Letters from Armorica- Ship Design (19 Juillet 34AF)

First Letter

Dear Journal,

Old Man Blaireau has paid me several visits today, peering up at me where I sit on the deck. It is an absurdity of my current position that I have found his presence to be a comfort. It is as though I have a large and extremely dangerous pet. I look down at him and smile and call his name; and eventually he slinks off looking for easier prey.

Once I threw him a biscuit but missed my mark, for it fell short and was swept away by the river. Old Man Blaireau did not even deign to look at it but just kept staring at me with his enormous beady little eyes. He is not fond of ship's biscuit, is Old Man Blaireau, which I can well understand. I am not fond of it either, not now that I have made its acquaintance, or I should not have thrown the biscuit over the side.

I completed the first sky-chair this morning—completed it, I say, only insofar as it's possible to use it as a conveyance, for it is no thing of beauty. I fear I shall have take lessons in woodworking from Jacques. Of course I dare not take it anywhere: I cannot return to Bois-de-Bas, and though I am longing to explore the island it is unsafe so long as Old Man Blaireau is on the prowl.

I have the materials to make at least two more chairs, and shall, but this afternoon I have found myself pondering the construction of Le Blaireau, this sloop upon which I find myself, for it is a very different kind of craft than my sky-chairs.

A sky-chair has formed elements that allow it to move in most any direction, as fast or as slowly as the rider wishes. It needs no external motive force. Yet Le Blaireau admits of no such control. It has but four formed elements relating to its motion, only one of which is directly related to propulsion. And in addition to these it has perfectly mundane masts and sails for catching the wind, with all of the cordage and other paraphernalia that such a rig requires. Why so?

The first of the formed elements is a member that rings the deck and provides lift—it might be said to form a portion of the vessel's gunwales or railing. It may be tuned to raise and lower the vessel—but slowly, slowly. It is larger and more sturdy than might seem necessary, but one must consider that the safety of the entire craft hangs upon it in a quite literal sense.

The second is near the stern of the vessel, and provides forward propulsion of a very slow sort—adequate for moving the sloop around a crowded harbor or to a new berthing, but completely unsuitable for practicable travel (as we showed when we used it to pilot Le Blaireau here to my island).

The third is the keel of the vessel, a single piece of hardened wood running from stem to stern. I do not recognize the kind of wood, but I think it must have been something like our Armorican bronzewood: exceptionally strong and sturdy even before being hardened. It isn't tunable, but projects a constant force equally to the right and left. Like the keel of a fishing boat on a lake, it allows the vessel to cut across the wind without being blown off course.

The fourth and last is the rudder, an element very like the keel in construction but mounted by pintles to the stern of the craft. It too projects a constant force to the right and left; and so works with the keel to allow the vessel to be steered.

The basic design was clear to me shortly after I first came on-board—indeed, was necessary for me to understand before ever we could bring her away from Bois-de-Bas. What I have not understood is why? Why not build a sky-sloop—or a sky-ship—as fast and as maneuverable as my sky-chairs? Such a vessel would no longer be at the mercy of the winds; and lacking the complexity of the standing rigging would require a much smaller crew. This would seem a thing of the most desirable, as Amelie would say, whether the vessel was intended for military or mercantile purposes.

It is plain that the creators of this design were mimicking the design and appearance of water craft. Is that all there is to it? This initial design was adequate to the purpose and familiar to the sailors, and so has never been modified?

And yet, our military leaders are not idiots; or even if they are, our mercantile leaders are not—as I have come to know, stupid men do not thrive in trade. If they build the ships as they do, there is a reason for it. Might it be the cost? A more capable vessel would surely be more expensive, and perhaps vastly more so; my father and his fellow masters are surely an exalted and greedy lot. Or perhaps it is not greed, but laziness: forming a more capable vessel would be more work. The shipowners are happy with what they have, and the formers are happy with what they are getting for it, and see no reason to hint of possible improvements or to allow destabilizing innovations to rock the boat, as it were.

And yet greed works both ways. If it is possible to build faster freighters at anything like a reasonable cost, surely some ambitious trader would have prevailed upon the Former's Guild to provide it.

I am missing an essential piece of the puzzle, I can feel it.

The sun is beginning to descend, so I must close. I have found a tangle of netting in the hold, netting tied with ragged pieces of green and brown cloth. I believe it to be intended to be draped over the top of the craft so as it to disguise its appearance from the air. Now that my first chair is complete, I intend to see if I can so drape it; and then, perhaps, I shall sleep more soundly and feel safer on the morrow.

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Public Domain. WikiMedia Commons.

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