Ancient Greece takes to the seas once more

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The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a move to bring the working model of the ancient Greek trireme, Olympias, currently in dry dock in Athens, to New York. The project does not seek simply to install the ancient warship in a new dry dock, but to make it ready for the sea once again and to row it into New York Harbour as part of a festival of ships to be held in New York on 4 June 2012. The ‘Trireme in New York City Inc’ association is hoping to raise $3 million to fund the project and is also looking for the necessary 170 rowers to put aboard Olympias.

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This initiative – whether it succeeds or not – underlines just how deep world admiration for ancient Greece goes. That admiration, in the case of Olympias, is twinned with the excitement that springs from the ability actually to see, touch, and use a full scale working replica of part of that ancient world. It justifies, if justification was ever needed, the worth (and expense) of the project that brought Olympias into being. This was no making of a scale model, this was bringing the ancient world to life, and in so doing, answering our questions about how these ships functioned and massively increasing our respect for ancient technology, daring and skill.

The project to build Olympias first took shape in 1981 and the ship was launched as the Hellenic Navy ship Olympias on 27th June 1987. The hull was modeled on several different surviving shipwrecks from around the Mediterranean. The complicated rowing system involving three banks of rowers was tested and re-tested in different configurations using full-scale mock-ups. A trial section was built in the UK and exhibited at Henley Rowing Regatta in 1985.

The contract to build the complete ship was won by the Tzakakos brothers of Kiratzini in Piraeus, Athens and its construction was paid for by the Greek ministries of Defense and Culture, the Greek Tourist board, and private fundraising by the UK-based Trireme Trust. The vessel’s construction was overseen by the Hellenic Navy and John Coates, who wrote the 150-page construction specification.

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© The Trireme Trust

In July 1987, Olympias took to the water near Poros to begin her sea trials, both by the Hellenic Navy and by the Hellenic Navy in cooperation with the Trireme Trust; volunteers were recruited to row the ship. The trials not only demonstrated the technical skill needed to coordinate the different banks of rowers, but also the practical considerations of, amongst other things, providing water for the rowers over long periods of exercise. The rowers reached a top ramming speed of 8.9 knots, not far from what ancient authors say the original triremes could manage.

The last time the trireme sailed in foreign waters was on the Thames in London in 1993 to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the birth of democracy in ancient Greece. A new sailing in New York would be a worthy successor, but to those keen to volunteer, beware: utter exhaustion (as well as exhilaration) awaits them!

If you’re interested in rowing the Olympias into New York in June 2012, email crew@trireme.org or visit the Trireme in New York, Inc website for more information.

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Reprinted from Neos Kosmos www.neoskosmos.com