What is a boat? There is an old joke that a boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money. As an individual who has owned boats for a number of years now (small ones) I can tell you that this old joke has a lot of truth to it, particularly if the boat has an engine. Perhaps I’d best begin by saying what the difference is between a boat and a ship. Basically you can carry a boat on a ship, but you cannot carry a ship on a boat. A little thought on that will reveal that there is a lot of leeway wiggle room for the definition, but that will do for now. Boats have been made by humans ever since somebody somewhere in the mists of time wanted to get across a body of water that might have been too wide to swim. The first ‘boats’ were probably handy logs, then the logs were tied together to make rafts, or rafts of reeds in the case of ancient Egyptians. The traditional Brazilian Jangada is in the line of these boats.
Other very early boats were animal skins sewed up shut, sealed with wax or tar and inflated. Other boats were made by making baskets and covering the outside with animal skins (the origin of the coracle and the Irish Curragh.)
The coracle was/is pretty much a single person boat, but the Curragh can be built much larger as evidenced by Tim Severin’s Brendan, where he re-enacted a voyage described in the writings of an Irish monk, Saint Brendan. The Brendan is made of a latticework of wood covered by oxhides to duplicate the curragh of the times.
Early boat development went from rafts, to shaped rafts, to boards mounted edge to edge with mortise and tenon joints or boards sewn together (as in the case of the Egyptian boats of the pyramids). Vikings built the most beautiful wooden vessels ever made (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) by fastening their planks together with rivets.
And bear in mind that the Gokstad boat was built entirely without plans, just a shipbuilder with a vision in his mind and a sharp axe in his hand. Exceptional what a person can do with a bit of practice.
Now all of those designs were basically European, Native Americans built canoes from willow and birchbark (literally bark peeled from birch trees and sewn together and sealed with pitch) which were very serviceable for the waters around them.
The Egyptians (inventive people that they were) made very serviceable boats from bundles of reeds. If that seems odd to you, do an internet search for Thor Heyerdahl’s ‘Ra’ expeditions. And speaking of Heyerdahl, if you’ve never read ‘Kon-Tiki’, I highly recommend you do so for it illustrates the capabilities of primitive peoples to build ocean going craft, for Heyerdahl and his cronies built a raft of balsa logs and sailed it from Peru to the South Pacific.
Heyerdahl made a documentary of the subject and won an Oscar for it. As recently as 2012 a re-enactment of the Kon-Tiki voyage was made by none other than Heyerdahl’s grandson called the Tangaroa expedition.
Why do folks do all these things? What is it that makes humans want to build boats and float upon the water? There are all kinds of theories about us humans returning to our ancient roots before we crawled out of the primordial ooze. I can but offer one reason, gained by personal experience.
It’s a hell of a lot of fun.