Spec Tech: What Sets Sailors Apart

So far we have looked at the design of a sailing ship that might fit well into a fantasy novel. We have looked at signing on a crew for  the ship and briefly considered how to sail it.   One topic we haven’t touched on is the the question – who are these men and women who sail the boundless oceans? If one is to write about sailors, it helps to understand their perspectives, their hopes, dreams and fears.

Character matters, especially to writers. In life and in fiction, you can often tell a person’s profession by their quirks and idiosyncrasies. For example, what profession would these characteristics suggest?

He is a skilled laborer, though not a gentlemen. He understands his place in society. He is very fond of routine and predictability. He is by no means afraid of monotony. He prefers to stay at home and rarely travels more than a few miles away. He rarely stays away from home for more than a few days.  

Who is this fine fellow? A gardener? A blacksmith? A clerk?

No, this description is fairly typical of deep-sea sailor. The trick in the question is that the sailor never leaves home for long, which was true, as the ship was often the sailor’s only real home. Officers could travel between the two worlds. Captains could often afford a life ashore with a wife and family. Many seaman could not or chose not to.

For most of history, seafarers have been a virtually a race apart. They wore different clothes, spoke what was effectively a different language. Even their rolling gait gave away their long months on the constantly moving deck of a ship. Their time ashore was often raucous debauchery, aimed at getting as drunk as possible, having as much sex as possible and spending their money as fast as possible, before heading back the comparative tranquility and established routine of a ship at sea.  Many sailors were highly conservative and routine bound when not carousing in waterfront bars and brothels.

Joseph Conrad wrote:

He who loves the sea loves also the ship’s routine.

Nowhere else than upon the sea do the days, weeks and months fall away quicker into the past. They seem to be left astern as easily as the light air-bubbles in the swirls of the ship’s wake, and vanish into a great silence in which your ship moves on with a sort of magical effect. They pass away, the days, the weeks, the months. Nothing but a gale can disturb the orderly life of the ship; and the spell of unshaken monotony that seems to have fallen upon the very voices of her men is broken only by the near prospect of a Landfall.

Children of the Sea

Conrad’s novella “Nigger of the Narcissus” was published as “Children of the Sea” in the United States (not because the word nigger in the title was considered offensive but because the publisher could not imagine anyone being interested in reading a work with a black man as the lead character.)

Sailors were often considered to be child-like. They needed to be told what to do. On occasion, they needed to be kept in line by force.  As long as they were fed, had work to do, and got a certain amount of sleep, they were likely to be happy, regardless of the conditions.

To be less condescending, there was a certain, almost zen-like, quality to a life at sea. Every day was the same and yet every day was new and varied. In the endless routine of standing watches and tending sails, the sailor lived in the moment, in a self contained world between the sea and sky.

A Motley Crew

While sailors shared the same characteristics, they were usually a highly heterogeneous bunch. Many ships sailed with a motley crew. The reasons for this varied. Often a ship’s captain was happy to get any sailors he could and their nationality mattered little. Sometimes sailor’s wages were so low that only the misplaced foreigners were interested in the jobs. Toward the end of the 19th century, when the economics of sailing ships resulted in large ships and small crews, captains often chose to a range of nationalities to serve before the mast under the theory that they would fight each other before uniting in mutiny against the officers. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries some foreign sailors specifically sailed on American ships so that they would qualify to go to Sailor’s Snug Harbor, a retirement home for impoverished sailors on Staten Island, New York.

As sailors were invariably on the bottom of the social ladder, it didn’t matter what race, culture of creed a sailor was so long as he turned to and did his duty.

Young adventure seekers

One type of crew member found on many ships was the young man who ran away to sea for adventure. These young men were often very different from the older sailors. Many of these adventure seeking teenagers would only make a voyage or two before moving back ashore to start families and go to work on factories or farms. Some of these young men were educated and have left us a considerable library describing their coming of age at sea. Richard Henry Dana, who wrote the classic “Two Years before the Mast,” left Yale with an eye condition and went to sea for his health.  Herman Melville studied the classics before his father’s financial reversals and his own wandering spirit sent him to sea. Many aspects of his novels “Redburn,” “White Jacket” and “Typee” were autobiographical.  Likewise Basil Lubbock, author of “Round the Horn before the Mast” and dozens of other books on nautical history, was a graduate of Eaton and was from a well to do English family.  He ran off first to the Klondike gold fields and then signed aboard a windjammer.  There are literally dozens of less well know accounts of young men and a handful of young women who ran away to sea.

Several things are interesting about these young adventurers. They are usually different in background and social standing from their fellow shipmates, yet are usually accepted by the crew. From a reader’s perspective they can provide a window into the otherwise closed world of the deep water sailor.

Real Sailors

There were never too many “real sailors” on any particular ship.  There were usually just a hand full of highly skilled and experienced seaman who could do more than the basic “hand, reef, and steer.”  These “real sailors” were experts in “marlinspike” seamanship, the fancy rope and needle work, that was utilitarian as well as artistic. These sailors could also rig and repair the ship and could generally read the weather as well as the mate or captain. They were also the  most likely to cause trouble if the officers were not at least equal to them as seamen.

Beef on a Rope

A significant percentage of sailors were hired simply for their ability to work. There were often referred derisively as “beef on a rope.” Their function was to haul on the halyards, sheets and braces and go aloft and set and furl sails. They weren’t very knowledgeable and weren’t expected to be. They might be waterfront toughs who shipped out the escape trouble with the law or just unfortunates who drank too much or were drugged and sold to the ship by “crimps” or boarding hose keepers.

Then there were other, simpler, souls for whom the ship was just transportation between brothels. The real sailor might have twenty years experience at sea, while these tended to have one year’s experience twenty times over.  They were not highly regarded nor often remembered by real sailors or ship’s officers. Nevertheless when the only mechanical power aboard ship was human brawn, there was always a need for “beef on a rope.”

Intermittent sailors

There was another class of sailor, who sailed only when he had to. Many sailed as teenagers before going ashore to waterfront jobs as riggers, longshoremen, laborers or minor mechanics. When times were hard and there wasn’t work ashore these men would go back to sea. They fit in well somewhere between the old shellbacks and the “beef on a rope.” Unlike the rest of the crew they were as likely to the be the ones who stay reasonably sober and save their meager wages when the ship anchors in a foreign port.

Modern Sailors

But what of modern sailors? Most of the sailors I have been discussing lived in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries and worked on ships driven by the wind, with no electronics, or long distance communications. The technology has obviously change and to a degree so have the sailors. Nevertheless, the mix of skilled and unskilled labor still remains, even if there few lines to haul.

In our time, the crews have become somewhat less motley, though they are still international. Filipinos and Indians often make up officers and crew. Eastern Europeans, Chinese and sailors from the near East are not uncommon. There are fewer Europeans and Americans as fewer are attracted by the still low wages paid to seafarers.

Some things never change

Some things never change. The sea is a constant as is the long time from home and family. What has impressed me in my years visiting and working on modern ships, is that the sailors do not seem all that different from those described by Dana, Melville or Lubbock. They are still complex, diverse, idiosyncratic and still somehow a breed apart.

Sailors in Fantasy and Science Fiction

So what does this have to do with Fantasy and Science Fiction? Nothing and everything. If a writer of fantasy or science fiction writes of ships and sailors, either crossing elven oceans or empty space, without making some attempt to capture the wisdom, humor and quirkiness of the sailors, they are missing a great opportunity.


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