Last week, I gave an Ignite talk at SFWA on the subject of sensory perception while sailing. The topic came from multiple compliments I received on the atmosphere I invoked for my characters aboard their airship, and I knew that came out of an experience I was privileged to have and wanted to share.
The talk went very well and I had lots of great feedback on it over the weekend. I still plan to record my talk for posterity but we have no internet following last week’s tornadoes, so that will have to wait. I’ll update this post when I am able.
The following are my notes written prior to working on the Ignite presentation in PPT. This is not a word-for-word of what I said during my 5-minute talk (I was advised not to attempt to use notes or rote and I think that was sound counsel).
Humans tend to live along coastal areas, so regardless of your story’s setting, there’s a non-zero chance your characters will some day come upon, and even board, a sailing vessel.
But there’s also, sadly, a pretty good chance that you haven’t experienced sailing, so I wanted to give you a rundown on the sensory experience so you can better incorporate it into your writing.
I can only talk from my understanding of perception, my privilege, which is that of an abled white woman of middle income. There are going to be things that aren’t true for everyone, which isn’t a bad thing, just something to consider. If your character has synesthesia, I can’t help you describe the colors that seagulls sound like, for example. If your character is blind or unable to ambulate without accessibility considerations or assistive devices, I can’t describe that experience with authority. If your character is not a willing passenger of the vessel they will have a very different experience than the captain, who will have a very different experience from a paying passenger, who will have a very different experience from a stowaway. However I can give you as complete a list of sensory considerations as I can fit in this talk, and hopefully some will inspire you to interpret that experience for them.
Senses – Before and After
Boarding a boat isn’t just like walking into a new room of a familiar building. There are a lot of new signals for you to neurologically process. Our brains are very well adapted to filtering out the information we need, so after a time on board a ship, as with any other situation, our brain prioritizes the stuff you are focused on and automates or ignores the information you don’t need.
There’s a very common term, “Sea Legs,” which refers to the acclimation of our internal balance. The ship exists at the point where wind meets water, and energy is transferred to create waves and swells. That we have chosen to put little buoyant craft on the surface of the water means we put ourselves at the mercy of those two forces.
Yet our sense of balance remains relative to the flat line of horizon, and the pitch and angle of the craft can feel very uncomfortable. It’s more than a rollercoaster effect, because in a roller coaster you are strapped into place. On a ship, you may need to get from Point A to Point B and crossing a ship can feel a bit like walking across a trampoline that other bodies are jumping on.
The farther out from the balance point of the ship, the worse the effect gets. The crow’s nest has the most extreme balance shifts. But it was seen as the best job because at all times on duty, the position had railings to lean against.
Over time, and without other forces working against you, the movement of the deck under and against your feet becomes “normal” and your muscle memory helps you traverse the ship, which is not to say you’re not compensating for the movement anymore, but that you don’t have to think about it. You learn to use the wind to your advantage rather than fight against it. Given foul weather or seas, however, there will always be some amount of focus required to walk and work aboard the ship. In the crew heads, it was possible to be lost at sea if overtaken by a large wave.
Which brings me to seasickness. When your eyes and ears are sending conflicting information to your brain, such as your eyes seeing bulkheads and furniture as stable when your inner ear is saying they very much are not, this can lead to dizziness, confusion, headaches, nausea, and all the resulting unpleasantness thereof. Yawning and fatigue are early warning signs. Difficulty concentrating is another. By the time you’re salivating, belching, or nursing a stomach ache, you’re probably going to curl up in a little ball of misery or run for the railing.
The conditions at sea will also effect this. Calm winds may mean that the boat absorbs more of the movements of the water as it moves, so there may be more mixed messages reaching the brain. The more directly the ship moves, even as the bow angles up and down over swells and waves, the more you can worry about just hanging on for your life.
Acidic drinks and food that takes longer to digest won’t make your day any more enjoyable. Ginger or mint helps. Accupressure at the inside of the wrist. Sleeping on your back, as close to the center of the boat as possible. If your world has cola, or other ingredients with phosphoric acid, that can help settle the stomach. Otherwise, small amounts of bland food, like crackers or biscuits.
Because there’s enough you have to deal with that might make you queasy even on land.
The ship is going to have its own set of smells, largely depending on the industry it represents. A cruise charter and a fishing boat, for example, will be entirely different experiences. The tasks going on will also have an effect, such as the rendering of blubber for oil into cast iron tripots on a whaling ship. And your location in the ship is going to have an effect on that olfactory input as well. The farther away from fresh air you get (below the water line and away from access ways) the more scents will linger.
And they do linger. Ironically, the strongest smell on board your ship is likely to be human, unless your crew and passengers are able to bathe on the regular, there are certain smells – strong enough to border on being called flavors – that are going to be omnipresent.
But up on deck it’s lovely, because that wind I mentioned before is going to be bringing in the scents of the coast during the day and the open ocean at night, along with salt spray, to those lucky enough to be near a porthole or on deck.
Due to risk of fire, it was not common that smoking was allowed, so those with a tobacco habit had to chew, and there was a shared bucket for spitting into.
Aside from the chance to enjoy the flavors of ripe human all around you, or the surge of seasickness, traveling by ocean provides many culinary delights as well. Maybe. Probably not.
Cargo space is at a premium, and refrigeration requires a lot of weight for ice or power for electricity, so the food chosen to serve on a voyage comes down to what lasts on a larder shelf. And that’s often oatmeal, dried fruits, biscuits, salt meats and salt fish, and spices trying to do what they can to improve things. Rum rations made this all a little bit more tolerable. Fresh fish would be available depending on the vessel. Whalers got to enjoy fresh whale meat when available (they didn’t store it, just cut off the size of a feast and let the sharks and gulls have the rest). Paid passengers and officers enjoyed a very different menu than crew, but if you’ve seen the meal scenes in Master & Commander, you know that didn’t protect them from that tasty source of protein that comes with every historical pantry, the meal worms and weevils. In fact British navy records are the best hint we have of what people historically ate on ships, and it’s likely they were pretty closely imitated by other sailing vessels making extended tours.
The longer a ship is at sea, especially if their travels require them to leave the coast behind, the more they depend on the horizon line and stars. A six foot person can see roughly 3 miles to the horizon in the standard conditions (including pressure and temperature), which is why we have the crows nest, so the visibility range of a lookout above the level of the sails is about 14 miles. With a spyglass, and good weather, the lookout can determine the silhouette of approaching vessels, as well as hope to read their signal flags long before anyone on deck can see the ship over their perceived horizon.
In the fog and the dark, the horizon is gone, and warning for approaching ships or other objects, such as icebergs or rocky shores, is greatly reduced. Ships’ lights help identify a ship in the dark and what direction they’re moving. Lighthouse signals are critical warning systems to keep ships from sailing too close to the coast when the moon isn’t doing its job of lighting shorelines.
A good ship is well maintained and extremely organized. There are no loose, tangled lines. No items left out that could be tossed about in rough weather. Things are behind battened hatches, tied down, behind railings, and in trunks or cabinets when not in use.
Mostly what a person aboard a ship is going to hear is the activity of the rest of the crew. Commands and important information will be relayed from position to position across the ship, foot steps and the various work will create its own background sounds. A crew works 4 hours on and 4 hours off, though, so they generally had no trouble sleeping through the constant sound. Water makes the most sound when it’s moving against something, so that could be the hull, rocks, the wind, or even itself. Weather will bring its own sounds, especially the wind in the sails or causing the ship to groan or creak along its lines. Humming in the lines or sails might mean something is loose and needs attention.
There were also many many languages. Sailors who left the ship’s home port might find that they don’t enjoy life at sea often, and may not return after shore leave at the next stop. Crew turnover was high, and officers couldn’t always be picky about little things like crew speaking the same language. But ship terms like port and starboard, aft and stern, and the meaning of bells and nautical flags were global, so even when sailors didn’t speak the same language, they all spoke sailor. And as there was no church aboard, usually not even a pastor, they spoke with abandon. It was up to the officers to be sure speaking colorfully didn’t turn to speaking disrespectfully or in support of outright mutiny (though usually such conversations were whispered in secluded areas of the ship).
Along shore there will be other sounds such as church bells and animals not found on open water. That’s assuming your ship powers only under oar or sail, and that engines are not running as they come in to port which drown out these natural sounds.
The ship’s bell will sound every half hour to signal time and shift rotations, but also alarms depending on the situation. Off shift, there may be concertinas or spoons played in the crew mess, or on shift you may hear rhythmic chanting or singing to get all hands coordinated in their tasks and set a tempo.
Of course then there are the noises of warfare, if the situation comes to it, with cannon fire, rolling of the cannons back into place, calls of the gunnery crew, and impact of successful cannon fire (on board this ship or the other).
A ship is covered in things to touch, and most things were entirely utilitarian so in the course of crew work, they get to handle most of it. Coarse canvas, rough ropes and lines, sun-scorched dock boards, well-scrubbed deck planks – scrubbed with sandstone blocked called ‘bibles’, varnished railings, painted hulls, carved figureheads, metal cleats taking on the chill or hot sun, damp everything, rotting wood, pest-devoured wood, metal plates, glass deck prisms, cast iron, anchors, chains, buckets. There were turned shapes, flat surfaces, exposed ship structure repurposed for storage.
Hard work increases strength, but with four hours off, four hours on shift, there’s little chance for recovery. Berths were cramped, spaces were close, privacy only existed for the elite. For human cargo, conditions were far worse. Social relationships had a lot to do with how comfortable you were. A captain and crew that respected each other probably didn’t mind the cold, the weather, the food, or the smell half as much as those that were miserable as personnel as well.
All of This, All the Time
So the nature of a slideshow means this is all described in a sequence, but all this input – and more – is happening all at once. So which details you pick up on and relay in your story can not only reflect accuracy of setting but the tone of the story. Much like a dark and stormy night can set the tone for a mysterious intro, the play of ship on water offers a lot of opportunities for world and character building. We are selective with the information we relay to the reader in our stories, so please consider the things I’ve described as more tools for your toolbox.
For depictions of sailing in movie, I will always recommend Master & Commander. Classic Boats has their own list (I have not seen most of these).