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Minoan ship to set sail

HANIA – A Greek admiral is realizing a dream to build the world’s only replica of the Minoan ships that some 3,500 years ago helped the ancient civilization win dominance over the seas and travel as far as Asia and Africa. Since no wreck of a Minoan ship has ever been found, Apostolos Kourtis has had to start from scratch, relying on ancient drawings and using the same methods as the Minoans who lived on the Mediterranean island of Crete from around 3000 BC. With no wreck to provide a model, his four-strong team had to turn to historical sources for help. Frescoes unearthed in excavations on the nearby volcanic island of Santorini proved valuable – it is believed that the eruption of Santorini in Biblical times extinguished the Minoan culture. The 17-meter-long and 3.80-meter-wide ship with its round-shaped trunk looks like a traditional fishing boat as it emerges in a dockyard in the Cretan city of Hania. It is due to be launched for the first time on December 1. «It will creak and groan, but it will hold. It’s a flexible boat designed to withstand tricky seas,» said Kourtis. Minoan shipbuilders used tall, sturdy cypress trees to make their boats. «The cypress tree’s trunk was split in two. Both halves were then placed facing each other to guarantee symmetry,» said Kourtis, a naval officer who has become a passionate student of ancient naval technology. Kourtis’s four-strong team has lashed the two trunk halves together with 800 meters of rope. A wooden frame in the form of the letter «A,» the tip of which is at the ship’s bow, clasps the vessel’s two main parts together. «The secret of the construction lies in this structure, making a ship out of a simple raft,» he said. To waterproof the hull, Minoan ships were covered with a linen cloth coated in fir or pine tree resin. The coating was then whitened with lime and decorated. Kourtis said they would probably paint blue dolphins on the side of their boat, «like the ancients did.» The ship’s name remains a closely guarded secret, but it will be carved on the hull in the Minoans’ linear B, one of Greece’s oldest alphabets. The last task will be installing benches for some 30 rowers before hoisting the flag. The replica will set out on its maiden voyage from Crete on June 5, 2004, just in time to reach Athens for the Olympic Games starting in August. Kourtis is hoping that the ship will be chosen to carry the 2004 Olympic flame on part of its journey between the island of Salamina, off Athens, and Piraeus, the Greek capital’s harbor. «The proposal is under consideration,» Kourtis said. «With 15 miles per day, the itinerary will be the same as in Minoan times, when ships only traveled in daylight from April to November,» said Kourtis, who plans to captain the rowers, assisted by two steersmen and two sailors. Daily stops are scheduled on islands lying between Hania and Athens. But with a distance of 150 nautical miles to cover, the trip will take 25 days, including eight full-day breaks. Kourtis is proud he and his team have produced a «realistic reconstruction,» but he admitted three modern-day items had crept into the construction: synthetic ropes instead of plant-made cords, wood glue rather than resin, and metallic clips instead of rope to hold the frame together. Due to a lack of manpower, Kourtis’s team has also used some modern mechanical means such as winches. Made for commerce and war, Minoan ships were built in two months by crews of some 30 men. «We do not have more than four workers,» he explained. Kourtis is also short of manpower to row the boat once it is in the water. A team of volunteers has already been formed, but more men are needed. «We need a second team to take turns. The young men here are not exactly pushing to get in,» he said. After winding up his Olympic trip, the ship is to become the Hania naval museum’s showcase exhibit. The private museum, financed by wealthy benefactors, has set aside 880,000 euros ($1 million) for the project.