Title Posted
Detection of upward hyper translations May 2009
c-Fractional pod-based missile attack plan II May 2009
Erewhon and the inertial compensator May 2009
Safeholdian ship design May 2009
PICAs and military manpower needs May 2009
Operation Ark's mission plan May 2009
Church communications May 2009
The missing figures from the Honorverse CD-release of <em>More Than Honor</em>. May 2009
Reportage of Honor's 'trial' by the Committee of Public Safety May 2009
Treecat intelligence II Apr 2009


Narrow the posts above by selecting a series or specifying a keyword.


Pearls of Weber

A collection of posts by David Weber containing background information for his stories, collected and generously made available Joe Buckley.

Safeholdian ship design

  • Series: Safehold
  • Date: May 22, 2009

Before I start, let me say that I have not read all of the posts on this thread. In fact, I don't have time to, and I really shouldn't have taken the time to put this post together. However, from something that John Earnshaw said to me in a phone conversation yesterday evening, it seems there's some confusion as to exactly what I was thinking about when I started structuring the Safeholdian navies for Off Armageddon Reef. I'm not sure whether this is going to answer the specific questions which have been raised, but I hope it will go at least some distance in the direction of providing a grasp of the underlying design constraints and philosophies.

Okay, for what it's worth, here's how I visualize the various "galley" fleets of Safehold.

First, some ground rules. As I believe I've said before, do not make the mistake of assuming identical development patterns between our own experience here on Earth and Safehold's experience. The biggest single difference is that on Safehold, humanity started out with a "deeper" basket of technological tools but operated under a countervailing, deliberately imposed brake on the development of new technologies. One consequence of this is that Safehold has tended to take the existing, approved technologies through an extended process of evolving applications rather than to look for entirely new tools for the solution of existing problems. So, you are not going to find the exact same situations arising on Safehold as defined in our own historical past.

In addition, Safeholdians have a far greater knowledge of their world's geographical layout than anyone here on Earth had at comparable levels of technology. This means that the impetus towards commerce between the various island land masses and continents has not had to overcome the necessity for voyages of exploration just so they could figure out where other continents and land masses were. The sea obstacles were never that the Safeholdians didn't know where their destinations were in relationship to their departure points, but rather that they had to figure out how to navigate between them -- compass-based dead reckoning -- and their ships had to figure out how to survive between them. This is one reason why up until the (comparatively) recent Safeholdian expansion into blue-water navigation, trade routes have tended to follow coastal routes, and why warship design (begin prior to the relatively recent Safeholdian move into offshore waters) has been focused on vessels optimized for combat in coastal waters.

Now, there are three basic trends in ship design on pre-Merlin Safehold:

  1. the ocean-going, cargo-carrying galleon, which is roughly comparable in seaworthiness to the Elizabethan galleon, although it tends to be larger than most of its Elizabethan counterparts ;
  2. the predominantly coastal-water galley, as typified by the Dohlaran galley fleet;
  3. the transitional galley fleet, as typified by the navies of Charis, Corisande, Emerald, and Chisholm, but not by any of the "mainland" naval powers.

The galleon as a warship really didn't exist as a separate type before Merlin's arrival, which is why I call it a "cargo-carrying" design, above. Bear in mind that the entire Charisian navy only owned about six of them, and they were clearly not considered main combatants because of the difference in maneuverability between them and the galleys. The handful of "navy" galleons which had been built, then, incorporated features of the galley which were not necessarily desirable in the galleon, and which might or might not (probably not) be found in such exaggerated form on purely commercial galleon designs. (For example, while a merchant galleon would have a raised foredeck and a raised poop deck, it would not normally have the huge "castles" which made Charis' handful of "military galleons" such dogs to handle.)

Each of the ship designs in evolution before Merlin came along had its own strengths and weaknesses.

The galleon, or the cargo-carrying ship, tended to be deeper-hulled, had higher sides, and possessed a significant tactical advantage in naval combat once the infantry action was joined. Its lack of speed and, especially, handiness in comparison to the galley, however, meant that it would find it very difficult to close with a nimbler adversary and bring its advantages to bear. In the absence of decisive range-combat capability, the galleon would thus be a primarily defensive design. This is fine for an essentially civilian ship class which is only going to fight when it has to, but sucks wind as a warship class.

The galley tended to be shallower-hulled, with lower sides and a (relatively) narrower beam, a significantly lighter displacement for its length, and a strictly limited ability to carry sail. Its low sides put it at a disadvantage in infantry combat with a galleon (or, for that matter, larger galley), and its light displacement and narrow beam meant that it carry only limited quantities of artillery, with the primary axes of fire being fore-and-aft, rather than broadside.

There were, however, two distinct subtypes of galley, as I've already mentioned above. The Dohlaran galleys were closer to our own experience from the Mediterranean, but it would be a mistake to assume too great an identity of design between the two. In point of fact, the Dohlaran designs were essentially what we might think of as Safehold's take on the galleass. They were very large, by the standards of our own Mediterranean-built galleys, and they were rather more heavily built. They could carry more sail, although they normally did this with a single mast with a larger sail, rather than adding additional masts, and they had the depth of hull to carry heavier batteries than most Mediterranean galleys did, although the heaviest guns were still confined to the forecastles and aftercastles. Moreover, unlike the traditional Mediterranean galley of, say, the period of the Battle of Lepanto, they had the towering aftercastles and forecastles described in the book. This was because the designs had evolved in an era in which boarding combat was the primary mode of warfare. Artillery, as such, had not had a huge effect on the development of naval doctrine and tactics prior to Merlin's arrival on the scene.

So, the Dohlaran galleys are going to be bigger, heavier, and slower than the majority of our own Mediterranean designs. They are, if you will, Roman designs, not Carthaginian designs. They also have shorter "legs" than galleons or Charisian galleys in that they are intended for shorter periods of time at sea. However, although they are bigger and heavier than most Mediterranean designs, they are still not as big -- or as heavy -- as the Charisian designs.

I've referred to the Charisian and Corisandian ships as "galleys" for want of a better term. I could have used "galleass," but it's not really completely applicable, in my opinion. Maybe it's just my [innate] prejudices showing, but here's my reasoning in that regard. In actual fact, the galleass emerged, especially in Venice -- from merchant galley designs, and was essentially just a very big galley, which possessed better seakeeping qualities simply because it WAS bigger. It wasn't really a case of a hull form which had been designed from the outset for use in Atlantic sailing conditions; it was simply the Mediterranean galley-style hull which worked best in Atlantic sailing conditions. It was a "transitional" type in effect, but not by conception. As a transitional type, it "just happened," in other words.

The reason I haven't used the term "galleass" for Charisian-style warships, is that unlike the original model from our world, the Charisian ships are specifically and deliberately designed on a format which is more optimized for deep-water use and blue-water sailing conditions. Unlike most Mediterranean-style galleys, for example, the Charisian ships have deeper hulls with pronounced keels, cutwaters, and a more rounded "entrance" forward. They are somewhat taller in proportion to their length than Mediterranean-style galleys, even without considering their "castles," and their rowing frames -- which are incorporated into their hulls as permanent structures -- coupled with their solid frames, heavier timbers, and greater overall weight render them largely immune to traditional Mediterranean-style ramming attacks by smaller ships. These vessels, by and large, are not designed for sustained movement under oars (although it would not be at all uncommon for them use oars to supplement the power of their sails), and their hull forms are not optimized for that end. In fact, compared to any Mediterranean-style galley which was actually used in general military employment (there are reports of Ptolemy, for example, building "galleys" as much as 400 feet long, although that's always seemed problematical to me, given the limitations upon wood as the building material and the fact that there are only a handful of references to them, and Demetrius Poliorcetes built at least several galleys which were in the 200-foot league, some of which he used as floating support bases for heavy siege artillery), Charisian ships are very slow under oars. They are, however, capable of brief, relatively high-speed "dashes," and of accelerating relatively quickly. They manage this by having high numbers of rowers, compared to smaller ships or more "traditional" galleys. For example, the crew of a Charisian galley like Royal Charis, King Haarahld's flagship, would be in the vicinity of 600 rowers, perhaps 50 "seamen" to manage the ship's running gear, and around 200 marines, for a total of approximately 850, whereas one of the "standard" Dohlaran galleys would have had no more than, say, 300 to 350 rowers. The Charisian ship has a single rowing deck, carried in the rowing frame outside the "core hull," but the deckhead is quite high, and the oars are staggered vertically. Royal Charis would show 30 of these "staggered pairs" of sweeps on each side, with a total of 60 oars with 10 men on each sweep -- five sitting facing forward and pulling the oar, while the other five sit facing aft and push the oar on the driving stroke. Most of the Dohlaran galleys, on the other hand, would have no more than four or five men to the oar. Their lighter construction would allow those four or five men to propel the shorter, lighter ship (which also has a narrower beam) at a higher sustained speed, however the larger and heavier Charisian ship would be able to handle much heavier sea conditions and would be superior to the Dohlaran design under sail.

Although the Charisian crew is going to be larger than that carried by most 74-gun ships-of-the-line, the ships don't have to allow the same amount of load-carrying and internal volume for armament and ammunition that the 74 would be forced to devote to those purposes. This means that the crew is going to be less crowded for living space than one might think, although I'm not trying to suggest that they have what you might call spacious living quarters.

The Charisians and their competitors are fully aware of the fact that lighter ships are faster ships for the same number of rowers. However, they are very much in the "Roman" mindset as to the most effective naval combat tactics. Tactical maneuvering is still of considerable importance to them, but the decisive moment comes when your troops go aboard the enemy vessel, and a bigger ship, with higher sides, more beam, a bigger crew, and a wider rowing frame (which provides a significantly greater resistance to old-fashioned ramming attacks), is much more effective once combat is joined. And although the lighter and faster ship is in a better position to dictate the conditions under which ships come together, they will find themselves at a serious disadvantage trying to fight their way up and over the larger ship's higher sides (and, quite probably, overhanging rowing frame) against a greater number of marines. I have a note which I copied down many years ago from one of my sources (I'm not absolutely certain, but I think it may have been John Warry's Warfare in the Classical World) that I think expresses it quite clearly:

"There were two main methods of fighting which placed contradictory demands on warship design. The first was ramming. This called for the smallest possible ship built around the largest possible number of rowers. The Athenian navy with its small number of marines followed this philosophy. The other was boarding. This called for larger ships able to carry the maximum number of boarders. The boarding school of thought eventually prevailed, since, in order to ram, a vessel had to make contact, which was just what the borders wanted."

The Corisandian and Emeraldian navies, and the Chisholmian Navy, for that matter, fall somewhere between the Dohlaran designs and the Charisian designs, although they're closer to the Charisians because of the fact that they're going to be operating in the same basic environment. There's also a bit of "keeping up with the Joneses," which isn't as silly as it might sound, since all of these people regard the Charisians as the most effective naval force to emulate and the most dangerous naval force to confront.

Whatever the Tactical considerations may be, Dohlaran strategic considerations are essentially defensive. While King Rahnyld is perfectly willing to use his navy aggressively in a strategic sense, he really doesn't view it as a power-projecting force. He views it as a coast defense force, an anti-piracy force, a force capable of policing his own waters (which are all essentially in-shore), and a means of coercing/over-awing his neighbors.

Charis sees its navy as a primarily offensive force. While the Royal Charisian Navy may be used defensively, it is regarded primarily as a power-projection force whose purpose, among other things, includes commerce protection at extreme distances from Charis and the ability, in the classic Mahanian sense to "command the seas." Charisian "galleys" are expected to voyage relatively long distances before engaging in combat, and they are optimized to do just that even at the expense of some of their tactical potential in the form of lower sustained speeds under oars and generally poorer inherent maneuverability. (There are some parallels here with the situation which exists even today in that warship features necessary for sustained deep-water operations often can only be "purchased" by sacrificing some pure combat capability. For example, in World War I, the Royal Navy had worldwide naval commitments, which meant that it's ships required the freeboard to operate in and sail through typical Atlantic conditions. The Imperial German Navy, which wasn't really planning to operate beyond the confines of the North Sea, could accept a significantly lower freeboard and use that additional tonnage forbetter armor and internal subdivision. The weaponry-per-ton differentials between missile-armed coastal gunboats and sea-going frigates and cruisers would be another, more recent example.) Much of the poorer maneuverability enforced by other design considerations can be compensated for by the fact that the Royal Charisian Navy is composed primarily of professionals, both officer and enlisted, and that they are generally speaking trained to a higher standard than anyone else. Indeed, traditional Charisian standards constitute the "gold standard" of Safehold naval seamanship. (And the fact that the Charisians also have Safehold's largest merchant marine, which provides them with a relatively plentiful source of trained seamen, doesn't hurt any, either.)

Safeholdian naval experience enshrines a distinct difference from our own traditional view of galley warfare in that, as a general rule, the "maneuver" concepts of tactical doctrine here on Earth are generally taken to imply/require a higher standard of seamanship. That is, the Athenians are considered to have been superior as seamen to the Persians and to the Spartans. The Carthaginians are considered to have been superior as seamen to the Romans. And the Venetians were superior to the Spaniards by the time of Lepanto. In each case, the "superior seamen" were oriented to engage in a battle of maneuver and/or practiced ramming tactics, whereas the "inferior seamen" were oriented to get to close quarters and settle things with the sword. By and large, these considerations of naval combat in the Mediterranean have a great deal of merit.

The departure in the case of Safehold is that the pre-Merlin Charisians, who genuinely are the "superior seamen," are also the side with the bigger, less maneuverable vessels. The vessels in question are still much sleeker and more maneuverable than galleons, but they are definitely not the maneuvering equal under moderate or light sea conditions of the Dohlaran designs. Again, however, I need to emphasize that this is because of the nature of the environment in which they are designed to operate. None of the Charisians' probable battle zones is going to offer "Mediterranean conditions," and they can't afford to design ships are optimized for combat conditions they're unlikely to face. So Charisian warships aren't galleys which are simply big enough to survive in "northern waters," but rather ships which are specifically designed to survive in "northern waters." And which, in the presence of artillery which (pre-Merlin) is considerably cruder than that available to Don John of Austria at Lepanto, they are unflinchingly optimized for infantry combat at sea.

What all of this means is that you could probably set all sizes and tonnages for the three basic types I've described above as something in the following range (please note that I haven't attempted to sit down and work out specific hull volumes to arrive at definitive displacement figures; these are simply a useful range to bear in mind):

Large galleons: These would be in the vicinity of 100 to 140 feet in length, with beams about 25-30% of their length, and displacing between 900 and 1,400 tons. There are a handful of really big galleons which are going to be in the 160-foot range and may displace close to 2,000 tons, but they're very rare at the time Merlin arrives in Tellesberg.

Small galleons: These would be no more than about 80 to 100 feet in length, with beams like their larger sisters, and tonnages in the 400 to 600 ton range.

Dohlaran-style galleys: With the exception of something like Duke Malikai's "white elephant" flagship, most Dohlaran galleys are going to come in at a length of perhaps 140 to 150 feet with a beam across the rowing frame equal to around 20% of their length. They're going to displace rather more tonnage for the same dimensions than the Mediterranean-style galleys, which means they're going to come in somewhere between 250 to 350 tons, possibly edging up to as much as 400 tons with the addition of the forecastles and aftercastles most Mediterranean-style galleys didn't mount (and which would add significantly to hull weight and resultant displacement). Malikai's flagship would be damned near twice the displacement of any of her smaller consorts, which is one of the reasons that both Thirsk and White Ford think of her as fairly useless. It should also be noted that one of the reasons for King Rahnyld's lack of stability is that her hull depth didn't adequately compensate for the bulk of her castles and she didn't incorporate the stabilizing "tumblehome" of Charisian designs. That is, she was top-heavy in comparison to her beam and how deep in the water she sat.

Charisian-style galleys: These are going to be from around 160 feet in length for a "standard" galley, ranging up to closer to 180 feet in length for flagships like Royal Charis. (Actually, what Royal Charis represents is closer to something which in the Mediterranean was called a "lantern galley." These were bigger, heavier, and generally better-crewed galleys which led other galleys in the attack. They took their name from the stern lanterns they carried so that the ships are following them could keep track of them in poor visibility conditions. You could almost think of them as the galley equivalent of the "flotilla leader" concept for destroyers.) At any rate, a Charisian "galley's" beam is usually going to be somewhere between 20% and 25% of its length. Bear in mind, though, that this is the beam measured across the rowing frame, which extends some distance from other side of the main hull, whereas the galleon's beam is to the outside of the hull planking. In other words, a galleon with a 25% beam would have a substantially greater immersed hull width than a galley of the same length with the same nominal beam. A "standard" Charisian galley would be in the vicinity of 850 tons (and row like a pig, compared to most of Don John's galleys at Lepanto), whereas a flagship like Royal Charis would be somewhere around a thousand to 1,200-1,400 tons.

Obviously, even with close to twice the number of rowers, one of these Charisian ships is not going to be able to stay with a Dohlaran galley under oars in relatively calm sea conditions. Once, however, the wind begins getting up, or wave height increases by even a relatively small amount, the Dohlaran's speed advantage will begin to disappear. The deeper, heavier Charisian hull is going to be less affected by wave action and wave resistance, and its larger sail area, greater stability under sail, and ability to carry more sail under heavy wind conditions is going to give it a decisive advantage under most deep-water conditions. It's rather like the circumstances (which occurred during the War of 1812 with depressing frequency from an American perspective) under which a British 74 could run down and capture a 100-foot privateer schooner under heavy wind conditions, despite the fact that the schooner would normally be considered the inherently faster hull design. Because of the 74's greater mass and deeper hull, she can simply continued to carry amounts of canvas which would drive the schooner under in the give and wind conditions. So, although her hull might be inherently "slower" then the schooner, she's probably faster in blowing weather. And even under calm sea conditions, the fact that the Charisian can't stay with the Dohlaran in a rowing endurance contest doesn't mean that the Charisian isn't capable of "dash speed" performance adequate to its needs once combat is actually joined.

It needs to be recalled that nominally greater speeds at sea have very seldom been as decisive in combat as one might have projected from looking at the numbers on paper. For one thing, the speed of the formation is always dependent upon the speed of its slowest unit, not its fastest one, and the instances in which a nominally lighter, faster fleet has been able to outmaneuver its opposition are more notable in fiction than in fact. I'm not trying to say that it hasn't happened, or that speed is immaterial, by any means, nor am I trying to say that it never has an impact on the tactical situation. However, what I am saying is that once combat is joined, other tactical qualities become at least as important as simple speed. The Charisians are very well aware of this, and they have made their design choices accordingly.

It may be that some of my readers will disagree with the assumptions I've made in building the various navies and establishing what their combat doctrines are. If so, I'm sorry they can't see eye-to-eye with me in this regard. However, I gave the matter considerable thought when I was building the world, and these are the fundamental, underlying assumptions and ship types which form the background against which Merlin, Sir Dustyn Olyvyr, and Baron Seamount are evolving new tactics and designs in the face of Merlin's innovations in artillery.

At any rate, I hope this at least helps to show you where my thoughts are coming from in this regard.