Podcast Episode 17 – Travel By Water


Episode 17: Learn About Travel Over Water

Listen as host Randy Ellefson talks about how travel over water is impacted by wind, ship types, and more. Learn how to determine travel times over water when using oars or the wind. This includes ship types like the frigate, galley, ship-of-the-line, and more.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How to calculate how long it takes to travel along coastlines and oceans by ship
  • The top speed and average speed of various vessels during a journey
  • How a nautical mile differs from a normal mile
  • The difference between different types of ships
  • How wind speed, direction, and ship configurations change sailing speeds
  • What kind of weapon can replace a cannon if we don’t want to use gunpowder, guns, or cannons in our world

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Episode 17 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number seventeen. Today’s topic is is about how travel over water is impacted by wind, ship types, and more. Learn how to determine travel times over water when using oars or the wind. This includes ship types like the frigate, galley, ship-of-the-line, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 8 of Creating Places, volume 2 in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

General Tips

This is another episode that may apply more to fantasy world builders than science fiction ones, simply because, in science fiction, most of the travel is done through the air — or the absence of air in space. However, our science fiction characters could end up having to travel by water if they crash land on a planet and there’s no other way of getting around. I’m also talking about traveling by wind power or by oars, not by engines.

In science fiction, we could either invent the kind of engines that people have and how fast that means they can go, or we can base things on engines here on Earth. One reason I’m not going to cover that is that engines are significantly more predictable than the wind. This is not to say that sea conditions cannot affect how fast someone is going because, of course, they can, but I am admittedly targeting those who write fantasy, or a setting that does not have that kind of technology.

Now, most of us have no idea how long it takes to get from one place to another by various kinds of ships, or how fast those ships can travel, or anything about how these ships really work. Watching something like The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, it doesn’t really help you understand this. If anything, it gives you the impression of not understanding this at all, which is how I always felt.

Now, there are a number of things that impact the difficulty of sailing between two different locations, and one of those is the wind. The direction of this can change and, also, the strength of that wind can change. Some countries are also better at building ships that are more seaworthy, and they also might have better sailors and therefore a better navy. All of this influences the trade routes that are going to show up, which nations can conquer others, or how difficult it is for them to do so.

Using the wind, we have a lot of leeway for how long it might actually take someone to get from one place to another. Depending on your point of view, this can either be good or bad. The good part is if our calculations are not exact, well, it’s not going to be exact anyway, so that’s just something that comes with the territory. The bad part is we don’t have a fixed answer that we can use and we have to do a certain amount of guesswork. Unless, of course, you understand the contents of this podcast episode, or the corresponding chapter of the Creating Places book, which has some charts that really help with this.

There are several reasons why we have this leeway, and one of those is that if we have drawn a map, we should just write on there that it is not drawn to scale. If we have oarsmen, they are not going to be able to row at the same speed indefinitely, and their endurance and training is going to change from ship to ship. So, one crew might be able to go faster than another. Of course, wind speed is not consistent, and then the wind direction is also not consistent. Both of these can affect the speed. Different types of ships also sail at different speeds under the same exact conditions. If you have a frigate that is chasing a ship-of-the-line, it might be faster. Another thing to bear in mind is that ships are weighed down by the people who are on there. Some of those can be killed in combat, for example, and then there’s the cargo, the amount of food and, of course, the weapons and ammunition.

Figure 58 Corvette
Figure 58 Corvette

At the start of, let’s say, a five-month journey, the ship is going to be weighed down more than at the end. So, in theory, it’s going to be traveling slower. The ship can, of course, be damaged. My favorite explanation for why we have leeway is that our ship might be sailing on a fictitious planet with, possibly, a different number of moons and anything else that may affect the seas. This could be a kind of cheap excuse if we say that a frigate is sailing a certain number of nautical miles at a certain speed and, therefore, it reaches its destination in a certain number of days, and someone on Earth says, “Well, that’s not possible,” and we say, “Hey, man. This is a fictional planet. You can’t really say that. I’m the god of this place. I say what really works here and what goes.”

So, that could be considered a cop out, and the information in this podcast and the corresponding chapter is going to help you not have to resort to that explanation. Of course, not having a sailor call us out on what we’ve said is one reason for this, but we just might want to be more accurate and we can use the information that we learn for characterizing the journey that people are taking.

For example, maybe we have learned that it’ll take our characters, traveling on a certain type of ship in certain conditions, 20 hours to get somewhere, but we need them to take 25 hours. So, what do we do? Well, maybe we throw up a storm. Maybe that storm damages one of the masts. So, this can cause us to think of things that we can put into our story so it’s not just an easy trip that is glossed over and not even mentioned. Of course, we could do that kind of thing anyway without having to throw out any numbers, but you get the idea.

Ship Terms

Let’s briefly cover a few ship terms so that we all are talking the same language. The only ones I’m going to cover here are the ones you need to understand in order to understand the difference between one type of ship and another because we’re going to be talking about that more later.

The mast is the vertical pole you see in the middle of the ship. Some ships have none, some only have one, some have two and some of them have three. In a few cases, there are actually four of these. Technically, there’s even a ship with five, which I believe is called a clipper ship, but we’re not going to really be worrying about that one.

Now, there are other terms for these, like the center mast is obviously the one in the middle, the foremast is the one at the front of the ship and the one at the back is often called the mizzenmast. But we’ll just call that the rear mast to keep this easier. That mast is usually the shortest. The one in the middle is usually the tallest. If a ship only has two masts, the one in the back is the one that’s usually not there.

Now, what’s the point of a mast? Well, it’s to hold the yards. Those are the horizontal bars that the sails are actually attached to. Now, as it turns out, not all of the yards are horizontal, but most of them are. There’s also an expression you may have heard, and that is that a ship is square rigged. What this means is that if the ship is headed north to south and the yards are east to west, they are squared up with each other. That’s what a square-rigged ship means.

On the other hand, there’s something known as lateen-rigged ships. That means that the yard is sloped and runs parallel to the ship. So, if the ship is pointing north/south, the yard is also pointing north/south.

Most ships have anywhere from one to three yards per mast, and there are names for these yards, but we don’t need to know what they are in order to understand what we’re talking about here today. Some ships actually have a combination of the square and lateen rigging, and what that typically means is that the main mast and the front foremast are square rigged, and the mizzenmast, or the rear mast, is lateen rigged. The reason I’m mentioning this is that some of this is going to come up when we talk about the different types of ships because the rigging is one way to identify them. As you might imagine, the number of yards, sails and the way they’re configured have an affect on the ship’s speed.

Lastly, we want to talk about the sails. In a square-rigged ship, the sails are actually in the shape of a trapezoid, which means that they’re wider at the bottom than they are at the top where they are attached to the yard. On the lateen-rigged ships, the sail is usually triangular. And if you’re having trouble picture that, just picture a sailboat. On the other hand, in the movies like The Pirates of the Caribbean, the square-rigged ships are what you would typically see. One way that this affects the ship speeds is that the square-rigged ships do pretty well in the open ocean because the wind speed is usually fairly constant, or at least it is more so than it is closer to shore. The direction is also fairly constant, again, as it compares to being closer to shore.

Figure 56 Ship of the Line
Figure 56 Ship of the Line

Well, when you are closer to shore, the lateen rigging allows the sailors to change the sail more quickly to take advantage of the wind speed and the wind direction. This greater adjustment ability allows for better maneuverability and can actually make the lateen-rigged ships sail faster when they’re closer to

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Ship Rates

It’s time to talk about ship rates. I don’t mean, “Hey, that’s a first-rate ship, or a third-rate ship,” in the sense that first-rate is a really good ship and third-rate is kind of a mediocre one. That’s not what we mean by ship rates. The ratings are not a judgment of quality. It’s really just about the number of guns and personnel. We’re going to talk about this later, but we may not want guns and gunpowder, and therefore cannons, on our world, and we might want to have to replace those with something that is plausible. But, for the sake of this conversation about ship rates, we’re just going to talk about what the British Navy does. And, of course, they have cannons. So, that’s what we’re going to be talking about.

I’ve got a handy little chart that I’m going to gloss over kind of quickly here, but it basically includes the officers, seamen and boys, and servants in the count of the men who are aboard. A first-rate ship is going to have somewhere between 100 and 112 guns, and 841 men. These are the biggest ships. By contrast, a sixth-rated ship, which is the lowest, is going to have somewhere between 20 and 28 guns, and 128 to 198 men. Now, in between those two extremes, we have the second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-rate ships, but I’m not going to throw out a bunch of numbers for you because it’s probably not going to stick.

Anything that had fewer than 20 guns, which is the sixth-rate ship, was not considered a rated ship. All of the ships that we just mentioned, the sixth-rate through the first-rate, had three masts. Now, the two biggest classes, the first- and second-rate ships, had three full decks just for the guns, which is a lot of firepower. That means they were carrying as few as 90 guns and as many as 112 guns.

Now, the third- and fourth-rate ships had two gundecks, and the fifth- and sixth-rated ships only had one gundeck. So, the first and second have three decks, the third and fourth have two decks, and the fifth- and sixth-rated ships have one deck. Well, these are the decks devoted to only guns. For any ship that had more than one gundeck, the biggest guns were on the bottom because you don’t want them on the top because that would make the ship top-heavy and more likely to turn over.

Ship Types

Now, we’re going to start talking about the ship types, which is where this stuff gets interesting. As world builders, we could invent our own ship types, but I don’t think we really need to because people are not sick of the ones that already exist. One reason for that is, possibly, that ships are not typically shown in any sort of great detail, even if they do appear in a fantasy book. By contrast, if seemingly every fantasy book has elves in it, for example, and therefore people get kind of over exposed to this, some people might just think that they want to see something new. I don’t think the same thing happens with wooden ships.

So, with that in mind, when we’re talking about ship types, we’re going to look at some of the most prominent kinds that were around on Earth. This is less about inventing ships than using existing ones and understanding what we’re talking about. Now, vessels come in two basic groups: The long ships and the round ships. Now, the round ships are not actually circular, of course, but they are called that because they are wide when compared to the narrow and streamlined long ships like those that the Vikings used. And, as it turns out, we’re only going to talk about one long ship, and that’s called the galley.

The long ships are the earliest types of ships, and all of them were basically designed for war or really fast transportation, not carrying cargo. They were usually powered by oars, but they would have maybe one sail for additional propulsion at times. The galley is the ship that is synonymous with Vikings, although it was used elsewhere. It usually had a single mast for that sail, and it had a metal prow at the front so that it could ram another boat and board it. While it’s a really maneuverable ship, it has a really wide turning arch and it requires calm weather. While it can be used to go on the open seas, it wasn’t typically used that way. It was mostly found along the shoreline.

The invention of guns and the addition of cannons to bigger ships is one of the reasons why this kind of ship fell out of favor. So, if your world doesn’t have that kind of firepower, the galley might be one of the more commonly seen vessels. Some of these could be quite large and have a forecastle and a rear castle for artillery and soldiers, and as many as 25 oars on either side, each oar being rowed by 5 men. However, this is not the kind of ship that’s being used for war. If it is being used in war, it’s leading the vanguard. This is where the captain of a fleet of galleys would be.

The presence of the forecastle and the rear castle means that the captain and whoever else can go and have a private conversation – or relatively private conversation. As you can imagine, that has some advantages.

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Round Ships

It’s time to talk about the round ships. We have quite a few that we’re going to discuss. The round ships were originally designed for carrying cargo and passengers. But, of course, they have been used for war. This is pretty much what you’ve seen in every pirate movie. Unless I say otherwise, all of the ships we’re going to talk about are square-rigged on all of the masts. Now, you may have heard the term “man-of-war,” but this is not an actual ship type. It’s just a generic English name for any three-masted warship that has soldiers and cannons. Two examples of a man-of-war are the frigate and ship-of-the-line, but those are, of course, two different ship types.

Now, I have a chart that, this time, lists out the different ship types and how many guns they have, how many crew, the maximum speed in knots, and their total length. And, of course, the name of each ship. I suggest going onto www.artofworldbuilding.com and looking for the Creating Places book in the menu. You can find a link that says “images.” This image of the chart is available online for free.

The ships we’re going to look at are the brig, frigate, galleon, gunboat, ship-of-the-line, sloop and sloop-of-war. Fortunately, all of them have a maximum speed of roughly 11 knots. The frigate and the gunboat can both go up to 14 knots. By the way, I also have a picture of each ship type that we’re going to talk about, which is also available online.

First, we’re going to talk about the brig, which is a two-masted, square-rigged ship that has a single gundeck. This ship is really fast, highly maneuverable and it can be used as a merchant ship, warship or a scouting vessel. Pirates really like these because all of these.

The frigate is also fast and highly maneuverable, and is a fourth- of fifth-rated ship with one gundeck. These are often used as scouting vessels for a fleet, escorting something, patrolling or even acting independently. In fact, these are the largest ships that worked independently because the bigger ships were considered too valuable to risk being captured or destroyed. This is something that’s obviously more likely to happen if a ship is traveling alone. Now, there is something known as a heavy frigate, and that means a frigate that has two gundecks instead of only one. They are the same length as bigger ships, like the ships-of-the-line, but they have so little firepower by comparison that they would typically just run away from such a vessel. Otherwise, they would quite literally get blown out of the water.

We’ll talk more about ships-of-the-line in a minute, but during a line of battle where there’s a row of ships on one side, and then the enemy’s also got a row of ships on the other, the frigates were not part of that ship-of-the-line configuration. That’s why they’re not called one. The frigates were present, but they were typically behind the line. The reason they were there is that they would relay signals from one ship to another. Imagine if you’re the last ship in a ship-of-the-line. All you can see is the ship in front of you. You can’t communicate to anything that’s farther along. Therefore, you would communicate to a frigate which was off to one side, and that frigate would relay signals farther up the line. The rules of engagement also dictated that these ships were not actually fired upon unless the frigate had fired upon another ship first.

Let’s talk about the fireship, which is an interesting variation. This is not a type of ship because any type of ship can be turned into a fireship. This kind of ship is designed to be set on fire and then sent into the enemy line of ships to, hopefully, catch other ships on fire. This obviously means certain destruction to itself, and therefore valuable ships like the ships-of-the-line were not used for such a vessel.

Another ship type is the galleon, which has two features that distinguish it from other ship types. That is the mast and the prow at the front of the ship. The prow just has a distinguishable look to it that you would recognize if you saw a picture of one. Another way to spot this ship is that the center mast and the foremast at the front are square-rigged like all of these round ships that we’re talking about, but the mizzenmast, the one at the rear, is latten-rigged instead. That allows for a better point of sailing. As a result, this galleon could actually save days or even weeks on a long voyage over the open ocean. In other words, it would leave behind other ship types.

Then there’s the gunboat, which we may have to rename if we don’t have guns in our world. But this boat is really small and it usually only has one or two cannons on it. It’s designed to be used in coastal waters and take on large ships where it’s easily outmatched, but if you have a dozen of these, they can do horrific damage to a larger ship just by surrounding it and blowing holes in it. These are cheap and easily replaced.

On the opposite extreme is the ship-of-the-line. This is a ship with at least 60 guns. This includes all first-, second-, and third-rate ships. They get their name because of this configuration where they sail in a straight line, firing at a parallel line of the enemy ships. The reason both sides do this is so that they don’t accidentally hit their own ships. The first-rate ships-of-the-line are the biggest ships on the sea.

Figure 55 Galleon
Figure 55 Galleon

On the opposite extreme is the sloop, which for most of us just means a sailboat. This is too small to be a ship of war, and it’s really only something we’re going to use if our characters need a small, wind-powered vessel to get from one place to another. If we would like them to use oars instead of a sail and the wind, then we might have them use the galley, which was the long ship that we talked about first.

Now, the sloop is not to be confused with the sloop-of-war, which also is called a corvette, kind of like the car. As the name implies, this is a warship that has a single gundeck with 18 guns. These are not rated ships because they only have 18 guns and that does not meet the minimum of 20 in the British system. But, of course, we can invent our own system and maybe call these seventh-rate ships. The sloop-of-war has all sorts of different sail configurations, not just the square-rigged one.

The last one we’re going to talk about is the privateer, but this is not really a ship type. Any ship that is operated by a private individual, or a group of them, for profit is considered a privateer. A sovereign power would give something known as a “letter of marque” to the captain of the ship, and that authorized this captain to engage in acts of war against other ships. Any time it got the loot from this, a certain percentage of that captured prize was supposed to go to the sovereign power. If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like piracy, well, it basically is. The difference between a privateer and a pirate is that letter of marque authorizing what they are doing.

One of the cool things about this is that here on Earth, in our history, we had people who had one of these letters that would basically absolve them of their actions, and they would sometimes get a letter of marque from two different countries like France and Spain. They would justify the attacks on Spanish ships with the letter of marque from France, and then do the exact opposite. This was illegal and, of course, they didn’t tell either country that they were doing this. And, of course, some of them got caught and they were accused of being pirates and punished accordingly because they had violated the idea of being a privateer by playing two sides against each other. That sounds to me like a story waiting to happen.

Some countries also refused to recognize the letter of marque from their enemies, and then they would just hang the privateers as pirates. Sometimes they only threatened to do so as a way of extorting an exchange of prisoners or something else. Anything larger than a frigate was not typically used for this because it was considered unsuitable. So, therefore, there wouldn’t be any ships-of-the-line being used as privateers.


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Ship Speeds

Time to talk about ship speeds. The first one we’re going to talk about is when people are using oars because this is pretty straightforward. The top speed doesn’t really matter because people can’t keep that going for very long. If there is a favorable wind, a ship can do about two to three knots. With an unfavorable wind, it’s about half of that, or one knot to one and a half knots. Earlier, I said that many of the wind-powered ships can reach 11 knots as their maximum speed, so you can see this is pretty slow by comparison.

And now comes the harder part, which is trying to figure out how fast ships can travel by sail. We should keep in mind that during a coastline-hugging trip, the ship will dock for the night in a port if it is able to. This is going to slow down the trip a little bit, of course, because they are not actually sailing for however many hours they are docked. By contrast, when sailing over the open ocean, a ship will have enough crew that they can sail continuously.

Now, I have some calculations that we’re going to use. These are going to be kept relatively simple. These are also going to be done in miles. Speed is measured in knots. A knot is one nautical mile per hour. That means that a nautical mile is 1.151 land miles. If you’re wondering why there’s a difference, well, the nautical mile accounts for the curvature of the earth while the land mile does not. That’s mostly a piece of trivia that you can surprise your friends with. What this really means for us is that if we’ve decided the distance between two ports on the coast is 25 miles apart by land, we would have to multiply that number by 1.151 to learn how many nautical miles it would be. In this case, that would be just under 29 miles. Whether we measure in miles or kilometers has no affect on the time that the trip takes.

Figure 53 Brig
Figure 53 Brig

Now, most ships have an overall speed of between four and six knots during a long voyage over the open water, but they’re going to have about three to four knots during a coastal trip or along islands. Ships can go slower or faster than that, but they’re not going to be able to maintain the ideal speed, or the maximum speed, of roughly 11 knots because of the variations in windspeed and direction.

If you want to figure out how long it takes to get somewhere by ship, here is how you would do this. The first thing you would do is measure the distance on your map, if you have one, using miles. Then multiply that number by 1.151 to get the nautical miles. If the ship is going six knots, then you would take the nautical miles and divide that by six knots to get the number of hours of continuous sailing needed, meaning this is not taking into consideration any stops for the night.

Let’s use an actual number. If we had 77 miles, we would multiply that by 1.151 to get 89 nautical miles. Traveling at 6 knots, we would take the 89 nautical miles, divide that by 6 knots to get roughly 15 hours of continuous sailing. At 4 knots, it would take 22 hours, and at 2 knots it would take 44 hours. So, it’s really not as hard as it seems.


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Weapons Instead of the Cannon

I do have a number of other subjects that are discussed in the book, Creating Places, but the last subject we’re going to cover today in this podcast is the weaponry. If we have decided that there is no gunpowder, guns or cannons in our world, that means that the ships have no firepower. Therefore, there is really no drama to these. So, the question is what can we use as an alternative? Before we talk about that, we should probably understand what the cannon is, how it works and how many people are needed to fire that. So, let’s take a closer look.

The largest cannon typically found on a ship in the Age of Sail is a 36-pounder, which means it fires a cannonball weighing 36 pounds. This cannon took 14 guys to operate. One of these people is a powder boy who goes and gets the gunpowder. This role is eliminated if we don’t have cannons, of course. One thing this might mean is that if we have 100 cannons, then we might have 100 fewer crew because we don’t need the 100 powder boys. Although, I do think that one powder boy could actually work on two different sides of the ship. But you get the basic idea that the number of crew might be reduced when we reduce the number of people needed to operate a weapon that is going to replace our cannon. We may not ever want to mention this, but it’s something to keep in mind.

There’s also a chief gunner who is responsible for priming the cannon for firing, but he’s not actually the one who fires it. But this role is the one who is in charge of the crew. The rest of them are called gunners. There’s a sequence that I describe in the book that I’m not going to go into here, but it basically involves prepping that cannon for firing, actually firing it, and then re-prepping it.

Figure 59 Ballista
Figure 59 Ballista

One issue with a cannon is that there is tremendous recoil, which means that the cannon flies backwards away from the edge of the ship; the hull. Therefore, it has to be forcibly moved back into position by all of these gunners. This is one of the reasons why there are so many crew for these really large cannons.

So, if we don’t have a cannon, then what can we use? I can tell you that I did a lot of research and looking into this, and the only thing that I could really find that really makes since is the ballista, which is basically a giant crossbow. If you use something like a catapult, well, that has a motion that is going to interfere with the rigging because there’s all those ropes holding down those sails. The ballista is one of the few things that has a firing motion that’s similar to a cannon, and you could actually have it inside the hull. Granted, a ship might have to be built slightly different to accommodate one of them, but it still could fit in there and fire through a hole just like a cannon.

The big question here is how much firepower and range does that really have? The Roman ballista could fire over 500 yards and it was made of wood. But if were to make ours out of iron and have metal for the arms, this could give us greater power. We also might have a fictional alloy of greater strength, like adamantine, when that can provide even more power. Such a fictional alloy could produce a range that is greater than the Roman ballista. A 12-pounder cannon could fire 1,500 yards. While the practical range was a lot less, we can certainly claim something similar for our new ballista. Being plausible is the bar we need to get over.

Now, as far as firepower, a ballista is strong enough to fire straight through an armored knight and pin him to a living tree. We’re talking about a real ballista, not the fictional one that we’re going to invent. Obviously, one could blow a hole in the side of a ship, especially when the wood is not of a living tree because a living tree is much stronger wood than any wood that came from a tree. Now, in the book I go into some other details like how many people you might need to fire one of these, but I’m not going to cover that here. I’m also not going to cover how fast a ballista could fire, but I’m just giving you this basic idea of something that you could use to replace a cannon with. Either you can do some more research on your own, or you can pick up a copy of Creating Places and read what I came up with.


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