June 12, 2011

Noah and the rest of us

IT IS A SOBERING THOUGHT that you, and all the yachting people you know, are descended from Noah, of biblical fame. Indeed, you and I have a direct line of descent stretching back to the Ark. It was the Ark that saved us from extinction when the deep waters of the Deluge covered the lands of the Earth.

But what do we know about this Ark, this wondrous vessel to which we owe our very existence?

Well, it was big, for a start. Huge for its time. In fact, it wasn’t until the 20th century that mankind managed to build a bigger ship. The dimensions of the Ark, as given by Moses, are 300 cubits overall length, 50 cubits in breadth and 30 cubits in height.

Now the word cubit, as you undoubtedly know, comes from the Latin cubitum, the elbow. It was an ancient measure of length, usually taken to be 18 inches — the length of the arm from the end of the middle finger to the elbow.

I don’t know why the ancients used elbows instead of feet, but had they been a bit more thoughtful and used feet to make things easier for future generations of Americans, the Ark would have measured 450 feet by 75 feet by 45 feet. When you think that a football field is 300 feet long, you begin to realize how big Noah’s yacht really was. They could have played one-and-a-half games of football on the top deck alone.

It was built of wood, of course, though nobody is sure what kind — in Hebrew it's called gopher wood. Some translations say cedar, others pine, others box. There is a strong case for cypress, also. In any case, can you imagine how many trees they needed, how many clear-cuts they must have left on the scarred mountain sides?

Aboard the Ark for its maiden cruise were eight persons of Noah's family — no other human beings. Legend has it that Noah’s wife was reluctant to board the Ark. Legend doesn’t say why this family fight erupted but anyone who has owned a yacht can imagine that it probably had something to do with the lack of showers, the primitive toilet arrangements, and the fact that she’d be expected to do all the cooking. But eventually Noah enticed her on board, together with one pair of every species of “unclean” (not fit for food) animals, and seven pairs of every species of “clean” (fit for food) animals, with provisions for all for one year. Presumably, the fish and the whales were left to fend for themselves, and presumably they managed to adapt from salt water to fresh water, and back to salt water again later.

From Moses' description, the Ark appears to have had three decks, each 15 feet high — the lowest for the beasts, the middle one for the provisions, and the upper one for the birds and Noah and his family. Fifteen feet seems awfully high for anyone used to crouching headroom in their own yacht, but remember: Noah had giraffes to deal with.

The bible makes no mention of masts or sails, so we can presume the Ark was simply a giant drifting houseboat, and Noah was an archetypical yachtsman, not knowing where he was going, not knowing where he was when he arrived, and doing it all on borrowed money.

As far as modern scientists can tell, Noah’s cruise ended in eastern Turkey, a popular cruising ground even today, though at much lower sea level now. The Ark went aground in the region of Mt. Ararat (about 17,000 feet), near the border of Armenia and Iran.

The philologists among you will know this already, but I was fascinated to learn that Noah’s family originally named the mountain Mt. Aratarat, because, after Noah released the dove, it came back saying: “I smell a rat, a rat,” which was actually good news in their terms. In any case, as happens with so many words, the spelling changed over the centuries and is now universally accepted as Ararat.

Many clever people have spent an awful lot of time trying to find out more about the Ark and how it was built and exactly where it ended up, but they haven’t made much progress. The trouble is, it all happened so long ago. No matter, the main thing is that we sailors can trace our family trees back to the big gopher houseboat. It’s a nice feeling to know we’re all blood kin.

Today’s Thought
And Noah he often said to his wife when he sat down to dine,
“I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.”
— G. K. Chesterton, The Flying Inn

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #208
What are the most useless articles on a yacht? The old rule of thumb lists these four:
► A cow
► An umbrella
► A wheelbarrow, and
► A naval officer

“Let’s stop here. This look like an ideal place for a picnic.”
“It must be. Fifty million mosquitoes can’t be wrong.”

(Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday — a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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