Sailing a 2,400-year-old Ship That Sank Off Israel's Coast

Over many centuries, hundreds of ships sank along what is now the coast of Israel. Report from a cruise on a replica of the oldest found so far

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The Ma’agan Michael II.
The Ma’agan Michael II. Credit: Rami Shllush
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

“Pull!” orders Yohai Palzur, and we pull the rope with all our might. Part of the square sail folds, its edges flap and the bow tilts a bit to the left. Anyone can see that we are not a trained crew, and for a moment, the usually calm and smiling Palzur looks almost desperate. But then he skips lightly between the ropes, fixes what we’ve spoiled, ties two ropes in a different place and returns with a hop to the stern, looking a little more pleased. Forty-two ropes dangle on the deck of the Ma’agan Michael II at that moment; only Palzur could figure out how to untangle them.

We folded the sail after a five-hour cruise on this replica of a 2,400-year-old ship, on one of its first outings. It was launched earlier this year, and Palzur noted that the process of learning how to sail it is just beginning. When the original vessel sank in 400 BCE off the coast of what is now Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, south of Haifa, the Kingdom of Persia was still an empire, Ahasuerus was the Trump of the time and the Second Temple was new on the Jerusalem landscape. “We don’t know the first thing about how to sail ships like this,” Palzur said.

Of late, Israel’s eastern Mediterranean coast has become a magnet for aficionados of sunken ships, ancient treasures, historical reconstructions and marine archaeology. In addition to the ship found at Ma’agan Michael, the wrecks of 10 ancient vessels, mostly from the Byzantine period, were found off Dor beach, farther north. Three others were found at Acre. All date from the 6th to the 19th centuries – younger than the famous Ma’agan Michael. A fishing boat about 2,000 years old was also found in Lake Kinneret and is on display at Kibbutz Ginosar on the lake’s western shore, as a popular tourist attraction: It has been dubbed, unscientifically but intriguingly, as “Jesus’ boat.”

Cautious estimates say that the sea floor off the Israeli coast is littered with a few hundred, perhaps several thousand, ancient shipwrecks covering the past 4,000 years. Most of them are much more recent than the Ma’agan Michael, but not one of them so far has survived in such good condition. Which is why it was the one to be replicated.

Sunk on its maiden voyage

The ancient ship was discovered in 1985. It lay 70 meters from the shore, its bow pointing landward, at a depth of about two meters, under a layer of sand of similar thickness. Dr. Elisha Linder, a marine archaeologist from the University of Haifa, was in charge of researching the unique find. The quantity of wood used in the ship’s construction, and its quality, together with the precise dating, reflected the ship’s importance. Its one-armed anchor was the first of its type to be found whole. It took a full 15 years for the vessel to be lifted out of the water, dismantled, preserved and reassembled. It’s now a fine exhibit in the Hecht Museum at the University of Haifa. The findings on display, which constitute about a third of the original ship, were the foundation for the construction of the replica.

In the past three years, Prof. Yaacov Kahanov of Haifa University’s Department of Maritime Civilizations, a world expert in the study of ancient ships, led the initiative to build the replica. The resulting full-scale ship, constructed using methods that were in use in the Mediterranean around 400 BCE, is faithful to the original. Kahanov passed away just before the work was completed.

“We had two main research goals,” says Dr. Deborah Cvikel, Kahanov’s student and the project’s manager, concerning the logic underlying the construction of the replica. “First, we wanted to find out how the ancients built a ship like this. Its structure is complex, and a singular technique was used. Now we’re moving to the second stage: to discover from scratch how they sailed a wooden ship with a square sail that’s hard to handle against the wind. How did they get from Greece, Turkey or Cyprus to the shore of Ma’agan Michael?”

The replica was built at the Naval Officers’ School in Acre with the aid of University of Haifa students and many volunteers, a few of whom sailed with me on the replica. The project is the first of its kind in Israel and also exceptional internationally, mainly because of the original ship’s antiquity.

Some encouragement can perhaps be derived from the fact that the original seamen, too, didn’t know much. In Cvikel’s estimate, their vessel sank about 70 meters from the shore on its maiden voyage. They managed to get from Turkey, apparently, to Ma’agan Michael, but no farther. Proof that the ship went down at a young age is the absence of accumulations on the deck. “We didn’t find any biofouling, snails or marine vegetation, so we assume that she was completely new,” Cvikel explains.

Square sails

The goal now, Palzur says, is to carry out a series of trial cruises along the Israeli coast. A maiden voyage to Jaffa took 15 hours, and when the ship reached that port half the crew of 12 decided to forgo the pleasure of the return voyage to Haifa, against the wind. The northward return trip was indeed a prolonged affair and involved several “loops” – heading out to the open sea and then back to the coast, in order to move north.

“It’s hard physical work,” Palzur, a veteran seaman who attended the Naval Officers’ School, says. “Originally, there was a crew of four or six. Possibly there were also stretches of rowing, but that’s a heavy burden. We don’t yet have a good answer as to how they sailed against the wind with a sail like this.” Palzur acquired most of his knowledge about the use of a square sail at an institute in Denmark that studies and reconstructs Viking sailing techniques. They were more adept than anyone in the use of the square sail, he says, adding that replicas built at Viking centers also provide significant knowledge.

The builders of the replica stuck as closely as possible to the original materials: Cypriot pine for the body, oak tenons and cypress for the mast. The ropes are traditional and local, not synthetic, and the copper nails resemble the originals as far as possible. Palzur notes that original tools could not be replicated. “At every stage we experimented with manual labor, but we also used mechanical tools, such as electric saws and the like. We wanted to finish the job in this incarnation, you know.”

Divers heading to the archaeological dig in Ma'agan Michael, May 2016.Credit: Amir Yorman / Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies

Greek or Phoenician?

The ship is thought to have run aground, after the crew made an error in their location or route, and had to abandon ship. The slate stones found on board raise questions, as they were not used for construction here. The slate was found to originate on the Greek island of Evia, northeast of Athens. The origins of the crew are also unclear. About 70 pottery vessels from Cyprus and eastern Greece that were used by the crew were found in the wreck.

A future mission that Cvikel and Palzur talk about as though it were a remote dream, is to sail the replica on ancient maritime routes in the Mediterranean. Sailboats traveled for long distances in the Mediterranean from the beginning of the first millennium BCE. Wind patterns hampered attempts to sail from east to west, against the wind and ships were forced to follow routes close to the coast, where they were aided by local winds. There were two main routes: a northern route with stops at Cyprus, southern Turkey, Crete and the Peloponnese; and a southern route that connected Syria, Phoenicia and Israel with the coasts of Egypt, Libya and North Africa.

The Phoenicians built ships like this and got as far as Cadiz, on Spain’s Atlantic coast, as early as the 8th century BCE. They were also the first to establish a network of colonies along the coasts of the Mediterranean, connecting them by means of sailing routes. Cvikel, though, emphasizes that the sailors on the Ma’agan Michael were most likely of Greek, not Phoenician, origin. Perhaps this is also how the Phoenicians’ reputation as outstanding seamen was salvaged. A shipwreck like this, and on its maiden voyage, too, could have ruined their reputation for thousands of years to come.

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