Thursday, 26 November 2009


There are some instances of ships setting a boarding plank at the bow instead of the stern in connection with combat. Although not ship-to-ship I think they add weight to the idea of using the 'brow' plank to cross to another ship if they were not stem-to-stem.

In the Peloponnesian War 4.11 the Spartan commander, Brasidas, orders his ship to beach bow-first and attempts to land via the apobathra but is wounded in doing so and falls off it.

In Herodotus 9.98 an assault landing is made at Mycale when the Greeks land troops on beach after ensuring they have gangplanks with them. Herodotus says gangplanks are part of the normal equipment for an engagement at sea.

This is a nutty problem for rules formulation. Does one consider a combat around a single 'point of entry' to the enemy ship or can one imagine every marine a potential boarder simultaneously ? At Salamis Herodotus gives the impression of a messy scramble of ramming but little boarding action which emphasises the association of ramming tactics with the 3 and boarding actions with the later, broader and more stable 4s, 5,s etc. The Athenians limited their deck troops to 15 or so, 4 of them detailed to guard the helmsman just to maintain the agility of the ship as the weapon system rather than the troops it carried. Roman wall paintings often show decks teeming with armed men but we do not know if this is deliberately anachronistic or imaginative depiction of legends rather than a realistic view.

I tend towards the idea that some local 'fire superiority' must be achieved so a plank can be laid across and give the first men a fighting chance to get onto the enemy ship alive. Thereafter their comrades follow and the fight spreads. Perhaps the situation is analogous to mounting the rampart of a besieged city for which the Romans gave the 'corona muralis' a special award for bravery to the first man up. The corona navalis was the equivalent given to the first to board an enemy ship so the honour and danger was well recognized.
The nature of the gangplank must be something between the simplest plank imaginable, the ladder type as shown on the Talos painter's depiction of Jason boarding the Argo and the specific robust construction of the raven as given by Polybius. Polybius gives us the figure of 1.2metres width and 11 metres long. This length is no coincidence - it is approximately double that of the projecting length of an oar - this menas the raven could be lowered across the gap between two vessels with their oars out and required no special circumstance for its use so long as the captain steered the bow of the ship close to the target. He is specific about the side railings too - perhaps because they were not usually present on any kind of boarding plank.

So the boarding device should be half to one metre or so wide - 1.2metres was enough for two men to cross says Polybius - and either flat planks or runged like a ladder.

Next step...check on accounts of sieges for how men crossed from towers to the walls.....

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