Want info on Medieval sailing ships

I am in the process of designing a D&D adventure set on the high seas, and I was wondering if any Dopers could recommend a good basic work on Medieval ships and navies (I tend to think of them as sailing ships, but Manhattan has informed me that most were rowed at least part of the time).
I am especially interested in the sizes and speeds of different ships and the size of crews on fast military sloops.
Thanks for the help.

Here you go Mr.Coyote, this site should have the information you need. It is a little difficult to navigate, but it is one of the best historical nautical sites I know of. I have actually been there as well. It is in a little town in coastal Connecticut. Check it out and I am sure you will be able to find what you are looking for.

Mystic Seaport is more like 19th century and so not medieval which means prior to the discovery of America. A Google search for “medieval sailing” and “medieval ships” turned up many hits. You might also want to search for “hanseatic league” or Hansa the 12th century trade association which used ships called Cogs. These had square sails. You can also look up dhow which were arab ships with lateen sails

The rudder is a medieval development as earlier ships had a steering oar. “Starboard” is the side (board) of the steering oar. The other side was “larboard” or the loading board. Around the turn of the 20th century “larboard” was changed to “port” because “larboard” was too easy to mistake with “starboard”.

I hope those pointers will help

The best game reference for the medieval ships would be Fantasy Game Unlimited (FGU)'s “Bireme and Galley” published as a reference/board game for Chivalry and Sorcery in the early 1978. I have a copy and it was a hard to find at that point.
I was surprised to find googling, that you can get it on CD-ROM

Happy sailing. BTW ditch the D&D and get a copy of C&S 1 or 2 – my all time fav game of the genre.

Here’s more information than you wanted, possibly:


You probably could find what you wanted using the search in a half hour, tho.

A outstanding, extraordinary site for maritime resources.

Viking ships had oars but anything larger is pretty difficult to row. Ships with any real fighting capacity or load carrying capacity were sail ships. Galleys existed in the Med into the 17th century but the were not really very good for fighting unless the wind was dead calm. Galleys were no good in bad weather, their low freeboard meant they flooded easily, the “machinery” took up most of the space so they were very lightly armed compared to sailships. In the end they were more of simbolic and ornamental value than for any real fighting.

A good book about ships is Sailing Ships in Words and Pictures by Bjoern Landstroem (or Björn Landström)


I cannot agree with your comments on galleys. Oared galleys were around for centuries and were highly effective.

The Mediterranean sea has the advantage of generally better weather the open sea. That helps.

The galleys used at the battle of Salamis used ramming tactics and were highly effective. This required a light, highly manoeuvrable ship with a well trained crew of up to 180 oarsmen and just a few hoplites. Later battles such as Actium had ships even more oarsmen but relied on boarding tactics with plenty of marines. In either case, the oarsmen were expected join in with the fighting - the Ben Hur image of being chained to the oar is quite wrong for this period.

Slaves were used later, the period of the battle of Lepanto for example. Oared ships slowly died out, although there were some galleys in the Armada that tried to invade England in Elizabethan times. Although oars give a ship vital extra manoeuvrability the improvements in ship design made sailing ships more manoeuvrable and the demand for ever larger and more guns displaced the rowers.

I suggested a High Seas campaign to somebody in a thread a ways back.

This the result? :slight_smile:

Cornelius, yes, galleys were effective in their time and for specific things. As I said, they survived into the 17th century.

In old times naval battles were like land battles fought on ships. Ships were boarded and taken in hand to hand combat so, in reality, ships were just transports of troops and had some fortification. You mention Lepanto which is probably the last sea battle fought this way. The next Spanish expedition, the Armada, was fought off by the English with very different tactics.

Galleys were more maneuverable in calm weather and so had theyr use in the ancient world were sail ships were not that good anyway. But come the 16th century you have better and bigger sailships armed with cannons and a galley is useless against this type of ship.

We are not disagreeing, I am just saying by the 17th century the galley was useless. But, of course, it served its purpose since the Greeks and the Romans.

Well, I hesitate to use Patrick O’Brian and H. M . Forrester as a authorative references, but they were usually in the ballpark, and described a few actions between British warships and galleys as late as 1815. It’s true that galleys were in general no match for a heavily armed sailing vessel, but they could be used to raid shipping and would be deadly to a lightly armed merchant ship during periods of calm weather. Even small naval vessels, sloops and the smaller frigates might not want to tangle with a galley in light airs.

Around Algiers and the Strait of Gibralter, it would be possible for heavily manned galleys to lie in wait for the right conditions (calm weather and vessels close to shore).

So I’m thinking Sailor’s view is not completely correct – as a naval force, the galley’s days were long over, but as a merchant raider/privateer, the galley was probably useful well into the 1800’s.

Hmm. That should be C.S. Forester, author of the Hornblower books, of course. H.M. Forrester would be a ship :slight_smile:

>> a few actions between British warships and galleys as late as 1815

I’d like to see some support for that as I would be very surprised.

The only reference I could find for a naval action in 1717 was concerning the conquest of Sardinia - does this sound correct?

I believe the Russians had a galley fleet which attempted landings on the Swedish coast, and that a British fleet under the command of Sir James Saumarez (together with the Swedish fleet) attempted landings on the Finnish coast. There was certainly a possibility of an action between a Royal Navy ship and a galley but I can find no reference to one having occurred.

On April 29 1587 Drake attacked the port of Cadiz attempting to disrupt the preparations for the Armada. The galleys that guarded the port were no match for his ships and could do nothing to stop him. A galley was no match for an armed sail ship. Quote from Garrett Mattingly’s The Armada:

Well, this is based on a few minutes of Googling, so I’m sure it’s not comprehensive. As Sailor noted, when the galleys engage a serious war ship, it’s all over for them. But they would not have had these galleys available if they hadn’t been useful for commerce raiding.
(Attack on Algiers, 1815)

He saw again the sudden sally of the forty big galleys loaded with Turkish troops to board the Queen Charlotte, a futile attack in which twenty-three of them had been sunk by cannon-fire and the rest put to flight.

Again, after inflicting some damage upon the enemy, the Americans withdrew, but renewed the attack on the 24th of the same month. This was brief; and without any important results. But on the 29th a fourth and more formidable attack was made by the American gun-boats, commencing at three o’clock in the morning. The conflict continued until daylight, with great fury on both sides, when the Constitution ran toward the harbor, under heavy fire from the Bashaw’s castle and Fort English, She signaled the gun-boats to withdraw, correctly supposing their ammunition to be nearly exhausted. This was done under the fire of the Constitution, which, with grape and round shot, greatly damaged the gun-boats of the enemy and caused them to retreat. She then ran in, and opened a heavy fire upon the town, batteries, and castle. She soon silenced the guns of the castle and two batteries, sunk a Tunisian vessel, damaged a Spanish one, severely bruised the enemy’s galleys and gun-boats, and then withdrew, without having a man hurt.

 Xebecs are mostly sailing vessels mutated from the galley design, but did carry auxiliary oars.


Another reference to the Dey’s war galleys, late 1700’s, early 1800’s.

“Leake reported seeing a number of beached Maniate trattas (which he described as being smaller versions of Turkish galleys) at Monemvasia in 1805 which had been captured by the Turks and had to avoid Pyrgos in Deep Mani as the locals were rather anti-British since a pirate tratta with a crew from that village had been seized by a British naval ship.”

"… game into her own hands, to cover the retreat, and may be {482} said to have fought Tripoli single-handed. She ranged along within two cables’ length of the rocks, and opened with round and grape on thirteen of the Turkish galleys and gun-boats, which had just been pretty closely engaged with the American. ",%20Henry%20Cabot/Hero%20Tales%20From%20American%20History.txt+algiers+galleys+1812&hl=en&ie=UTF-8
"Some Tripolitan cruisers, two galleys, and nineteen
gunboats also lay between the Philadelphia and the shore. "


On 1 September the British army (10,000 men) started the invasion of America on the western shore of Lake Champlain.  

            26-gun frigate Saratoga - Comm. T. Macdonough; 28k/29w;
17-gun schooner Ticonderoga - Lt. Stephan Cassin; 6k/6w;
20-gun brig Eagle - Lt. Robert Henley; 13k/20w;
7-gun sloop Preble - Lt. Charles Budd; 2k/0w
10 row galleys.
            39-gun frigate Confiance - Capt. G. Downey; 41k/40w;
16-gun brig Linnet - Capt. Daniel Pring; 10k/14w;
11-gun sloop Chubb - Capt. James McGhie; 6k/16w;
11-gun sloop Finch - Capt. William Hicks; 0k/2w;
12 row galleys.

Well, at least you wouldn’t have to worry about dropping the soap in the shower.

Because there ain’t no soap.

And there ain’t no shower.

WTF!?!? :confused: