Because I love tall ships, when I thought about water travel, my thoughts immediately leapt to sailing. But that’s fairly advanced technology, in the grand scheme of things; our initial efforts were (and are) much more humble.
Unlike last week, I’m not going to start by extolling the virtues of swimming. We can do it, but we’re not very good at it, so as a mode of travel that’s pretty bad. Especially since being in the water exposes you to lots of dangers ranging from predators to hypothermia to drowning. You’re much better off with some kind of vehicle to assist and protect you.
Before we learned to harness the wind, those vehicles were all human-powered. Canoes, dugouts, kayaks, coracles — the list of terms could go on for a whole paragraph, with versions specific to certain times and places. We’ve made them from bundles of reeds, hollowed-out logs, and lightweight frameworks covered in tightly-sewn skins, as well as more advanced materials. In shallow waters they can be poled along by pushing off the bed (think gondolas), but most of the time they use paddles or oars, single or double, employed by one person at a time or hundreds or even thousands, in the case of ancient Mediterranean warships. The pressure of the oar blades against the water propels these vessels along.
But sometimes that isn’t the only thing propelling them. One of the big differences between land travel and the water version is that water has its own ideas about where it wants you to go. Rivers, oceans, and sufficiently large lakes have currents: the water flowing in a particular direction and doing its best to carry you with it. This makes paddling downstream wonderfully easy! . . . and paddling back upstream a pain in the neck. Any parent who’s ever had to single-handedly muscle a canoe back home after their kid quits from exhaustion knows the problem well.
For sailing ships, this means that going in the direction you want to go requires a complex negotiation between the movement of the water and the movement of the wind. We understood the effects of this long before we had the physics and math to describe it: the angle of the sail relative to the wind’s vector produces both forward and sideways forces, while the current’s vector adds yet another variable. The invention of the keel was a vital step in helping us make good, sea-going vessels; extending below the hull of the ship, this element resists the sideways component of the wind’s pressure, keeping the ship or boat headed in more or less the direction the helmsman wants.
I won’t dive into the rabbit hole that is sailing terminology and technique, with things like square, Bermuda, gaff, and lateen rigging, or why it matters that ropes and lines are different things. (Or why “ships” and “boats” are technically distinct from each other — some readers will get very picky with you about fine points like that.) If you need that level of detail for a story, you’ll know it, and can go do the focused research that’s required to talk about it in depth. Instead I want to look at how we humans relate to this kind of travel.
On the “paddling a canoe” end of things, it can be remarkably routine. My husband and I spent a few days in a region of Kerala, India that gets referred to as “the backwaters”: an environment of lakes and lagoons connected by rivers and canals that almost amounts to a rural Venice. Like most visitors, we traveled in a kettuvallam or “houseboat,” because it’s a lovely and relaxing way to see the place — but the houses we passed by often had motorboats, rowboats, or canoes tied up outside. A resident might very well hop in their canoe for the equivalent of a trip to the corner store, and think nothing of it.
But when you get outside the placid waters of Kerala to the sea, the situation changes quite a bit. On the open ocean, or in a large enough inland sea or lake, the water can be legendarily treacherous. Currents, submerged rocks or reefs or sandbars, winds that drive you onto shore or out of sight of land, storms to swamp you under . . . in religion after religion, in folklore all around the world, we find stories about how the water giveth and it taketh away. I think every culture with a sea-coast ever has had a deity of the sea, and fishermen and sailors have made offerings in the hopes of coming home safely again.
Because breaking an axle in your carriage just means you get stranded. Maybe in a bad place, with danger from bandits or bad weather, or if you were going fast enough the crash might hurt you, but a failure of vehicular function rarely kills you outright — especially before the invention of motor transport and its higher capacity for speed. If your boat sinks, though, you’d better known how to swim, or you’re going to drown. And if you can swim, you may just take longer to drown: if there’s no lifeboat or land nearby, then eventually exhaustion will catch up with you. Or you’ll be smashed on rocks, or eaten by sharks, or die of hypothermia. The sea has lots of ways to kill you.
In light of this, it’s no surprise that people have often personified their boats and ships in a way you don’t see nearly as much as with land vehicles. The close dependence we have on those vessels not only to move us around, but to keep us alive in a hostile environment, creates a powerful psychological bond. A ship meant for long-distance travel becomes a world unto itself in a way that a carriage never can be. We tend to lose sight of that these days, when motor propulsion makes even transoceanic voyages a fairly rapid matter, but people who sail small craft — ones where they can feel the force of waves and wind — often remember it quite well.
Narratively speaking, then, travel by water can be anything from a minor side note to a major element of the story. On a local scale it’s alive and well today in cities with a central river; while researching A Star Shall Fall I took a commuter ferry down the Thames to Greenwich, that being by far the most sensible way to get there, and in Venice people use vaporetti and water taxis to navigate the canals. Even if the characters are traveling around the world, that can be disposed of in a scene or chapter break if it’s just a necessary shift of locale.
But think twice before skipping over it like that. Given how dangerous and different a long sea voyage can be, sweeping it aside as being unworthy of comment seems like a missed opportunity.