Rod Heikell's very informal site on sailing around bits of the world and an eclectic collection of things nautical or nearly so.

Nautical Esoterica

Nautical Esoterica

This page has a jumble sale of odd bits and pieces. Some of it is new. Some of it didn't make it into various publications for one reason or another.

Local sailing boats in Indonesia

The Tower of Winds

The Real Ithaka?

The Andi-Kithera 'Computer'

A short history of yachting in the Mediterranean



Local sailing boats in Indonesia

Pinisi (phinisi, pinisq)
These are schooners or ketch rigged boats of around 40 to 60 feet that are generally gaff rigged with two or three foresails. Unlike European gaff rigged boats, the gaff is permanently fixed in place and is not hauled up as on European gaff rigged boats. At first I thought they were like the sprit rig of a Thames barge, but the sail is in fact brailed to the mast and then hauled out between boom and gaff. A topsail can be rigged as well.
Iíve seen lots of pics of the traditional pinisi in Indonesia and had a friend who had one built in Sulawesi as a yacht. During our time in Indonesia I saw only one of them sailing. There were a lot of others around, mostly used as charter boats for diving and as tripper boats, but it was pretty obvious from the arrangement of awnings and lack of sails that the masts were only for ornament. In fact most of them had deckhouses so high that there was little room left to set a sail and with so much top hamper they could only be described as motor sailors, and even that is being charitable.
Charter pinisi with fixed gaffs...a motor sailor at best

Iím not really sure about the name, but these are Bermudan sloops or cutter rigs on a development of the traditional hull. We only saw one sailing in the distance.

This is the Indonesian name for a proa with a crab-claw sail and you see quite a lot of these. Some of them are canoes carved out of a single log with the outrigger and some are planked or a combination of the two. They are fast, can go to windward, and are most used for fishing, either trolling a line or fishing off the reefs.
Years ago I remember reading something about the crab-claw sail being the most efficient to windward, more so than the Bermudan rig normally considered the most efficient to windward. Iíve yet to locate the source of this bit of information that a stray neuron in my brain lodged away until now, but suspect it may be from C A Marchajís tome.
Prahu. Also the pic at the beginning of this entry.

Lots of the traditional boats are now powered by diesels (see the bit on ĎMr Engineí in this blog), but some of these still use a sail for added propulsion and motorsail most places.
This beautifully painted boat was seen on our way to Bawean above the Nusa Tenggara.



The Tower of Winds

If you wander around Plaka, the old quarter of Athens, you will come across the Tower of Winds standing just outside the site of the Roman market place. Built in the first  century BC  by the Macedonian  astronomer, Andronikos of Kyrrhos, the octagonal tower is remarkable for a number of reasons. On each of the eight marble sides there is a relief of a winged figure representing the wind that blows from that direction. Originally the tower was capped by a revolving bronze Triton holding a wand which pointed to the prevailing wind. It was also a clock-tower. Beneath the figures of the winds are eight sundials. Within the tower a water clock registered the hours, fed by a reservoir on the south side of the roof.

 But what is most remarkable is that each of the eight sides of the tower faces the cardinal and half-cardinal points of the compass, although the compass in its most rudimentary form was not introduced from the east until over a thousand years later. Moreover, the figures depicting the wind fly around the tower in an anticlockwise direction, which is the direction in which any cyclonic system entering the Mediterranean also revolves, with the winds of a depression following the same pattern and sequence as that shown on the tower.

The figures

North: Boreas, the violent and cold north wind, represented by a bearded old man wrapped in a thick mantle with the folds being plucked by the wind.

Northeast: Kaikias, a cold bitter wind represented by a man holding a vessel from which olives are being scattered, representing the valuable olive crop being destroyed by this wind.

East: Apeliotes, a handsome young man, carries flowers and fruit, depicting the mild and kindly nature of the wind.

Southeast: Euros, represented by an old man with his right arm muffled in his mantle, heralds the stormy southeast wind.

South: Notios, a sour-looking figure, empties an urn, implying rain and sultry weather.

Southwest: Lips, represented by a figure pushing the prow of a ship, signifies the wind that is unfavourable for ships leaving Athens.

West: Zephyros, the mild west wind, is represented by a handsome youth showering a lapful of flowers into the the air.

Northwest: Skiron, represented by a bearded man with a vessel in his hands, is interpreted in various ways. Either he is carrying a vase denoting occasional rain showers, or a charcoal vessel with which he dries up rivers.


The real Ithaca?

Recently a new book on the Ďrealí location of the Homeric Ithaca was published proposing an interesting and quite radical alternative to competing theories on where Odysseusí home island is. In Odysseus Unbound Robert Bittlestone proposes that the westernmost part of Cephalonia joined by a low neck of land above the Gulf of Argostoli was in antiquity detached and at some later time a cataclysmic seismic event, a major fault line runs close to here, lifted the land up so it became joined to the rest of what is now Cephalonia. I wonít go into all the detailed arguments set out in the book, but suffice to say Robert Bittlestone assembles an impressive amount of geological and historical evidence for the theory including the extensive use of satellite imagery and also answers some niggling problems that the present day Ithaca does not answer. For detail you should get hold of Odysseus Unbound (Robert Bittlestone published by Cambridge University Press on the right hand side of photo).



The Andi-Kithera ĎComputerí


In 1901 some sponge divers sheltering under the lee of Andi-Kithera off the bottom of the Peloponnese found an ancient wreck on one of their dives. Amongst the statues and other artefacts found was a corroded mass of metal that was painstakingly restored at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Once the corrosion of some 2000 years (the wreck is from the 1st century BC) was removed the device was found to be some sort of precursor to the clock with a box with dials and inscribed plates on the outside and a complex system of gear wheels within. It is in effect similar to a 17th or 18th century clock. This is no simple mechanism as part of the system has been shown to consist of around 20 gear wheels that probably operated as a differential geared system.

From inscriptions on some of the plates this was obviously an astronomical device. It uses an astronomical calendar similar to one written by Geminos of Rhodes and there are inscriptions relating to the sun and to Venus and possibly to other planets as well. Itís purpose is uncertain although certainly astronomical and the best conclusion is that it is like an analogue computer to work out the positions of the sun, moon and stars, a sort of clock of the heavens. As to whether it was used on board the ship to calculate astronomical positions or was just being transported somewhere is uncertain, though it had been repaired several times so was evidently in use.

It is the only known mechanism of itís kind from this period and itís importance is like somebody 2000 years hence finding the only surviving remains of a digital computer signifying that our society was skilled enough to build such things. From the Anti-Kithera Ďcomputerí we know the ancient Greeks could build a complex analogue Ďcomputerí to plot positions in the heavens.


A short history of yachting in the Mediterranean


Such is our insular historical perspective that we like to think that yachting began with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the pleasure craft of Charles II and his cronies, not in the warm waters of the Mediterranean some fifteen hundred years earlier. Certainly the word yacht from the Dutch 'jaghte' meaning a small, fast ship, was introduced in this period to describe the royal pleasure boats, but yachting in this sense and in the meaning it picked up later has been around for longer than this.


Royal yachts have been around since the Egyptians with the earliest known royal pleasure craft belonging to the Pharaoh Cheops. At around forty-four metres (143ft) he used it on the Nile and liked it so much he had it buried with him in the Great Pyramid at Giza. When the Ptolemyís came along in the fourth century BC a whole fleet of royal yachts were built. Ptolemy IV had big ideas about the sort of royal pleasure craft he wanted and had a catamaran constructed that was ninety-two metres (300ft) long with a deck nearly fourteen metres (45ft) wide and what can only be described as a miniature palace eighteen and a half metres (60ft) high erected upon it. This construction was towed up and down the Nile so that Ptolemy IV could survey and rule his kingdom in some comfort and style when on the move.

Lateen rigged craft are reckoned to have been around for 2000 years by some estimates, though there is some argument about this. But if 2000 years then did Cleopatra drift down the Cyndus on a luxurious version of this?


For flair and dramatic effect none of the rulers of Egypt could top the performance of Cleopatra. When she was summoned to Tarsus by Antony, Cleopatra intended to create an entrance he wouldn't forget. Plutarch describes Cleopatra's approach to Tarsus in 41 BC:


'She came sailing up the Cyndus on a galley whose stern was golden; the sails were purple, and the oars were silver. These, in their motion, kept tune to the music of flutes and pipes and harps. The Queen, in the dress and character of Aphrodite, lay on a couch of gold brocade, as though in a picture, while about her were pretty boys, bedight like cupids, who fanned her, and maidens habited as nereids and graces, and some made as though they were rowing, while others busied them about the sails. All manner of sweet perfumes were wafted ashore from the ship, and on the shore thousands were gathered to behold her'.


Cleopatra invited Antony on board for dinner and from there on in he was captivated by the Egyptian Queen and they were rarely separated. They died together, after Antony failed to wrest the Roman Empire from Octavius.


The Roman Emperors showed the same predilection for royal pleasure craft as had the Egyptians. The demented Caligula had several, the largest of which was over sixty metres (200ft) long. It was a well made craft sheathed in lead to stop teredo and gribble getting at the planking, and boasted such amenities as dining halls, a garden, baths, a brothel, and private chambers. After Caligula was dispatched Nero continued the tradition of opulent royal craft with a resplendent gilt and ivory creation on which he held lavish banquets.

What of lesser mortals in this era of grandiose royal pleasure craft? It is likely that there were rich aristocrats around who had sailing yachts constructed or converted one of the small tubby trading boats for

pleasure use. The problem is that nobody wrote about it, or if they did it was lost as happened to so many of the ancient works. That is except for one important exception. The first concrete reference we have of sailing for pleasure comes from the Roman poet Catullus.


Catullus is not widely read today, but in his time he instigated something of a revolution in poetic circles writing lyrical and passionate poems with a gut feeling to them, pungent epigrams that can still shock, and poems of descriptive verse that is both evocative and accurate. He was born around 84 BC and died at an early age in 54 BC. Catullus began writing when he was fifteen or sixteen, but the period describing his yachting endeavours occurred a few years before his death. His brother died in the Troad and Catullus went to visit his grave. While he was in Bithynia on the Asiatic shores of the Black Sea he decided, for whatever reasons, to have a yacht built.


near Cytorus

before you were a yacht

you stood

part of some wooded slope

where the leaves speak continuously in sibilants together.

Pontic Amastris


- stifled with box-wood -

these things

my boat affirms

are common knowledge to you both.


He calls his yacht a 'bean-pod boat' and in common with most boat owners assets 'that she's been the fastest piece of timber under oar or sail afloat'. The sailing boats of this period looked much the same over a thousand year period - short and broad double-ender, a twenty metre boat would have had a beam of around six metres and carried a square sail on a stubby mast. Essentially they were not too far removed from the double-ended caique, the trehandiri, seen in Greece today. The sail was set on a yard nearly twice as long as the mast, the yard itself being constructed from two saplings lashed together and with a sheet from either end led back to the steering oars. The sail could be reefed by brailing it upwards to the yard in strong winds. Some of these boats also carried a small sail, the artemion, on a steep bowsprit, and in very strong winds this would have been the only sail up. It also aided stability downwind and would have helped with the boat on a broad reach. These boats could be rowed in a calm or into harbour, but they were not anywhere near as fast under oars as the sleek galleys of the time.


In his yacht Catullus sailed out of the Black Sea, through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles into the Aegean. Here he sailed to Rhodes and through the Cyclades and probably around the Peloponnesus where he turned north to sail up the Adriatic to the river Po.


Call as witness

the rough Dalmatian coast

the little islands of the Cyclades

Colossan Rhodes

the savage Bosphorus

the unpredictable surface of the Pontic Sea.


He then sailed up the Po and the Mincio to a short distance from Lake Garda. He must have had the yacht hauled overland because he describes her as lying under his villa at Sirmio on the lake:



no claim on the protection of any sea god

on the long voyage up to this clear lake.

These things have all gone by. Drawn up here fathering quiet age.

Poem 4 transl. Peter Whigham

Catullus was not just a passenger on these trips. In various poems he accurately describes the winds, navigation, storms, and his boat in a manner only someone intimately acquainted with the sea could do. In this fragment he describes the afternoon breeze getting up in the Aegean:


flicks the flat water into ridge

with a morning puff,

the sloped waves

loiter musically,

later the wind rises

& they rise,

they multiply

they shed the sun's sea purple as they flee.

Poem 64 transl. Peter Whigham


And in this fragment reveals an awareness of the basics of navigation by the times of sunrise and sunset and the appearance of certain stars:


Who scans the bright machinery of the skies

& plots the hours of star-set & star-rise,

this or that planet as it earthward dips,

the coursing brightness of the sun's eclipse.

Poem 66 transl. Peter Whigham


Catullus died at Sirmio with his yacht drawn up on the shore of Lake Garda when he was only thirty years old. For over a thousand years his poetry was lost until the codex was discovered, so the story goes, wedging a wine barrel in Verona at the end of the thirteenth century. How many more works have been lost describing innocent pleasures on the water in those long ago times is something we will never know. Catullus himself would no doubt have made further voyages had he lived longer - he had that hunger to break loose and go travelling that a yachtsman needs.


Now spring burst

with warm airs

now the furor of March skies

retreats under Zephyrus...

and Catullus will forsake

these Phrygian fields

the sun-drenched farm-lands of Nicaea

& make for the resorts of Asia Minor,

the famous cities.

Now, the trepidation of departure

now lust of travel,

feet impatiently urging him to be gone.

Good friends, good-bye.

Poem 46 transl. Peter Whitham

Not until the nineteenth century do we again have a record of yachting in the Mediterranean. It is likely that in Byzantium, Venice, Genoa, and other centres of wealth in the intervening period, the aristocracy and rich eccentrics had sailing boats constructed and sailed them for pleasure, but there are no records of adventures such as those of Catullus.


We know, of course, that poor Shelley was drowned while sailing with friends in Italy. Percy Bysshe Shelley was at La Spezia and set out to sail to Leghorn with Edward Williams, a sailor Charles Vivian, and Captain Daniel Roberts who had built the boat. They arrived safely and five days later set out to sail back. A storm blew up in the evening and the boat was seen to sink off Viareggio, the bodies were washed ashore ten days later on 17 July 1822. Byron and Leigh Hunt who were in Leghorn hurried down and made the funeral arrangements, the bodies had to be burnt because of quarantine laws, and that is about as much as we know of Shelley's yachting endeavours or of Roberts who had the boat built. Byron himself liked boats but knew little about them, being as interested in the flamboyant captains and crew of the ships he chartered when in Greece as in the boats themselves.


In the middle and late nineteenth century the Victorians took to yachting in a big way. One of the first accounts of a yachting cruise is to be found in E. M. Grosvenor's Narrative of a Yacht Voyage in the Mediterranean during the years 1840-41. Grosvenor and his family cruised in the 217-ton RYS The Dolphin for a year exploring many of the harbours and islands from Gibraltar to Turkey. The Americans, always keen to visit decadent and ailing Europe, sailed a number of large yachts across to the Mediterranean, sometimes with odd notions about the object of the cruise. In 1816-17 George Crowninshield Jr sailed the opulent Cleopatra's Barge to the Mediterranean. George Jr was obsessed with Napoleon and intended in a mercy mission to convey Napoleon's wife, the Empress Marie Louise who was ensconced in Rome, to the erstwhile Emperor exiled on St Helena in the middle of the Atlantic. As it turned out Marie Louise was quite happy in Rome with a large part of the fortune amassed by Napoleon and a lover to help her spend it - she declined the offer and poor George Jr sailed back home where he died not long after.


In 1835 Vanderbilt visited the Mediterranean in his paddle-wheel schooner, but was little impressed and returned home after a short stay and rarely ventured onto a yacht again. Not long afterwards the eccentric and extravagant newspaper owner, Gordon Bennet Jr, the man whose name became an exclamation for anything outrageous, cruised around Europe and the Mediterranean for an extended period. Bennet Jr's eccentricities became a by-word in his own time. He abhorred playing cards and would have his crew and passengers' baggage searched for any offending pack. If he found a pack of cards he extracted a sly revenge by taking out the four aces and throwing them away before returning the pack to the bag. He didn't like beards and no-one on board was allowed to have one. One of his newspaper editors who stubbornly refused to shave his beard off followed the boat from port to port until he finally resigned from the paper in disgust.


Namouna, Gordon Bennet's yacht in Naples. Photo from 

In one port when a troupe of actors came abroad he was so delighted with their performance that he sailed off with them and would not return until they had performed their entire repertoire.


Most visitors to the Mediterranean were rather more restrained than this. In 1895 With the Yacht, Camera, and Cycle in the Mediterranean by the Earl of Cavan was published. In it he details his voyage from Gibraltar to Turkey in the 200-ton schooner Roseneath and has reproduced a considerable number of remarkably crisp photographs. His book is typical of several of the period and reflects the ideas of the well-heeled aristocracy and what they considered to be the proper way to go cruising. These are the Earl's ideas on the proper yacht for such a cruise:


Two or three strong, good masts, in proportion to the size of the vessel - masts, I mean, upon which leg of mutton sails of tanned or waterproof canvas could be set - will be necessary of course. . .These sails should give her a stability at sea, which the majority of our Mediterranean yachts sadly require. With so many interesting ports at easy distances the one from the other, the whole way between Gibraltar and Constantinople, there can be no reason for going at a speed exceeding ten knots, which speed could easily be obtained under steam and sail. The dislike to going afloat would thus be much lessened in the minds of those who may not be good sailors, their comfort also would be enormously increased, and providing that time is not of overwhelming importance, I am certain that owners at the end of their cruise, will feel more satisfied with yachts such as I have described, than they could be with any greyhound-built vessel, of which such numbers are now to be seen in the Mediterranean. .. .As to the size of the vessel, she should certainly not be less than 150 tons. As to how large she should be, must, of course, depend upon the means at the disposal of the owner, and the purposes for which he requires her.

From With the Yacht ...


In the Edwardian era more yachts began to make the voyage to the Mediterranean and although many of these were still in the category of little ships, there were numbers of smaller yachts under twenty tons as well. Many of the larger yachts of this era are still around, cared for by loving owners with lots of money or earning their keep as luxury charter yachts. In between the wars it was popular to combine a shooting and yachting expedition, woodcock and deer in Albania, wildfowl in Greece, boar in Turkey, but the Earl of Cavan was able to advise that 'Lions cannot now be found within a day's rail of any yacht anchorage in North Africa' and 'they will be unusually lucky if they return with one specimen'.


After the Second World War an increasing number of small yachts began to cruise the Mediterranean. Small yachts had been shown to be capable of extended voyages with the exploits of Humphrey Barton in Vertue XXVI and Adlard Coles in Cohoe. The Mediterranean had its own unsung heroes with the voyages of A. G. H. McPherson in Driac II before the war and the more relaxed cruises of Ernie Bradford in his Dutch botter Mother Goose after the war. Right up until the Sixties a voyage to the Mediterranean was an adventure equal to a voyage to the South Seas or the Caribbean, not in distance and days at sea, but in the sense of an adventure that offered excitement and the unknown. The western Mediterranean was barely known and the eastern Mediterranean little visited at all.


In the late Sixties and into the Seventies the number of charter boats began to gradually increase. At first most of these were yachts, large and small, with a skipper and crew, but smaller boats for adventurous bareboat charter also began to make an appearance. In the 1970s the Yacht Cruising Association put the first flotilla yachts in Greece. The concept of flotilla sailing was an immediate success and flotilla holidays spread to other parts of Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Italy, France, Spain and eventually back to England from whence the idea had originated. More and more private yachts began to cruise around the Mediterranean and in a sense it has become the playground of northern Europe.


It is easy to get the impression that the Mediterranean is full to the brim with yachts, both charter and private. It is not. In some areas you will sail for days without seeing another yacht and far from feeling claustrophobic, you will begin to look around for another yacht for company and to swap experiences with over a drink or two. Sail out of high season and you have the Mediterranean virtually to yourself. Around the highly populated areas and popular charter spots you will see large numbers of yachts, but get away from them and the indented coast and large numbers of islands provide a sanctuary for those who want to explore and discover a deserted cove or two.


An extract from Mediterranean Cruising Handbook by Rod Heikell 



Create a Free Website