Tides of history steer classical warship toward New York City
The trireme Olympias at sea, propelled by its three levels of rowers.
I n the late 1960s, Ford Weiskittel didn’t picture himself someday standing on the deck of a Greek warship equipped with a narwhal-like battering ram, piping a tune on a flute to keep 170 rowers working in cadence. He was waiting to be drafted.
Weiskittel aboard the Olympias,
where one of his jobs was to play the flute.
“Each year there was a lottery for birthdates, and each day was assigned a number,” Weiskittel recalls of the Vietnam War era. “I was born on 30 December, which was assigned No. 3 [in the 1969 draft]. As I recall, Nos. 151 and above were unlikely to be drafted. With a 3, I was certain to be.”
While he waited, Weiskittel – who had graduated from Princeton University with a degree in art and archaeology but had always been interested in languages – made use of his time by signing up for a few classes. He took Latin, Greek, German, French, and Italian.
Though he was drafted in the fall of ’69, high blood pressure kept him out of the service, so he continued his language studies. He found his way to Oxford University in England, where he studied philosophy and ancient history, and later to Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., where he chaired the classics department from 1979 to 1986.
At Oxford, Weiskittel had taken up rowing, a sport he brought to Hobart and William Smith, where he still serves as assistant rowing coach. Eventually, he landed at a place where his knowledge of the classics and his love of boats merged: Since 1988, he has served as executive director of the nonprofit Trireme Trust USA.
Saving ancient Greece
The trireme is a warship credited with a vital role in saving the ancient Greeks and their fledgling democracy from the Persian Empire in the fifth century B.C. The unlikely victory of the Greeks in the naval Battle of Salamis, where they were outnumbered by as many as three to one, was a turning point in the Greco-Persian wars. Their civilization flourished, with the development of philosophy, architecture, and drama. “It led to the golden age of Athens and the expansion of Western civilization,” explains Weiskittel, a member of the Rotary Club of Geneva.
No remains of a trireme have ever been found. Nonetheless, knowing little about what the ship looked like or how it functioned, three British enthusiasts – a naval architect, a historian, and a writer – set out to build one in the 1980s, with financing from the Greek government. They launched the Olympias in 1987, and a series of sea trials demonstrated its nimbleness and speed in the Mediterranean. In 2004, the ship carried the Olympic flame when Athens hosted the Summer Games.
Weiskittel was aboard for the sea trials. “It was very exciting,” he says. “No one knew how to row it until we got out there. We just worked it out.” On the Olympias , he served variously as rower, section leader, rowing master, and flute player, whose role was to keep the beat for the rowers.
In 2006, Weiskittel got a call asking if he could help bring the Olympias, currently housed in a museum in Athens, to New York City. “We can’t do it without him, it’s as simple as that,” says George Tsimis, secretary of Trireme in New York City.
Making her seaworthy
“It’s a way to celebrate democracy,” Weiskittel says, adding that “rowing in New York Harbor will be like a flashback to history.”
Trireme in New York City is working to raise $3 million to make the Olympias seaworthy again, fashion new oars, transport the ship from Greece, and mount an exhibit about its history. So far, the group has raised about $600,000. There are many needs in the world, Weiskittel concedes, but “you could argue that art is essential to human nature.”
“He’s so proud of the trireme project,” says Paul Kirsch, of the Geneva club. “There are people who don’t understand how important it is that some form of antiquity be preserved, even in replica. It’s the same way we have a replica of the Mayflower in Plymouth, Mass.”
But will people be interested in an ancient Greek warship? “Movies like 300 , or Troy – why does Hollywood makes movies like that? Who is interested?” Weiskittel muses. “Lots of people. That’s why those movies are successful.”
Why is it called a trireme?
Although there’s debate among scholars, the builders of the Olympias interpreted the word – from the Latin tri, meaning “three,” and remus, meaning “oar” – to mean three levels of rowers.
How many people does it take to operate a trireme?
The Olympias uses 170 rowers – 62 on the top level, 54 on the second level, and 54 on the bottom. Thirty additional crew members were on board in ancient times, including a carpenter, flute player, rowing master, helmsman, captain, archers, and infantrymen. All rowers on board were freemen.
How was the trireme used in battle?
The ship’s weapon was a bronze ram on the bow designed to disable enemy ships.
How big is a trireme?
The Olympias is 121 feet long and 18 feet wide at its widest point.
How fast can it go?
The Olympias recorded speeds of 9 1/4 knots (about 10 1/2 miles per hour) under oar and 11 knots (12.6 miles per hour) under sail.