Travel: Water

160516junkTraveling over land is familiar. Many of us do it every day (even if we don’t do it as part of an army or with pack animals), but travel over water, though vital to the modern economy, isn’t part of daily life for most of us. Sometimes, though, the characters in your stories or games need to ride a raft downriver, strike out across the ocean in an outrigger canoe, or hoist the sails of a ship of the line. In this installment of the travel series, we look at types of pre-industrial water transport, the speeds and distances ships can travel, how much cargo ships can carry, and what it takes to make a successful voyage over water.


Ship speeds are conventionally measured in knots, equivalent to 1 nautical mile (1.151 statute miles or 1.852 km) per hour. 1 km/h is equal to 0.54 knots. In this post, I have given all speeds in terms of km/h for consistency with the other travel posts.

Types of transport

There are many different types of watercraft, from one-person rafts to massive cargo ships, but one essential way of distinguishing them is by means of propulsion. Pre-modern vessels had four basic options for propulsion: current, wind, paddles/oars, or draft.

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