Nautical Research for Seafaring Authors

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How often have you read a book that involves topics you’re passionate about? I am not referring to genre, but rather themes and subjects that may be involved.  You may have a particular interest in ancient history and mythology, or modern warfare, or in this case, the age of sail.

I have a penchant for wanting to be as accurate as I possibly can be, even with fantasy.  If there’s no way an author can explain how his/her world works scientifically or magically, then they may lose their clarity and integrity.  My own world typically has a 17th-18th century setting, but also merges with and links to medieval and ancient times, and so endeavour to research words and inventions linked to those eras.  There is always wiggle room in fantasy and science fiction, but whatever you write has to make sense.             

If you want to tweak any aspect of a subject for your writing, you first need to know enough about it to make those changes function in your world/story.  In historical fiction based here on Earth, there’s no excuse for mistakes.  You really need to know your history inside out.  In fantasy and science fiction, however, an explanation is necessary.  Changing something for your own amusement isn’t the way to go.  One author I’ve read the work of stated that they made changes for their own personal amusement.  By all means change something for your own amusement if you’re writing solely for yourself and not for a wider audience, but don’t do it in your writing unless you can explain your changes so that readers will understand.

As we get down to discussing all things nautical, do you know how long it takes to sail from the United Kingdom to the Caribbean? Let’s be pedantic and say that your vessel can only set sail if she actually has sails.  Modern cruise ships, I’m sorry to say, cannot set sail because they have no sails.  So what’s the answer? Don’t know? Well, if you average at around 10 knots from the moment you depart Cardiff, you might get there in about two weeks, three weeks if you’re doing 7 knots.  That’s assuming your characters are on board a 17th century sailing ship and the wind is in their favour from start to finish – which is very unlikely. 

If you have an idea of how far your characters will be sailing, try using this fantastic website I came across – www.sea-distances.org.  I had a fair idea of short distances from having sailed on tall ships in real life; Cardiff to Southampton, without stopping off at a port and with the wind solely in the ship’s favour, it can take about two or three days.

And what about nautical terminology and how sailors generally behaved? Bear in mind that the majority of your readers probably aren’t going to be seafarers, they probably aren’t going to understand what you’re talking about when a ship is preparing to lie-to unless you actually explain what that means.  The same goes for a tacking order such as, “helm’s a’lee! Ready about!” They mean nothing if you don’t understand the jargon.  Look for the Haynes manual on HMS Victory by Peter Goodwin to find out about how to sail an 18th century man-o-war, the Sailor’s Word Book by W. H. Smyth, and Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities by Terry Breverton.  For information specifically about piracy, I recommend Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly, and The Sea Rover’s Practice by Benerson Little.  You’d be surprised at just how much information there is to take on board out there, pardon the pun.

Speaking of puns, and of course phrases, you might want to look up where every day idioms originated.  You’ll find that a lot of them, such as: three sheets to the wind, showing one’s true colours, and no room to swing a cat, are nautical in origin.  And don’t forget the kind of language that was generally spoken by sailors back in the day, and how they sang shanties both at work and at leisure to keep up morale.  They tended to use a lot of profanity, and accents/dialects varied considering they all came from a variety of countries, regions and backgrounds.  Pirates did not typically wander around shouting “arrrrrgh!” either, though some of them, such as Edward Teach (or Thatch – better known as Blackbeard), were born in the south-west of England, meaning their accent/dialect would probably have sounded like your stereotypical pirate.

Don’t, however, be too concerned if your characters have motives or back stories that might seem a little clichéd; the last thing you want to do is change who your character is just because a handful of people might groan and roll their eyes.  You won’t be able to please everybody.  So, if you have a pirate who’s descended from nobility and has a penchant for being a ladies’ man like I do, don’t worry about it.  However, you should be aware of both truths and myths, and apply them to any one individual’s personal circumstances, and build their personalities on that basis.

Ultimately, you must write what works for you, but realism and familiarity are needed for your readers to make the right connections.  Research on any topic is key for any author, and I hope that I’ve been able to shed some light on all things nautical, and how you might further your own research.  If you should make any changes to how something works, be prepared to explain how and why it works the way it does so your readers can understand. 

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore, dream, discover.”

– Mark Twain.

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