Station: [6] On the High Seas

Ship ahoy!” is the name of the game at this stop. And we can justly claim that without hemp, the "Age of Discoveries" would never have happened. From Christopher Columbus to James Cook and Roald Amundsen, the great explorers sailed in ships built almost exclusively of timber and hemp.

The masts and hull of the sailing ships were made of wood – while almost everything else was made of hemp. The enormous sails were made of hemp, and so was the rigging that held the sails in place and made them mobile. A single seaworthy ship used many miles of marine cable and other rope. Minor splits and cracks in the timbers were sealed with tar and hemp fibres. Even door hinges weren’t made of iron. Instead, they consisted of cloth rollers made of old canvas – in other words, hemp – and nailed to the door and frame.

It's easy to forget the sacks in which colonial goods were transported, or the straps used to secure the sacks – all made of hemp. So were the sailors' clothes and the hammocks they slept in – both were made of canvas, in other words, hemp.

There’s one quality of hemp fibres that enhances their value as sail material – they absorb hardly any water. Moisture and rain run off a hempen sail, whereas a cotton sail, for instance, would absorb almost half its own weight in water. When it rains, cotton sails soak up water, and their weight increases. So the entire ship would become top-heavy, topple over and sink. That could never happen with hemp.

All depictions: © Steffen Geyer