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, 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).*
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 men*
, 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't*
. 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:
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- The American Tall Tale of A. B. Stormalong took place in this time period. However, like all the great American tall tales, his heart broke when the big battleships set out to sea, iron ships crewed by wooden men.
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.
- 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
- Disney Theme Parks: Aside from Pirates of the Caribbean, this trope is said word-for-word in the Sailing Ship Columbia attraction.
- 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.
- Two of the Total War series, namely Empire and Napoleon, are set in or around the Age of Sail and are notably the first games in the series to have fully realised naval battles.
- Napoleon also 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. Notably, the Spanish Santisima Trinidad is able to blow away an ironclad with a few shots with its heavy guns.
- Itself notable - the Santisima Trinidad did not have a glorious career.
- 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.
- Total War: Rome II is going back to ancient naval combat with galleys and various 'remes. Ramming Always Works is likely to be in full effect, as well as grapple-and-board tactics, perhaps with the use of a corvus (a boarding ramp with a spike).
- Interestingly, one of the ships available in Empire is an oar-and-sail powered galley with forward-facing cannons.
- 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.
- Assassins 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.
- The sequel is supposed to have 40% of the game be on the high seas. Justified, as the non-modern main character is Connor's grandfather Edward Kenway, a pirate/assassin (whom Blackbeard fears).
- The Ancient Art of War at Sea
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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 the HMS Guerriere, and won. 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 Constitutions 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, however 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. However, her hull, made of Southern Live Oak, was so thick, that when the Guerriere fired on her, one of her 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.
- 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."
- 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.