Beaching ships?

Homer repeatedly mentioned beaching ships. In Odysseus’ time, the ships may have been of the eikosoros-type, with two files of 10 rowers. This oared ship is the ancestor of what would later be called a ‘triaconter’ (triakontoros) with two files of 15 rowers and a length of around 20 m. Such a ship may have weighted one or two tons.

It is worth comparing this to Senegalese traditional fishing boats (“pirogues”). Most of these boats are 10 to 20 m long with a 1 to 4 m beam. They are made from a single tree-trunk (monoxyle pirogues) which is enlarged by lateral planks. Considering the rather rough Atlantic wave climate, one of the questions is how fishermen operate to land on and to leave from the beach. Pictures from Franck Boyer (Kamikazz Photo agency, Dakar) give some clues:

Pictures by Franck Boyer (Kamikazz Photo agency, Dakar).

A nice time lapse of the hauling operation, which took around 3 hours, is shown on:

Rankov (2012) explains that it was possible to haul a 50-ton trireme on a slipway in a harbour with a team of 140 men, provided the slipway had the correct slope (say no more than 1:10, or 10%, or 6°) and was adequately greased. However, he considers that “it is hard to see that triremes would have been beached except from necessity”. This can be understood because the friction on the beach is higher than on a greased slipway. In addition, the beach slope depends on the its grain size (Komar, 1998): the very fine sands (or silts) found in large deltas yield a very flat slope which keeps ships far from land. Conversely, a shingle beach (e.g. Nice, France) has a steep slope that is dangerous for landing ships on.

Hence, with increasing ship sizes (and weights), beaching became unpractical, if not unfeasible, and places for safe anchorage were sought.

Greg Votruba (2017) provided convincing argumentation that cargo ships did not habitually beach and concluded that “from the Classical period at the latest, the standard practice was to remain afloat at anchor”.

Only three options were therefore available for loading and unloading ships outside of a port with heavy infrastructures:

  1. Stay offshore at anchor and load/unload by means of small barges, as mentioned by Strabo for Ostia (Geography, 5, 3, 5), by Pliny the Elder for Muziris (Natural History, 6, 26, 10) and by Isidore of Seville (Etymologiae, 19, 1, 19).
  2. Draft-beach and load/unload by means of labourers wadding between the beach and the ship, as shown on a famous mosaic found at Sousse (Tunisia).
Unloading wood by wadding labourers, on 3rd c. mosaic found in Sousse.
Picture by A. de Graauw, 2018, Bardo Mus, Tunis.

The mosaic above shows a draft-beached ship, i.e. resting gently on the sea bed at its bow, with its stern still afloat. This is the closest to the beach a ship can get without getting stuck (in a place without any tide). A very similar operation is performed by Senegalese fishermen unloading their ship before hauling it on the beach.

Unloading fish by wadding labourers in Senegal.
Picture by Franck Boyer (Kamikazz Photo agency, Dakar).

3. Moor at some kind of timber jetty built on the coastline, as shown on the famous Stabiae fresco.

Timber jetty on Stabia fresco (detail).
Remains of timber jetty at Yenikapi (Istanbul).

Ancient timber piled jetties have been built in many places, but few remains have been found. Recent archaeological excavations at Yenikapi (Istanbul) have uncovered a large piled timber jetty with three rows of piles. A similar timber piled jetty with three rows of large piles was also found in Marseille in front of the dolia dock and in Bordeaux. Outside such large ports, much smaller timber jetties must have been built in many places.


BOUSSO, T., (1994), “Typologie des engins et techniques de pêche artisanale utilisés au Sine Saloum (Sénégal)”, Mémoire de confirmation, Doc Scientifique N° 141, Centre de Recherches Océanographiques de Dakar-Thiaroye, (114 p).

KOMAR, P., 1998, Beach processes and sedimentation, 2nd ed., Prentice Hall.

LALOË, F. & SAMBA, A., (1990), “La pêche artisanale au Sénégal : Ressource et stratégies de pêche”, Collection Etudes et Thèses, ORSTOM, Paris, (397 p).

RANKOV, B. (2012) « Trireme Olympias, the final report », Oxbow Books, (243 p).

VOTRUBA, G., (2017), “Did Vessels Beach in the Ancient Mediterranean? An assessment of the textual and visual evidence”, The Mariner’s Mirror, Vol 103:1, (p 7-29).