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Ship Construction

The Cossack boat of 1737 as an example of shipbuilding in the first half of the 18th century

Dimitri Kobaliia et Ksenia Yermolaieva
p. 89-93


L’article est consacré à un bateau cosaque d’un type nouveau. Il a été étudié puis renfloué près de l’île de Khortytsia, en Ukraine, en 1999. Ces navires faisaient partie de la flottille à rames du Dniepr en 1737-1739. Les bateaux cosaques étaient armés de quatre fauconneaux et pouvaient évoluer à la rame et sous voile. L’espace intérieur se composait de cinq zones: un pont avant, deux sections d’aviron, un espace de cargaison et un pont de poupe. Le bateau est bordé à franc-bord avec une membrure composée de varangues et allonges, en chêne, un massif d’emplanture, quatre pierriers, une carlingue et plusieurs cloisons. Le bordé ainsi que les genoux ont été réalisés en pin.

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Texte intégral

1The new type of Cossack boat of 1736 was found near Khortytsia Island, Ukraine, in 1999. This boat, like no other found in the Dnieper River, is interesting from the point of view of the correlation of shipbuilding traditions in Ukraine and in Europe. Unlike riverine merchant shipping on the Dnieper, dominated for almost 200 years by well-known but at the same time archaic principles of construction widely used in medieval Europe, military shipbuilding of the first half of the 18th century underwent significant transformations. This occurred in the context of the formation of the Russian Imperial fleet and the desire to expand south. It was a time of intense search for optimal proportions adapted to local conditions for military operations. By the 1730s, Saint Petersburg was no longer satisfied with the simple use of Cossack boats and even blindly copy­ing them. The scale of construction required the intro­duction of new technological methods and their standardisation (Kobaliia 2016).

2Even a cursory glance at the documents preceding the Russo-Turkish war of 1736–1739 makes it possible to characterise this period as one of chaos and brainstorming. What to build, whom to follow – Dutch, French or British shipbuilders? In a certain sense, this was a time of tough competition among European shipbuilding schools and local shipbuilding traditions: our boat is a good illustration of this.

3In 1736, after consulting with Zaporijjia Cossacks, Field Marshal von Münnich made a preliminary sketch and suggested building boats in the manner of the Zaporijjia doub (oak-tree boat) or the Turkish scher boat. The main thing that interested the army commander was the draught (Кобалия, Нефедов 2005). The boats were required to clear the rapids of the Dnieper River, but at the same time to have powerful artillery. Von Münnich even anticipated Chapman’s cannon yawls (the Swedish shipwright was 15 years old at the time), but the idea was not implemented and the regimental cannon were replaced with falconets. In a sense, the situation was similar to the beginning of the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century, when the Dutch built relatively small-sized ships with shallow draught. As a result, the mass construction of James Brown’s double-chaloupes and Andrei Alatchenin’s new type of Cossack boats took place. During the first years of the war, more than 500 units were built.

1. History of the find

4One of these boats was found in 1998 near Khortytsia Island in southeast Ukraine. For two years it was investigated by archaeologists of the Khortytsia National Reserve. In that period the boat was dated. In September 1999 the hull was raised (Кобалия, Нефедов 2002).

5The vessel was constantly sprayed with water to prevent uncontrolled drying, and in October 1999 the conservation process began. Until July 2000 this was conducted in the open air, then the vessel was placed in a specially constructed hangar (fig. 1). Despite the extreme conditions of this period, the find was kept in quite a good state of preservation, but it was not possible to completely avoid some shrinkage. By 2002, the state of the wood had been stabilised. The wood was impregnated with PEG 400 and PEG 1500, and since 2003 with PEG 4000. At the same time, the hull was repositioned on a stationary cradle. In August 2003, the boat sat on its keel for the first time in 270 years. Since 1999, it had been suspended on rubber slings from a crossbeam in the hanger.

Fig. 1: View of the Cossack boat of 1737

Fig. 1: View of the Cossack boat of 1737

(photograph D. Smolienko)

2. State of the hull

6At the time of discovery, up to 60% of the hull survived though less than half of the starboard side is preserved. The bow part, except the forefoot, is completely lost. The starboard stanchions, the thwarts, as well as the fore starboard swivel gun mount were missing. While under water, the starboard, protruding from the bottom, was destroyed by the current of the river. The process of destruction was apparently rather gradual, as indicated by the smooth curved edge of the destroyed part. For some time the bow of the vessel protruded above the shallow water and was dismantled, the traces of an axe are clearly visible on the lower part of the stem.

7The frames are in a poor state of preservation. On the starboard side, they survive only to the wrongheads; on the portside, many of the futtocks are cracked and with fissures, but are in place and retain the integrity of the vessel. It is clear that after raising, none of them could withstand any load, including their own weight.

8One more problem was the change of the centre of gravity of the hull. The lack of some parts of the boat together with the lack of interconnection between separate elements led to a redistribution of load and deformation. For example, a major deformation was detected in the bow part, where the shift in weight had caused a twist to the left.

3. Hull design and general specifications

9The keel consists of two timbers and has a straightforward horizontal flat scarf (fig. 2b). That is, in general, characteristic off many sailing vessels of the end of the 17th to the beginning of the 18th centuries. We see similar scarfs on La Belle of 1684 (Boudriot 2000, p. 67), La Renommée of 1744 (Boudriot 1993a, p. 33) and Le Mercure (Boudriot 1991, p. 35). A butt joint is used to connect the keel to the forefoot and the sternpost (figs 2c and 3e). The keel has a rabbet in the upper part along its entire length. The entire longitudinal construction (‘backbone’) of the stem, the keel and the sternpost is made of oak.

Fig. 2: The design of the boat

Fig. 2: The design of the boat

a) keelson scarf; b) keel scarf; c) butt joint of the keel with the bow and the sternpost; d) midsection scarf; e) frame scarf; f) planking nibbed scarf; g) sheer strake scarf; h) ceiling scarf. From a to h not in scale.

(drawings D. Kobaliia)

10The stem, which consists of two parts, is curved and raked forward. The rabbet continues without major changes to the place of the break.

11The sternpost, both in form and in design, slightly differs from the stem. It is a curved timber raking aft.

12The vessel has 30 frames. In the central part of the hull, they consist of oak floor timbers with triangular limber holes cut in them, and pine futtocks. The midships floor timber has futtocks attached to both the fore and the aft faces (fig. 2d). The closest variant of the junction between floor timbers and futtocks can be seen on the Kitten shipwreck, explored near the Bulgarian coast in 2000–2003. The design of the midships frame also finds its parallels here (Batchvarov 2014). The average spacing is 45 cm (centre to centre). From above, the floor timbers are locked in place by the keelson. All the units (keel, floor timbers, keelson) were fastened with bolts and long-shanked nails.

13It is noteworthy that the frames are numbered. Each floor timber was marked with a neatly carved Arabic numeral. The numbering started from the bow and stern tail frames at number 1 and reached the midsection, which was number 10.

14All frames were preassembled, as evidenced by the horizontal nails fastening futtocks to floor timbers (fig. 2e). Numbering of the frames, as well as their assembly, was carried out prior to installation on the keel. This is indicated by the location of the marks: from the bow to the midsection on the portside and from the stern to the midsection on the starboard. In the central part of each floor timber there are three vertical notches, of which the central one represents the diametrical plane, and the outer ones correspond to the lateral edges of the keel. Adjacent to the central notch is a semicircle located on the right. Numbering is also found on some futtocks, however, it has no system. At the same time, on a number of futtocks, in addition to numbers, surmarks were also preserved. It is pro­bable that during the construction of the ship, moulds for other vessels were used, which can be confirmed by data found in written sources.

15In the stern part of the vessel there are three crutches, held by the knee of the sternpost. The stern deadwood consists of a timber located between the keel and the keelson.

16The keelson consists of two timbers, jointed with a hook scarf (fig. 2a). The junction of the parts with the hook scarf is located between the first and third floor timbers from the stern side. The shape of the keelson scarf is similar to what we see on Captain Cook’s Endeavour, built in 1764 (Marquard 2001, p. 48), as well as on other ships, such as the bomb vessel Granado of 1742 (Goodwin 1989, p. 45) and La Renommée of 1744 (Boudriot 1993b, p. 114). In the bow it presses the frames directly onto the deadwood.

17The stern of the vessel has a flat, nearly triangular transom, framed by the fashion pieces and the wing transom (fig. 3a). The space between them is covered with two longitudinal and one transverse row of planks. On the sternpost, the pintle and the gudgeon are preserved. On the wing transom to the portside a flagpole ring is installed. The plane of the transom rakes aft 75 degrees: the transom itself consists of two planes converging on the stern.

Fig. 3: Construction details

Fig. 3: Construction details

a) transom of the boat; b) stealers; c) nibbed scarf of the planking; d) sheer strake scarf; e) butt joint of the keel; f) iron cleat; g) swivel gun mount of the bow section.

(photographs D. Smolienko, K. Yermolaieva)

18The ship is carvel-built. All planks are made of pine. The width of the planks reaches 35 cm, and the length up to 6 m. The thickness of the planking is 4 cm. The ends are fastened with nibbed scarfs (figs 2f and 3c). That, in turn, has lots of parallels in European shipbuilding: La Belle of 1684, Le Fleuron of 1729, and also the Dutch Indiaman found at Cape Town in 1971, the Dutch East Indiaman Batavia of 1629 sunk on the west coast of Australia. The boat had a sheer strake, to which the hook bolts were attached. The scarf on the sheer strake was of a different shape (figs 2g and 3d).

19The ceiling planking had a clamp and a footwaling consis­ting of a triple row of planks with inserts in the stern part.

20Two transverse beams situated in the stern, together with the wing transom, served as a support for the deck. The arched mast partner beam was situated above the seventh floor timber counting from the bow and served to support the trunk of the mast. It was attached to the sides of the vessel with two hanging knees located beneath it. An additional beam separated the central part of the vessel from the aft rowing section. It is also fixed by two hanging knees. A rectangular ring is attached to the beam above the keelson.

21In addition to the knee of the sternpost and the false stem knee, there are 32 units. Perhaps there were even more. Of these, six were lodging knees. At least two more knees were located in the bow. The central cargo hold of the ship was of increased strength. Here, along the side was located the top row of lodging knees, five on each side. They joined the clamp with the planking and five deck beams. The hanging knees of the middle part of the vessel were additionally joined with stanchions tenonned along the hull. Each stanchion was attached to the side by a horizontal bar, embedded in the middle part of it. All the knees are made of coniferous trees and fixed to the frames with iron bolts.

22The deck is fully preserved in the stern. The deck planking is longitudinally oriented. The seams between the planks are caulked and payed with tar. The entire outer planking of the hull is caulked in a similar way.

23Due to the serious destruction of the bow, we do not have any parts of the bow bulwarks. However, 18th century drawings give us an idea of its design, which apparently did not differ much from the stern.

24The mast was positioned forward of midships. The rectangular tenon of the mast heel lies in a mortise in the oak mast step, which is fastened with bolts and nails to the keelson. Forward of the mast, a beam braces the mast step and is jointed to the frames. At the height of the deck, the mast is supported by a beam that served as mast partners. The mast and the beam were joined by a lodging knee. (Кобалія, Нефедов 2005).

4. The inner space of the boat

25The inner space can be divided into five zones.

  1. The stern cabin or cherdack is a small room located under the aft deck. The cabin furniture consists of a small sleeping platform, the narrow side of which lies on the sternpost knee and the wider side on two transversal beams. The cabin is sepa­rated by a wooden bulkhead made of one plank. On the after deck there are two swivel gun mounts made of pine trunks with preserved rootstock (fig. 3 g). They are oval in cross section, cut through the after deck and overhang the bulwark. The mounts had a round hole on the top with an iron tube and square fitting for the installation of a falconet. The upper part is additionally reinforced with two iron pipe holders.
  2. The rowing section in the stern consisted of three rowing thwarts with thole boards fastened on the planksheer. The thwarts were positioned at the level of the planksheer. An iron cleat is installed between the last two thole boards (fig. 3f). Under the thwarts there was a locker.
  3. The cargo section in the central part of the vessel has a side board that is one strake higher. The preserved planksheer has no traces of thole boards, therefore, the section was not intended for rowing. During the excavations, a ship pump was found on the portside, near the mast. The pump is wooden, round in section, tapering from top to bottom. The purpose of the other wooden structures of the section is not fully understood.
  4. The thwarts and the thole boards of the bow rowing section were not preserved, therefore the only evidence in favour of assuming that there was a bow rowing section is a fragment of the riser along the portside. The plank is fastened from the inside of the portside at the height of the top timbers: it had cut-outs for fastening the thwarts. For the rest, there are no construction differences between the second and fourth sections.
  5. Damage to the bow means that this section is the least informative for the moment. Its appearance can be reconstructed from 18th century drawings. It is known that the bow section was used to carry the artillery. Here, along the portside, another gun mount, similar to the stern one, was found. At the time of research, all the iron fittings were removed from it. There is a small square mortise for a stanchion in the keelson above the bow deadwood.

26In addition to clench and forelock bolts, 19 types of nails were recorded.

5. Conclusions

27Summing up, I would like to underline that this vessel is a unique source for the study of military shipbuilding of the 18th century, a source that embodied the needs of those times and the particularities of various shipbuilding schools. This boat was a compromise between the tasks set for the flotilla and the conditions in which she came into the world.

28Despite many analogies of its constructive elements in European shipbuilding of the end of the 17th to the beginning of the 18th centuries, we insist that the vessel is closer to Mediterranean traditions, particularly, galley-building traditions (fig. 4). This can be proved by the following features: the relative narrowness of the bow, double guy hooks widely used on galleys, the high position of the thwarts, almost at the planksheer level, and a characteristic rounded sternpost with a long pintle, which, according to K. Batchvarov, is “typical for vessels with sharp sterns and curved sternposts, similar to the 16th century Ottoman wreck from Yassıada”. He also underlines that “this type of stern was popular among traditional lateen-rigged craft in the Mediterranean world until the 19th century, if not later”. (Batchvarov 2014, p. 4).

Fig. 4: The theoretical lines of the Cossack boat

Fig. 4: The theoretical lines of the Cossack boat

(drawing D. Kobaliia)

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Batchvarov K.
2014 “The Hull Remains of a Post Medieval Black Sea Merchantman from Kitten, Bulgaria,” IJNA 43.2, p. 1–16.

Boudriot J.
1991 “Le Mercure”, Navire marchand, 1730, Paris, Ed. J. Boudriot.

Boudriot J.
1993a “La Renommée”, frégate de VIII, 1744, Paris, Ed. J. Boudriot.

Boudriot J.
1993b The history of the French frigate, 1650–1850, Rotherfield, Jean Boudriot Publications.

Boudriot J.
2000 “La Belle” 1684, Paris, Ed. J. Boudriot.

Goodwin P.
1989 The bomb vessel Granado, 1742, London, Conway Maritime Press.

Kobaliia D.
2016 “Political prerequisites of Dnipro flit generation,” in History on frames. Ancient boats restoration project, Запоріжжя (Zaporozhye), Дике поле, p. 8–15.

Кобалия Д., Нефедов В.
2002 “Методика исследований и организация подъема казачьей лодки 1738 г.,” in Подводная археология: сто лет исследо­ваний. Материалы международной научно-практической конференции К столетию подводной археологии 6–8 февраля 2002 г., Москва (Moscow), p. 66–74.

Кобалия Д., Нефедов В.
2005 “Запорозька чайка” Історія однієї знахідки, Запоріжжя (Zaporozhye), Дике поле.

Marquardt K. H.
2001 Captain Cook’s Endeavour, London, Conway Maritime Press.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: View of the Cossack boat of 1737
Crédits (photograph D. Smolienko)
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,7M
Titre Fig. 2: The design of the boat
Légende a) keelson scarf; b) keel scarf; c) butt joint of the keel with the bow and the sternpost; d) midsection scarf; e) frame scarf; f) planking nibbed scarf; g) sheer strake scarf; h) ceiling scarf. From a to h not in scale.
Crédits (drawings D. Kobaliia)
Fichier image/jpeg, 453k
Titre Fig. 3: Construction details
Légende a) transom of the boat; b) stealers; c) nibbed scarf of the planking; d) sheer strake scarf; e) butt joint of the keel; f) iron cleat; g) swivel gun mount of the bow section.
Crédits (photographs D. Smolienko, K. Yermolaieva)
Fichier image/jpeg, 4,0M
Titre Fig. 4: The theoretical lines of the Cossack boat
Crédits (drawing D. Kobaliia)
Fichier image/jpeg, 560k
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Dimitri Kobaliia et Ksenia Yermolaieva, « The Cossack boat of 1737 as an example of shipbuilding in the first half of the 18th century »Archaeonautica, 21 | 2021, 89-93.

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Dimitri Kobaliia et Ksenia Yermolaieva, « The Cossack boat of 1737 as an example of shipbuilding in the first half of the 18th century »Archaeonautica [En ligne], 21 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2022, consulté le 25 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Dimitri Kobaliia

National Reserve “Khortytsia”

Ksenia Yermolaieva

National Reserve “Khortytsia”

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