I recently attended a celebration of the 450th anniversary of the founding of St Augustine Florida with my photography group. There were no bands or fireworks but the big attraction was a working replica on the 16th Century sailing ship El Galeon. These were the ships the Spanish used to bring in provisions and haul off gold and other materials from the new world. The ships were fast and carried big guns to defend themselves from pirates or other countries that might try to take their treasures. As usual, click each photo for a better view.
The El Galeon was representative of the sailing ships of the era. The Galeon was a scaled down version of the Carrack ships which were primarily fighting ships. The smaller size of the Galeon allowed it to serve a dual purpose of transport and fighting ship.
Despite the history of the ship type, what really fascinated me were the various knots required to work the sails and swiftly move the ship from port to port. Sailor's knots were an essential for any crewman worth his wages. Knowing the knots allowed the ship to effectively use the wind at a time when there were no machines and understanding how to manipulate the elements was a major achievement. There were 40 basic knots that every sailor needed to learn. You might sign on as a cabin boy and begin your training that way, or learn the skill to pass the time during long voyages as a form of entertainment. Sailors learned to use knots to make almost anything that could be held together by the knots.
Ropes were the glue that held the sails in place, allowed sailors to climb the mast, secured the cannons, in addition to allowing men to move heavy treasure with the use of various pulleys. Ropes did it all and knowing how to tie the knots to make it happen gave a sailor a trade.
The Galeon was a narrow ship, so close quarters were the rule of the day. The Captain and Senior Officers were part of a cast system that allowed them small creature comforts that were better than the rest of the crew. But, after so many days at sea, you have to wonder if it really mattered. They too were subject to knowledge about knots. Their very lives might depend upon it.
This map show the areas of exploration and dates. circling the State was a major undertaking and it becomes apparent the Spanish were actively involved, through various expositions, in the exploration of Florida from 1513 until 1565. Their skill at sailing the fast ships gave them an early foothold in the new world.
You truly had to admire the bravery of these men because the work was hard, conditions were quite rough, and if you made a mistake in the knot making skills needed to move the ship, the chances were good that you would not return to friends and family. It seems amazing now that something as simple as learning to tie a knot was a major factor in creating what we now know as St. Augustine and the United States.