The Wall Street Journal
JANUARY 29, 2011
Epic Struggle: Fans Fight to Revive an Oar-Powered Greek Warship
Sole Full-Scale Replica Isn't Seaworthy; Scholars Have Row Over Ancient Design
By SOPHIA HOLLANDER
NEW YORK—On a recent morning, Ford Weiskittel listened to typical board-meeting chatter for a nonprofit group: an upcoming fund-raiser, the possibility of attracting celebrities, the benefits of one honoree versus two.
But there was something he really wanted to know: Was asking prominent citizens to water-ski behind a replica of an ancient warship being rowed down the Hudson River one publicity stunt too far?
A group of New Yorkers wants to bring the Olympias, the world's only working replica of a trireme, to the city in 2012.
"Dressed in armor," suggested board member Charles Hirschler. "Holding a sword."
"Let's not get carried away," said Mr. Weiskittel, a former classics professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
The men are part of a group trying to bring to New York a full-scale, working replica of the ancient Athenian warship known as the trireme.
For centuries, scholars have squabbled over the design of the ship, which was crucial to defeating the Persians in the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., part of a wider war that included the fight at Thermopylae dramatized in the film "300."
But a wreck of a trireme—a nimble vessel tipped with a bronze battering ram—has never been found. Classicists have had to piece together clues about its design from vase images, carved reliefs and bad jokes in ancient plays, generating competing theories about its size, structure and speed.
"The trireme is actually one of the oldest puzzles in classical scholarship," says Boris Rankov, a professor of ancient history at Royal Holloway, University of London. "These were ships that enabled Athens to maintain the empire and create democracy."
In the 1980s, a Cambridge classicist and the chief naval architect for Britain's Ministry of Defense pooled their knowledge to build a full-scale model of a possible structure for the trireme. Construction was funded by the Greek government. The ship was around 120 feet long, weighed 55,000 pounds and relied on an additional 33,000 pounds of crew for ballast.
Powered by 170 rowers, the Olympias did five sea trials in Greece between 1987 and 1994, with a stop in London. Says Mr. Weiskittel, who is executive director of Trireme Trust USA: "It's like a time machine."
But the ship hasn't stood the test of modern time. It is currently unfit for sea travel and is on display in a naval museum in Athens.
Now a group of New Yorkers is trying to restore the trireme, including corrections for some flaws in the original design, and row it in the city's harbor. They hope the effort will culminate in a voyage around the Statue of Liberty on July 4 next year.
The project, including an exhibit and conference, would cost just under $3 million, the group estimates, of which they have raised $575,000. They say they have permission to borrow the ship, as long as it is returned in perfect shape and at no cost to the Greek government.
"The world has to see this boat. That's why we have to bring it to New York," says Markos Marinakis, chairman of Trireme in New York City Inc. "I'm a proud Greek. I could not stay out of it."
It won't be easy. The ship needs about $275,000 in repairs. It will have to be carried to the U.S. aboard a freighter. Rowers must be recruited.
Scholars say it will be worth it. New trials will improve knowledge of the speed and agility of the ships, generating data that can be used to develop computer models of ancient battles. Trireme fans also hope to overcome popular misconceptions about the ships. "Forget about 'Ben-Hur' and the shackles and the guy with the whip," says Mr. Hirschler, who participated in several of the ship's voyages and keeps a 13-foot, 10-inch oar strapped to the staircase well in his Manhattan residence.
Instead, he says, imagine a flutist or piper serenading 170 mostly free men to keep their strokes in rhythm.
A "trierarch" oversaw the ship and funded the voyage. "He is the Steinbrenner of the deal," says Mr. Hirschler, who notes that in ancient times, the trierarch would seek to poach better rowers through an active free-agent system. "The Athenians rapidly became the Yankees," he says.
Controversy still surrounds the design of the ships. The word trireme comes from three and "remus," meaning oar. But "how these oars were arranged was the big puzzle," says Mr. Weiskittel. "Three what? Three levels? Three men to an oar? Something else entirely?"
Trireme fans can be an impassioned bunch. In 1975, an article in the The Times of London suggested triremes had been powered primarily by sails. Others vehemently disagreed, setting off one of the longest letter-writing exchanges in the newspaper's history, as engineers, rowers, and classicists poured in their opinions, arguing over possible speeds and the number of levels in the ship.
The debate continues. This month, John Hale, director of liberal studies at the University of Louisville and himself a rower, presented a paper to the Archaeological Institute of America, arguing the Olympias is "quite different" from the triremes of ancient Greece.
Based on his interpretation of evidence, he says the classical ship had only a single mast (the Olympias has two), lighter construction and possibly oars of different lengths.
Despite what he considers its flaws, the reconstruction "is a great achievement," Mr. Hale says. He first encountered the Olympias when it was no more than a section of a ship erected on the lawn of its creator, Cambridge classicist John Morrison. "The oars were pulled through water in a circular plastic swimming pool," he says.
The ship "has had a major impact on the study of Greek history," Mr. Hale says.
Barry Strauss, chairman of the history department at Cornell University, agrees. He has visited the trireme several times for his research—and found it "hot and cramped" and "stinky." He is also a rower, and would jump at the opportunity to join the crew.
"If they gave me the chance to do it," he says, "I wouldn't miss it for anything."
Mr. Hirschler is hoping to recruit an elite crew that can approximate the Athenian feats.
"Ideally you would get 170 fitness fanatics," he says. "I look at [the ship] as a human-powered, waterborne missile that can operate like a jet boat."