Reprinted from Stormtalons, TEGG.
NOTE: All hyperlinks are Wikipedia illustrations
I’ve been asked by the Lore Guardian and the Archmage of Stormtalons to give a little nautical information to help flesh out the setting of the world in which we are spinning our tales. This first installment will cover the state of nautical technology found in Stormtalons, types of ships and navigational practices around the seas of Asmer.
Let’s start with a bit of a lesson about our own nautical world and ships of the middle ages and later. The one development that changed the structure of wooden ships more than any other was gunpowder, and the subsequent advent of cannons. As cannons made traditional castles obsolete, so they changed ship design. Gunned ships didn’t need lofty stern-castles bristling with archers or high bulwarks to dissuade boarders. Also, the weight and recoil of great guns shook apart smaller, more lightly built ships, so ships became heavier and more solidly built. In Stormtalons, we have set a solid rule of no gunpowder, no guns, and no cannons, so ship designs will be lighter, with larger merchantmen sporting high stern and forecastles to support archers, and in the case of warships, ballistae.
Sailing ships: At the top of the pecking order, we have the pinnacle of nautical technology and seaworthiness in the world of Asmer, the galleon. Constructed on heavy frames, with thick hardwood planks for her hull, the galleon is an eminently sea-worthy craft, stable in rough seas, and capable of hauling vast amounts of cargo. Generally less than 500 tons, with three or four masts, they are longer and narrower than their predecessors, the carrack, caravel, and cog.
Also, somewhat paradoxically, galleons are cheaper to build than comparably sized carracks at about a ratio of 5:3. That does not mean, however, that a galleon is always superior in purpose to a “lesser” vessel. Galleons are larger and deeper keeled than flat-bottomed caravels or cogs, and though they are more stable in heavier seas, they require larger crews and risk grounding in shallow bays and rivers. Where a 500 ton galleon requires a minimum crew of thirty seasoned sailors, a smaller carrack might require half that, and a cog only ten or so.
In some cases, a lowly knarr or a swift xebec or dhow is the ideal ship. If the purpose is coastal cargo hauling, smuggling, or fishing the shallow fjords of the Ioathian Sea, these easily handled, fleet, shallow draft, and flat-bottomed “beachable” hulls are perfect. For reaping the harvest of the open sea, fisherfolk prefer the sturdy herring buss. A one or two masted sailing ship of less than 100 tons, the buss design is seaworthy, easily handled by a small crew, and surprisingly nimble for a fishing vessel.
Oar-propelled craft: Many sailing ships can “go to sweeps” when the wind dies, but larger galleons and carracks, with their high sides and heavy bulk, fare poorly here. Sleeker low craft like the above mentioned knarr, xebec, and dhow can fairly fly along the water with determined sailors at the oars, and, in light winds, can evade or even overtake a sail-only craft.
Many pirates of the southern coasts use smaller oar-driven craft to chase down merchantmen in the dark of night when the winds have died. The ancient oar-driven galley is a rare sight on the open Aeradaunt Sea, for the craft’s low freeboard does not handle rough seas well, but in the calmer waters of the Dolordaunt, or Ioathian, many a sailing ship has fallen prey to the slave galleys of Nornar.
More primitive craft like the long, paddle-driven, dugout canoes of the jungle rivers and mangrove coasts of Yacathan can surprise the visiting mariner anchored in a secluded bay for the night. Some large dugout war-canoes measure near a hundred feet in length and can be propelled at frightening speed by the strapping aboriginal warriors wielding razor-edged obsidian swords and shooting poisoned arrows and darts.
Nations and navies: Large, wealthy nations have navies to protect their coastal towns and cities, and protect their merchant fleets. Rheligor’s navy patrols the coast and islands around Myskarn, hunting pirates and pagans with equal ferocity. Skalaunt has a fleet as well, and aboard every one of the Heirophar’s ships, the wizard’s agents watch for any sign of magic to bring back to their ruler. The nation of Izeltazrim, at the juncture of the Aeradaunt and Dolordaunt seas, boasts a primarily defensive force of swift caravels, guarding shores and bays jealously, and escorting merchant ships from port to port to ward off pirates. The nation of Brethnur, largely agricultural and well-connected by passable roads, does not boast a navy, but some cities hire private ships or privateers to patrol their waters, more to ward off maritime marauders than protect from any organized naval force.
Elsewhere, city-states rely on shore defenses to protect their cities, and may even knowingly harbor pirates, both for commerce and protection from aggressive neighbors. No naval ship would dare venture into Tanthalas, for instance, or if they did, they’d be lucky to sail out alive. At any given time, no fewer than a dozen corsairs harbor there, and some are said to even be in the pay of the self-styled “Lords of Tanthalas.”
Pirates and privateers: Since the first ship set sail on a sea hauling valuable cargo from one port to another, there were pirates who plied the waters intent on taking that cargo. The seas of Asmer are no different. Aside from Tanthalas, by far the largest and most populace haven for nautical ne’er-do-wells, pirates lair in hidden ports and secluded coves fringing the greater nation-states, lurking in wait for any unsuspecting merchant ship.
The isle of Myskarn off the coast of Rheligor, and the nearby rocks and islets, are prime hunting grounds, with merchant traffic passing between ports of Rheligor and The Verdant Vales. These islands are patrolled by Rheligor navy, of course, but a wily pirate can dodge and hunker amongst the rocks and bays easily enough. The port of Kordrove is also known to harbor pirates, or at least to not ask too many questions about the origin of cargo, and many come and go from here posing as merchants. The broad, winding fjord of The Skalag, in Jalant, sports five prosperous cities on its shores, and has also recently been a site of piracy. Swift-sailing corsairs lairing in the Gulf of Uol pace like wolves to seaward, some with crews of cannibals recruited from the jungles of Yacathan.
Commerce, the life-blood of nations: Though many nations are isolationist, wishing to protect their fragile hold on their people by avoiding contamination from other cultures, most of the nations and city-sates of Asmir realize that trade is beneficial. Rare spices, herbs, and hardwoods from the jungles of Yacathan are sold in the ports of Rheligor, Skalaunt, and Brethnur, while ores and refined iron, steel, copper, and silver mined from Nornar make their way north to be forged into swords and struck into coins. Merchant sailors have learned to arm themselves against pirates, but few are as proficient with weapons as they are with rope and canvas.
Many fall prey to marauders, either captured and sold as slaves in far-flung ports, or sunk to the bottom of the sea trapped in their scuttled ships. Some merchants seek to avoid the taxation of nations by smuggling their goods from port to port, and there’s a brisk trade in everything from intoxicants to curative herbs. Of course, if caught by the authorities, cargo, ship, and sailors may all end up on the auctioning block.
Navigaton: For the most part, sailors in the Stormtalons use dead reckoning to navigate from port to port. Largely, this consists of little more than a dependable compass and a log line to measure the ship’s speed. Skill and experience in reading the weather and the sea, and a sharp eye aloft with a spyglass to watch for danger, are essential. Merchant and naval officers alike spend years in training, learning the ropes, as they say, before they are trusted at the helm of a ship. Some larger sea-going craft may use a sextant for the calculation of latitude, but such instruments are expensive, and without accurate timepieces, the use of celestial navigation to find a ship’s longitude is still a mystery. Some sailors claim to have navigated the mists to the far-flung land of Jayasudhera, using arcane gifts to find their way, but few believe those tales, and none brave the mists and return untainted.
Stay tuned! I’ll be writing a second post that will deal with the sea itself, and all the dangers of the depths. Until then, fair winds, and calm seas to you, but keep a weather eye aloft, and watch for black sails.