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The Mighty Korean Turtle Ship

Visiting the Korean turtle ship replica in Yeosu

It’s 1592 and you’re a Japanese sailor in Sacheon, South Korea. You’re standing on the deck of your warship and feeling pretty confident that you’ll win this battle, despite being outnumbered by Korean ships two to one. After all, they’re withdrawing and you’re on their tail. It’s getting on dark as you approach open sea. Just a bit longer and you’ll be able to attack and board their ships. Hand-to-hand combat is your forte, even for battles at sea.All of a sudden the Korean ships begin to turn and before you and your shipmates can react there’s a loud boom and cannonballs rain down. You and your fellow sailors fight bravely but your arquebuses are no match for the steady cannon of the Koreans. And then it happens. As the smoke from your arquebus clears you see a hulking dragon with a spiked back emerge from the haze, breathing smoke, firing in all directions. You’ve never seen anything like it. The Korean turtle ship. It’s at that moment you realize the battle is lost.

Ever since high school I’ve had an affection for turtles. So when I heard that there was a replica of a turtle ship in Yeosu, South Korea that you could actually go in, it didn’t matter that I didn’t know what a turtle ship was, I wanted to see it while we were in town. What I’ve since learned is that Korean turtle ships, also known as Geobukseon (거북선), were a large type of warship used by the Royal Korean Navy during the Joseon Dynasty from the early 15th century up until the 19th century. Despite the funny, slow sounding name turtle ships are really a type of “sea tank”. You can kind of see where they get their name from too – if you squint and tilt your head to the left it sort of looks like a turtle with it’s head and legs pulled in, totally protected.

turtleship11Who invented the turtle ship?

Turtle ships were the brainchild of Korean admiral Admiral Yi Sun-shin, who needed a ship capable of taking on the invading Japanese navy in the Seven Years’ War (1592-1598). They began life as an updated version of the kwason (aka spear ship) and evolved into the designknown now.

What made the turtle ship special?

What made these ships so effective in battle was their innovative design. They were maneuverable vessels capable of quick bursts of speed. Unlike most warships in the area at the time, there were no outdoor decks. The domed spiked roof was designed to prevent boarders since the Japanese method of combat at sea was to board the enemy’s ship and then go at it hand to hand. They were also flat bottomed and could turn quickly. The bit I loved the most was the dragon head (also called Yong do Agari). It looked fierce but it was more than decorative. While in battle, burning sulfur and acid would pour from the dragon’s mouth (also fitted with a cannon) creating a yellowish smoke that would intimidate and confuse the enemy. We were lucky on our visit to the turtle ship in Yeosu – there were no other tourists so we had the place to ourselves, to explore as we pleased. I must say, it was a bit eerie being surrounded by so many mannequins. The first deck was where all the action was. This is where, weapons were stored, the oarsmen would row and the commanders would plan their attacks. The deck below was where all the domestic activity took place. With low ceiling, no windows, and cramped quarters, it wasn’t a good place to be if you were claustrophobic.

The drum was the gas pedal of the ship. When the drum beat faster, the rowers would speed up. When the drum slowed down, so did they.

The drum was the gas pedal of the ship. When the drum beat faster, the rowers would speed up. When the drum slowed down, so did they.

turtleship9What was it like to live onboard a turtle ship?

The typical turtle ship could hold 130-150 crew, but our replica only had a skeleton crew. After walking the ship end to end I really can’t imagine where they all went. This particular ship was 37m long, 8.2m wide and 6.8m tall. It felt a little claustrophobic with just us and the 40 or 50 badly painted wax figures. In order for it to run as an effective war machine I imagine everyone on board had a very specific role and kept to it. One question that popped into my head while I was contemplating the size of the crew – how do you feed 150 people at sea? You light a fire and cook in a giant metal bowl it seems. Of course a typical indoor fire would create pretty nasty breathing conditions. The sailors learned to overcome this by using well-dried oak as their fuel to reduce the amount of smoke. Still, it must’ve gotten pretty stuffy on that lower deck. Crew must’ve slept in shifts as well since there was precious little space below the main deck. Despite the cramped quarters ,there were compartments each dedicated to cooking, entertainment, sleeping and first aid, as well as a spot to keep any prisoners that may have been captured at sea.

All in all we spent close to an hour goofing around with the photo op statues outside the ship and exploring the inside from top to bottom. If you’re visiting Yeosu I would recommend dropping by to see it for yourself. You can easily combine it with a sightseeing boat tour that leaves from the next wharf or a visit to Dolsan Park. If you really want the full deal, visit in May for the Yeosu Turtle Ship festival which coincides with Children’s Day.

Fact Sheet

  • What: Replica of Admiral Yi’s turtle ship.
  • Where: The East side of Dolsan Bridge, Yeosu, South Korea. When you cross the bridge, turn right and then turn right again down a slopped driveway. The turtle ship is located just past the tour boats.
  • Cost: ₩2000

3 responses to “The Mighty Korean Turtle Ship”

  1. Bride Whiffen says:

    Very interesting!

  2. Bride Whiffen says:

    Interesting article!

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