French Record-Keeping a Boon to Model Shipwrights

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Xebec with triangular lateen sails

Thanks to the French predeliction for record keeping, the internet effort to digitize incredibly obscure books, Acrobat Reader’s ability to search for text, and free online translation programs, research that was once only within the reach of academicians is now possible for anyone, from the comfort of their easy chair.

In the ‘good old days,’ research required traveling to academic libraries that had rare reference materials in their collections, and then wading through those reference materials to find the information sought. That is, if you understood the language in which they were written. This placed real research out of reach for all but the most determined amateur history buffs. But, times have changed. Welcome to research in the 21st Century:

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Boberach, an Algerian xebec seized by the French in 1830

After tracking down a ship plan for Le Boberach, an Algerian xebec captured in 1830 and placed in service in the French Navy, I began to search online for more information about her. This led me to a variety of old periodicals, published by the French government containing records of the navy such as ship movements and officer assignments. Amazingly, these books have been digitized by a variety of groups interested in preserving and disseminating the information in them. Saved as PDF files, they can be searched for keywords in Acrobat Reader. And, even though my French is rudimentary, I can run the results through free translation programs to get an approximation of the text. With a little more research into some of the arcane phraseology the translation programs struggle with, I was able to follow her career quite extensively.

There are still gaps in the digitized records, so this method probably would not meet stringent standards required for peer-reviewed academic research publications, but for the Model Shipwright looking to build a ship model that goes beyond a pretty shelf decoration, it offers an opportunity to recreate the history surrounding the vessel.

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A Maltese xebec, showing sails and oars

Interested in taking a crack at modern research? A good place to start is

One of the  translation programs I like best is

Also, Le Boberach offers an opportunity to step away from the constraints of standard bathtub-hulled square riggers so ubiquitous to European shipbuilding in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries. The long, sleek hull of a xebec brings to mind the galleys of ancient times, and the silhouette of her triangular lateen sails lets you imagine the fear such a sight would strike in the heart of a Mediterranean seafarer when a Barbary corsair appeared on the horizon. As an extra treat, we threw in the plans of an 18th Century Algerian xebec documented in Fredrik Henrik af Chapman’s Architectura Navalis Mercatoria on the page with our Le Boberach plans.

François-Edmond Pâris, souvenirs de marine, book on

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