Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Physical Factors: Distance by Sea

Continuing with a look at the physical factors that, despite being objectively identical, impacted people in the past differently than today, I look at covering distance over water rather than land, i.e. sea travel in the past.

Before the invention of the steam engine, travel over the water depended either on manpower (oars or paddles) or the wind. The forms these means of propulsion took varied enormously across time and space. An American Indian canoe does not have much resemblance to a Greek trireme!  Likewise, the advanced sailing machines of the 19th century, whether a great Man o' War of the Napoleonic Wars or the graceful clipper ships of the tea and gold trade, had sailing characteristics unknown to earlier centuries of sailing. In short, as with forms of land transportation, a novelist needs to do detailed research into the type of ships used in the era and setting of a particular novel. 

The ships of the 19th century were the very pinnacle of evolution for fighting and commercial sail respectively, and they required large and highly trained crews -- factors that impacted both life on board, and the speed and cost of transportation by sea. 

Unfortunately, the further back we go in time, the less we know about the ships in use.  Paintings of ships from the Middle Ages, for example, are not intended to be perfect representations of nautical technology but rather symbolic. Here are a couple of examples:

Note, this last image actually has considerable detail on the hull, but provides no useful information about how the boat (or ship?) was propelled, what the accommodation was like, or the speed at which she could travel.  Fortunately, modern marine archaeologists have been able to envisage a great deal more based on the wrecks of vessels that have been discovered and investigated.

You will note that the second of these vessels is a galley, which means she could be propelled by oars as well as sails. This in turn meant she had a comparatively low free-board, sitting much closer to the surface than the larger cog-like vessel above her. She also has lateen sails rather than square sails, another feature that would make her sail very differently from the square-rigged cog. A novelist interested in authenticity needs to consider both what kind of vessel was likely to be used at a specific time and place for a specific purpose -- and then look into the sailing characteristics and accommodations available on such ships.

Another important factor to consider when looking at travel by sea was who controlled maritime transportation and the nature of the crews. Growing up with images from the film "Ben Hur" in my head, I was astonished to learn that the Greek triremes (those magnificent vessels that defeated the Persians in 479) were manned not by slaves but by citizen crews. That fact alone, perhaps even more than the design and maneuverability of the ships themselves, my explain the Greek victory at Salamis!

Hollywood's Depiction of a Greek fighting ship from the film "Troy" -- not a trireme as it only has one oar-deck, a trireme had three but I have found no good images copyright free.
Last but not least, when describing travel by sea in the age of sail, novelists need to understand a number of fundamentals about sailing. First and foremost, a sailing ship cannot sail into the wind. A sailing ship had to tack, slicing through the wind and clawing its way to windward to make progress in the direction from which the wind blew. Depending on the rig and sailing qualities of the ship, this could be very time consuming and hard on a ship and crew. Tacking has to do with the wind direction not the rig of the ship; square-riggers tack too.

Another simple fact: a sailing ship sails most comfortably with a following wind and sea. When sailing before the wind, a vessel is comparatively steady, the sensation of wind (and speed incidentally) is reduced, and the decks are most likely to be dry. It is when tacking that a ship is slicing into the wind and sea, which means it breaks the waves with the bow and sends spray back over the railing onto the deck.  A quartering sea on the other hand is one that is most likely to make passengers queasy and sea-sick.  Sea-sickness, however, is mitigated by the heel of the ship that keeps it from rolling as much as ships without sails. "Heeling" is that act of leaning away from the wind. For a writer it is important to remember that this means a deck is rarely level on a sailing ship -- and nor are tables or bunks. Every time a ship changes tack, the ship rights itself and then leans over in the other direction. 

Finally, sailing ships could be completely becalmed and end up drifting on currents and tides. There are places notorious for light winds (the doldrums, for example), just as there are places notorious for heavy winds (the Straits of Maleas,  Cape Horn etc.) Captains knew the wind patterns and the currents of the waters in which they sailed and tried to use these to their advantage as much as possible.  Which reminds me that just like riding horses, learning to sail is a long and difficult process. The inexperienced could not simply climb aboard a boat and set off on a long journey. It took years to make a man a master mariner, and this was why they were so highly respected in all cultures.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and characters based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

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  1. Learning to ride horses is a long and difficult process?

    I forgive you, you non-Texican. LOL

  2. As usual, very well thought-out commentary. I would like to add an observation based on the medieval pictures of ships, as compared with the reconstructed drawing of an archaeological find; notice the difference! I think people should keep this in mind when studying medieval art for everything from clothing, to shoes, buildings, fabric and furniture, (and anything else) the artists were not trying to portray what something actually looked like, even when they added a lot of detail, like the third pictured example. They assumed that people of their day already knew what a ship looked like, and their illustrations were only meant to convey the IDEA of a ship, or whatever else.