SpecTech: Signing on a Crew for a Fantasy Ship

In my last Spec Tech I wrote about choosing a ship for a fantasy novel. This time, we will sign on a crew to sail the ship. While we chose a carrack as a useful model of a fantasy ship, the crew we choose would work for almost any sailing ship. The skills required and the division of labor stayed remarkably stable for close to five hundred years or so, despite changes to the size and scale of the ships themselves. So, lets look at the crew of a typical merchant ship during the age of sail.

Starting from the top, you need a captain. The Captain is the ultimate authority aboard ship and also bears the ultimate responsibility. He may own the ship or be in the employ of a rich merchant. He has the power of life or death over anyone in the crew, yet also depends on the crew’s acceptance, respect, or fear.   He needs to be the best sailor and seaman aboard. He also needs to know how to navigate, which is an art unto itself, not unlike witchcraft, as far as many sailors were concerned. He has to be able to read and predict the weather and the sea.  He also must understand and react to his crew. He needs to be part dictator and part diplomat. Depending on the circumstances, he also needs to be a skilled merchant and negotiator.  He is often referred to as the “Old Man” regardless of his age and is a solitary figure, who by tradition and for practical reasons doesn’t mix with the crew and usually stands apart even from even officers.

The captain is supported by his mates, usually at least two. The Chief Mate is second in command and would take over if the Captain is struck down by sickness, violence or, on occasion, madness. Along with the Second Mate, he stands watches throughout a voyage. In addition to overseeing his watch on deck, the Chief Mate is also responsible for proper stowage of cargo and for the handling of the anchors.

The Second Mate is the junior mate, often not held in high regard by either the Captain nor the crew. He often does not know how to navigate and is often expected to work alongside the crew when going aloft or hauling on sheets or halyards. If the Captain is not pleased with his performance, he can be sent forward to sail as a common sailor and another sailor will take his job.

Between the mates and sailors is a group of specialists, often referred to as “idlers” because they do not have to stand watches, though as they tend to work at least twelve hours a day, they are hardly idle. The first of these is the cook. On a small ship, the cook can also be the steward, in charge of all provisions. On a larger ship, the cook’s duties are limited to cooking, while the steward supervises the provisions and supplies. The steward is often called upon to cook for the captain and the officers.

Depending on the ship and the trade, the ship can carry a bosun, an abbreviation for boatswain, who is in charge of overall maintenance on board the ship under the supervision of the mates. There can also be a sail maker and a carpenter. Or, the bosun can take these responsibilities. In some cases no bosun is carried, if there is a carpenter and a sail maker.

How many sailors sailed on any given ship? The answer is usually as few a possible. Ship owners do not like paying wages or having to feed sailors. This varied with ship type, of course. A whaling ship needed a large crew to man the boats to chase down and kill whales. Rather than being paid wages, the sailors were paid in shares of the catch, rather than by the day or month at sea. Whaling ships tended not be well stocked with food either, as it was expected that the sailors would fish, as well as eating whale meat.

Sailors, by tradition, live in the forward part of the ship, while the captain and officers live aft. The forward part of the ship is raised and called the forecastle, or over time the, fo’c’s’le. On many ships sailors live in the fo’c’s’le itself. In later sailing ships, the sailors live in deck houses on the forward deck, but still call their accommodations, the fo’c’s’le.

Sailors in the fo’cs’le are always a mixed bunch. Many are young men who ran off and sailed for a voyage or two before before returning to a more settled life ashore. A few move back and forth from jobs ashore to work on ships depending on the availability of work. The heart of any crew are the experienced sailors, the highly skilled core that can “hand, reef and steer,” (lend a hand to haul on the lines to set the sails, who could also go aloft to strike or reef the sails, and who could steer the ship on a compass course and to the wind.) The skilled sailors can also do all manner of ropework, critical on ships where literally miles of rope make up the running and standing rigging that is what keeps aloft the engine that powered the ship – the sails.

Depending on the ship, the era and the flag, sailors are usually divided into three groups – boys, ordinary seamen and able seamen. The boys are often boys from twelve to fifteen but could be of any age. A landsmen of 25, straight off the farm, can sign on as “boy.” He wouldn’t be paid much, but wouldn’t be expected to know much either. An ordinary seaman can be nothing more that what is referred to as “beef on a rope.” Ordinaries are more knowledgeable than a “boy” but primarily relied upon for muscle rather than skill. An able seaman is expected to be able to take orders from the mate without having to ask how or why, day or night in all weather. In a pre-industrial age, ships were among the most highly advance technology to exist anywhere and the sailors were among the most skilled workers at sea or ashore.

Sailors were and, to an extent still are, a race unto themselves. They were often sailors from many countries on a single ship. Often captains specifically chose their crews to be heterogeneous or “motley” so that it was less likely that they would band together in mutiny. If they were distrustful of each other, they were less likely to turn against the captain.

Beyond speaking their individual languages, all sailors do speak a language all their own.  While they may travel the world, many sailors never really leave their home, which is the ship. Many never travel more than a few miles inland, often sticking to the bars, boarding houses and brothels of the port’s “sailor-town.”

But what do the sailors before the mast actually do?

Unless the ship is trading along a coast and comes into a port to anchor every night, a ship at sea sails twenty four hours a day. The crew is usually divided into two watches and each of the mates is responsible for the supervision of one watch. The Captain does not stand a watch but is available whenever necessary. If the conditions required, the Captain could stay on deck around the clock, while when things are more tranquil, might not be seen on deck for days on end.

Watches can be divided in various ways. The most common schedule is four hours on and four hours off. The afternoon watch is often divided into two, two hour “dog watches.” These two shorter watches have the effect of shifting the sequence of the watches so that sailors aren’t stuck standing the midnight to 4AM watch, for example, every day for an extended voyage.

When necessary, all hands are called to handle sails quickly in heavy weather or to engage in a complicated maneuver, like tacking or wearing ship. Everyone aboard ship participates. There is an old sailor’s expression, “the captain’s on the quarterdeck and the cook is at the fore sheet.” meaning that everything is in its proper place.” The expression comes from the cook’s traditional job, releasing the fore sheet when tacking (changing course so that the wind crosses the bow.) Everyone from the ship’s boys to the cook, to the carpenter, to the Captain has an assigned tacking station. Everyone works when “all hands on deck” is called.

Under certain conditions, sailing in the trade winds, for example, there is little sailing handling required. In this case, the mates’ job is to keep the sailors busy, believing that idle hands are the devil’s playground and idle sailors just get into trouble. On a wooden ship with hemp rigging, there is always much to do. The rigging stretched and chafed and needed to be set up or prepared.  The masts and deck always needed to be scrubbed, sanded, oiled, slushed or painted.

Naval vessels were similar to merchant ships yet quite different.  The most noticeable difference is the number of bodies aboard . Where a merchant ship might sail with thirty people a comparable navy ship might sail with 300. Merchant ships carry and deliver cargo. Naval ships deliver death, or more often, the threat of death. They need more people to man the guns. (Cannon aboard ship are always referred to as “guns.”) A single great gun firing a 30 pound shot can require upwards of 12 people to load, fire, swab out and reload. Nelson’s HMS Victory of 1800 had a total complement of 850 people. Much larger windjammers of the 1890s sailed routinely around Cape Horn with crews of only 30 – 40.

Navy ships also had a different command structure than merchant ships, with many more officers, divided between warrant and commissioned officers.

So, if you are writing about ships and sailors in speculative fiction, feel free to portray the sailors as alien beings with their own language and culture that is often unintelligible to to those who live ashore. For most of human history that has been far more fact than fiction.


5 thoughts on “SpecTech: Signing on a Crew for a Fantasy Ship

  1. I’m reading this post and thinking about starships, since that’s what I’ve written in my books. Some of this won’t apply, but much of it will. You’d have a different culture on a ship than on the planet and the two don’t necessarily understand each other.

    Thanks for a fun, informative post.

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