A Crash Course on Wooden Sailing Ships for Writers

Hello, friends! I’m so excited about today’s topic, because it means I get to dust off my very dusty nautical archaeology degree to talk about the basics of wooden sailing ships. Why might this be of interest to you? Well, if you’re a writer, and your character is ever going to set foot on a boat or ship, you need to know at least a few basics to keep from jolting a knowledgeable reader out of the story.

There isn’t much worse than coming across some horrible anachronism in the middle of an otherwise great book. And it usually doesn’t happen because the writer was lazy–often, it’s because it never even occurred to them that they might need to do a little research. But like any other form of technology, ships have changed dramatically over both time and geography.

Let’s have a couple of quick examples.

  • The captain of  your 1st century AD Mediterranean merchant ship orders the crew to “raise the jib.” We’ve all heard sailors in movies say things like that, so what’s the problem? The jib sail, a triangular sail running from the mast to the bowsprit, wasn’t invented until the 16th century.
  • Your Viking crew sings a sea shanty to keep time while turning the capstan to raise the anchor. Problem? No capstans until the Crusades.
  • Your main character, a 17th century sailor on the Mayflower, carefully turns the ship’s wheel to navigate out of the harbor. Ah, but the Mayflower was steered by a whipstaff, because the ship’s wheel hadn’t come into widespread use yet.
  • A British Royal Navy ship-of-the-line is hot on the heels of your pirate sloop, which leads the warship on a high-speed, harrowing chase through a maze of reefs. Nope, sorry–unless you’ve gone out of your way to explain the deep channels cut through the reef, the warship will run aground long before the chase gets exciting.

Granted, you could count on the ignorance of your readers, but why settle for that when you could do a little research and make sure your facts are straight? Now, there’s no possible way for me to cover the history of shipbuilding and terminology in a single blog post, so we’re just going to cover some bare essentials today. I’ll also give you some ideas for where to being researching some of these topics.

Ship Basics

Measurements: A ship is measured by its length, beam (width), draft (depth), and tonnage (amount of water it displaces). All of these dimensions work together to influence the cargo and sailing capabilities of a ship. If you plan on giving actual measurements in your story, just make sure they’d create a ship that floats!

Terms: The front of a ship is the bow, the rear is the stern. The right side is starboard, the left is either larboard or port. A raised deck in the bow is called a forecastle (pronounced foc’sle), while the upper deck in the stern is the quarterdeck. A smaller deck above the quarterdeck is called the poop deck. The lowest part of the ship, beneath the lowest deck, is the bilge. The wooden body of the ship is called the hull, while all of the spars (masts and yard), sails, and ropes are called the rigging.

Hull shape and construction: The manner in which ships were built, the types of wood used, and the shape of the hull all vary by time and geographic region. It’s not really possible for me to give a summary of this information in a single blog post, but I’ll try to give you some references at the end that might help. Besides, even a quick Google search is better than making something up and hoping you’re right. Another important point–every timber, every rope, and every sail on a wooden ship had a proper name that the sailors would’ve known. (Even the holes that let water drain off the deck  have a name – scuppers.) So, unless you know you’re calling it by the right terms, it might be better to avoid having your crew calling out orders or discussing specifics.


Rigging consists of two main types–standing and running. Standing rigging includes all of the ropes, blocks, and tackle used to support the masts. The running rigging is used to raise and lower the yards that hold the sails. As technology improved after the 17th century, more sails were added to ships, often hung from elements of the standing rigging. More masts and yards were added also, allowing a ship to bear more sails.

Just for fun (and because I spent a lot of time on it in grad school), here’s an example of the standing and running rigging for an 18th-century merchant ship:

Rigging of West Indiaman

The thick ropes running at an angle from the masts down to the deck are called stays; they’re part of the standing rigging, and would often have staysails hung from them. The ropes running from the sides of the ship up to the masts are also part of the standing rigging; these are called shrouds, and the ropes stretched across them to create a ladder are called ratlines. Each of the masts, yards, and sails had a name, so you’ll have to decide what your ship’s rig looks like before you send the sailors to do anything with it.

Of course, the type of rig a ship had depended on its size and use. Very early ships in northern Europe (think Vikings) had a single mast with a single large square sail. Use of a (triangular) fore-and-aft sail called the lateen sail developed first in the Mediterranean; fore-and-aft sails were also used in the far east. Eventually, by the beginning of the Age of Exploration (1400s), Europeans had developed a combination rig, using both the speed of square sails and the maneuverability of fore-and-aft sails. Wikipedia has a pretty decent collection of images of sail plans here, if you want to see examples of the common types (ie. sloop, schooner, brig, full ship rig).

If you’re writing a fantasy,  you have a little more flexibility in terms of your ship’s rig. But if you’re trying to stick to a certain time frame or type of ship, or your ship needs certain capabilities, then you need to be a bit more careful about the sail plan.


A wooden ship needs more than a hull and a rig, of course. What were some of the other necessary fittings?

Steering: The earliest boats were steered by a large paddle held by a helmsman. Once the rudder was invented, it was turned by a large attached timber called a tiller. As ships became larger, the tiller became unmanageable, so a vertical timber called a whipstaff was used. And eventually, by the 18th century, the ship’s wheel arrived.

Anchors: Anchors have their own history too, moving from large rocks to the two-piece metal anchors used today. Ships would have carried at least two, if not several of them, depending on the size of the vessel. As the anchors grew larger and heavier, the capstan was invented in the late Middle Ages as a means to raise and lower the anchors safely.

Guns: Cannon, carronades, deck guns, and mortars…. They all have their place in naval history, and plenty of others have written about their use. Just make sure you’re using appropriate technology for your story’s time, and don’t overload your ship or it will sink. (Look up the 17th century Swedish warship Vasa if you want a real life example of poor planning on the guns….)

Other: Navigation instruments, bilge pumps, hull sheathing, boats, hammocks, cooking utensils… It all changes over time, and with the purpose of the ship. Again, you’ve got flexibility for the most part, but it might be wise to double-check whether your helmsman had access to an astrolabe or a chronometer before you right it into your story.



I know I just threw a lot of terminology at you, and your head might be spinning, but I hope you at least have a jumping off point for bringing your story’s ship scenes to life. If you aspire to be the next Patrick O’Brien (Master and Commander series), you’ve got a lot more research to do. But even if you only have a couple of chapters on the sea, it’s wise to make sure the details you do include are accurate. After all, so much of worldbuilding is in the details.

So, as promised, here are some places to start gathering more information (besides Google…):

On the web

  • Course syllabi from Texas A&M’s Nautical Archaeology Program: (Can you tell where I earned my degree?) Most of the NAP’s courses have a link to the corresponding syllabus, which will include a list of readings for each topic. So, if you want to know more about medieval Mediterranean ships, for example, choose that course and look through the syllabus for the topics you need to cover.
  • The Institute of Nautical Archaeology: This site has information on INA”s shipwreck excavations and links to more resources.
  • Master’s theses and PhD dissertations: Most underwater archaeology programs include lists of their graduates’ work, and many are now available to read for free online. Even if you find only a loosely related topic, a thesis can provide a great list of other resources. Don’t be scared off by the boring, scholarly titles; most theses have at least one or two introductory chapters full of interesting information. You can find Texas A&M’s NAP theses here (including more than you ever wanted to know about 18th century American merchant ships–that one’s mine, under Kellie VanHorn) and a list from the East Carolina University Maritime Studies program here.
  • Illustrated Glossary of Ship and Boat Terms by JR Steffy – a fabulous reference guide, available free online through Oxford Handbooks.


Museums and Tall Ships

If you really want to know what it was like on a wooden sailing ship, the best way to find out is by experience (translation: research trip, whoop!). Many tall ships (replicas and originals) are still taken out sailing, and often the volunteers and employees who work on them are insanely enthusiastic about their jobs. They would be delighted to tell you everything you want to know. Here are some to visit in the United States (friends abroad, maybe you can share any from your area in the comments):

  • USS Constitution (aka “Old Ironsides”) – The 19th century frigate Constitution is usually docked in Boston, MA, and is free to visit. There’s a nice, although small, museum next to it.
  • Mayflower II – This reconstruction of the original 1620 Mayflower is located near Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, MA.
  • Jamestown Settlement – The Jamestown Settlement in Jamestown, VA, has reconstructions of the three ships that brought settlers to Virginia in 1607. It’s always amazing to me how small the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery were!
  • Mystic Seaport – Located in scenic Mystic, CT, the Mystic Seaport is home to the 19th century American whaling ship Charles W. Morgan, along with a large collection of paintings, artifacts, and documents relating to America’s history at sea. Their website also has a news feed on worldwide maritime news and archaeological finds.
  • The Mariner’s Museum – The Mariner’s Museum, in Newport News, VA, has several maritime collections. Probably the most notable are the gun turret and associated artifacts from the Civil War era USS Monitor, one of the first ironclad warships.


Reference Books

For those times when you can’t get away, here are a couple of reliable books:

  • Wooden Ship Building and the Interpretation of Shipwrecks by JR Steffy – This classic in the field of nautical archaeology gives a brief history of the development of shipbuilding based on the archaeological finds.
  • The Construction and Fitting of the English Man of War, 1650-1850 by Peter Goodwin – If you’re writing about the British Royal Navy during this period, this book is packed with details.
  • Seamanship in the Age of Sail by John Hardland – Harland’s book talks about rigging, theoretical principles behind sailing, how crews were organized, and how to handle the sails and rigging. If you want to learn the right orders for your captain to call out, this is the book for you.
  • The Young Sea Officer’s Sheet Anchor by Darcy Lever – This book is a primary source, written in 1808 to instruct young naval officers on seamanship and the handling of rigging. The language of the text can make it challenging, but you’ll know beyond a doubt that you’ve got your facts straight.
  • Ships and Shipwrecks of the Americas by George Bass – If you’re writing about New World ships, this book provides an easy-to-read guide to archaeological finds and ship types from the earliest rafts up through the 19th century.
  • Architectura Navalis Mercatoria by Fredrik Henrik af Chapman – First published in 1768, this lovely book is full of line drawings (which show the shape of a ship) of 18th century naval and merchant ships from around the world. It also includes beautiful drawings of the different types of rigging and sail plans used at that time.


Whew, anyone’s brain hurting yet? Thanks for hanging with me to the end (you deserve some chocolate!), and I hope you’ve found all this information to be helpful. As with any research project, the key is to figuring out what you need to know, and then finding that information. So much of the success of worldbuilding in a story lies in the details, so get a few specific details right, and your readers will be carried along to the end.

Now, if I’ve left out your favorite reference book or website or ship museum, please leave a comment below so others can learn about it. And if you have a specific question you think I may be able to help with, please feel free to either ask below or you can email me directly using the contact form on this website.

Until next time, happy researching and best of luck on your writing journey!

Header image credit: Pexels.com, CC0 license.


2 thoughts on “A Crash Course on Wooden Sailing Ships for Writers

  1. So. Much. To. Process.

    But what a great starting point for those of us who know nothing about sailing or ships, but are writing about them. I’m off to figure out the basic design and sail plan of Captain Halle’s ship. (A schooner possibly) And from your article, I think it would have a tiller, not a wheel. Which I had no idea hadn’t existed). While I’m writing fantasy and can fudge things era-wise, as you say the details make the world building come alive.

    Good thing my MC is only on this ship for a few chapters.

    Thanks for the fabulous post and for sharing your knowledge!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know, it’s just a bit overwhelming. 🙂 I think you could give his schooner a wheel, since it’s fantasy, but otherwise you might want a whipstaff. Tillers are a bit impractical for larger vessels. Thanks for your comments and I’m glad you found it helpful!

      Liked by 1 person

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