Building the pharaoh boat Sobek
The pharaoh boat was named after the ancient Egyptian crocodile river god Sobek (Lord of Faiyum). The crocodile was considered a prophet of the annual inundation, since the females, sensing the levels of the coming flood, would lay their eggs just beyond the anticipated high water mark.
A few years ago I went to Egypt and visited the historical sites. I was particularly interested in all kinds of information on historical ships and boats that have been preserved, such as model boats, reliefs and paintings and well preserved remains of ancient ships. Coming back from Egypt I started making a model of an ancient Egyptian boat.
An exact replica or a modern replica
After making the model I had to decide whether I would build an exact replica of a 4000 year old ship or would use modern techniques. Since it was important to me that the boat I was going to build would be easy to handle by two people it soon became clear that it would not be possible to make an exact replica. Ancient Egyptian boats had a large crew to row and sail and traditional ancient building techniques such as lashing the timbers and planks together with ropes did not seem fit for the Dutch climate and modern day use. And last but therefore no less important the boat had to suit my budget. Although I would liked to have built a replica for a museum for instance, I felt it was more important to build a boat that would actually sail. So I decided to build a boat with a strong likeness of an ancient Egyptian boat, a modern replica, which had concealed modern adjustments such as a motor and stainless steel fittings and fasteners.
I wanted to use traditional building methods wherever possible so I haven’t used epoxy or laminated wood. However because the Dutch climate is much more moist and cold than the Egyptian climate I had no choice but to use modern caulking sealants, glues and paints to conserve the wood.
The boat had to be made smaller than the ancient Egyptian boats because of the size of my workshop; the length over all could be no more than 8 m (26’). It took me two years to build the boat while I continued working on other projects to earn my living.
The Ra Expeditions by Thor Heyerdahl and the very detailed book by Björn Landström (Ships of the Pharaohs) were a great inspiration to me. The beautiful representations of boats depicted in Egyptian ceramic art and murals, funerary barges and ancient boats in Egyptian museums were very inspiring as well.
The model of Sobek is both based on the representations of boats depicted in ancient Egyptian art as mentioned above and the extremely well preserved Solar Barque of Khufu. After the model was made a rough construction drawing and a framing plan were completed with the help of marine engineer Martijn van Schaik. He than provided me with detailed construction drawings and moulds. Now it was time to buy the necessary materials and start the actual building.
According to old texts in ancient times Egyptians imported cedar logs from Lebanon for shipbuilding. Lebanese cedar is very hard to get nowadays so I chose to use Western Red Cedar, a very light and relatively soft type of wood which is quite weather resistant. On the places where the boat needed to be very solid, such as the bottom, rubrail, deck beams and carling, I used mahogany and oak, which are hardwoods. For the frames I used oak which had grown curved, this sort of wood is relatively easy to buy in Holland. The futtocks (curved timbers that when paired with a floor makes the frame of a wooden boat) were made of iroko, simply because I had some left. The steering-oars, the forked stanchions and tiller were made of ash, which is a tough and hard type of wood.
Ancient Egyptian boats were built by joining together planks with dowels and then lashing them together with ropes fed through mortises. I would have liked to use this technique but it seemed very labour-intensive way of working and I did not have a team of Egyptian boatbuilders to help me make dowels and holes. To make the boat look as authentic as possible the stainless steel fasteners had to be invisible. So I decided to join the planks with stainless steel screws which were then plugged with dowels.
The ancient Egyptians caulked the seams of the planks in a boat’s sides with reeds to make them watertight. Because of the dry, sunny weather they often saw no need to caulk the seams of the planks of the deck. This did not seem practical in the rainy Dutch climate, therefore I decided to caulk all the seams of the planks. To make the deck watertight I had to use modern caulking sealants, but I chose brown caulking sealant to make it less noticeable. Another concession to modern times is the built-in motor, well hidden to maintain the traditional style. I haven’t used traditional paints because maintaining them would take up a lot of time. The colours were based on original paintings and drawings.
Egyptian boats originally were square-rigged and they couldn’t sail toward the wind, at most they could sail with a beam wind. On the Nile northerly winds are prevalent, so the ancient Egyptians sailed upstream with the wind, going downstream they would not sail but row. Their boats were flat bottomed and had no keel, at most they had some uprighted oars to reduce the leeway.
I wanted to improve the performance of the boat so it could sail close to the wind, therefore I fitted Sobek with a centreboard and rigged her with a lateen sail. This is a narrow triangular sail set on a long yard or spar, mounted at its middle to the top of the mast and angled to extend aft far above the mast, the forward end of the sail is hauled down nearly to the deck. The lateen sail is much more effective than a square sail, it can keep much closer to the wind. It was introduced in Egypt by the Arabs and the feluccas that sail the Nile nowadays are still rigged with a lateen sail and a centreboard.
Length: 8 m (26’)
Beam: 2 m (6’6”)
Displacement: approx 1500 kilos
Materials: Western Red Cedar, oak, mahogany, iroko, ash
Construction: Western Red Cedar on oak frames
Rigging: lateen sail with forward tilting mast
Steering: two large steering-oars
From “die shiffe der faraonen”
Bjorn Landstrom & Thor Heyerdahl
Boat model of Tutanchamun