The navy rant. Even less technical knowledge than the army, this time, so I’ll confine it to stuff I actually know about.
What is your typical navy ship? Is it a warship? A converted trading vessel? A converted boat? One originally made for pleasure sailing?
You’ve got to have a good idea of a) how your ship’s set up, b) what it was meant for, and c) the general dimensions. This is because you will need these to know d) where everything is going to fit.
What things are absolutely non-negotiable? That depends on what you have on the ship that has to be carried. There’ll be people. If they’re sailors, or soldiers, they’ll probably be used to sleeping rough and can make due with hammocks, the decks, pallets, and so on. But where will those hammocks, pallets, and so on go? If they’re sleeping on the deck, can they do it out of the way of sailors who might have to handle the ship fast in an emergency? And what about if they’re more pampered, such as student mages from a fancy academy? They’ll still have to take sleeping accommodations where they can find them, but they’ll probably suffer more.
Then there’s food (see point 2), water (see point 3), placement of sails (see point 4), placement of oars (see point 5), and weapons (see point 6). Your ship may or may not have all of these, but it’s up to you to know where they go if it does.
Food for a navy has several special considerations to fulfill:
- It has to be of a kind that will keep on a sea voyage. That not only means that it’s good for a length of time, but that it’s not of a kind that will get spoiled by, say, salt or sea air.
- It has to come in containers the sailors can both store and access easily.
- It has to feed several dozen people, and maybe hundreds if you’ve got a huge magical warship carrying hundreds of soldiers. No fantasy world equivalents of individually wrapped chocolates here.
- If the ships have a long voyage that will pass only hostile lands and barren islands, then they won’t be able to restock this food. (Fish, whales, seaweed, and seabirds would be more available). Lay aside visions of the sailors automatically eating more, or endless, fruit and meat and so on when they run out.
Some typical foods (drawing partly off the list that mikononyte left in the army post): salted meat, biscuits, vegetables, fruits or fruit juice (to prevent scurvy), alcohol, sugar, flour, Twinkies.
Whether or not your characters will actually die if they drink seawater is somewhat up in the air, apparently; there have been scientists who undertook solitary voyages just to show that it could be done. But on a long voyage and with the option of fresh water, sailors would be unlikely to drink it exclusively, and there might be beliefs about its being bad for you even if they can.
So you’ll need water barrels. These will need to be stored, in such a position that they can’t roll over and can’t leak. If there’s a storm (see point 7), there’s a much better chance of them leaking, and ditto if they happen to be in reach of horses (see point 8). If there’s any opportunity to restock by collecting rain or stopping on an island, the sailors should do so.
I’ve read a few interesting stories in which ships ran out of water and had to ration, while appointing sailors to guard the barrel at night and make sure no one was stealing more than their fair share. This is a good detail to add if you want drama, tension, and maybe even a cause of violence on your ship.
4) Where do the sails go?
Perhaps you have steamships or magical ships, so you can skip this point. But a lot of fantasies still use sailing vessels- maybe because the author just didn’t feel like giving her word that level of technological or magical advancement necessary for other means of propulsion, maybe just for the romance of it all.
I can’t give a whole lot of advice about what sails are good for what wind, which work to guide the ship fastest, and so on, not having that knowledge. Just practical things, again:
- It seems that in every fantasy where people sail, sooner or later, there must be a storm that cracks the mast and makes it fall on the deck. If you use this, I say: Know what kind of damage you’re causing. The mast isn’t just going to kill a few dispensable sidekicks who happen to be in the way. It’ll smash barrels, tear ropes, bring the sails down so that the characters don’t have as much control of the ship, and perhaps carry right on through to smash the deck or the railing. Any sailing ship that loses its mast is going to have to stop and prepare a new one as soon as it can, probably on an island with lots of tall, straight trees. Until they do, the ship will have to use some slower means of propulsion.
- Sails have to be catch wind to work. Yeah, that’s elementary, but when the author goes into random lyrical descriptions of absolutely calm seas, I wonder how the ship is traveling at all.
- Sails have to be repaired, as they can tear. That means that sailors will need to know how to sew. I mention this solely because I once read an amateur fantasy short story in which the sailors made fun of the one sailor, Our Hero, for knowing how to sew. Uh, no.
You need to leave room in the design of your ship for them if you’re going to have them- which in turn takes away from room for food, animals, soldiers, and luxury passenger cabins.
Rowing is hard work, even if the ship’s crewed by free sailors and not slaves. There may be a drum to keep time, but that doesn’t help with the sheer physical exhaustion of the same repetitive motion, over and over, for hours. Plus, oars are heavy. Your rowing sailors will get calluses, pulled muscles, sores (made worse by sweat running into them and seasalt getting into them), and occasionally, at least, really serious injuries like sprains or breaks. It can build up muscles, but it’s not the kind of work that someone can just start doing without some native strength. Putting a delicate princess to work at rowing makes no sense if she doesn’t have help and the captain isn’t a sadistic bastard.
Rowing is also sheer unpleasant work. You sweat a lot. You don’t see much sunshine. You’re crowded close to other people on a small bench, and I bet you most fantasy oarships don’t have air conditioning. If the rowers are slaves and chained to their benches, there’s the extra nuisance of manacles to deal with. You’ll have hunger and thirst to cope with. Hours of this is going to leave people muzzy and tired, without much thought in their heads.
Rebellions by oarsmen could work…but they’d have to take all these into account first.
The one big exception to the dislike many fantasy authors have of gunpowder is when they’re writing about ships with cannons. There’s something, I suppose, about sweeping around in a circle and letting off a broadside at the enemy that appeals there. It’s probably that innate love of drama.
But this is one place where you’ll have to do a ton of research. How did people load guns? How did they clean them? How do you keep the gunpowder from getting wet and not firing when you need it to? What happens when a cannonball hits the ship? Where do the guns fit? How many is a ridiculous number, before the ship would get too heavy and simply founder in the water?
Some of this applies to other weapons, too, and I might as well make a note on maneuvering here. I want authors to describe sea battles to me, because if I don’t know what way the ships are facing- or if I picture them facing one way and then something happens to contradict that impression- I don’t know what the attacks are like. Where are your ships relative to each other? How close do they have to be to board? To fire trace shots from a cannon? To hit with a cannonball? Also, keep in mind the ground/water where they’re dueling, as a clever captain might well trick another one unfamiliar with the area into running aground.
7) The weather is a bitch.
The Spanish Armada did not conquer England in 1588 at least partly because it got hit by a storm first. A powerful enough gale will not only damage ships and probably sink some of them, but scatter an armada. The ships may need to spend days coming back together, which could well delay the nice neat attack they had all planned.
As for the sinking and smashing, this is yet another place where you need a good visual imagination. How wounded is this ship? On the verge of sinking? Able to limp to harbor? So damaged that they have to transfer supplies and men to another ship and then drown her? Crippled but well enough to flee- until it gets captured by the enemy? Drowning is very dramatic, but it’s not the only thing that could happen.
8) Transporting animals is not happy fun time.
Horses may be required for cavalry, or perhaps the navy is taking breeding stock to another country. Horses aboard ship are really not happy fun time. They create messes that will need to be disposed of, they eat a lot- which food will also need a place on the ship, resulting in more space problems for you to figure out- they will need to be taken out and exercised on the deck as often as possible, and they’ll possibly panic in a storm and kick holes in their stalls, any barrels that come in reach, and even the side of the ship. Aren’t they fun?
There are also other cases of animals transported aboard, like cows and pigs. They may be slaughtered for their meat, kept for their milk, or brought for sale. But they also need to eat, and they also shit. Have fun with them.
9) There will probably be communication problems.
If your navy has to take a long trip in order to, say, put down a rebellion on the other side of the ocean, then they have to know beforehand where they’ll land and who will meet them. Sudden developments, like the port changing hands and only rebels instead of their own soldiers meeting them, will probably have no way to catch them up. This is where fantasy can handily cheat and have telepathy or other kinds of magic that bears the messages- always assuming that, say, the telepath hasn’t died of scurvy or been swept overboard in the months since they left port. But they don’t have radios. The captains will not mystically know the truth about matters on land after a voyage months long.
Same thing happens if an armada has to go pick up soldiers. The soldiers had better damn well be there. If they aren’t, then the ships have to ride in one place and wait for them. If this place happens to be, let’s just pick a totally random, only not, example, on the other side of a small strait beyond which is an enemy nation ready to pounce, there will be extremely nervous sailors on those ships. And if the sailors’ schedule changes, the soldiers might arrive at that place and find no ships waiting for them.
One fantasy series that really Gets This Stuff Right Because the Author Knows His Shit is Paul Kearney’s Monarchies of God series. It’s based on Europe just after the Renaissance, so there is gunpowder, there are sailing ships, and there is a small determined voyage setting out to the west because of rumors that a great continent lies there. But Kearney then puts in magic that fucks with everything, meaning that his story doesn’t simply retread history. And he’s not afraid at all to kill his characters or show them suffering; this is one of the series I actually winced at (and then went on reading, because I like brutal fantasy). It’s very good. The first book is Hawkwood’s Voyage. /pimpity-pimp