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A hollow vessel built for travel over water and provided with a means of propulsion and navigatation, ships have been used by mankind since the Stone Age. The earliest form of transport on water must have been a fallen or felled log which the earliest mariners could sit astride. Hollowing out the log to make a 'dug-out' was a natural step along the path to the evolution of the boat or ship and such vessels were widespread amongst primitive cultures into the twentieth century. To aid the mechanical ectraction of the wood, carefully tended fires were used to burn it away before the craft was tooled to a finish.

An early example of such a 'dug-out' was discovered during the dredging of Poole Harbour to the north of Brownsea Island in Dorset. Dating from c. 2,950 BC, the 10 metre (30 ft) long boat is displayed in Poole Museum.

In the Mediterannean, the open dug-out developed into the open 'galley' made of boards fastened to a skeleton of keel and ribs, with or without a single sail to make use of whatever wind was available, but primarily reliant on a bank of oars on each side. While such a deckless vessel might suffice for trade with a rudimentary superstructure such as a hut or tent to protect precious cargo or important passengers, military galleys required a sturdy platform from which soldiers could fight as well as banks of rowers. This led the the development of a deck, with soldiers above and oarsmen below and achieved its height in the Greek 'triremes' with three banks of oars on each side.

In Europe the Vikings emerged from their homelands in the eighth and ninth centuries to raid Northern Europe in their fast narrow longboats. Eventually, they realised they could grasp the lands as well as movable plunder and began to settle as conquerors. They traded overland deep into the east, founding Kiev in Russia, into the Mediterannean and overland as far as Constantinople. The traders required vessels which could carry heavy loads and reconstructions of five of their ships found near Roskilde have been reconstructed at the museum there showing the trading vessels were as much as thirty-six metres long and could carry loads of up to twenty four tons.

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The influx of northern Europeans into the Mediterannean caused by the Crusades (1099-1291) brought together the ship-building traditions of the two regions; in the Mediterannean, hulls were carvel-built and the square sail had been abandoned for about a millenium in favour of the traingular lateen sail; in Northern Europe, the square sail still prevailed and hulls were clinker-built (with their boards overlapping) - a method which was found to be unsuitable for the building of the larger ships of the fifteenth century because it became more difficult to keep them water-tight.

 Carvel-Built Hull Clinker-Built Hull
Carvel-Built HullClinker-Built Hull

The English 'Grace Dieu' built in 1418 was the largest clinker built ship constructed and a failure leading to the adoption of carvel hulls for large vessels.

In the Mediterannean and Northern Europe until the early 13th century, ships were steered by means of oar-like rudders hung from the sides of the ship. Frequently, the vessel would be equipped with only one rudder which meant that the ship would have to be docked with the rudder away from the quay giving rise to the terms 'port' (left) and 'starboard' (right) for the sides of the ship. In the early 13th century, ships in Northern Europe were equipped with a central rudder hinged to the sternpost and controlled with a lever attached to it and this innovation was introduced into the Mediterannean by the Crusaders.

 12th Century  Early 13th Century
12th CenturyEarly 13th Century

As ships gradually grew larger in size, the helmsman would steer according to commands shouted to him below decks but, unlike a motor vessel, steering a sailing ship always involves co-ordination between the crew handling the sails and the helsman.

Until the fifteenth century, the square-rigged ships usually only carried one mast with a single sail. "Castles" were built above the stem (forecastle) and stern (aftcastle) of the ships for use in naval battles, much as their land-based namesakes were - until the sixteenth century sea battles ceased to be faught just like land battles, the aim being to board the enemy and overpower them (a position reflected in the title of the admirals of the time, known as "Generals-at-Sea"). Sometimes, as was the case with the Cinque Ports, the castles were temporary structures which were kept ready and built up on fishing and other vessels when required. The development of the castles provided more space aboard the ships and allowed the development of stern quarters for the ship's officers.

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1418Building of the English Grace Dieu, the largest clinker built ship constructed
Its failure led to the adoption of carvel hulls for large ships
1651.Oct.09Passage of the Navigation Act by the Commonwealth Parliament forbidding ships other than English or colonial from carrying English ports to/from English ports
The Act caused the First Anglo-Dutch war in 1652
1930.Sep.20French sailing ship Madelaine Tristan wrecked on the Dorset coast at Chesil Cove (Dead Mans Bay), Portland
The Madelaine Tristan was the last of the big sailing ships lost on the Dorset Coast - it remained beached for five years

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Poole Harbour

One of the earliest human artifacts to be discovered in the area with an ancient history of human activity is a 10-metre (30-foot) long dug-out boat which was fashioned from a giant oak tree. Dredged up to the north of Brownsea Island and dated to c.2,950 BC, this early boat is displayed in Poole Museum.

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