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"The ironmen live their whole lives at sea."
Aurane Waters, A Feast for Crows
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A culture whose hat is their skill at sail, whether through literal seafaring and shipbuilding in oceanic or riverine environments, being a spacefaring species known primarily for spacefaring when Space Is an Ocean, or traversing the skies when The Sky Is an Ocean. In some cases, they may be born and spend their entire lives at sea without ever touching dry land. By necessity, they often tend to double as a Proud Warrior Race and/or Proud Merchant Race. They often have a powerful navy, and may also engage in piracy, but aren't limited to those roles.

It's common for these groups to be Fantasy Counterpart Cultures inspired by historical peoples with strong maritime traditions. In particular, the Polynesians and the ancient Norse are common inspirations.

A variant of this trope places the sailors in a freshwater, rather than oceanic, setting. This typically manifests as river nomads, living in houseboats and wandering up and down the branches of large river systems.

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This trope is a common feature of Ocean Punk settings. The Cool Boat is probably a feature. Wooden Ships and Iron Men may be involved, if they lean in that aesthetic direction. A related skill is that of The Navigator.

Compare Space People and Space Nomads. For a similar trope involving horse-riding cultures, see Born in the Saddle.

Often a variant of a Wandering Culture.


Examples:

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    Card Games 
  • Magic: The Gathering: On the plane of Ixalan, the ancestors of the Brazen Coalition pirates made their living from the sea, inhabiting a series of coastal city-states and gaining wealth from maritime trade. By the setting's present, after having been forced into the ocean by the Legion of Dusk conquering their homes, the pirates have led an almost entirely maritime existence for more than most of them have been alive: while a few crews have claimed permanent island forts, most live exclusively on their ships as they sail Ixalan's seas. They don't have any leadership beyond their captains and admirals, their ships and fleets serve as the basis of their society's organization, and their only permanent settlement, High and Dry, is a City on the Water made of hundreds of ships lashed to one another.

    Films — Animation 
  • Moana: Moana's people were once skilled seafarers, roaming the ocean to discover new islands as the gods created them, but after Maui took the Heart of Creation the seas became hostile and forbidding and they mothballed their seafaring canoes. After Moana returns the Heart to Te Fiti, they take up their heritage again.
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    Literature 
  • Arcia Chronicles: Eland is a small northern kingdom that is (in)famous for its disproportionately huge sometimes-merchant-sometimes-pirate navy, to the point where the terms "Elander" and "mariner" are used as interchangeable ethnonyms. This goes doubly so after the old coastal Eland from the first duology is flooded by natural cataclysms and its refugees settle on a well-hidden archipelago in the south seas, basically precluding any land contact with other countries.
  • The Crocodile God: As in real life the ancient Tagalog tribe in the Philippines are seafarers due to their Austronesian heritage, and their own name means "people of the rivers". The sea-god Haik is the title's Crocodile God, and the story's Mythopoeia deems him a folk memory of Paikea the Whale-Rider from New Zealand, bringing this Up to Eleven since the Maori are Polynesian. (As the Real Life folder and the page-quote from Moana notes, Polynesians were especially good navigators even among Austronesians.) It's revealed later on that Haik's sister is Hina, which also makes him an Expy of Maui.
  • Dark Shores: The Maarin people are a nation of seafaring people. Their home is an archipelago but most of them are born and spend their lives on their ships, travelling around the world. They are also the only ones who know how to navigate deadly doldrums and cross the Endless Seas.
  • Dragonlance: The Minotaurs are known for being the most accomplished sailors and advanced shipbuilders on Ansalon, to the point that most minotaurs end up serving aboard a sailing vessel at some point in their lives.
  • The Farthest Shore in the Earthsea Trilogy has the Raft People, who live at sea and only come to shore to collect logs to build new rafts.
  • Redwall:
    • While there are some hedgehog tribes known to sail the rivers of Mossflower, the best inland sailors are the tribes of shrews in logboats. The otters are also all proficient sailors and led by a leader called Skipper.
    • Out at sea, it's sea otters and searats (both are piratical, the otters attacking vermin and the rats any helpless victims).
  • The Silmarillion: The Falmari elves were taught shipbuilding and seacraft by Ossë, a Maiar — demigod — of the sea, and consequently loved it more than any other elven people. They were the ones who built the swan-ships of the elves, and unlike the other elves of Aman dwell chiefly in the port city of Alqualondë and the island of Tol Eressëa.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: The Ironborn are among the best sailors — and the most feared reavers — in Westeros' seas, and quite possibly in the world. They need to be — their islands are not fertile, and little grows in their thin soil. If they want anything beyond iron ore, they need to head out to sea to find it. As a result, they derive considerable pride from their nautical traditions — they disdain any show of fear of the water, including not wearing metal armor that could drag you under should fall in the sea, and consider captains to be absolutely sovereign on the deck of their own ship.
  • Stardoc: The Jorenians are known for developing wanderlust and taking large portions of their HouseClan on deep space cruises for months or years at a time.
  • Tales Out of Tallis: The Ilael are a seagoing culture, sometimes even raising their children on the ships. They also serve as a Proud Merchant Race.
  • Technic History: The Man Who Counts features a race of flying aliens, of which one major tribe spends most of their life on giant rafts, sailing across their world's seas.
  • The Wheel of Time has the Atha'an Miere, commonly known as the Sea Folk, world-renowned merchants whose ships are central to their culture and who spend as little time on land as possible. Although they nominally govern several archipelagos, those lands are inhabited by a separate people and only visited by the Sea Folk for commerce.

    Music 
  • Led Zeppelin describes the Horny Vikings thus in "Immigrant Song":
    We come from the land of the ice and snow
    From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow
    Hammer of the gods
    Will drive our ships to new lands
    To fight the hordes and sing and cry
    "Valhalla, I am coming!"
    On we sweep with, with threshing oar
    Our only goal will be the western shore!

    Tabletop Games 
  • Gods of the Fall: The Empire of the Sea is akin to a country, albeit a fluid one, which claims a territory spread across a dozen islands dotting the Sea of Shadows. These islands are merely places where ships sometimes put ashore for repair and resupply; the center of the community and life is aboard the ships themselves.
  • Numenera: The Redfleets, an organization of traders, explorers, and small-time pirates. They revere the ocean and dedicate their lives to exploring it both by ship and submarine to discover its many treasures. They have no interest in man-made things, however, and focus exclusively on natural treasures — oceanic formations, islands, sea creatures, and so on.
  • Pathfinder:
    • The munavri descend from Azlanti seafarers who were drawn into the Darklands during Azlant's fall and maintain their ancestors' maritime traditions, sailing the breadth of the Sightless Sea on ivory ships and living on floating island-cities. Not all munavri take to the sea — most priests and craftsmen never leave their islands — but sea travel still plays an important part in their culture and all young munavri are expected to build a skiff and learn how to sail.
    • The Taotake people sail nomadically across Golarion's oceans, either individually, in small groups of boats or in true cities of ships. They're chiefly merchants and explorers, trading with whoever they encounter and placing a great deal of value on discovery — a Taotake isn't believed to have found their true name until they discover and name something no Taotake did before. Consequently, bands of Taotake sailors can be found in every sea and ocean of the world, mapping out the world and trading as they go. Culturally, they're strongly inspired by Polynesian peoples.
    • River giants live their lives upon their rafts and houseboats, wandering the rivers of the world. When they keep permanent homes, these are usually utilitarian huts on islands or rock formations located where large rivers come together, which serve mainly as storage spaces and travel hubs while their owners wander the breadth of the waterways.
  • Rocket Age: The thirty-three Green-Yellow Chanari tribes are the preeminent silt sailors of Mars. Most sea trade on Mars is done through them, along with most of the piracy, and they are the only people who dare to hunt Silt Dragons, the largest vertebrate in the solar system.
  • Warhammer:
    • The Norscans are naturally good at sailing (being the Heavy Metal version of Horny Vikings), repeatedly raiding the equivalents of Europe and Canada. Wulfrik the Wanderer even has a flying longship that can go through the Warp and emerge anywhere he wants it to (and can even tow ships behind it), leading to his moniker of "the Inescapable One".
    • While the bulk of Dark Elf society is firmly anchored on land, the call of the sea is considered sacred in Druchii society, to the point that corsairs are afforded great respect throughout Naggaroth, and embarking on their first raiding cruise is an important rite of passage for young nobles. There is no sea that their pirate fleets and Black Arks haven't sailed on, and no coastline that hasn't known their raids.
    • The Gilleau River in Bretonnia is home to the Gillites, a culture of river nomads who live in decorated houseboats and make it a point of personal pride to never set foot on dry land. They're proficient sailors and hole a near-monopoly on riverine trade along the Gilleau.
  • Warhammer 40,000: Among the Space Wolves (space Vikings), Engir Krakendoom's tribe are known for being the best sailors, hunting sea monsters with nothing but oars, harpoons, and axes. Their skills translate well when Space Is an Ocean, and so his Company excels at boarding and ship-to-ship combat.

    Video Games 
  • Age of Wonders 3: Human units have the Mariner ability, allowing them to embark on water without any of the usual penalties and have three more movement on the water.
  • Civilization:
    • In Civilization V, the Polynesians' unique ability lets them embark on ocean tiles from the very start of the game, giving them a head start settling islands or distant continents. In Civilization VI, the Norwegians gain a similar ability.
    • Other nations are less dramatic examples of this trope. England in Civ V has the "Sun Never Sets" ability that gives all their ships an extra movement point, while Carthage in the same game gets a free Harbor in newly-founded cities, encouraging them to settle on the coasts and letting them integrate their empire by sea much earlier than most civs. Indonesia doesn't get any concrete naval bonuses, but this playstyle is still encouraged by their "Spice Islanders" ability, which provides exclusive luxuries in the first three Indonesian cities founded on another continent.
    • The Maori in Civ VI are the kings of this trope. They begin the game with their Settler and other starting units embarked in the ocean, but to compensate for their late start get free science and culture points while they look for the perfect place to make landfall and found their capital, and get increased population and production in their first city to help them catch up.
    • Civilization: Beyond Earth has the North Sea Alliance faction, a coalition formed from the British isles, the Dutch, and Scandinavia. They are one of two factions able to settle their first city on the water, and their unique ability increases the combat strength of oceanic cities as well as reducing the cost of moving them to acquire territory.
  • Crusader Kings II:
    • Any nation with a lot of coastline can become a serious contender at amphibious warfare, and merchant republics require coastal access to build trade routes, but the true sea kings are the Norse. All counties of Norse culture get free shipyards when the "Dawn of the Viking Age" event fires around 790 AD (and start with them in the 867 AD start date), while Germanic pagans (also chiefly Norse, though the Saxons follow the same faith) can sail up major rivers to raid inland and portage ships overland between them (letting them raid in the Black Sea, up the Danube to southern Germany, and into the Mediterranean by sailing through otherwise landlocked western Russia and Ukraine), and may declare county conquest wars against any coastal province (instead of merely ones on their own borders as other pagans, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims can). They also have a slew of traits they earn by raiding.
    • The Holy Fury DLC throws a complicating factor into things by allowing any pagan faith to become master seafarers at reformation by taking the Sea-Bound doctrine (representing a major element of the reformed faith), which grants them the unreformed Germanic ship maintenance reduction and ability to sail up major rivers (if they take the Daring doctrine as well they even get pirate traits they can earn by raiding, although due to coding limits they still grant an opinion bonus with Germanics specifically). Germanics and Aztecs can instead take unique doctrines that combine the abilities of Sea-Bound with one or more doctrines. Coastal conquest is still unique to Germanics, however.
  • Dragon Age has two nations that are almost synonymous with sailing: Antiva and Rivain. Antiva is a coastal nation that operates a huge merchant fleet, while Rivain is located entirely on a huge peninsula and is best known for their sea smugglers and pirates. Sailing is their hat to such a degree that in the pen-and-paper adaptation, "wayfarer" and "merchant" are basically the only backgrounds available to Antivan and Rivaini PCs, respectively.
  • The Elder Scrolls:
    • While Redguards are primarily known for being great warriors and swordsmen, they are secondarily famous for being masters of sail, to the point that Hammerfell itself is referred to as "the Land of Sword and Sail".
    • Despite never developing a written language or even agriculture, the ancient Atmorans (ancestors of the modern Nords) were master shipbuilders and sailors. Their most famous shipyard was Jylkurfyk, from which Ysgramor commissioned ships for he and his companions to invade Tamriel.
    • The Kothringi were a tribal race of Men native to the Black Marsh. Despite their relatively primitive culture, they, like the Atmorans, were skilled sailors. They are now presumed extinct, having been wiped out by the 2nd Era Knahaten Flu.
  • Halo: Prior to uniting in order to achieve spaceflight, the Kig-Yar or Jackals were divided into pirate clans that raided one another on the seas of their homeworld of Eayn. Afterwards, they ended up forming numerous colonies on the asteroids surrounding Eayn and raided the ships of other species as Space Pirates before getting folded into the Covenant as mercenaries, though they still kept up pirating even after the Human-Covenant War.
  • Mass Effect: The Quarians lost their homeworld in a Robot War centuries ago, and have since been traveling the galaxy in a giant flotilla of space ships. Quarian names even include the ship they were born on and the ship they serve under following their Pilgrimage. As a result, their spacefaring skill is legendary and unquestioned throughout the setting.
  • Might and Magic: In the Enroth subsetting, the Regnan Isles are by far the dominant power on the seas in the first few games — their "Empire of the Endless Ocean" moniker is mostly a boast, but it isn't a completely empty one (which is unfortunate for everyone else, Regna being proudly piratical). While Regna does suffer significant defeats at times, it's mostly when they get off the boats for coastal raiding — Might & Magic VIII sank a good chunk of their navynote , but the next game in the franchise blew up the planet, so the consequences of that never really mattered.
  • Pokémon Sun and Moon has the Seafolk, who live in a flotilla of Pokémon-shaped houseboats and travel the seas nomadically in search of new wonders to bring back to Alola for trade. The Seafolk Village where they’re found isn’t even a true village so much as a system of docks, with the houses simply being the Seafolk boats that happen to be at anchor there when you visit.
  • Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri: The Nautilus Pirates are more or less a faction of old-school Earth Pirates that were Recycled IN SPACE!. They start the game with a number of sea-related bonuses, including the technology to build aquatic bases. Their agenda is even listed as "pillage and burn".
  • Starcraft: While it makes no difference in-game, the manual explains that the Auriga tribe of Protoss were the first to explore the seas of Aiur, and ten millennia later they maintain their species' space fleet.
  • Warcraft: The island nation of Kul Tiras, whose contribution to the original Alliance was its powerful navy that they had built up to protect their fleet of merchant vessels. Their national emblem is also an anchor.

    Webcomics 
  • Drowtales: The Illhar'dro clan was originally composed of seafarers back in the Moons Age, but after being driven underground has turned into a Proud Merchant Race that still uses turquoise blue as its primary color.
  • Outsider: The Belerid Loroi of Taben, living on a dwarf, icy continent in an ocean world where violent weather makes farming difficult and most food is in the sea, developed a proudly maritime culture focused on fishing, whaling, exploration, trade, and piracy. The modern Tenoin caste, which consists of the Loroi forces' spaceship crews and navigators, has its origins on Taben and still maintains training facilities in Beleri.

    Web Original 
  • Serina: The thalassic gravediggers are descendants of the social gravediggers that became a nomadic seafaring people after being forced into the equatorial seaway by the glaciation of the continents, and which adapted to living on boats and rafts crafted from ocean plants. Due to their having lived on the open ocean for three million years, they're a wholly distinct species from their terrestrial forebears and developed physical adaptations to better live on the sea like a narrower beak for catching fish and an organ in their nose that filters salt from their blood so they can safely drink seawater. It's also stated that they typically don't destroy the island ecosystems they come across like ancient humans due to them not settling on the islands and actually living on the ocean itself.

    Real Life 
  • Many cultures and civilizations have been based on seafaring, often either living on an archipelago or establishing overseas colonies. Examples include:
    • The Phoenicians, well-known for being traders and explorers in the ancient Mediterranean Sea, established colonies all over the north African coast (one of which became Carthage) and were according to Herodotus some of the first people to circumnavigate Africa.
    • The Greeks, ancient and modern, as a result of most of their civilization and cities being built on the coasts of the Aegean Sea and on its many islands, with numerous colonies dotting the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Even today, Greeks own about 20% of the global merchant marine despite Greece being a fairly small country.
    • The Austronesians, an umbrella group that includes the Polynesians, who could be an Up to Eleven variant of this trope. Despite having no metalworking, writing, or organized states, Austronesians expanded over half the world's oceans, from Madagascar in the west to Easter Island in the east.
    • The Scandinavians, including Finns and Estonians. They were basically the same in the Atlantic what the Polynesians were in the Pacific. The Icelanders in particular were the first Europeans to confirmably reach the New World during the 10th Century, centuries before Columbus.
    • Japan subverts this in that, despite being an island nation, it actually was not very good at shipbuilding and naval warfare for most of its national history; it was simply too far away from everyone else in the world to make it worthwhile, most of the seafood was close to shore, and the islands weren't far enough away from one another to demand significant navigational skills to reach. The one conspicuous time that the Japanese did invade mainland Asia, in the 1590s, they were crushed at sea by the Koreans... who ironically did fit this trope at the time. Double subverted in that after their industrialization and modernization, the Japanese did rapidly become one of the top and most feared naval powers on Earth.
    • The Four Maritime Republics of Renaissance Italy — Venice, Genoa, Pisa, and Amalfi — were four city-states that built their wealth and power on the backs of their powerful fleets and their maritime trading networks, existing as major powers in trade and politics throughout the Mediterranean for much of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Even today, the official flag of the Italian Merchant Navy consists of the Italian flag with the symbols of the four republics emblazoned on a shield in its center.
    • The Dutch have long been this by necessity, due to maritime trade being a traditional cornerstone of their economy. This was only encouraged by the growth of their colonial empire, especially due to the nature of most of their overseas holdings; while there were notable exceptions, the majority of the Dutch colonial possessions were underdeveloped, isolated trading centers that were very dependent on the host nation. During their Golden Age, they were the foremost maritime power in the world, whose ships held control over the world's seas.
    • Portugal has the oldest continuously-serving navy in the world. During the Age of Discovery, the Portuguese played a key role, both in their development of more advanced ships and their famed explorations of the globe aboard those ships.
    • The Spanish are known for their proud naval tradition. Their navy was responsible for many historical achievements in navigation, such as Columbus' discovery of the Americas and the first circumnavigation of the world by Magellan and Elcano. For several centuries, it was one of the most powerful maritime forces in the world, playing a crucial role in the expansion and consolidation of the Spanish Empire and defending a vast trade network. Even after Spain lost most of its empire and had to downsize its navy, it was still a major innovator when it came to maritime technology. Spain built and operated one of the first military submarines, made important contributions to the development of destroyers, and was the first country to circumnavigate the Earth in an ironclad vessel. Today, the Spanish Navy is one of the only nine naval forces on the planet capable of projecting an important level of force in their own hemisphere.
  • An empire based on dominance of the sea, seafaring and maritime commerce is called a thalassocracy, the prime example being The British Empire.
  • The United States, following in the example of the British Empire, would grow to be a major merchant and naval power throughout the 19th century. A major driving factor for most examples of the US getting involved in major overseas conflicts throughout its history at least until the outset of the Cold War were disruptions to its overseas trade and merchant marine, examples including the Barbary Wars, Quasi-War with France (extension of the Wars of French Revolution), the War of 1812 (extension of the Napoleonic Wars), World War I, and World War II. In the modern day, the US Navy is indisputably the most powerful naval force on the globe, replacing the British Royal Navy with its role of keeping international shipping safe (however, regions around East Africa and the South Pacific islands had to deal with Ruthless Modern Pirates despite this, at least for some time).
  • The Warao people of Venezuela are this by necessity, due to mostly living in river deltas. Comparisons to Venice are not unwarranted.note  One of the worst things you can say about a Warao man is that he has no canoe.
  • Multiple ethnic groups have been dubbed "Sea Gypsies" or "Sea Nomads" for spending much of their lives roaming the waters:
    • Some groups among Sama-Bajau of Maritime Southeast Asia, known as the Sama Dilaut or "ocean Sama", traditionally live almost exclusively on houseboats, sustaining themselves through trade and living off the sea. Thousands of years of free-diving have endowed them with special genetic adaptations to facilitate their lifestyle, such as larger spleens that store more haemoglobin-rich blood (enabling them to hold their breath longer).
    • The Moken, native to the Mergui Archipelago, are hunter-gatherers who move from place to place on their boats to avoid overtaxing the areas they live in by staying too long. Their foraging from the sea is thus less impactful on the environment than it otherwise might be. In recent years, they have begun trading with outsiders. Like the Sama-Bajau, they have special adaptations for their maritime lifestyle, most notably eye adaptations that allow them to see underwater.
    • The Orang Laut of the Riau Islands have long been employed by various Malaysian and Indonesian polities to patrol the seas claimed by their employers, fight off pirates, and escort traders; in exchange, their leaders were granted prestigious titles and gifts, while the people as a whole received access to goods and services they would otherwise have had difficulty obtaining. They were uniquely able to do this due to their maritime expertise.
    • The Tanka, also known as the "boat people", are an ethnic group in Southern China who traditionally live on junks. So associated are they with the oceans and rivers that some ancient Chinese sources claimed they were descended from water snakes and could hold their breath for three days.

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