A Writer’s Guide… To Boats And Ships

This is part of the series of blog articles called “A Writer’s Guide…“, check out this article by writer Cinaedh Vik on Boats and Ships.

A Writer's Guide to Boats and Ships. Writer Resource. Image: Ship

Boats and Ships

by Cinaedh Vik


It’s almost impossible to talk about nautical stuff without using the terminology because a lot of the specific terminology applies to usage. A rope is called different things depending on what it is used for, for example.

This is probably the section most readers will skip because there are so many specific words and few of them are used colloquially today. However, I needed to put this section first because it has so much bearing on the rest of the document.

It’s also one of the most important things to make sure you get right to ensure you’re saying what you think you’re saying.

Originally, I had listed terms here, but there are just too many. This list is not exhaustive. Note, however, that not all terms are concurrently used, and some are rarely used.

Types of ships

The Sail Plan page is fantastic, with descriptions and diagrams of each. Ships are usually categorized by their size and sail plan, and for military vessels of the Age of Sail, the number of guns, or cannons, they carry.

A ship which is rigged for one sail plan can be re-rigged for another. If that happens, the ship is then referred to as being the new sail plan type. Eg. A brig re-rigged as a schooner is now a schooner.

Important sets of terms


Standing rigging is fixed at both ends, and used to support the masts or yards, or other parts of the ship. Running rigging is moveable, and is used to trim sails, hoist and lower yards, and control the shape and position of sails.


Abaft, Abeam, Athwart, Astern, Toward the bows, Ahead, Port, Starboard. Important for writing about where your characters are going, where the action is taking place.

I want to make special note of Windward and Leeward. If the ship is sailing Northeast in an Easterly wind, then the Starboard side of the ship is also the Windward side of the ship – the side which the wind touches first.

If that same ship were to gybe and head Southwest, the Port side would be the Windward side, and the Starboard would become Leeward. This is an important distinction because the terminology changes relative to how the wind hits the ship.


When looking at the linked sail plans above, note that in smaller ships, fewer sails can be used, and the order in which they are named will change according to frequency.

While the moonraker is the highest sail on a full-rigged ship, the highest sail on a smaller two-masted schooner might be a royal or a topgallant or a skysail, depending on how much canvas the ship carries. The most common sails are the course or main sail, which is the lowest, topsail, and topgallant.

Sails were typically made of hemp or cotton, though in modern times they can be made of nylon, kevlar, or even rigid wings made by aerospace companies.


Ropes were typically hemp, jute, cotton or manila, though in modern times they are frequently nylon, polyester, or other synthetics. On a ship, a rope is called a line. See rigging.

Writing about ships

Setting & Character

The ship is a setting. It is a stage upon which the characters can act, and one that itself moves.

In that way, it is more than a setting, but can also be imbued with character of its own. Is your ship a fast ship? Is it difficult to handle, or prone to leak? Does it sail better in light or strong winds? Are the timbers old and creaky? How well does the ship point upwind, and does it hold course without slipping?

What is a ship?

A ship is not a boat. Classically, in the Age of Sail (1571-1862), a ship was any seagoing vessel that had at least three square-rigged masts and a bowsprit.

In modern times, there’s no discrete demarcation between what is a ship and what is a boat. Generally, if it’s big, it’s a ship, and if it’s small, it is not. A ship can travel for lengthy periods of time, days or weeks at sea, and travel in the open ocean.

Ships sometimes carry boats upon them. In the Age of Sail, and to some extent today as well, you would anchor your ship in deeper water, away from the shore, and use boats to transport people and goods between the shore and the ship.

Some of these might be skiffs, dories, dinghies, gigs – there are many types, all essentially small craft that are either rowed or sailed, or, in modern times, motorized.


Often, in writing, we want to have that dramatic scene in which the ship is battered by a storm.


In the event of a storm, sails are first reefed (ropes are wrapped, top to bottom, around the sail to raise the bottom, or foot of the sail, decreasing its working area. These are called reefs.

A sail can then be double-reefed, which means to decrease the area further. With less area, the ship will move slower, however the higher wind speed typically offsets that.

With less area, there is less strain on the remaining exposed sail and rigging, lessening the chance that the rigging will snap or the sail will tear.

No Bare Sticks

If a sail does tear, or in the event that sails must be reefed or rigging adjusted, sailors must (in traditional times) climb up to the yard and make the required adjustments, which are harder to do in the midst of a storm.

In higher winds, some sails must be furled or they will be blown away, even if the storm canvas is up. Ships typically would carry fair and foul weather sails, with the latter being stronger, but slower in light wind due to their weight.

A good captain will order the storm canvas up and the sails reefed appropriately, before the storm hits, if he is able.

If reefing is not enough, some sails must be furled, but some must remain no matter how strong the wind is. The ship has to keep forward momentum in order to be able to steer. So all the sails cannot be lowered.

The sails that are most important are the foretop and the staysails, the foretop being the most important. Note that it’s not the courses!

This is because the ship has to keep its bow out of the water, and square sails put pressure on the mast, dipping the bow, especially the courses. If the bows become too swamped, the ship will take on too much water and sink.

Side note – all ships take on water, and it’s normal to have some water in the bottom of the hull.

In the Age of Sail, air-tight sealing of the hull was nearly impossible, so pumps were used to remove the water up to the deck and out the scuppers when the water level reached an unacceptable level, both in terms of speed (because water in the hold will slow the ship) and in terms of comfort, avoiding disease, etc. 


A ship must outrun the swell, or be pooped, which means to have a wave crash upon its rear, causing damage to the steering and, worse, pushing the ship sideways so that the next wave takes it at the rail, rolling the ship and capsizing it.

This is to be avoided at all costs as it is often lethal to be turned sideways in the swell, which is called broaching.

More Stays

Also for storms, the crew will increase the number of stays on the masts by adding preventer stays. These additional lines help increase the security of the masts and, in the event one breaks, it is hoped that the others will hold until it can be repaired.


Often, in a storm, ships will run with the wind, far off course, rather than risk being crushed against shallow rocks. If possible, they would find a sheltered harbor and drop anchor until the storm passes, and then double back.

This takes a lot of time, however, as going back is often against the wind, but it is preferable to being shipwrecked. In some cases, however, either due to storm damage or low supplies, ships will risk running aground instead of standing off to sea.


One of the first things that is thrown overboard to lighten a ship is freshwater, because it is heavy.

I mention this because it might not occur to writers that a crew would even think of it, but after the cannon, water is a prime choice, especially if a local source is known that can be used to replenish it in a short time.

A lighter ship will sit higher in the water, lessening the chance of being swamped by the sea and overwhelming the pumps.


When writing our stories, we often want to show the reader some kind of progress the characters have made in traversing the landscape. This can be difficult out in the open ocean, without many landmarks. But we can still measure position and speed, and it’s something that sailors do often.


The “knot” is used as a unit of speed. A knot, or nautical mile per hour, is traditionally determined via throwing the “log” overboard, attached to which is a line knotted at regular intervals.

Not to be confused with rope knots, the art of joining pieces of line together for specific purposes; a wealth of terminology and variety all its own.


The log is thrown from the front of the ship, and one man watches the hourglass, which is flipped as the log is thrown, while the one who threw the log then allows the line to slip through their hands, counting the knots as they bounce by.

When the hourglass empties, a period of half a minute or less, the line is secured and re-reeled onto its spindle, drawing the log back to the ship.

The number of knots is then recorded as the ship’s current speed. A knot is similar to a mile per hour, but not quite equivalent conversion.


A ship’s position is determined by sighting the sun, stars or moon, and comparing known positions to observed ones. The difference gives the latitude, and from an accurate chronometer and table, the longitude can be determined.

The most popular tool for this was the sextant, which consists of a sight and mirrors that swing freely, negating the motion of the ship in the accuracy of the sighting. A user would use the split view of the sight to line up the horizon (on one side) with the sun (on the other side), lock this position in place, and then read the marked altitude at noon.

See the article on sextants, as it will explain in more detail.

In modern times, we use GPS, but the sextant is still a great tool if a ship has electronics issues or if a sailor wants a second reading.


Taking the depth of the water is called taking a sounding. A rope with a heavy object tied to the end is lowered into the water and pulled back up when it reaches the bottom so that the length of rope, which corresponds to the depth, can be measured.

In traditional times, the type of bottom, that is, whether it is rocky, muddy, or covered in seagrass, for example, is also noted.

The type of bottom tells the sailors what kind of anchorage they can expect, among other things. This is where writer Samuel Clemens got his pen name, after the soundings were taken on riverboats. “By the mark, three,” would be called out if the depth was three fathoms. “By the mark, twain,” would indicate two fathoms or twelve feet.

Sailing a Ship

You Need a Crew

There’s a scene in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film where the heroes commandeer a large ship straight under the British’ noses.

This scene correctly asserts that there’s no way the few heroes could make sail and man the helm and weigh (or pull up) the anchors by themselves, but by clever deception, they trick the British into preparing the ship for them and then hop in and sail away.

That’s actually quite believable (other than the admiralty’s bumble), except that once at sea, the few heroes would not be able to do much to control the ship without additional seamen.

I mention this because in the Age of Sail, it took a lot of people to operate a ship. A hundred or so, divided among varying tasks, from trimming the sails, manning the wheel, operating the pumps, cooking the food, cleaning the decks, securing the cargo, issuing and relaying orders, navigating, and watching the horizon for enemies or prizes, to name just a few tasks.

Ropes would have to be spliced, sails mended, and even one’s own clothes were typically made and mended while at sea, aside from uniforms.

There is carpentry work, surgery, and letters to write, both personal and official – the only form of communication other than direct signaling of other visible ships.

Those letters would be passed on to ships traveling to friendly ports, where they can be forwarded or held for their recipients. And that’s not to speak at all of combat, in which it takes several people to operate each cannon.

So ships require lots of people (hands) to work the rigging. When writing about ships, keep in mind the wealth of tasks that need doing, and the number of people needed to do them.

In modern times, it’s possible to sail a large ship with many fewer personnel, thanks to motorization, automation, and better technology. It’s now feasible to operate a 100′ ship solo, and it is also possible to sail solo across the open ocean.

Detection & Horizons

There’s a formula for how far you can see from a given height above the surface of a sphere. Your horizon is roughly 3.6 * sqrt (h) = d, where d is in kilometers and h is in meters above sea level.

If a ship is five kilometers away, you don’t need to close within five kilometers to see it. This is because that distance is from hull to hull, and you will see the masts before you see the hull. This is called a sighting “hull down”.

When you can see the hull, the other ship is “hull up”. If you’re looking from the top of your own mast, the required distance is even less because you’ve increased h.

With this formula, we say roughly because there are a lot of fudge factors. If you’re looking at the horizon uphill (on land), your maximum distance will be lessened, the same as if you had mountains or buildings in the way, too.

In some atmospheric conditions, you can see a bit further than the horizon due to diffraction. So this is really a rule of thumb and not a precise guide.

Wind and Weather

Trade Routes (Modern), (Traditional) and Prevailing Winds are also important. The routes in the age of sail correspond roughly to the prevailing winds, especially the Westerlies and the Trades, which were used like highways of dependable wind speed and direction (during the right seasons) to get where you wanted to go.

To round Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope, you’d certainly want to be attempting it in Southern summertime, to minimize the ice and storms you run into.

Rounding these capes takes ships deep into the latitudes of the “Forties” and even “Fifties”, which are known for very, very strong Westerly winds.

They are some of the most dangerous waters and some of the most difficult to navigate.

Additional Resources

This thread, though old and no longer updated, has some excellent sketches and detailed information from someone who crews on ships.

The aforementioned Wikipedia pages for terms and sail plans.

These books, both as reference and further reading:

The Complete Rigger’s Apprentice More of a specific use case here, but if you really want to talk about rope and what characters are doing with it, or want to know what kind of knot they should be tying to secure that yardarm, this is the place for it.

Patrick O’Brian’s Navy A tremendous resource for Age of Sail historical fiction, especially that of the titular author, whose series is fantastic.

The Long Way The amazing true story of one man’s relationship with the ocean, and why he decided to abandon a ’round the world race… so that he could continue going around a second time, all alone.

Sailing Alone Around The World Before GPS, before telephones and before the world was well-charted, Joshua Slocum set out alone and sailed around the world, in 1895.

This is the true story of his journey, in which he faced many hardships, and talked to the moon just to have something to talk to. He was the first to solo circumnavigate.

Two Years Before The Mast Another true account, by Richard Henry Dana, student of Emerson. Dana was a Harvard alum who wanted to see the world in 1834.

“Before the mast” means in front of it, which is where the common sailors slept in traditional times. This account offsets the others in that it is told not from the perspective of captain or officer, but of a plain crewman.

Captain Blood is largely responsible for the sort of Pirates of the Caribbean style of storytelling, full of adventure and daring, with the outlaws shown sympathetically.

South The true story of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to the South Pole, his ship crushed by ice floes, and the subsequent fight for survival and rescue of every single one of his crew in 1914, just as war was breaking out in Europe.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

About Cinaedh Vik

Writer Cinaedh VikCinaedh Vik is a senior electrical engineer for medical devices, a guitar player, and frequently crews regattas both modern and vintage.

He lives in New England with his talented artist wife and two kids.

When he’s not working on new literary SF novels, he’s playing Go, snowboarding, or scuba diving.

His love of the sea came first from his retired Navy father, who flew over the Pacific hunting submarines.

Cina can be found on Twitter at @cinaedhvik. His incredibly-neglected author blog might be resuscitated in 2019 with newer and more frequently posted articles.

Do you have knowledge of a skill or occupation?  Would you like to be part of the Resource Team?

~ ☆ ~ ☆ ~ ☆ ~

Thanks to Cina for his article on boats and ship.  If you enjoy this article, please consider sharing it.  If you have any questions for Cina, drop them in the comments below.

Check out all the current “A Writer’s Guide” articles on their new page for easy access. 

Happy writing

Signature & logo of Ari Meghlen

tiny-ko-fi_icon_rgb_strokeThis blog is full of articles about writing, marketing, blogging, organising, social media, books and some random stuff.  I also create free printable resources.  If you find the content helpful and entertaining, consider supporting this blog by donating over on ko-fi (where you will also find extra content). 

11 thoughts on “A Writer’s Guide… To Boats And Ships

  1. Pingback: Top 5 Blog Posts Of 2021 – Author Ari Meghlen Official Website

  2. Pingback: Top 5 Blog Posts Of 2021 – Author Ari Meghlen Official Website

  3. Pingback: 🖋 Writing Links Round Up 11/9 – B. Shaun Smith

  4. Pingback: Want to be part of the Writer’s Guide?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.