As fantasy writers we’ll often write about sailing ships, but how many of us have actually done this? Louise Curtis tells us the deep down and dirty on sailing ships and ballooning.
As speculative writers, we often borrow from other periods of history. We love to imagine riding horses through bushland, wearing steampunk outfits , or cooking peculiar food . I love to research by doing, so here’s some information that may be useful in your stories.
When I was young enough, I sailed on the Young Endeavour, Australia’s sail training vessel, in order to research pirates. My hair has never been more disgusting. Ships are windy – all the time. I also found chunks of solidified salt in my hair, like giant mutant dandruff. Because someone needs to be on watch at all times, I was so exhausted I often slept in full wet weather gear, shoes, and metal harness (which we were required to wear on deck at all times, in case we needed to climb one of the masts to furl a sail). My legs were purple with dozens of bruises from climbing around everywhere, knocking into things, and bracing myself with my legs while my hands were busy hauling ropes or just holding on. The ship was usually heavily slanted to one side, and in decent weather the waves hit the bowsprit and washed across the deck – physically lifting anyone who was located too far forward.
Square sails only work if the wind is almost directly behind you, but triangular sails work a little like airplane wings, so they’re more useful in a variety of conditions. Either way, you’ll probably need to tack (turn from side to side in long zigzags) to get the best results. That means hauling on lines to turn the spars/yardarms (the beams holding up the sails), furling (tying up) some sails and unfurling others. As a rule, you open the middle sails and then the outer sails. The large triangular jib at the front of the Young Endeavour is extremely heavy, and pulls from one side to the other with a loud bang. “Luffing” is when a sail is flapping, due to being positioned incorrectly.
About 60% of people get seasick, especially women. It usually lasts a few days, but often reappears in harsh weather. I was fairly sick – enough that when I started throwing up it felt fabulous (at least, for a few minutes – until the next bout started building). If you throw up overboard, it’s important to notice which way the wind is going. (The “head” is nautical-speak for toilet because on square-rigged ships the wind MUST come from behind – so crewmen went to the bathroom by the figurehead at the front, thus protecting everyone else.) When I was no longer sick, I climbed up the mast to furl a sail. It was raining, and there were delays with another girl. The mast moves around a fair bit. . .
My stomach rebelled; my skin went hot and then cold; I called out “chunder!” (short for “watch under” – another gift to our language) and. . . I did. The people below me were fairly safe thanks to the wind; I was later able to observe an orange streak across the sail at a 45 degree angle.
While I was sick I barely ate (the worst thing about seasickness is knowing that you’re ON the sea – surrounded), but dry salty biscuits were like manna from heaven. To me, the ship always smelled of wet wood and vomit. I could always hear creaks and moans from the wood, especially below decks. We worked very hard to keep everything shipshape, especially since it rained often (which inevitably got inside and had to be mopped up). The rope rails all around the ship were constantly decorated with clothes we were trying to get dry.
The movement is quite like riding a train – but irregular. In heavier weather, it’s more like a turbulent plane ride, complete with stomach-grabbing lurches and odd sideways twists. If someone falls overboard, it is very difficult to get them back. At night, it is virtually impossible.
After ten days at sea, I was fitter and stronger than I’ve ever been. We always wore gloves while hauling on the ropes, but my hands still toughened up a fair bit. The navy staff showed us a video of a guy (a real person, but by no means a normal one) clamping the outside edge of a square sail between his fingers and sliding down it superfast that way.
Further reading: For a great range of pictures (or to apply to go on board if you’re young enough) visit The Young Endeavour website
An Account of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson is a great book (some of it is very difficult to get through; other parts are as vivid as only an eyewitness account can be – it was first published in 1724).
Hot air balloons
The first hot air balloons were successfully flown in the late 1700s, but hydrogen balloons (although more likely to explode) were quickly found to carry much more weight – sometimes dozens of people. The “envelope” (balloon part) was made of silk or paper with rubber varnish on the inside(today’s envelopes are made of nylon), but the baskets were always wickerwork.
The most surprising thing is the calmness of the ride – even taking off and landing (although apparently it’s quite common for the basket to tip over – more socially awkward than actually hazardous, I think). Many animals have been taken aloft, but it has been found that horses bleed from the nose at altitudes humans find comfortable.
There is absolutely no wind and no sound (except when the burner is on). It was so smooth that I felt confident that I could serve a cup of tea without spilling a drop. My partner described it as being “like a plane ride, but with all the advantages and none of the disadvantages”. It was indeed very like the first or last few moments of a plane flight, when the whole world is spread out beautifully – still close enough to see all the details. It is almost impossible to be frightened at all, because the silence and lightness of the balloon makes flight feel like the simplest and most natural thing in the world.
Balloons can’t be steered. Really. In my own flight, we missed about four different landing sites, all of which we could clearly see. The side vents (operated by ropes) can turn the balloon to face a different direction, but that’s about all. The top vent is useful for a fast descent.
The modern gas-fired burner makes a popping noise, immediately followed by a scchhhhh sound. It isn’t generally on longer than a few seconds, but the radiating heat on the top of my head was uncomfortable during take-off preparations.
The smell is of gas, and of the land beneath (including plant smells). We often drifted along so close to people below that we could comfortably call out to one another. Dogs barked and ran around. Kangaroos ran away.
Modern balloons take about ten people, plus the pilot in a separate compartment (with a few venting ropes, and several gas canisters). The basket and envelope are attached laying flat on the ground (it takes some time to lay out the balloon, but it’s rare for the ropes to be tangled – our pilot walked around inside as it was blown up to check them). A large fan half-fills the envelope, and then the burner is used to heat and expand the air while more is blown in. The envelope stands up more and more, and eventually pulls the basket upright (at which point the passengers climb in over the side – and there is still a rope attached to the truck as a precaution). The filling process took about half an hour.
The pilot radioed for clearance, and then used the burner heavily. Suddenly we drifted away – unable to tell the exact moment we left the ground. Within fifty horizontal metres, we were above the trees.
Further reading: The Aeronauts by Time/Life Books – a very fun read and beautifully (sometimes morbidly) illustrated. I included the funnest sections (and more on my own balloon experience) in today’s Daily Awesomeness blog.
Thanks to Louise Curtis for sharing her insights with us!