Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 4-1 (October 2012)Joep Verweij; Wouter Waldus; André van Holk: Continuity and change in Dutch shipbuilding in the Early Modern period. The case of VAL7 and the watership in general.

7 Drivers for change

Waterships in the fifteenth century probably trawled the creeks and lakes in North Holland and occasionally the Zuiderzee, in addition to assembling and transporting fish (Van Dam 1997, 132-136 & 172-173). Around 1520 however the watership started to take possession of the Zuiderzee as a fish trawler. The number of waterships being built more than doubled (Van Holk 1994). During the next one hundred and fifty years the ship was at the apex of its functional life. The reason is that population numbers in the ports of Holland went up six-fold within a period of a century and a half (de Vries & Van der Woude 2005, 472-475). As a result there was a fast increasing demand for protein rich food. Also the Zuiderzee ceased to be a pirate-infested environment by 1543 as the surrounding territories became politically united (Sicking 1999).

The timeframe in which the trawling function is scaled up in the early sixteenth century, coincides with the first observed design change in the previous paragraph in which watership dimensions increase with more workspace and fish well volume. However, the watership possibly retains its postulated long distance transport function throughout the sixteenth century. Three wrecks (ZN74-1, NP40, NR13) from this period appear to have their water inlet holes in the fish well plugged thus isolating the inner fish well space from the outside. An explanation is that fresh-water fish, transported in a saline environment, will die in the fish well. The same is true when transporting sea fish in a fresh-water environment. Even eel, adapted to both environments, could die if its skin is damaged. Other explanations exist, like the use of the watership to transport saline water to the salt factories onshore (Van Holk 1994, 4). Early in the seventeenth century the watership lost its long distance transport function. This is indicated by early reports of the Friesche palingschuit exporting life eel from the Frisian lakes to London (Haalmeijer & Vuik 2007, 59). The year 1616 is mentioned, which coincides with large-scale windmill-driven land reclamation projects in North-Holland (fig. 7) at the expense of the local eel trade.

While the long distance transport function of live fish was lost to Frisia, another function as tug emerged in the archival records. The first report of a watership being used for towing operations is made in an East Indiaman logbook from 1598 (Crone 1949, 168). The river IJ was silting up while the Republic founded the East India Company. In order to reach Amsterdam, ocean-going ships had to be towed through a shallow mud-bank in the river entrance called Pampus (fig. 12). From this period onwards the watership is employed as tug for big ships until Amsterdam can be reached alternatively via a new canal dug in the early nineteenth century.


Figure 12: Five waterships towing an ocean-going ship in a shipscamel. The function of the camel was to decrease the draft of the ship. ( Boven & Hoving 2009 , 42).

The second observed design change in the previous paragraph may be related to the newly identified function as tug, i.e. a better manoeuvring capability, but the data is not fine-grained enough to make this a convincing statement. As the keel length outside the ships hull already increased earlier in the sixteenth century, it is likely that shipwrights improved manoeuvrability earlier in relation to trawl net fishing. VAL 7, still built on a keel plank and an open stringer configuration, may not have been optimised for heavy duty towing. Seventeenth century waterships however have made all the observed changes for better manoeuvrability.

In paragraph 5 it is observed that the functional design change of the watership, resulting in larger dimensions and more fish well volume in the first half of the sixteenth century, also involved the transition from a lap-strake hull to a flush hull. Why was this change in construction technique made? There is no apparent functional or political reason that would justify the abandonment of the proven lap-strake construction technique. For ocean-going ships it was suggested that there are technological limits to the construction of lap-strake vessels. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century economic and political pressures in Europe resulted in increased performance, better adapted hull form and higher weight allowances for oceangoing ships with larger rigs and an increasing number of gun ports. This is not applicable in the case of the watership. An indication that there is no clear functional advantage to lap-strake over flush hulls may be given by figure 13. A flush hull watership is depicted next to a lap-strake watership in wintertime half a century after the transition is made. Suggestion is that the lap-strake technique never disappeared entirely.


Figure 13 Detail from a painting made by Hendrick Avercamp between 1600 and 1634. The ship to the left has a flush hull, the other ship is lap-strake constructed. (Museum Boymans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, inv. no. 2482).

The lap-strake construction approach may have lost the competition with flush built ships. It is proposed that economic factors in local circumstances determine whether or not one construction is more viable than another (Hocker 2004a, 80-82). An argument may be that the amount of wood saved in flush over lap-strake construction makes the difference. However the gain is lost again by the higher density of the frame timber needed. This was very likely also true in the case of the watership. The real gain is made in the substantial savings of labour and the amount of iron required, as the strakes do not need to be nailed together. Also flush strake hull repairs are less complicated and therefore less costly.