Ships and seafarers

Refrigerated Steamship Ruahine (1891), Built by Denny of Dumbarton and Owned by the New Zealand Shipping CompanyRefrigerated Steamship Ruahine (1891). Built by Denny of Dumbarton and owned by the New Zealand Shipping Company. Repro ID: PY0428 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonFor thousands of years, people have wanted to move on the water. They have used boats and ships to fish, to travel, to explore, to trade or to fight. Throughout the time that people have been building boats and ships, they have made changes to them, to make travelling on the water easier, faster and safer.


There were two different ways of building a ship. The shell method was the oldest way. A shell is made first, and then strengthened with planks. It means that the builders work from the outside in.

The frame-first method involves working from the inside out. A wooden frame is built first, and then planks are nailed to it. Boats and ships built like this are stronger, and better able to stand up to a long sea voyage.


No-one knows exactly when the first boat was invented. Long ago, people probably discovered that they could keep themselves afloat by clinging onto fallen logs or bundles of reed. Gradually, they learnt how to hollow out logs to make rafts. Dug-outs and rafts meant that people could cross water without getting wet. They could also carry things and animals.

The first ships

Egyptians were among the earliest ship builders. The oldest pictures of boats that have ever been found are Egyptian, on vases and in graves. These pictures, at least 6000 years old, show long, narrow boats. The boats were paddled along. They were mostly made of papyrus reeds. The Egyptians used their ships to trade with other countries around the Mediterranean sea.

The galley

A French galley and Dutch ships off a portA French galley and Dutch Men-of-War off a port by Abraham Willaerts, date unknown. Repro ID: BHC0824 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonBetween 1200 and 900 BC, the Greeks and the Phoenicians began to build up their sea trade. They used galleys, both as merchant ships for trading, and as warships. The Phoenicians made many long sea journeys, but stayed quite close to the coast. One of the places they sailed to was Cornwall, looking for tin. Their fighting galleys were powered by rowers, sitting in one, two or three lines. Galleys continued to be used as late as the 18th century. The main weapon of the galley was a ram, a pointed piece of wood fixed to the front, or bow of the ship. The ram was crashed at fast speeds into the side of the enemy ship. The ships also carried archers and men with spears. Sometimes the galleys were fitted with a mast and one square sail, but they were taken down during battles.

The Viking longship

Vikings thought ships were very special so they tried to make them look beautiful, by carving decorations on them. Using longships, the Vikings set out from Scandinavian countries like Norway and Denmark every summer and raided other countries. Britain was one of the places that they raided. They also used their ships for trading. Viking ships had one square sail made of wool, and a row of oars on each side. There was a steering oar at the back on the right-hand side. The ship was built by the shell method, and the planks overlapped, which is called clinker building. Gaps between the planks were stuffed with animal hair to keep the water out.

Vikings did not have compasses. They worked out their directions by studying the stars and the sun. They also remembered the landmarks, birds and sea creatures they saw on their voyages. Life on board was hard, there was no cabin for sheltering in bad weather, so Viking ships could not be used in winter. Even so, Vikings made extremely long journeys in their ships. Some even sailed as far as America. Vikings sometimes used their ships as grave ships. The body of someone important would be placed inside and then the whole ship would be buried.

Medieval sailing ships

Portuguese carracks off a rocky coastPortuguese carracks off a rocky coast by the circle of Joachim Patinir, circa 1540. Repro ID: BHC0705 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird CollectionIn medieval times, ships in the northern part of Europe began to change. Ships began to be built with straight sternposts instead of curved ends. Sailors found it was easier to steer ships if the steering oar was fixed onto the sternpost. This stern rudder made even the heaviest boat easier to steer. Ships were built using the frame-first method so they were stronger. Fighting platforms called castles were built high up at the front and the back of the ship for archers and stone-slingers. Ships needed to be strong and roomy enough to carry large cargoes.

To make the ships sail faster, more masts and sails were fitted. In the 14th century a larger trading ship was developed called the carrack. This was carvel built (the planks did not overlap) and had three masts. There were square sails on two masts and a triangular sail on the mast at the back. Carracks that were used as warships were armed with great guns. In the 16th century, holes called gunports were cut in the sides of the ship for the cannon to fire through. By the time that carracks were being used, sailors had the compass and other instruments like astrolabes to measure the height of the sun or the North star. By using these, sailors could work out their latitude, or north-south position, so finding their way became much easier.

Life on board ship was still very hard. It was crowded, damp and dirty. Sailors often suffered from diseases, like scurvy, which was caused by not eating enough fresh fruit and vegetables. The main daily foods were salt meat and ship's biscuit.

Ships of Nelson's time

Some things about the ships of Nelson's time had stayed the same for hundreds of years. The ships were still made of oak and were very strong. About 2000 trees were needed to build one warship. The planks of the ship were fixed edge-to-edge with wooden pegs called treenails. From 1783, navy ships were given a thin covering of copper to stop sea worms from eating holes in the wood. This meant ships could stay at sea for longer. There was lots of hard work to do on ships so they needed a large crew. The places where the sailors slept were damp and overcrowded, so there was still a lot of disease.

Metal ships

Aquitania under constructionStern view of the Aquitania (1914) on the stocks, Bedford Lemere & Co, April 1913. Repro ID: G10695 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonShips built out of wood can not be built much longer than about 80 metres. The timber frames also take up quite a lot of space. In the 19th century, ship builders began using iron instead of wood. Iron ships could be much larger, with lots more space for carrying cargo. They did not need so much work to keep them in good condition. In the 1880s steel began to be used instead of iron. Ships also began to be fitted with steam engines. Steam engines were first used in paddle steamers. The engine turned two paddle wheels. Paddle steamers were not suited to the open sea because in heavy seas the waves lifted one wheel right out of the water while the other one went right under, and this strained the engines.

From the 1840s, screw propellers replaced paddle wheels in steamships. Propellers work much more efficiently and are still used on most ships today. Steam ships still had some other problems. A great deal of coal was needed to travel even fairly short distances. On a voyage to a distant part of the world, there might not be anywhere to collect more coal. For this reason, ships continued to be fitted with sails even though they carried engines. Today, diesel or steam-turbine engines use fuel much more efficiently.