My first sight of the Trireme Olympias was as I turned a page of an Osprey Book about the Greek and Persian Wars. Thrilling isn’t it? But if a picture can blow a fellow away, imagine what it must have been like to sail on her. If I’m honest I’ve never given much thought to who actually put Olympias through her paces. Luckily today’s guest post has been written by just such a man, who urged by an article written by journalist, essayist, historian and biographer Byron Rogers who is an “historian of the quirky and forgotten, of people and places other journalists don’t even know exist or ignore if they do”’embarked on an true adventure in a Historyland all his own, and shared by a select few. Olympias was built between 1985 and 1987 as an accurate replica of the ship that probably saved western civilisation. Designed by John F. Coates who consulted with many other learned people on the project, Olympias was built in Greece between 1985 and 1987. The information gathered during her many sea trials revolutionised the understanding of ancient seamanship and set a bar for all subsequent experimental archeologists. The author of the following story took part in the 1987 trials as one of “Happy few” who helped bring the Tireme back to life:
That Bloody Byron Rogers.
I was in the bar with a cocktail and some Hounslow tapas when Blunt Dave dropped a newspaper on my pint of light and bitter spilling my crisps and nuts and said: ‘Read this’. Six weeks later and I’m breaking my back over a badly balanced oar and cursing Byron bloody Rogers with calloused and cracked hands and a stiff back.
The article was entitled ‘Sailing the tides of scholarship’ and it outlined the attempts by Morrison and Coates to build a trireme, that three-banked oared ship that was the equivalent of a cruise missile in the Classical world (and a call for volunteers to crew it). As the ravages of a dissolute student life had yet to manifest themselves, my peers obviously felt it appropriate to me.
Interviews, selection, processing and transport, meeting your crew-mates for the first time at Heathrow and being struck how many of you there actually were, people seeking sanctuary in old college allegiance or regional familiarity and enough languidly drawling Englishmen for Evelyn Waugh to feel at home.
What was the first book you bought? Mine was a child’s English version of the Iliad in high Victorian English from a second-hand bookshop in Saffron Waldon that still sits, secure in my affections on my bookshelf. My families peripatetic existence had reflected itself in my education, which had been like trailing a coat in the field of knowledge to see what would stick and wearing it with pride. But a lazy student, or a dreamer, take your pick, not enough facility for source material so I had little Latin and less Greek, but even in translation that furrow from Troy to Athens to Rome was ploughed deep.
Arrivals, kit collection and exit. Exit, a word familiar to us all, at this stage in life from relationships or pubs, but stumbling over the the Greek script in the baggage hall ἔξοδος and suddenly like a blow to the head, the bible and history are recognisable and real.
And as this is history, the old Athens airport with all its inconvenience and heat, buses to the Piraeus and a ferry ride to Poros, imagining the Long Walls, your imagination crowded with Pericles and noble thoughts that are just starting to be corrupted by long legs and Scandinavian accents in the ferry. That blue, blue sky, like nothing you’d seen before, even having lived in the Bahamas, standing on deck with everyone else pinching yourself and smiling in wonder, before encountering Greek military bureaucracy.
Now at any point in this narrative have you wondered where we were staying? Over 250 people? Nor had we? Wondered were the boat was kept? Who had built it, provided stores for it? No, we hadn’t either.
The Greeks had thought long and hard about it and had come to a logical conclusion, Greece having after all, given us the word and the principle. Logically then the best thing to do would be to commission a 2,000 year old boat into their Fleet and draft everyone into the Hellenic Navy and accommodate us in barracks. Odd, being what the law students among the group insisted, was having the status of a mercenary, but odder for someone with a history of antagonism toward uniformed figures to be told what you may or may not do. But that’s for a different story.
It took all of ten minutes to help organise escape parties to go over the wall every night to the bars and tavernas.
Busted, by the Shore Patrol, there was a realignment of expectations and we were ‘given’ our own taverns. I say given, because to enhance bonding, we were split into groups, the management of such a number rapidly becoming one of the biggest problems, especially when it came to boarding and disembarkation, let alone feeding and entertainment. It also made barracks management easier having a nominated person, a senior, in charge of a specific mess. They organised among themselves feeding time, cleaning rotas and sorted disputes of which there were bound to be a few, with two hundred odd, mostly young, but assertive men. What they couldn’t organise and what took about two days was, who sat where on the boat, who would be a thranites (top-man), zygian (middle) or thalamian (bottom). This was done by the crew themselves, the more experienced at the top setting and following the stroke. I ended up in the middle as well as when under sail doubling up as an epibatai, or passenger.
Where’s the boat?
Being turned out at 0500 for our first Greek breakfast was an incentive to forget the ungodly hour and troop down to the quay in the twilight, adjusting shorts, bragging and laughing, the sound of the waves slapping against the quayside and breathing in the dawn. Made sit down cross-legged while the commander spoke to the seniors in the quickening light, first one, then another of us stood until we were all on our feet leaning over each others shoulders and everyone gave a cheer, for bobbing gently in the swell before us was Olympias, long, slim and brown, smooth lines and the promise of something you’d never known before in those sly, apotropaic eyes above the bow. I felt the breath leave my body in a rush.
Getting on was done in two checkerboards, port and starboard, taking your position in the chalk-marked square before running up the gangplank and down the decking to your position. Then the tedious business of getting to know each other when all you wanted was to feel her shudder under your hands as you both let loose.
Oar-length, height in the rollocks and management was more different than anyone had experienced, problems encountered and solved through trial and error. Sheets of lead hammered around the oar-block to improve balance, up in the hills to Vigla with trucks to collect a couple of tons of rocks to act as ballast, again all done by hand, sweating by day, drinking by night chasing long legs and Scandinavian accents.
Opening up, talking more than bragging; Andrew, who it turned out was Orthodox was going away to become a monk after this trip became less shocking and more natural, Tom, the youngest, desperately homesick at seventeen, was bought a catering-sized tin of Heinz baked beans to cuddle in his bunk and fell asleep as soon as his arms closed around it while 20 eyes gleamed in the dark and licked their lips, the only thing holding them back was a lack of toast.
Evening entertainments ran beyond the ordinary, the Navy trying to make sure there was alcohol left for the tourists created an outdoor cinema using a whitewashed wall as backdrop and an eclectic mix of films, oddly a favourite being Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the cry:’Treguna Mekoites!’ becoming a catchall expression of surprise, rebuff and obviously expletive. It also provided a counterpoint to what was a musical ship; there is the film footage with ‘Jerusalem’ drifting across the waves in those languidly English tones as a counterpoint to two dozen Invernesshire ladies, an Inuit called Nell.
For some reason, a Welsh favourite, heard to much amusement on the support boat floating out across the waves in eerie counterpint of the oars striking the water….
‘It’s lovely, bobbing along
Bobbing along through the water where we get along swimmingly.
Bobbing along, singing a song
On the surface of the beautiful briny sea.
Bobbing along, singing a song
On the surface of the beautiful briny
Shimmering shiny, beautiful briny sea’.
The sun rose and fell, the crickets always chirping in the background, tanned and hard bodies, calloused feet and hands, testing and being tested, there came the day when in every relationship you fall together and before you know it you’re racing away, all fumbling gone, feeling her rise and fall beneath you, a breath of wind on your face and wanting to go on forever.
She raced at 10knots and could turn on a sixpence, more Atalanta or Hippolyta than Olympias, but what’s in a name. She was just she, or her when you jealously discussed her with others, because there’s no love more intense than your first holiday romance, knowing your time together is limited and defined.
Long days together and nights stretching out into a routine and before you know it you can count the number of days left, trying to wring as much out of it as possible and then like all holiday romances, it is gone. The Mary Renault is gone, along with the last of the wine and you’re home trying to clumsily explain what you felt in an almost religious intensity
And then like another Olympias, like the mother of another, the forceful and determined voice, reminding you of your obligations, the Holy Trinity of Getting On, Conformity and Ambition, to forget all else as you start life as a civil servant.
But years later, years later, I can pull out that clipping and remember sunshine and passion and offer a prayer of thanks to Byron Rogers, the go-between, before joining in that murmuring chorus in your head…
‘It’s lovely, bobbing along
On the surface of the beautiful briny sea….’
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