Yo ho ho and a bottle of…something.
Yep, high seas rant. Since I don’t have a lot of technical knowledge about ships, this is confined to the simple and obvious, again.
1) There’s not a lot of space on a ship.
When fantasy characters come on a normal sailing ship, they somehow find cabins ready and waiting for them. Spacious cabins. Well-decorated. And the captain and the first mate have cabins too.
I would be wandering around behind them looking lost. Where did these cabins come from? Where did they find the room to fit them all? If they aren’t a ship that normally carries passengers, why are they there at all?
Sailing ships, especially ones dedicated to transport of cargo or fish, which is the kind that fantasy characters all seem to be taking passage on, will usually not have cabins for passengers. The captain may be an exception, but his isolation is the privilege of rank and seniority. He might give up a cabin to an extremely well-paying passenger, but even then, there’s only one cabin to give up, and not a spacious one. Most space will be dedicated to the transportation of whatever it is that the sailors are being paid for.
That leads to practical considerations about living on board ship, too. There isn’t a lot of room to keep the characters’ horses, if they have them. A lot of money won’t necessarily persuade the captain to dump cargo; his personal reputation as a reliable transporter, as well as previous deals, could be at stake. And there is hardly going to be the privacy and luxury that fantasy characters expect as a matter of course.
2) Food is a source of some concern.
Ships may carry fresh fruit and greens to ward off scurvy, but will have to have some method of storing them. Other food is likely to be hardtack, salted meat, dried fish- anything tough and long-lasting that can be stored with a minimum of fuss.
I’ve read a few fantasy stories where every meal aboard ship was hot, and where the characters were never subjected to anything worse than a little hard bread. They must have somehow stumbled on the fantasy world’s equivalent of a luxury liner. Fresh, cookable food would be available at times, such as fish caught by trailing lines or nets, but fairly rare. Someone in a hurry, such as while preparing the ship for a storm, would be more likely to snatch a quick meal of hard biscuits or dried fish before attending to business.
3) Don’t exaggerate the effects of seasickness.
It affects some people very badly, and others hardly at all, especially if they’ve sailed before or are used to choppy waters. Entire fantasy parties completely incapacitated by seasickness are unlikely.
A much greater problem, and one rarely addressed, is finding one’s sea-legs. Sailors will be used to a ship that rolls and pitches and lists and dips its deck towards the water on a moment’s notice. Most visitors won’t be. The problem should be worse, not better, if they’ve spent days in their beds with no chance to walk about and get used to the effect. Yet, somehow, after weakness from vomiting and lying down and not eating, fantasy characters walk perfectly and gracefully across the deck towards the docks.
4) Salt is everywhere.
It seams faces, cracks lips and leather, covers ropes, and gets into clothes. Boards shrink and warp in sea-air and need to be repaired. Nothing lasts forever aboard ship partially because of it.
It’s different if your characters are sailing a lake, of course. But most authors prefer to take their characters on the high seas, while at the same time avoiding the problems.
Fantasy characters probably won’t want to wear silk or handle priceless weapons too much in the open air. Spray can ruin both. Keep the swords in oiled leather sheaths rather than waving them around all the time, unless Heroson the Brave really doesn’t mind if his sword rusts.
5) Sharks are not the only animals that follow ships.
They congregate out of nowhere in fantasy books when the authors need them to, though. It makes me wonder if that’s the reason some species have become endangered in our own world; fantasy authors snatch them through portals to menace their characters without so much as a by-your-leave.
However, there will be dolphins, if the ship is going fast enough, seeking to ride the bow wave. Gulls regularly follow a ship for the garbage that gets tossed overboard. Flying fish will sometimes do so for the same reason. Sharks are more likely to come for the garbage or the trailing fish-nets than for the chance of a meal that probably won’t fall overboard anyway.
(Poor sharks. The authors have them show up, but how often do they feed them? Not often).
6) Storms at sea are never pleasant.
The ship rocks so hard it’s difficult to keep one’s feet. Towering waves crash into the ship and can sweep those who are on the deck overboard. If there are horses in the hold, they can kick holes through the hull that let in water. If the ship runs aground, it will almost certainly tear open, flood, and drown. A snapped mast will tear through the sails and crush anyone below it. Tattered sails are of no use in directing a ship. “Running before a storm” is not always the best or safest way. In fact, I’m always shocked that more fantasy ships don’t try to find a sheltered cove and stay there at anchor for the duration.
If you’re going to put your fantasy characters through a storm, make it real. Make them have trouble finding each other and the lifeboats. Don’t force the sailors to sacrifice their lives so that the Heir of Clackadoodle can escape; in that situation, it’s much more likely to be every man for himself. Give characters crippling injuries or the chance of them, at least. Masts and waves and swinging timbers shouldn’t care about who the heroes are.
Storms at sea are also a good opportunity to separate the characters. If they come ashore on the same island or continent, it probably won’t be in the same place. Or a few of them might die at sea while the others escape. (Unlikely, of course, but we can always hope).
Speaking of which…
7) Days drifting towards shore do nothing for anybody.
A character is likely to be exhausted after clinging to a spar for days, especially if he or she had to tread water for most of the time. The sun can be merciless, and lack of water (if the character doesn’t have fresh) will devastate the body far more quickly than lack of food. Cracked lips, fevers, exhaustion, and extreme thirst and hunger will probably leave the character close to helpless.
This is another case where the author intervenes. Clothes tear just at the right places to show rippling muscles or creamy breasts. (Why are they still creamy after being exposed to salt and sun?) Hair is never hopelessly tangled. The fever never makes the eyes glitter with madness or the face flush. The sun never burns anything vital. If the character’s life is in danger, he or she manages to rise and run after just a short time, even though lack of food, water, and exercise would be much more likely to cause them to stumble and go down after just a few steps.
Be realistic, for the love of the sea. Or at least explain why the character is reacting unrealistically, instead of subjecting all of the world to a romance novel treatment.
8) Use naval terminology correctly.
Port or larboard is the left side of a ship, starboard the right. The bow is the front part of the ship, the stern the back. Knots are a measure of the ship’s speed.
It’s all right if you’re not going to use this terminology; perhaps your world has its own set of terms. But if you choose normal naval terms, make sure you know what they are.
Undersea fantasy’s next, I think.