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Wooden Ships and Iron Men

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"England expects that every man will do his duty!"note 
"Heart 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!"
David Garrick, "Heart of Oak", the official march of the Royal Navy

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

In the Age of Sail, life onboard 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. And this is before we even get into the battles with two ships slugging it out in brutal close-range broadsides.

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. Naval officers, on the other hand, drink port and brandy, and are often shown with noble, stiff-upper-lip attitudes, following a code of honour. They may Talk Like a Pirate, and are quite likely to actually be pirates or, if not, fight them.

Despite spending 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,note  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 it often wasn't.note  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 shanghaied, 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.

Chronologically, this setting ranges from the beginning of the Age of Exploration in the mid-15th century to the replacement of wood and sail by iron and steam in the mid-19th century. The lion's share of works in the genre, though, are about either The Golden Age of Piracy (c. 1680-1720) or the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815). See History of Naval Warfare for more information.

Not to be confused with the Avalon Hill Board Game of the same name, which is where we got the trope name, or with Schizo Tech settings where wood ships coexist with Tony Stark (Though you might want to check Ocean Punk if the idea tickles your fancy). 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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    Anime & Manga 
  • One Piece has this as its main setting. Though it appears to take place sometime around the 17th century it's somewhat warped by the surprisingly modern fashion choices and Schizo Tech everywhere.

  • The Fighting Temeraire marks the very end of the period, with the replacement of sail by steam, as a Napoleonic-era warship is towed away by a steam tug to be scrapped.

    Comic Books 

    Fan Works 

    Film — Animated 

    Film — Live-Action 


  • The literary genre of the Sea Novel was established by James Fenimore Cooper starting with The Pilot (1824) and The Red Rover (1828), which are both set in the 18th century. Before becoming a writer Cooper had served in the merchant marine and the United States Navy, and his books not only inspired many young readers to go to sea, but also writers like Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad.
  • The Adventures of Tom Rynosseros although the ships in question are wind-powered sand ships.
  • Dewey Lambdin's Alan Lewrie series, which even features a Lawyer-Friendly Cameo from Hornblower.
  • Alexis Carew: Well, Thermoplastic and Unobtainium Ships, but the rest checks out: everything about the workings of space travel is based heavily on the Age of Sail, from the brutal discipline and sexism and classism down to the tiniest terminology of mast and sail sections. The terminology part gets a lampshade when Alexis wonders aloud if "tradition" is some synonym for insanity.
  • The Aubrey-Maturin stories by Patrick O'Brien.
  • 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.
  • While David Eddings' Belgariad depicts life at sea rather romantically, it still makes note of the lash, and suggests that it's mostly romantic for those captains and passengers who truly enjoy it/get to avoid some of the really nasty bits. 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 - and an In-Universe lampshading by said sailor who inwardly observes that the owner of a sea-themed bar is overdoing it a bit.
  • Billy Budd
  • Bloody Jack by L. A. Meyer.
  • The Bounty Trilogy, a series of three novels about The Mutiny aboard HMS Bounty. The first one, Mutiny on the Bounty, was adapted into an Oscar-winning 1935 film.
  • Captain Blood: His Odyssey
  • Not a fighting ship, but still pretty much the same presentation of the sailors: Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous.
  • 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.
  • El Conquistador by Federico Andahazi, depicts an Aztec Bold Explorer named Quetza sailing East to discover the legendary origins of his people. He first encounters Europe, though.
  • 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.
  • 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, although the Dominion still uses massive "liners" (short for "ship-of-the-line") as their slow heavy-hitters, which are exclusively sail-powered. While most Alliance sailing frigates ships have since been converted to steam/sail hybrids, at least one fully sailing frigate still exists - the USS Donaghey. In later novels, it accomplished an impressive feat of sinking a modern (by World War II standards) Spanish destroyer, although it did involve ambushing the enemy to get close enough for a broadside. Averted by the New United States, as they arrived to this world during the Mexican-American War, when steamers were already common, although the one ship shown is likewise a steam/sail hybrid.
  • Sten Nadolny's The Discovery of Slowness is about the life of Sir John Franklin, from his childhood determination to become a navigator, through the Napoleonic Wars and eventually to his exploring voyages to the Arctic.
  • 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.
  • Used in Gentleman Bastard book Red Seas under Red Skies.
  • The George Abercrombie Fox series of novels by Adam Hardy.
  • The Honor Harrington series is essentially Horatio Hornblower Recycled In Space. Not only are the politics directly analogous to the Revolutionary/Napoleonic wars and the physics carefully designed to have spaceship battles play out in the same way as in the Age of Sail, but some of the books follow almost identical plots to those of Hornblower. This becomes less pronounced as the series progresses, with political shifts and advances in technology causing the setting to diverge more and more from the historical analogues.
  • Horatio Hornblower by C.S. Forester might be the Trope Codifier in literature, inspiring a whole raft of imitators and spiritual successors.
    • And of course its many parodies, including Harry Harrison's "Captain Honario Harpplayer, R.N." (first published in March 1963 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction).
  • The Kydd series by Julian Stockwin.
  • The Lord Ramage novels of Dudley Pope. Pope was a friend of Forester's, and Ramage is unique in this list as he is explicitly described as a former shipmate of Hornblower.
  • The Lost Fleet series owes much more to its author's own memories of serving in the US Navy in the second half of the 20th century but has a few elements of this trope, mostly in the form of traditions that have carried over: The Initiation Ceremony for sailors whose ship is about to enter the gravitational influence of Sol is quite clearly derived from the one traditionally performed when a sailor first crosses the Equator, and decorative knotwork as a common skill and pastime among sailors could stretch back as far as there have been navies as we understand the term today.
  • 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. Mary Crawford, an admiral's niece, at one point says she doesn't want to talk about the Navy because "of rears and vices I saw enough." Austen also gives a cameo to the Canopus, her brother Francis' ship.
  • Herman Melville's works, especially White-Jacket (based on his personal experiences on the U.S.S. United States) and Moby-Dick.
  • 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.
  • 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".
    • This is Truth in Television for the time: The good sailors could get the comparatively cushy jobs on steamships, whereas the clippers were left with the dregs. Conversely, the officers were often young and ambitious, since you had to have sailing-ship experience to get a captain's license and possibly a ship to command.
  • The Nathaniel Drinkwater series by Richard Woodman.
  • 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 and slaps down her brother when he starts saying that women are too delicate for seagoing life. The social changes associated with the Navy are also much discussed. Most officers were second sons of respectable families, but it was also possible for middle-class boys to be sponsored as midshipmen, and while nepotism was well in force (as noted in Mansfield Park) men could also rise through merit, become wealthy, and join the upper classes—something which the old titled families did not always like.
  • The Pyrates parodies the glorification of the era by exaggerating all its components.
  • 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 Alexander Kent Richard Bolitho series.
  • Robinson Crusoe, which spawned a genre of its own.
  • In David Weber's Safehold series, the Kingdom, later Empire, of Charis has to rely on its navy to fight off the mainland powers. Thanks to the Technology Uplift provided by Merlin Athrawes' knowledge and Baron Seamount's inventiveness, they go from Lepanto style galleys to ships with designs straight from the Age of Sail. As of the sixth book, Midst Toil and Tribulation, it drops off a bit. Much of the action switches to land based combat in the Republic of Siddamark and the climax of that book features the introduction of the Safehold's first steam-powered, ironclad riverboats. By the ninth book, they've launched the first King Haarahld VII-class battleship, which would have been state of the art in the 1890s and characters discuss how sailing ships will soon be a thing of the past.
  • The Sea Hawk
  • 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.
    • Richard Brautigan's "Contemporary Life in California" has a great summary of The Sea Wolf.
  • The Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell (originally conceived as "like Hornblower, but on land!") features this whenever Sharpe has to get somewhere by sea, as in Sharpe's Trafalgar and Sharpe's Devil.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Tales from Netheredge takes place in a fantasy setting roughly corresponding to the Age of Exploration on Earth (most pronounced in the first entry, Bright Flame).
  • 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.
  • The Terror by Dan Simmons.
  • Treasure Island in most of its incarnations.
  • The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is about a Proper Lady who boards a sailing vessel to return from England to America and learns that life at sea is extremely difficult. Has a similar premise to Captains Courageous, except with more mystery and less crew cohesion.
  • The navy and the sailors of The Witchlands are very evocative of this era, with the added bonus of magic powers.

    Live Action Television 
  • Black Sails: A prequel to Treasure Island, the series focuses on Captain Flint, his allies (most prominently a certain lovable scoundrel by the name of John Silver) and his rivals during the Golden Age of Piracy.
  • Due South: The 2 part episode “Mountie on the Bounty” quotes this trope verbatim.
  • Forever: Henry's first death is aboard a sailing ship, one engaging illegally in the slave trade at the time. He also once died on a Hudson Bay Company ship due to a powder keg explosion.
  • Game of Thrones: The Ironborn, being pirates and all.
    • House of the Dragon: House Velaryon made its wealth and glory through seafaring and explorations and owns the biggest war fleet in Westeros.
  • 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 Onedin Line about a Family Business of Intrepid Merchants in the Victorian era.
  • Although most of the action is on land, we definitely see some of this from both Blackthorn and Rodriguez in Shōgun.
  • The Terror: A fictionalized account of Franklin's lost expedition to the Arctic in 1845, it's set during the tail end of the era. The ships have been modified with auxiliary steam-driven propellers, but they're still the classic type of full-rigged ships, and life on board is as hard as ever.

  • 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
  • Juha Vainio song "Laivat puuta, miehet rautaa" is the trope name in Finnish.

    Tabletop Games 
  • 7th Sea draws heavily upon this setting for any of its nautical adventures, especially anything involving the Pirate Nations.
  • Furry Pirates: A furry version of the Golden Age of Piracy. Furry versions of famous Pirates fill the game: "Calico" Jack Rakham is a cat with his partner Anne Bunny, while Blackbeard is a bear and Captain Kidd is a goat.
  • When Iron Kingdoms isn't being World War 1-inspired, a High Fantasy setting or Urban Steampunk-y, it is this. Most nations command a fleet, most notably the small kingdom of Ord who maintains such a huge, traditional fleet, and Cryx and the surrounding islands which are filled to the brim with pirates and privateers. Uniquely for these groups, they have several "Shipcasters", a variation of the powerful battlemage/military officer found in the Iron Kingdoms specialized in ship-to-ship combat and maybe even able to mentally control a ship.
  • Privateers and Gentlemen, a role playing/miniatures game set during the Napoleonic Wars.
  • Space 1889 Martian ships and the general canal Martian tech level.
  • The Dungeons & Dragons setting of Spelljammer combines this trope with Space Opera via its very literal use of the trope Space Is an Ocean.
  • 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. Other works have Space Marine crews served by those who didn't make the cut to become Astartes, and thus are far more disciplined than their Imperial Navy counterparts.
  • Warhammer Fantasy: While Bretonnia is a Crapsaccharine World of heroic knights and oppressed peasants, neither of which are allowed to use handguns, the Bretonnian navy is the most powerful in the Old World due to their enthusiastic adoption of cannon (gunpowder weapons are forbidden on Bretonnian soil). Ironically, Bretonnia is based on Arthurian myth and pre-Revolution France, neither of which had much naval reputation.
  • The Trope Namer Wooden Ships and Iron Men.

  • H.M.S. Pinafore mocks the trope mercilessly. The parody begins already in the title, with a man-o'-war named after a garment for little girls, and continues with a crew of completely sober sailors, a captain who doesn't swear and a First Sea Lord who insists on micromanaging everything in spite of never having been closer to the ocean than a partnership in a law firm. "A British Tar" presents the average sailor as being this trope, however.

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


    Video Games 
  • 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. 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.
    • Assassin's Creed Rogue is a slightly different take, set in the mid-18th century. Shay Cormac's ship Morrigan has a shallower draft than Edward Kenway's Jackdaw, which allows Shay to engage in river travel.
  • Choice of Broadsides is set here, with the option, at the beginning of the game, to be about Wooden Ships and Iron Women.
  • The naval aspects of the Europa Universalis series live and breathe this trope, since the game spans virtually the entire Golden Age of Sail.
  • In New Horizons, life on sea between 16th-19th is the central purpose of the game.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Skies of Arcadia: It doesn't usually take long to sail from point to point, but taking into account the high random encounter rate, some voyages on the overworld map (particularly the South Ocean and Yafutoma) take a very long time. Vyse will remark on this while examining a ship's pantry; even in a fantasy world where ships sail through the open sky, scurvy and poor nutrition remains a very real danger for crews.
  • From the Total War series
    • Empire: Total War is 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 most powerful ships in the game, in fact, are European trade ships, which would be one of the weakest ship types in Empire. 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.
  • Treasure Planet: Battle at Procyon, just like the film it is a sequel to, it is this IN SPACE!
  • Replicating this period is rather the point of Ultimate Admiral: Age of Sail.
  • In the Warcraft setting, naval expertise is the hat of Kul Tiras, a human kingdom which is basically an island nation with a large merchant fleet that was repurposed for warfare following the invasion of the orcs. Its ruler, Daelin Proudmoore, is often portrayed with an admiral's hat. In Warcraft II: Tides of War, five naval units were given to each side: Oil Tankers, which gathered oil, the resource used to build other naval units, Destroyers, elven or troll ships which could attack units on land or in the air as well as other naval units, Transports, which had little armour and no weapons but could bring troops across bodies of water, Bruisers (Human Battleships, Ogre Juggernauts) which couldn't attack air units and moved and attacked more slowly than Destroyers, but hit like a truck when they did, and Submersibles (Gnomish Submarines, Giant Turtles with Goblin technology) which moved fairly slowly and could only attack sea units and buildings, but could only be seen by watch towers and flying units and attacked in rapid fire.

  • This comic by Cyanide and Happiness.
    Grandfather: You kids have it too easy these days. I remember a time when boats were made of wood and men were made of steel... [aghast] The cyborgs destroyed our navy in minutes...
  • Tiger, Tiger takes place in a fictional world but this is very much the setting as the main character steals her brother's identity, ship and crew to sail to the New World.
  • Whispers in the Wind is a webcomic that is heavily inspired by the Golden Age of piracy. Some pirates depicted in it only look for gold and plunder while others, like the main villains are part of the "Brethren of Ashborough" and obey to their own specific set of laws. There is also the Rán Guard, a maritime army that strive to get rid of piracy all together from their seas.

    Web Original 
  • 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".

    Western Animation 
  • The phrase is parodied on the Goofy cartoon "How to Be a Sailor". As the narrator says it, Goofy, a sailor swabbing the deck, gets hit by a boom... which shatters upon impacting his backside.
  • Many early Popeye shorts venture into this territory.
  • The Sea Beast is set in this era, albeit with the inclusion of oceanic kaiju.
  • A Woody Woodpecker short jokes with this trope's title. At one point, the narrator says something along the line of "It was an age of wooden ships, and iron men!" and the action cuts to a brief shot of a boxy robot manning the wheel of a sailing vessel.

    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, 2 pints of Peas, 1.5 pints of Oatmeal, 6oz of Sugar, 6oz of Butter, 12oz of Cheese, and 7 gallons of Beer per sailor per week. That's a lot of food and was a minimum ration. A French historian calculated how many calories were allotted per day for each man during the Age of Sail and came to about 3000 calories per man in the Imperial Russian Navy, maybe 4000-4500 in the Royal Navy and a staggering 6500 calories per day in the Dutch Navy. 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 the crew of a Royal Navy ship to mutiny (e.g. HMS Bounty, HMS Hermione) 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.
  • The Knights of Malta (formerly known as The Knights Hospitallers) fit quite well as an unique example of sea-faring knights - 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 and slave raiding. 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. One particular example was Jean Parisot de Valette; during the 1500's, the 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. 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. He did this at age 70; Four-Star Badass Old Master indeed.
  • Invoked by name by Austrian sailors after winning the Battle of Lissa (1866), remarking that "Men of iron on wooden ships have defeated men of wood on iron 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 advantagenote ). It helped that the Austrian Navy was a direct descendant of the Venetian Navy, and thus had a long tradition and well-integrated crews, while the Italian navy was a recent fusion of the various pre-unification Italian navies (mostly those of Sardinia and Two Sicilies and half the Papal Navy), something the Italian admiral Carlo Persano had warned his superiors of, to no avail, and the fact Persano had long stopped sailing before the war and mustered very little respect from the crews and officers the crews (again, something he had warned his superiors about without being listened to), to the point that when he moved his flag from the Re d'Italia to the Affondatore right before the battle (something the Austrians took advantage of to "cross the T" and gain the upper hand) the captains and the two subordinate admirals feigned not to notice just so they would be able to ignore him.
  • Admiral David Farragut in The American Civil War. "Damn the torpedoes.note  Full speed ahead."
    • It's worth mentioning that Admiral Farragut was the first ever U.S. Admiral, and on top of that he was positively ancient when he was commanding the navy during the Civil War. So much so that he suffered from vertigo. To counter this he had himself lashed to his flagship's main mast so he wouldn't fall overboard.
  • 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.
  • The above-mentioned Cochrane - Lord Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald - bears particular mention. Dubbed 'The Sea Wolf' by Napoleon himself, he was the Real Life inspiration for Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey, and twice as mad as both put together. After a dishonourable discharge from the Royal Navy after a somewhat dubious conviction for Stock Exchange fraud in 1814, one widely thought to be potentially politically motivated, stripping him of his knighthood, he was expelled from Parliament and then promptly re-electednote  unopposed (his sentence of an honour's pillory - in the stocks - was commuted for fear it would start a riot), he was that popular. He then apparently got bored and spent most of the next decade or so as a mercenary Admiral. He started in the Spanish American Wars of Independence, becoming Vice-Admiral of the Chilean Navy under the vague command of José de San Martín and Bernardo O'Higgins. His wily tactics secured both Chilean and Peruvian independence, capturing the seven forts of Valdivia with just three hundred men, leading him to be dubbed 'El Metálico Lord', the Metallic Lord (while this sounds badass, it was meant more in the spirit of 'Count of Cash', an accusation that Cochrane was mostly motivated by money), and then left service after being caught up in rumours of a plot to liberate Napoleon and gift him a South American Empire (while Sharpes Devil runs with this theory, the evidence suggests he probably wasn't involved. Probably). His paranoid personality didn't help. Several Chilean ships since have been named after him. He then went to Brazil in 1823, heavily contributed to its independence from Portugal within a year thanks to tactical skill and use of the Bavarian Fire Drill. After helping to crush a rebellion, cue more paranoia and squabbles over prize money, so he promptly ran off with a significant chunk of the provincial treasury, sacked several merchant ships, captured a Brazilian frigate and sailed back to Britain in 1825, presumably with both fingers raised firmly behind him. After being hired by the Greeks in their war of independence, which he was less successful in, he finally returned to Britain, campaigned to have his conviction overturned (which it was), inherited his Earldom in 1831, was reinstated to the Naval List... and promptly refused to take a command until his knighthood was restored (which it was, in 1847 by Queen Victoria), while steadily receiving a series of mildly farcical promotions. He didn't command any further, as it was thought that, despite being nearly 80 at the start of the Crimean War, if he was given a combat command he would do something characteristically insane with it. Given that he kept agitating for a command, was a prolific inventor and innovatornote  who had been an enthusiastic proponent of saturation bombing since the Napoleonic Wars, had also decided that fire ships were insufficient so outfitted them with explosives instead, and spent forty-odd years proposing what would prefigure chemical warfare, this was not surprising.
  • 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', and later 'windjammers'. Clippers were fast cargo ships, usually three-masted full-riggers, designed for speed and used on hauling tea and other easily tarnished goods on intercontinental voyages. Windjammers were 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. Typically, windjammers were (and are still) equipped with semi-mechanized rigging, steel profile masts and yards and steel cables as running rigging where possible. Often also the running rigging was handled by motor winches instead of manpower. Since the windjammer hull is optimized for good hydrodynamics because of sail handling, they were (and still are) capable of sustained high cruising speeds; most four-masted barques were able to cruise at 15 knots (28 km/h) on plausible winds, some logged 18 knots (33 km/h) regularly and Herzogin Cecilie is known to have logged 21 knots (39 km/h). 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. Only the marine diesel engines spelled finally the death sentence to the windjammers.
    • 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.
      • The windjammers often sailed around the world voyages, following prevailing winds and carrying different cargos on each leg: such as lumber from Europe to Africa, fertilizer from Africa to Australia and grain from Australia to Europe.
  • 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 become 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 while cruising (the main British ships of the line were more than a match in a major battle, but the lighter British frigates couldn't take on these heavier American ships). 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. 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. It should be noted however that the Constitution purposefully sought out smaller/weaker British ships to engage, which contributed to her legend; people see that both ships were frigates and assume an even match, which was never the case. The one battle that WAS equal, the HMS Shannon vs the USS Chesepeake, was ferociously and mutually bloody until the eventual victory of the British ship; the American captain was killed and the British one wounded to such a degree he couldn't command anymore, though most historians agree both ships and crews acted with superb gallantry. After this battle, the American government joined the British in banning single combat actions.
    • 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 her own distinction: she'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 (particularly the decisive Battle of Saratoga, at which the Americans were again under Arnold's command)note  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 icebergs 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 descendants.
  • 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 Yucatánnote  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.
  • Honorable mention to German Count Felix von Luckner and his warship the Seeadler. While they appeared in the middle of World War I, well past the wooden ships and iron men era, their actions were product of an idea that a sailing ship (although of a metal hull) might make for a better long distance raider than a steam or diesel ship due to not needing overseas fueling stations—which it did. It was also thought that a sailing ship that was "obviously" not any sort of warship would more easily slip through the British blockade—and so it did, under the guise of a Norwegian wood carrier, with the crew having been chosen for their fluency in Norwegian. Luckner and his men raided the high seas for seven months between 1915 and 1916 and captured 15 Allied merchant ships (more than half of which were steamers), some of whose captains refused to believe that the Seeadler could possibly be a real German warship and not a practical joke.
  • Honorable mention to Ernest Shackleton and other polar explorers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who may not have been men of war but were nevertheless amazingly tough and disciplined lot. Bonus points for their ships actually being wooden, as wooden hulls could better withstand impact with icebergs than steel, given the technology of the era.
  • The Horny Vikings also got up to a lot of this stuff before it was popular, sailing as far west as Ireland and Southern France, as far east as the icy rivers of what is now Russia and the grand city of Constantinople - an inscription in the Byzantine Imperial Church, dated to the 9th century, reads something to the effect of "Halfdan was here!" - and as far south as the Mediterranean. They even set up a short-lived settlement in what is now Newfoundland. They were a bold, war-like and resourceful people who traded, raided and settled wherever they went.


Video Example(s):


Radio Tapok - "Petropavlovsk"

Radio Tapok's song about the 1854 Anglo-French naval siege of the far eastern Russian fort at Petropavlovsk depicts wooden ships trading fire with the fort as the iron men crewing both fight it out.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / WoodenShipsAndIronMen

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