By Jim Mathews
In reading "The Invasion & Conquest of North Carolina: Anatomy of a Gunboat War" I ran across a reference to a "camels" as a device for floating a ship across a sandbar. In this campaign the Navy faced the challenge of getting its vessels over the "Swash", the sand bar that blocked access from the sea. The book describes two ways that they accomplished this feat, both laborious. In one method, a ship would be intentionally run onto the bar and await the outflowing tide, which would wash the sand away from around and under the keel, just as outgoing waves will do from around your foot when you stand on the beach. As this happened, the anchor -- which had previously been rowed out ahead of the ship and placed -- would be winched in and the ship dragged forward. In the other method, flotation devices called "camels" would be slung from either side of the ship, inflated -- thereby raising the ship a bit -- and the same drag on the anchor undertaken to get the vessel over the bar. I asked Jim Mathews what he knew of "camels" and his answer follows.
The term "camels" can refer to more than one thing in naval circles. The "camel" to which you are referring to was a large and very heavy duty barge, which was of shallow draft. In raising vessels out of the water, these barges were lashed alongside each side of the vessel to be raised. The "camels" could be flooded with water or filled with sand. The anchor used was usually a "bower" anchor (wide and heavy flukes) and backed by a heavy weight (in earlier days a heavy gun barrel). Once the vessel had been securely lashed to the "camel" the water, sand, etc. was emptied and as it was the lashing lines took the strain and began to lift the vessel. This amount of lift can be computed to determine if the system will work for the task that it faces. Once the vessel has been raised to it's desired level, then the anchor cable would be taken in until there was no more slack If there was a steamer available, the steamer could tow the vessel over the "bar" on an outgoing tide. The tide would wash the sand under pressure out from under the ship. Without a steamer, the Capstan was the workhorse and the effort took longer. This method was used in the Russian War with Napoleon, when they used "camels" in a similar fashion to raise bomb ketches in order to bring the "bombs" within range of the French artillery emplacements. It is a tough way to reduce a ship's draft, and of course would not work for large, heavy vessels, but for lighter vessels it provides a means for meeting those particular needs.
In today's Navy a "camel" refers to a large usually wooden structure that separates large vessels moored together. They are usually about 100 ft. long, 4 feet wide, and thirty-six feet high. They are usually made of wooden beams 8" x 8" bolted together with four galvanized air tanks built into the center of the structure for flotation.
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