot) wooden ves­sel moored off south­ern Athens is an ex­per­i­men­tal re­con­struc­tion of the trireme, the sleek an­cient Greek war­ship that halted a Per­sian in­va­sion of Eu­rope and ruled the Mediter­ranean for cen­turies.

Ev­ery sum­mer, vis­i­tors can get a whiff of life in the gal­leys 2,500 years ago by join­ing the crew of the Olympias — and work up a sweat row­ing it.

The long, nar­row ships car­ried two small sails, but propul­sion was mostly pro­vided by 170 oars­men, seated in three rows be­low deck. Lower ranks got to smell the up­per ones’ feet.

Vis­i­tors do all the row­ing on the Olympias’ two-hour-long pub­lic trips, con­ducted near Salamis is­land where, in 480 BC, out­num­bered Athe­nian triremes van­quished a Per­sian ar­mada in one of the world’s most fa­mous sea en­gage­ments.

“I was sur­prised at how much work it is (to) move for­ward,” said Swiss vis­i­tor Mar­tin Roosli. “I can (hardly) imag­ine how you can row from one is­land to the other with this boat.”

A small navy con­tin­gent un­der Cmdr. Nikos Poly­chron­akis han­dles the sails and gives com­mands and the beat. Orig­i­nally, a fluteplayer would have pro­vided the rhythm — an­cient Greek navies didn’t use whips, and the oars­men were free cit­i­zens.

Poly­chron­akis said prospec­tive row­ers worry that they’re un­fit, too old or lack row­ing skills. “None of this is so im­por­tant,” he said. “We just aim to get peo­ple to know the trireme and have fun.”

For safety rea­sons, the 47-tonne replica’s sor­ties are ac­com­pa­nied by navy speed­boats and a fire­fight­ing ship.

With a top speed of nine knots, it’s armed with a bronze ram that could smash through the thin plank­ing of en­emy ves­sels. No sub­stan­tial an­cient wrecks have been found.

“It has great ma­noeu­vra­bil­ity, can travel in very shal­low wa­ters and — for its time — is very fast,” Poly­chron­akis said.

Built un­der plans by Bri­tish naval ar­chi­tect John Coates in 1985-87, Olympias car­ried the flame for the 2004 Athens Olympics and then spent a decade on land. Trips for the pub­lic started in 2016.

Triremes dom­i­nated Mediter­ranean naval war­fare from the fifth cen­tury BC and were used un­til early Chris­tian times.

In the fourth cen­tury BC, Greek states ex­per­i­mented with pro­gres­sively big­ger gal­leys with more than one per­son per oar, but never more than three banks.

One twin-hulled be­he­moth prob­a­bly had up to eight men per oar. Ac­cord­ing to one an­cient writer, it car­ried 4,000 oars­men, 400 other sailors and 3,000 marines.

“I was sur­prised at how much work it is (to) move for­ward, I can ( hardly) imag­ine how you can row from one is­land to the other with this boat.” Mar­tin Roosli, a Swiss vis­i­tor

THANASSIS STAVRAKIS/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Vis­i­tors row the Olympias, a replica of an an­cient gal­ley, at Sa­ronic gulf in south­ern Athens. The 37-me­tre (121-foot) wooden ves­sel moored off south­ern Athens is an ex­per­i­men­tal re­con­struc­tion of the trireme, the sleek an­cient Greek war­ship that halted a Per­sian in­va­sion of Eu­rope and ruled the Mediter­ranean for cen­turies. Ev­ery sum­mer, vis­i­tors can get a whiff of life in the gal­leys 2,500 years ago by join­ing the crew of the Olympias, and work up a sweat row­ing it.

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