Swift, oar-powered Olympias. Reconstructed Greek trireme shows its mettle in sea trials

IT was an Olympic feat all the way. An international, amateur crew that included 53 American rowers set the pace and made record speeds for a 170-oared, 5th-century BC trireme reconstruction during her August 1988 sea trials. Then, in a scene designed to recall the original Olympic Games, a Greek Navy oar crew used the 120-foot ramming galley to carry the runner with the Olympic flame as the torch left Athens for Seoul on Tuesday.

The Olympias, the ancient equivalent of a modern jet fighter, is being used to promote the centennial 1996 Olympics and settle technical questions that have puzzled naval experts for centuries.

Ford Weiskittel, the Trireme Trust's rowing master for the three-week sea trials, explained, ``Fast and highly maneuverable triremes were critical in the establishment of Athenian hegemony at the dawn of the classical age, but details of their construction and operation have long been lost.'' The reconstructed ramming warship is the product of 50 years of research by the Trireme Trust's president, John Morrison, and $800,000 of appropriations by the Greek Navy. Many consider it the most complex project in experimental archaeology ever attempted and certainly the most difficult ship in the world to row.

Selected from a field of nearly 400, the United States team of 22 women and 31 men helped an international crew of 200 rediscover the rowing techniques of classical trireme crews, pulling on 26-pound oars to power the triple-banked ship. Acceptance was tougher for the US team than for the Australian and European rowers, since Mr. Weiskittel used higher standards of rowing experience and physical conditioning, in addition to tight restrictions on leg length.

The 170 rowers have little room in which to row, so their floor-to-crotch measurement had to be about 31 inches, coinciding with the estimated ancient Athenian average height of 5 feet, 6 inches. It was a rare pleasure for the shorter rowers to find they'd been given preference over some Olympic-caliber competitors whose legs were simply too long.

With their smaller size and special fixed-seat training in Boston and San Francisco before departure for Greece, the Americans taught the others how to row while bending from the waist, rather than with the straight, upright back used by modern collegiate sliding-seat oarsmen.

Rowers trained on dry land at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. Visitors watched in amusement as 11 rowers climbed into the wooden mock-up, grabbed the 12-foot oars, and started pulling in unison. The count often reached an impressive 48 strokes per minute.

The just-released preliminary results from the sea trials showed the training worked well enough to give pause to the rowers of any ancient enemy of Athens. The top speed of 9.6 knots (11.5 m.p.h.) was augmented by acceleration runs of zero to 7 knots in 32 seconds.

By using a technique called sculling, the rowers were even able to move the ship sideways, as if they were holding position in a line of triremes preparing for battle. Fast, tight turns of 2.6 degrees per second sent spectator boats into reverse to avoid being struck by Olympias's bronze-sheathed ram.

The intense Aegean heat during the 7 a.m. to 12 noon outings was a serious performance factor for the sweat-drenched rowers. Many wondered if classical Athenians would have started to row before dawn. Yet calls for earlier outings were shouted down by those who liked to spend their evenings in Poros taverns discussing how to take the lieutenant commander from the Greek Navy water-skiing behind the trireme.

``We are part of a huge crew that has to work together in harmony to a degree that is virtu ally unknown in the modern world,'' one American rower said. ``But triremes were warships, floating missiles that caused great death and destruction. In our desire to underscore the peaceful, international nature of the project, we choose to pay tribute to our ancestors who gave their best in a trireme for an errand of mercy from Piraeus to Mytilene on the island of Lesbos in 427 BC.''

Thucydides tells of the Athenian Assembly's decision to put to death all the men captured during the suppression of the Lesbos revolt in that year. They sent orders via trireme to Paches, the Athenian commander on the scene, but in true congressional style changed their minds on the following day and decided to send a counter-order in hopes of preventing ``the destruction of the city.... The Mytilenian representatives at Athens gave wine and barley bread for the [second trireme] and promised great rewards if it arrived first. This crew made such haste that they pulled and ate at the same time, barley bread mixed with wine and olive oil, and [they did not bivouac for the night, but] some slept and others pulled, turn and turn about.... The first ship did in fact arrive first by enough time to allow Paches to read the decree and start taking steps to carry it out, but the second ship ... was in time to prevent the actual executions.''

Oarsman John Poinier of Duxbury, Mass., grinned mischievously as he picked up the rhythm again. ``Still, we're taking Olympias into battle against the Turkish fleet as soon as we can get her up over 9 knots.'' Like the US Navy's USS Constitution, Olympias is commissioned as an active warship of the Greek Navy.

The Greek Ministries of Defense and Culture are considering a proposal to transport the trireme to England for the 150th Henley Royal Regatta next July. Organizers of the modern Olympic Games received substantial support at Henley in the early 1890s. The American contingent plans to invite Olympias to Boston, San Francisco, or both, later in 1989 to help give continuing visibility to this unusual vessel and the democratic ideals her predecessors helped foster.

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