Mankind has been creating boats for about 8,000 years now. The earliest boats were either rafts or canoes and obviously pretty simple in their construction and function. If you’ve ever seen a modern super-yacht or aircraft carrier you know how significantly the times have changed. But the path from ancient raft of reeds strapped together up to your modern aircraft carriers is far from a straight line. There have been a number of curious twists and turns along the way.
10. SS Baychimo
You may not have heard of the SS Baychimo but it’s one of the most unusual ships in all of naval history. The thing that makes it unusual is the fact that, as of right now, no one even knows where it is.
Launched in 1914 by the Hudson Bay Company, the SS Baychimo was originally named Ångermanelfven after a river in Sweden, where it was built. It was a massive vessel that weighed 1,322 tons and was over 200 feet long. It was used throughout the Arctic of Canada to deliver provisions after the war. Prior to that it made runs from Sweden to Germany.
In 1931 it got trapped in the ice off the coast of Alaska. The crew left the ship and walked to the nearest town. Later, as the weather grew worse, storms ravaged it and at one point the temperature went from -60 all the way up to zero. When the crew went to check on the ship trapped in the ice they discovered it no longer was trapped. It just wasn’t there anymore.
Over the next several decades the ship was sighted again and again, sailing as a ghost ship across the ocean. It was last seen in 1969, nearly 40 years after it had been set loose to do its own thing.
Because it’s been so long since it’s been seen most people assume it sank some time ago, but no wreckage has ever been found and the path it managed to wander through the oceans was one that spanned hundreds of miles. So it’s entirely possible that it’s still out there somewhere.
9. Project Habakkuk
During the Second World War, the British planned to create an aircraft carrier unlike any that had ever been seen before. Called Project Habakkuk, it wasn’t a vessel created from steel or wood; it was to be a 2,000 foot long vessel made from a substance called pykrete. Pykrete is what happens when you mix wood pulp into water and then freeze it. The result is even stronger than concrete. Bullets ricochet right off it. The entire vessel would be one giant, dirty ice cube.
While Habakkuk never came to fruition for the British in the war, a test version of it was constructed in Canada. Set into Lake Patricia in Alberta, Canada, the scale model was 60 feet long and weighed 1,000 tons. A 1-horsepower motor was used to keep it frozen. The project was eventually abandoned due to numerous impracticalities.
8. The FLIP Buoy
The Floating Instrument Platform, or FLIP, is what happens when you want to have both a boat and a buoy at the same time and can’t decide between the two. It’s a research vessel on which scientists will spend weeks at a time doing studies on the open water. And while in motion it’s a ship that’s over 355 feet long, when it’s ready to do work the ballast tanks fill with water down three hundred feet of its entire length, causing it to flip forward at a right angle until only the habitable end is sticking up out of the water.
With three hundred feet of vessel under the water and just the last 50 ft floating above, it’s able to weather nearly any kind of rough seas without a risk of flipping over or sinking. The length of the vessel is well below the water that is disturbed by surface waves, so it’s simply bobs calmly on top of the water.
When the research is done, compressed air is forced into the ballast, the water drains out, and the boat flips back into position so that it can sail home again.
7. The Plongeur Submarine
The French Plongeur submarine has a special place in history. It was the first submarine that was able to propel itself through mechanical power. First launched in 1863, you can imagine how terrifying it must have been at that time to trust a machine to take you under the water and somehow keep you alive.
Earlier subs had been powered by human energy — crews pedaling to keep the ship moving like an underwater bicycle. The Plongeur had a compressed air-powered engine and was far larger than anything before it. At 140 feet long, the ship also contained 23 tanks of compressed air which took up 403 cubic feet of space.
The Plongeur made several successful journeys before it was decommissioned, mostly out of fears of its unstable design, it’s limited air supply, and the fact that technology improved enough to make better vessels
6. Camel Supply
If you’ve ever wondered how camels travel the world, then wonder no longer. The tale of the USS Supply, the most uncreatively named supply ship in US Naval history, can answer that question for you.
In 1855, US Secretary of War Jefferson Davis crafted a mission to acquire camels so that the US Army could have a camel division. The goal was to have camels to navigate deserts in Mexico. The thinking was clearly that since camels were adapted to desert climates in the Middle East, they could handle desert climates in North America just as easily and give soldiers an upper hand.
A 60 foot long camel barn was constructed on the USS Supply. By 1865 the ship had reached the Middle East and was loaded down with 33 camels from different regions of the Middle East to see which would adapt best to life in North America.
It took 87 days to get back to America and inexplicably, despite leaving with 33 camels, they arrived home with 34 since a new one had been born along the way. Camels adapt well to ocean travel. A second trip brought back 41 camels.
The USS Supply had proven its worth as a camel carrier, but the camels themselves ended up being a failure as they adapted poorly to combat, they smelled terrible, and they had rather unpleasant attitudes if they didn’t like the person who was handling them.
5. The Hughes Glomar Explorer
While the idea of a covert spy ship doesn’t seem that unusual, the Hughes Glomar Explorer was the CIA‘s clever attempt to retrieve a sunken Soviet vessel without anyone having any idea what was going on. The plan was for it to sneak in and snag a Soviet nuclear sub and then take off again without any outward sign that anything that ever happened.
The Explorer was originally built after a Soviet ballistic missile nuclear sub sank at the height of the Cold War. The Soviets were unable to determine exactly where the sub had gone down so they couldn’t salvage it themselves. Then the US Navy discovered it.
The top secret construction of the vessel proved to be one of the strangest missions the CIA has ever conducted. The final product was so large it couldn’t even fit down the Panama Canal. The front and back ends of the ship were meant to bob and weave on waves while the center remained stable. The reason for that was it was essentially one of those giant claw machines you see in supermarkets. The plan was to grasp the sunken submarine some 17,000 feet below the surface of the ocean and make off with it. The ball bearings were apparently the size of bowling balls.
Even more impressive than the construction was the fact that this all had to be done super secretly. Obviously the Soviets would not have approved if word got out, so the CIA came up with a cover story. Billionaire Howard Hughes designed the ship so he could farm manganese nodules at the bottom of the ocean. Front companies were set up and stories were leaked to the press.
The ruse worked for a time, but the claw apparatus broke and then the cover story was blown. They never actually managed to retrieve the sub, but it was an impressive effort.
4. USS Wolverine
Most everyone knows what an aircraft carrier looks like. They’re the largest vessels on the sea and weigh upwards of 40,000 tons. It’s hard to imagine, then, that there was a second kind of aircraft carrier designed for use in freshwater. The Great Lakes had their own aircraft carriers, including the USS Wolverine. It was originally a side paddlewheel steamer that transported people from Cleveland to Buffalo.
The Navy purchased the vessel in 1942 and set it up as a freshwater training aircraft carrier in the Great Lakes. It had none of the armaments that a normal carrier is outfitted with, and was smaller than a modern carrier, but it saw extensive use as a training vessel for pilots. In fact, over 17,000 pilots trained to land and take off from the Wolverine during the Second World War.
3. HMS Zubian
During the First World War the Royal British Navy had two Tribal-Class warships known as the HMS Zulu and the HMS Nubian. Both vessels were badly damaged in 1916 but not destroyed. So, in a feat of naval ingenuity, the front of the Zulu was welded onto the back of the Nubian to create a brand new vessel – the HMS Zubian.
Despite being a Frankensten vessel, the Zubian saw extensive service during the war and proved its worth more than once. It even managed to sink a German U-Boat in 1918. The threat of submarines was so great the Navy couldn’t afford to lose any ships if they could avoid it, and forging a new ship from two old ones was more cost-effective and faster than starting from scratch.
2. Baron of Renfrew
We live in what some people call a disposable culture these days. Everything from razors to coffee pods are designed to be used and tossed out. That seems normal to us, but the idea of a 304 foot long wooden ship, the largest wooden ship ever built, being built to be tossed out still seems a little odd.
The Baron of Renfrew was built as a single use vessel. It was a little bit of a scam, meant to ship timber from the New World to Europe. The ship itself would be taken apart when it got where it was going and the wood that was used in its construction would be tax exempt because it was part of the ship, as opposed to the cargo. Things didn’t go quite as planned and the ship started taking on water. Timber washed up on shore in France, having almost reached its destination.
1. Ramform Titan
When you need to measure seismic activity or do surveys at sea the Ramform Titan is the ship on which to do it. Shaped like a giant wedge of cheese, the Titan has an insanely powerful engine that produces 26.4 megawatts of power. For some perspective, a giant wind turbine produces about two megawatts of power, which is enough to power about 400 average homes. So the engine here could power over 5,000 homes.
The massive design is meant to be stable in any weather, so crews could safely work even in the middle of a storm at sea. The vessel is capable of running survey streams behind it, 24 in total, that can span well over 100 kilometers in length. In fact, in 2015 they ran 129.6 kilometers of streamers during a survey, breaking a world record.