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Muscle power

Practicalities of the galley

Oars have several limitations.  Firstly, a lot of oarsmen are needed to propel a large ship, and each has to be able to grasp an oar.  Four men to each oar is probably the practical limit.  To get more oars, extra decks are needed. The length of oar needed to reach the water from the top deck limits the number of decks possible.  The Greek word bireme was used to describe an oared ship, or galley, with two rows of oars, and trireme for one with three.  There are descriptions of vessels with even more rows of oars.  In John Masefield’s poem ‘Cargoes’ he writes about the ‘Quinquireme of Ninevah’, which would have five rows.  Experts now doubt that such a vessel would be practical, and think that descriptions of vessels with more than three rows of oars are fanciful.  Triremes certainly are practical vessels: one was recently built and successfully rowed by teams of amateur oarsmen and oarswomen.

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