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Wooden Ships and Iron Men

Hearts of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men.
We always are ready; steady, boys, steady.
We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again!
The Royal Navy, "Hearts of Oak"

A setting and an era, which has become a genre almost unto itself.

In the age of sail, life on board tall ships was hellish to the extreme, by modern standards. Voyages could last up to several years, sanitation was almost nonexistent, the food consisted of weevil-infested, rock-hard dried bread and salt pork, scurvy and other diseases ran rampant, discipline was harsh (A Taste of the Lash was a common punishment for even minor infractions), and death almost certain.

The men who survived these times were tough as nails.

Expect stories set in this world to be filled with hard, uncompromising men who are covered in grime, with awful teeth, wooden legs, and stringy dirty hair. They will be drunk much of the time, usually off rum or grog (rum cut with water and lime juice).note  They may Talk Like a Pirate, and are quite likely to actually be pirates or, if not, fight them.

Despite carrying most of their life on the high seas, only a few sailors from this age could swim. Few captains cared to teach swimming to their mennote , and the vast majority of sailors expected a quick death if falling into the sea - swimming would only serve to draw out their inevitable death if no help was forthcoming, as if often wasn'tnote . The chronicles of 16th century sea-life describe swimming and free-diving as valued skills because they were so rare - something true even in the heyday of this trope in the early nineteenth-century. The state of swimming-skills remained woeful at least partly because it was believed that teaching one's (largely press-ganged or shanghai-ed, and much-brutalised) ratings to swim would only encourage them to literally jump ship and desert when close to shore.

This trope generally involves a Used Future sort of vision of the age of sail, with dirt, grime, barnacles, scurvy, floggings, and other unpleasant aspects of the real time period not glossed over. If a ship or its crew are suspiciously well-scrubbed and well-fed, it's not this trope. But tales of action and adventure abound, with swashbucklers, pirates, heroes and villains and damsels in distress all around.

Not to be confused with the Avalon Hill Board Game of the same name, which is is where we got the trope name, or with Schizo Tech settings where wood ships coexist with Powered Armor. The phrase shows up at least as far back as the late 19th century, making it Older Than Radio.


Stories that exemplify this trope:

    open/close all folders 

    Comic Books 

    Fan Fiction 

    Film 

    Folklore 

    Literature 
  • Horatio Hornblower
  • Moby-Dick
  • The Aubrey-Maturin stories by Patrick O'Brien.
  • Treasure Island in most of its incarnations.
  • The Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell features this whenever Sharpe has to get somewhere by sea, as in Sharpe's Trafalgar and Sharpe's Devil.
  • There is a bit of this genre in the Sailing aspect of The Fort, however the book is more focused on troops on the land.
  • Robinson Crusoe
  • The Alexander Kent Richard Bolitho series.
  • Not a fighting ship, but still pretty much the same presentation of the sailors: Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous
  • Used in The Gentlemen Bastards book Red Seas under Red Skies.
  • Billy Budd
  • The Temeraire series is basically this, except the ships are talking dragons. There are plenty of the standard type as well. They frequently do not get along well with the airborne versions, and one of the leads is a navy man adjusting to dragonback service.
  • While David Eddings' Belgariad depicts life at sea rather romantically, its sequel, The Malloreon, paints a considerably more grim picture of the conditions driving a sailor to desert his captain. It still involves a lot of "mateys", though.
  • The Lord Ramage novels of Dudley Pope.
  • Much of Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle takes place on ships in, well, the Baroque, both European and Middle Eastern. He doesn't gloss over the conditions.,l
  • James Clavell's Shogun opens up in this setting. By the timeframe of Tai-Pan and Gai-Jin (early Steam Age) things had improved only a little.
  • Rafael Sabatini's swashbuckling pirate books, Captain Blood: His Odyssey and The Sea Hawk.
  • Quite a lot of John Ringo's Emerald Sea and Against the Tide, in the Council Wars series, are 41st century recreations of this era, due to the Fall and restrictions imposed by the world-controling AI "Mother" that make combustion-based engines beyond a certain low power output steam engines unavailable.
  • Mr. Midshipman Easy by Frederick Marryat is a near-contemporary example, and probably set the tone for most of the later works in this vein.
  • The sections concerning the people of the Iron Islands in A Song of Ice and Fire, especially those that take place on boats, come across like this. Bonus points for them being called the Iron Born.
  • Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet's poem "Clipper Ships and Captains" is an ode to this period, even going so far as to include the lines:
    When the best ships still were wooden ships
    But the men were iron men.
  • The Empire of New Britain and the Holy Dominion in the Destroyermen series arrived on the alternate Earth in this genre. Currently they're on their way out of it technologically: their ships are powered by a combination of sail and coal-fired paddlewheels.
  • Mutiny On The Elsinore by Jack London is set in The Edwardian Era and still features the miserable conditions of the long-range clipper ships, slightly improved by reduced crews and better supplies. Subversion in the fact Captain West and his two officers fit the heroic image of the Age of Sail mariners, while the mutinous crew is scrounged from the worst of the worst, thieves, bandits and criminals, barely healthy enough to stand. The trope is invoked in-universe by one of the officers, who decried the loss of healthy, trained enlisted sailors of the decades past, who knew "how to drive a ship".
  • Another Jack London novel, The Sea Wolf definitely invokes the harsh conditions of sailing vessels, as told through the point of view of a gentleman, rescued from sea and force to work upon the ship.
  • Two Jane Austen's brothers were naval officers and she was thus well acquainted with the knowledge of life in the Navy. Two of her books contain elements of Wooden Ships and Iron Men.
    • Mansfield Park: Fanny Price's father is an off-duty drunken sailor of a Lieutenant. His family is rather poor and lives in Portsmouth. Fanny's eldest beloved brother William starts his career as a midshipman at the beginning of the novel and his career is mentioned throughout, and later his promotion to the rank of Lieutenant is an important plot point.
    • In Persuasion, there are lots of naval officers who return to the country from Napoleonic Wars, and their life at sea is discussed at large. Admiral and Mrs Croft rent Kellynch Hall, which is a family mansion of Anne Elliot's (the novel's protagonist), and there are three other captains: Captain Wentworth, Captain Harville, and Captain Benwick. Sophia Croft, Captain Wentworth's sister and Admiral Croft's wife, is a badass of a lady as she spent most of her married life sailing with her husband.
  • The Terror by Dan Simmons.
  • David Weber's Safe Hold series exists here for a while as Charis has to rely on her navy to fight of the mainland powers. Thanks to Merlin's help and Baron Seamount's inventivenessthey go from Lepanto style galley's to ships with designs straight from the Age of Sail. As of Midst Toil and Tribulation it drops off a bit. Partly because the action has switched to land based combat in Siddamark but also because that book has seen the introduction of the Safehold's first steamships with larger, more heavily armed and armoured versions stated being built.
  • The George Abercrombie Fox series of novels by Adam Hardy.
  • David Drake's RCN series is this trope Recycled IN SPACE! — ships in FTL are driven by sails that, because of the inability to use electrically-powered motors, are set and reefed by sailors in the rigging.
  • The Kydd series by Julian Stockwin.

    Live Action Television 
  • The Onedin Line.
  • Horatio Hornblower: A Mini Series of eight Made-for-TV movies from 1999 to 2003 by A&E. Starting with the award-winning Hornblower: The Even Chance. High production values and extraordinary quality. There were some notable changes from the original book. Hornblower's solitary hero and man alone got a pal Archie Kennedy and was close to a fatherly Captain Pellew, as introspection and inner dialogue are hard (and potentially uninteresting) to translate into visual media. It has all elements required, and you will think pirates are lame after watching the Navy guys in action in this series.

    Music 
  • Juha Vainio song "Laivat puuta, miehet rautaa" is the trope name in Finnish.
  • Parodied mercilessly in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta H.M.S. Pinafore.
  • The song Thirty-Two Down On The Robert Mackenzie may be trying to point out that even in the modern era, service aboard ship isn't easy. It's about a modern freighter, the Robert Mackenzie, that runs into a storm, and, well...
    Steel boats, iron men
    Thirty-two down on the
    Robert Mackenzie

    Tabletop Games 
  • The Trope Namer Wooden Ships and Iron Men.
  • Warhammer 40,000 is this trope Recycled IN SPACE! as far as life on board Imperial Fleet ships goes.
    • Rogue Trader, being about people who go to amazing places, meet interesting people, and fleece them for all they're worth, has this in bucketloads. It's not just life on board, either- spaceship combat is very much inspired by Age of Sail strategies.
    • Tactics in Battlefleet Gothic, to some degree, are those of the Age of Sail. The major differences for the Imperial Navy and Chaos are the presence of effective prow-mounted weapons and the independence of the ships on variable winds.
    • In one of the Space Wolf novels Ragnar is dismayed to see that most of the crew of an Inquisition ship are criminals chained to their workstations, in the next book he's glad to see that his chapter's own battle barges are manned by much more enthusiastic Fenrisian serfs, essentially Vikings in space.
  • 7th Sea draws heavily upon this setting for any of its nautical adventures, especially anything involving the Pirate Nations.
  • Furry Pirates

    Theme Parks 
  • Disney Theme Parks: Aside from Pirates of the Caribbean, this trope is said word-for-word in the Sailing Ship Columbia attraction.

    Toys 

    Video Games 
  • As Age of Sail simulation games, Uncharted Waters and its sequel Uncharted Waters: New Horizons use this trope quite a bit. Your captain and some of your mates appear far more clean and healthy than standard (owing to limited portraits and tiny sprites, mostly), but starvation, scurvy, piracy, and rats are all common. Unprepared players leaving European/North African waters for the first time are often in for a rude awakening.
  • Warcraft 2: Naval combat between the humans, and the orcs viking like ships was a major feature.
  • From the Total War series
    • Empire Total Waris set in the Age of Sail and is notably the first game in the series to have fully realised naval battles. Interestingly, one of the ships available in Empire is an oar-and-sail powered galley with forward-facing cannons.
    • Napoleon Total War is set in the period immediately following that of Empire, and (in addition to sailing ships) features steamships and early ironclads, which led to the end of the Age of Sail, although they are not the strongest ships in the game.
    • Total War Shogun 2 gives a much more eastern take on this trope, covering what naval combat was like around Japan at the same time. Cannon use was minimal, as the Japanese had few cannons, most ships were propelled by oar deck crews, and much of the combat involved grappling and boarding action. More powerful ships were larger, with bigger crews and tougher enclosed decks to allow them to approach the enemy with minimal casualties from arrow fire. The Fall of the Samurai expansion pack brings the combat up into the industrial era, with ironclads quickly phasing out the old style of ship.
  • Sid Meier’s Pirates! revolves entirely around this period in the Caribbean. The player character is a Privateer (not quite a pirate as it says on the tin) and will fight many (one-on-one) naval battles during the course of his/her career.
  • The naval aspects of the Europa Universalis series live and breathe this trope, since the game spans virtually the entire Golden Age of Sail.
  • Assassin's Creed III, set in the The American Revolution, introduces naval combat to the series and manages to capture the experience quite well, despite some liberties taken, namely allowing you to participate in the awesomeness of the Battle of Chesapeake Bay.
    • The sequel, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, is set several decades before III and has you pilot a pirate ship during the Golden Age of Piracy and features open world naval combat, building on the Naval gameplay and taking it Up to Eleven. Justified, as the non-modern main character is Connor's grandfather Edward Kenway, a pirate/assassin who is the colleague and equal of the likes of Benjamin Hornigold, Blackbeard, Charles Vane and Bartholomew Roberts.
  • The Ancient Art of War at Sea

    Web Original 
  • Open Blue
  • This is the general theme of the Soleil Alliance, based on the East India Company, in Lambda. Except that you swap out "Iron Men" with "Magical Girls".
  • Choice Of Games web game, "Choice Of Broadsides", is set here. With the option, at the beginning of the game, to be about Wooden Ships And Iron Women.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • Reality Is Unrealistic when it came to an Age of Sail mariner's diet. Sailors were usually quite well fed given the limitations and standards of the day. One surviving Royal Navy ration schedule specified 7lbs of Ship's Biscuit, 4lbs of Beef, 2lbs of Pork, 2pints of Peas, 1.5pints of Oatmeal, 6oz of Sugar, 6oz of Butter, 12oz of Cheese, and 7gallons of Beer per sailor per week. That's a lot of food and was a minimum ration. Captains could, and often did, supplement their crew's rations with fresh foods when they were available (some even kept goats and hens on board at their own expense so that fresh milk and fresh eggs would be available). The beef and pork rations deserve special mention because the salted meats of the period which could be stored unrefrigerated and carried on board ships during long voyages without spoiling were much more expensive than fresh meat and sailors of the period ate a lot of meat (modern diets rarely call for even a quarter of as much meat as they were given). The seemingly excessive beer ration was the answer to the massive amounts of fluids someone exerting themselves heavily needs to avoid dehydration and the near impossibility of keeping fresh water stored in wooden barrels safe for human consumption without boiling it first.
    • By-the-by, back then Royal Navy officers got the same rations as their crew and there was very little resentment in the Royal Navy towards the officer class by common sailors because promotion to Lieutenant was almost entirely merit based. For a the crew of a Royal Navy ship to mutiny (i.e HMS Bounty) the highest ranking officer on board would have had to have made massive screw ups.
    • Even today fresh local meat, fish, and poultry is often less expensive than meat, fish, and poultry that's been tinned, salted, smoked, and/or cured so that it doesn't need refrigeration. High quality Smoked Salmon in vacuum sealed packaging which can be shipped by a post office without spoiling can cost over 40 times as much per pound as fresh beef and over 9 times as much per pound as fresh Salmon that's been flown halfway across a continent.
  • This might not precisely qualify, but in the 1500's Knights of Malta who survived at least a year as a Turkish galley slave and were then rescued frequently lived to nearly 100, in an era in which the average life expectancy hadn't hit 50 yet. Jean Parisot de Valette (who survived a year as a galley slave in his youth) commanded the 9,000 defenders of Malta against 40,000 invading Turks from the front lines and won. At age 70.
    • Jean de Valette was a Four-Star Badass.
    • The Knights of Malta probably fit quite well, actually- they were noted for their love of naval warfare, constantly harrying Ottoman trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish campaign which drove them out of Rhodes, and the later (unsuccessful) campaign to drive them from Malta were intended to end their piracy. They're more strongly remembered as "knights" in the classical sense, given that they are mostly known as the successors of the original crusading order, and because their two most famous battles of the post-medieval era were the sieges of Rhodes and Malta, but naval warfare was actually what their contemporaries most knew them for.
  • Invoked by name by Austrian sailors after winning the Battle of Lissa, remarking that "Men of iron on wooden ships had defeated men of wood on ironclad ships" after doing exactly that (a division of Austrian wooden steam warships had caught by surprise the Italian ironclads. Various wooden vessels got disabled, two ironclads were sunk - despite Italian navy having numerical and technological advantage (34 ships including 12 modern ironclads, compared to 27 ships of which 5 outdated and 2 modern ironclads in the Austrian navy. It helped that majority of crews in the Austrian Navy were Croatians, who historically tended to be better than Venetians and later Italians when it came to the naval warfare, as well as the fact that Italian admiral made a really stupid mistake of changing his flagship without notifying rest of the fleet, just before the battle).
  • Admiral David Farragut in the American Civil War. "Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead."
  • Horatio Nelson's Navy. Obviously. This cannot be overexaggerated. Fair portions of the Napoleonic Royal Navy were renowned for being dangerously brave and immensely tough, with figures such as Howe, Collingwood and Cochrane often taking on far superior odds and winning because they flat out refused to be afraid. Nelson was, of course, the King of this trope, as he supposedly had a death wish, exposing himself to deadly fire at every occasion, until he died at Trafalgar. Considering the wax-wane nature of his popularity, this might've be his plan all along. One of the reasons the Royal Navy became so feared is because it Took a Level in Badass (although it was pretty hard already) after King George II pulled a You Have Failed Me on Admiral John Byng pour encourager les autres.
  • John Paul Jones, one of the first heroes of the US Navy. When taunted by a British officer during a battle, he famously replied "I have not yet begun to fight!" Later in the same engagement, with his ship sinking, he was asked by the British if he had struck his colors (surrendered). He replied "I may sink, but I'll be damned if I strike." His ship did sink, but not until he had captured the British ship and transferred his crew over. Upon learning that the British captain had been knighted due to his actions in the battle, he said "Should I have the good fortune to fall in with him again, I'll make a lord of him."
  • The Swedish Ship Götheborg. She is a modern replica of an 18th Century East India-man, built and crewed mostly by volunteers. She sailed from Sweden to China and back again, a trip that took almost two years and has since been sailing all over Europe. The rigging is one of the most accurate copies in the world and the only lines (that's a rope to landlubbers) that are not made of natural fibers are the mooring lines and a cable for the Man Over Board boat (a requirement by maritime law).
  • Iron men and iron ships: 'Clippers', known in the USA as 'windjammers'. Large cargo carrying sailing ships, usually rigged as four-masted barques, used on ultra-long voyages in the late-19th century and early 20th century. Though the age of steam was clearly set to make them obsolete at the time of their making, they were still cheaper to build and maintain than their more advanced steam-powered counterparts. Even as steamers came to dominate short- and medium-distance shipping, they continued to make use of the great trade winds on the big, intercontinental cargo-hauls until long-distance steamships became more cost-efficient than them.
    • Sometimes subverted during the age of glory for the Clippers, since the very poor pay and long voyages on the sailing ships drove the skilled, honest and healthy sailors to steamers, so the clipper captains had to be content with all dockside scum for makeshift crews.
    • ...and played straight during the inter-war era. Many countries required sailing ship experience for captain's proficiency, so many aspiring young seamen enlisted on windjammers for exactly that: to gain experience. The pay was a pittance and working conditions hard, but they gained the all-valuable experience.
    • These ships could operate with smaller crews than would otherwise be necessary for such large sailing ships by the use of steam-powered winches called "Steam Donkeys", which be used to pull lines that would otherwise require the raw strength of many men.
  • Iron men and women and glassfiber ships: Solo circumnavigation
  • While the crews of some ships can inspire tales of heroism, the one fact remains that all of these ships eventually beceome just legend. But two ships have withstood the test of time, and are STILL in service (yes, with assigned crews) to this day: USS Constitution and HMS Victory. The Constitution earned her fame during the War of 1812, when she went toe to toe with HMS Guerriere, and won, and then against the Java with the same result. After the Java joined the Guerriere at the bottom of the ocean, the British Admiralty issued an order to "Not engage American Frigates in single combat" (in other words, don't engage American ships one on one). The Constitution's success is mostly attributed to her construction (which made her both fast, and well protected), and her guns, which out-ranged those her closest competitors in the Royal Navy. She was also officially listed as a frigate, but her tonnage and armament made her comparable to a ship of the line. What's more, it soon became apparent that Constitution's inexplicably efficient gunnery was the result of a crew composed largely of former Royal Navy seamen. That said, her construction mattered a great deal: her hull, made of Southern Live Oak, was so thick that when the Guerriere fired on her, some cannonballs just bounced off. One of Constitution's gunners shouted, "Huzzah! her sides are made of iron!", which gave her the nickname "Ol'Ironsides", which lasts to this day.
    • As for the Victory, she wasn't the first ship to be given that name, but the one that remains is the one that saw the glory and death of Admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. While Nelson's story gives the ship legend status, she's still a full-fledged Ship of the Line and thus a valuable piece of history as well. She was almost lost to time as well, but her significance was touted, and the British government agreed to maintain the ship as a testament to the Royal Navy's glory days.
      • Victory gets the nod for being the oldest ship in commission - she's 30 years older than the Constitution. However, the US ship has its own distinction: it's still afloat, whereas Victory is permanently drydocked. Constitution makes an annual cruise into Boston Harbor - usually under tow, but on special occasions (including her 200th birthday and the 200th anniversary of the Guerriere's defeat) she travels independently - i.e. via her own sails.
  • Even on the inland seas...from the War of 1812, there were wooden-ship battles on the Great Lakes, and the Battle of Lake Erie provided a quote from Oliver Hazard Perry almost as famous as John Paul Jones's above: "We have met the enemy and they are ours."
    • During The American Revolution, there was the Battle of Valcour Island, in October of 1776, which saw a flotilla of American gunboats engage a floatilla of British gunboats and warships on Lake Champlain. What made this engagement interesting was that both fleets had to be built on the lake to fight the battle, with the British actually disassembling a 180 ton warship, HMS Inflexible, and shipping it up the river to be reassembled on the lake. One other thing that makes this battle interesting for history students is that the American commander was a general by the name of Benedict Arnold. The battle was a British Pyrrhic Victory, with the delay caused by having to build their fleet preventing them from advancing into New York before winter set in. The next year would be a major turning point in the war, with the Americans winning key battles and gaining the French as allies.
  • While mostly unknown in the West, Imperial Russia has a few men of note who were the terrors of the seas to their enemies. In particular, Russian ships often saw action in the Black Sea against the Ottoman Turks. Admiral Fyodor Ushakov was a noted commander known for beating the Turks despite the odds often being against him (the Turks often had him outmanned and outgunned). Specifically, Ushakov disliked the standard line-of-battle tactics and preferred to get right in the enemy's face with precision maneuvering and firing (which partly negates the enemy's advantage in numbers, as they risked hitting their own ships with massed broadsides. There's a reason the Russians chose to rename the Kirov battlecruiser to Admiral Ushakov after the fall of the USSR.
    • And officially made him a Saint for his monk-like devotion and freeing the Orthodox Greeks from the Ottoman infidels' rule.
    • The Koch is a type of wooden sailing ship with a massively reinforced and specially shaped hull meant for use in the Arctic among iceburgs and ice floes. They date back to Medieval Russia. Instead of being crushed by pack ice, a Koch would be lifted onto the ice. Modern Icebreakers are their descendents.
  • Also fairly unknown in the West, despite taking place in the West, is the Naval Battle of Campeche, which pitted the short-lived Republic of Texas Navy and their allies from the Republic of Yucatannote  against the Mexican Navy in 1843. The battle has the distinction of being the only time where sailing ships defeated steamships in battle. Shortly after, the various Mexican warships in the area regrouped to form a single large force, and the Texan squadron sailed north to Galveston.


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