Designing a Ship for a Fantasy Novel

Originally published in the Clarion blog on 12/06/2011

Mishell Baker asked me to write a post that would “walk … through the various parts of a ship. You could even do an example of an older type ship that might appear in fantasy…

Figure 1 – Carrack 1480, Click for a larger image

So, I have endeavored  to look back in history to find the sort of ship that would fit well into high fantasy while still being realistic enough to sail.  In fantasy, one could use magical spells or something of the like to move ships across oceans but there really is no need. The wind will suffice. So without further ado, a historical design well suited for a fantasy novel – the carrack.

But why a carrack?  To a modern eye, the carrack can be seen as beautiful, anachronistic or plug-ugly, depending on your perspective. It is nicely idiosyncratic so that a courtier or an elf, if one is writing fantasy, would not be out of place on the quarterdeck. The carrack was the first ship to reliably cross oceans. It was big enough, robust enough and could carry enough men and supplies to sail around the world. In its day, it was often simply called a “great ship.” Developed first by the Italians and Spanish, and then quickly adopted by the British and the Northern Europeans, the carrack was the ship of Columbus, Vespucci, and Magellan. It was truly the ship of exploration and discovery. In carracks, European adventurers sought out new life and new civilizations. They went boldly where no men had gone before. (Sorry about that. Those phrases just sort of slipped out.)

The carrack above is based on a ship from 1480 believed to have been used by Amerigo Vespucci. Typical of most carracks it is relatively high-sided and tubby compared to more modern sailing ships. It was probably around 75 feet on deck with a beam of about 28 feet.

While the carrack may look antiquated, it has the same fundamental DNA that would carry on throughout the age of sail. The carrack had either three or four masts. The forward mast was called the foremast. The middle and largest mast was the mainmast and the smaller after mast was the mizzen. The square sails on the fore and main masts were the real propulsive power of the ships, while the fore and aft lateen sail was used to help balance the ship (and was often called a steering sail.)  Unlike earlier ships, the carrack features a pole mast above the main and fore masts and carried topsails. Later ships would carry top gallant sails above the topsails and then royals and eventually skysails.   Still, the carrack must have seemed very lofty in her day.

The carrack could also sail to windward, more or less. Many earlier ships could only sail across the wind. Carracks could sail within 60 or 70 degrees to the wind.  By modern standards that is very poor windward sailing indeed, but nevertheless, was not bad for its day.

Looking at Vespucci’s carrack of 1480, you will note built up decks forward and aft which are distinct from the hull above the main deck. These had evolved from fighting platforms referred to as “castles” used to defend the ship from pirates or the navies of competing kings. The forward castle became known as the forecastle, and as it is still referred to to this day, though it is usually abbreviated fo’c’sle. The after castle evolved into a longer deck that ran forward to the main mast and is called the quarterdeck. The portion of the main deck between the fo’c’sle and the quarterdeck was called the waist, which was where the main cargo hatch was located. The high ends had the additional benefit of providing more buoyancy in the ends of the ship while the low waist made it easier to load cargo.

Bjorn Landstrom in his book “The Ship” details a larger carrack from Venice dating from around 1500. This ship is almost 100 feet long, about 33 feet wide and carries a fourth mast aft of the mizzen, referred to a the bonaventure mast. (Figures 2 & 3 are numbered. I have included the legend at the bottom of this post.)

Figure 2 – Cross section Venetian carrack 1500, Click for a larger image

To get a feel for the ship, let’s start with the cross sectional view. The lowest space in the ship, just above the keel is the hold, where most of the ship’s cargo is carried. Depending on the weight of the cargo, a layer of ballast stones would be loaded first. Without a heavy weight in the hold, the ship would be unable to carry sail – she would simply flip over.

If the cargo in the hold was heavy enough to provide stability, the ballast could be discharged. Many colonial British ships in the 18th century carried cobble stone ballast on their way to the North American colonies, which they then unloaded and sold as paving stones, before loading heavier cargoes of grain and lumber bound for England. The few remaining cobble stone streets in Boston are reminders of this trade.

Above the hold is the lower deck, also know as the tween deck, because it was between the hold and the main deck, which could carry either additional cargo or serve as crew quarters depending on how the ship was being used. The main deck is largely covered by the fo’c’sle forward and the quarterdeck aft of the main mast. Aft of the mizzen mast is the half deck, also known as the poop deck.

The ship is steered from the quarterdeck. As can be seen from the cross section, the tiller is located on the main deck. How did the quartermaster or steersman on the quarterdeck move the tiller? The ship did not have a wheel like later vessels. Instead it used a whipstaff.  A drawing of a whipstaff can be found here.

Figure 3 – Venetian carrack 1500 – click for a larger image

Another usual feature of the Venetian carrack are the removeable deck “awnings,” the sloping beams which run from the gunnels, the outer ship’s rails, to the centerline over the main deck, the quarter deck and the fo’c’sle. Turkish pirates were a serious threat to Venetian merchant shipping and this ship could almost be considered as a warship. The awnings were likely anti-pirate defenses, making it difficult for boarders to get onto the deck. Boarding nets over the beams would have made gaining access to the decks even more difficult. In addition to the awning beams, the ship carried as many as 56 small cannon, called guns aboard ship, 28 per side along the main and quarterdecks. For her day, this ship packed quite a punch.

But what about the people aboard a carrack? Who were they? How many sailed the ship? How were they organized? There were many different answers to these questions. It depended on how the ship was used. A carrack, like most ships throughout history, was an all purpose vessel. It could carry grain or dried fish and sail with a small crew. Or it could be a vessel of exploration and be jammed packed with people. (The theory was that long voyages required large crews so that when many of the crew died, there would still be people to sail the sail the ship. It took quite a while for it to occur to anyone that one of the reason that so many succumbed to disease on shipboard was due to overcrowding.)  The carrack could also be used as a ship of war and carry a huge crew, which included soldiers and gunners in addition to a large complement of sailors.  A few specifics:

Vespucci’s carrack shown in Figure 1 was said to have had a crew of about 86 people. Magellan’s carrack Victoria may have carried about the same complement or as few as 40 depending on the various sources.  On Magellan’s voyage around the world, he started with a fleet of five ships – one carrack, the Victora, and four caravels, slightly smaller ships. Of the 234 sailors who set out, only 18 returned alive, which did not include Magellan himself. Of the ships, only the carrack, theVictoria, survived.  She was the first ship to circumnavigate the world.

Henry VII’s carrack, the Mary Rose, a war ship, which sank in 1545 and whose wreck was raised in 1982, was probably between 120 and 150 feet long on deck and carried a crew of 400 – 500 (!) of which there were 185 soldiers, 200 sailors, 20–30 gunners and “an assortment of other specialists such as surgeons, trumpeters and members of the admiral’s staff.”  When taking part in an invasion or a raid, the number of soldiers could swell to 400 for a total ship’s complement of 700.  A very crowded ship indeed. When the ship was not in service making war, her crew shrank to fewer than 20 men.

As a naval architect what makes these ships so interesting is that their basic design can still be seen in sailing ships for the next five hundred years.  Ships became longer.  Rigs grew taller.  The technology evolved, but the heritage of these small ships remained until the last days of commercial sail.

In fantasy there is no need to slavishly adhere to history.  One could use almost any sort of craft in a fantasy novel if it makes sense for the larger story.  Nevertheless, if you wish to construct a reasonable sail driven ship for a fantasy tale, the carrack is probably a good place to start.

In the cross section, Figure 2, the numbers indicate:

1. Outrigger for the bonaventure stay.
2. Bonaventure mast.
3. Mizzenmast.
4. Mainmast.
5. Foremast.
6. Bowsprit
7. Half deck with awning.
8. Quarterdeck where the guns were positioned on their carriages.
9. Knight with sheave holes for hoisting the main yard. (It is possible that there were two knights abreast.)
10. Hatch.
11. Main deck
12. Lower deck.
13. Mast foot.
14. Hold.

In the perspective reconstruction, Figure 3, the numbers indicate:

1. Bonaventure outrigger with guys.
2. Bonaventure sheet.
3. Bonaventure brace.
4. Bonaventure yard.
5. Bonaventure stay.
6. Mizzen brace
7. Mizzen shrouds
8. Mizzen yard
9. Mizzen stay
10. Mizzen topping lift.
11. Main topping lifts.
12. Martnets.
13. Main halyards.
14. Main shrouds with ratlines.
15. Main bowline.
16. Mainbrace.
17. Mainstay.
18. Topmast.
19. Topsail topping lift.
20. Topsail bowlines.
21. Foresail topping lift.
22. Forestay.
23. Foresail bowline
24. Fore brace
25. Sprit sail.


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