Talking Game of Thrones: Oars and Sails


After “Blackwater”, the way that the ships of Stannis’s fleet were depicted — and the fact that there was little discussion of their origins — suggested to me that there might be room to discuss naval technology and fleets as described in the novels. Ships are actually quite an important aspect of the setting — differentiating cultures, establishing might at sea, the means by which trade and news crosses between continents and far-flung lands — and Martin has clearly invested some thought and research into it. There’s a surprising range of craft mentioned in the course of the novel, but we’ll cover the major groupings below.

Martin has drawn from the ancient world to the early Renaissance in his descriptions of the various fleets and ship types. By far the most common type of ship in the novels has been the galley, which saw extensive use in the Mediterranean for something approaching two thousand years. Although they feature sails, they’re distinguished by using oars in plenty to propel them. This means that the crew compliment of a galley — once you factor in the oarsmen — can be surprisingly large. In the novels, Martin has some truly monstrous vessels, massive war galleys of three hundred or even four hundred oars; there’s even one vessel said to dip eight hundred oars once completed.

This is actually a bit of a fantasy thing, it must be said: historically, rather than add more and more oars (which is problematic because, for one thing, you simply couldn’t build an effective vessel with more than three tiers of oars before the oars at the top level are so long and heavy that they can hardly be used), you tended to add more men per oar. Up to a certain point, flagships with as many as 84 oars to a side did exist, and these tended to be organized in banks of three oars with a man per oar, but later on the system shifted to fewer but heavier oars pulled by more men. Two men an oar, three, four… all the way up to eight men per oar, the absolute maximum that was even remotely effective.

Why have so many men per oar? Obviously, part of it was to throw more muscle power into using these heavier oars, consequently being able to put more force on the water and so propel the ships forward. But another factor isn’t too relevant to the Seven Kingdoms: inevitably, those medieval and Renaissance societies that put so many men on an oar depended on prison or slave labor, men condemned to the galleys. Only the man at the head of the oar would need to be a skilled oarsmen, and the rest of the oarsmen would simply follow his lead and provide the necessary muscle power. The actual engineering of these oars and the banks of the oars is actually quite fascinating, in and of itself, but the important thing to remember is that the tradition in Westeros is that slavery is against the law, and galleys are rowed by paid, free men. It’s not a hard and fast rule (as some who’ve read the later novels know), but it’s the norm. This means that one might consider that the galleys of the Free Cities (those that practice slavery and use slave oarsmen) and Slaver’s Bay doubtless need to use more men per oar, and opt for the heavier oars designed for multiple rowers to match the more effective single, free oarsman of the west.

The narrow sea is uniquely suited to sustaining so many galleys, since the distances between Westeros and Essos compare very well to the kinds of journeys galleys made in the Mediterranean. One thing about galleys is that they are quite narrow, and have relatively small holds: landfall for the purpose of resupply has to be made quite regularly (which is why accounts of galley journeys tend to see stops no more than three days apart), or the ships will have to be supplied by sailing craft with small crews and deep holds (such as cogs and carracks) to be able to sustain longer journeys. The cost of maintaining these vessels, of keeping the crews (especially when you’re looking at a minimum of four hundred oarsmen, and perhaps even twice as much if you wish to have shifts, plus the sailors who manage the sails and other such things, and any passengers) fed and paid, is not a small cost. Each region we’ve seen seems to have its own approach to taking care of this. In Westeros, by and large noble houses maintain a few galleys — the Mallisters of Seagard have just one, despite the potential threat of ironborn raiders — and these can be called upon by the great houses; the exception is the North, where the Starks have purposefully refused to have or subsidize any kind o fleet. The great houses themselves might have ships in a fleet, and that’s what the Lannisters do with their significant fleet at Lannisport.

The true naval powers of Westeros, however, are not the Lannisters. Nor do the Tyrells quite count. One of the largest fleets is the royal fleet, controlled by the master of ships on behalf of the Iron Throne. So far as we can see in the novels, the bulk of this fleet is raised by the lords of the narrow sea, who are sworn to Dragonstone. It’s due to Stannis’s place as Lord of Dragonstone as well as master of ships that he is able to carry away so much of the royal fleet to Dragonstone. Some part of the royal fleet is left behind at King’s Landing, and unlike on the show, the ships are there and engage the enemy but they’re clearly outnumbered when Stannis’s ships number on the order of more than two hundred vessels, with ten lines of twenty vessels each launching the attack on the Lannister fleet, landing men beneath the walls, and the slower ships ferrying over the bulk of Stannis’s strength on the south. Salladhor Saan’s part to play? He stood further out with his fleet to protect the fleet in case the Lannisters had hidden any ships to try and attack them.

Surprisingly, though, the royal fleet is rivaled by a fleet we’ve never heard of on the show: the fleet belonging to the Redwynes of the Arbor. They are great lords of the Reach, and the present lord Paxter Redwyne is good-brother to and best friend of Lord Mace Tyrell. Though the golden wine of the Arbor is world-famous in the setting (it’s even mentioned by Xaro in distant Qarth), the true glory of the Arbor is that fleet. The warships alone number two hundred — which is nearly equal to the royal fleet — and it’s said the Redwynes own five times as merchant vessels, which would quite readily be conscripted to take part in fighting if needed. So, all told, twelve hundred ships… which is an interesting number because one might draw some conclusions of relative wealth. When Daenerys questions Xaro — the book Xaro, not the show Xaro — about the number of ships that the Thirteen (which is a guild of merchants, one of several in Qarth), he supposes it’s a thousand in total; the rival trade guilds, the Tourmaline Brotherhood and the Ancient Guild of Spicers, have perhaps two thousand between them. So, three thousand merchant vessels (the Pureborn of Qarth, who never appear in the show, control the war fleet whose number we do not know) make up the mercantile fleet of Qarth. It does rather suggest that the Arbor has about a third of the resources of the Qartheen, who are by all accounts one of the wealthiest cities in Essos thanks to their control of the Jade Gates which allow access to the Jade Sea.

The Redwyne fleet played a part in Robert’s Rebellion, when Lord Paxter joined the Tyrells in besieging Storm’s End — it was his ships that blockaded the castle… or tried to, until a lowborn smuggler slipped through the blockade in the dead of night to deliver his onions to the starving garrison. The other fleet that played a part was the royal fleet, although that part was an ignominious one: it escorted the fleeing Queen Rhaella to Dragonstone with Viserys, then heir to the throne following Rhaegar’s death. The fleet was destroyed some months later in a great storm, smashing many of the vessels on Dragonstone or scattering them widely and leaving Dragonstone ready to be seized by Stannis Baratheon commanding a new royal fleet that had been hastily built. Since then, clearly, many of the ships have been rebuilt.

There are other fleets, of course, and the other notable fleet in Westeros is that of the ironborn. The Iron Islands are impoverished in part, I’ve always supposed, because there is so much cultural cachet put into being a captain. The ironborn say that a captain is a king on the deck of his own ship, and that sense of power and freedom — inherited from the reavers who ruled much of the western shore of Westeros in centuries gone by — drives them to invest a great deal in building ships. The longships, of course, are not at all in the same class as the galleys used elsewhere: they’re much smaller and lighter, but that makes them perfectly suited for running them up onto a shore, allowing a ready escape after plundering the area around the ship. There are, literally, hundreds of longships in the ironborn fleet. But the greatest concentration of strength, the ships that are capable of going toe-to-toe with any other fleet in Westeros, is the Iron Fleet that’s commanded by the Greyjoys. The ships of the Iron Fleet are hybrid galleys, not so large as the largest warships, probably in the range o a hundred two perhaps two hundred oars; I tend to imagine they’re also clinker-built, as the Vikings built their longships in that way. The longships were a large part of the ironborn power, but war fleets like the Iron Fleet (and whatever preceded it, if the ironborn kings had some different approach to organizing their fleet) must have provided a a strong bulwark against the rival fleets in the Sunset Sea.

The Free Cities, mentioned earlier, have their own fleets as well, and some are greater than others. Volantis appears to have a great deal of might at sea, Myr and Lys are known for their fleets of pirates and sellsails… but the greatest of the naval fleets in the Free Cities, and perhaps the entire world, is the fleet of Braavos. Purple-hulled galleys, from merchant galleys to war galleys, are turned out daily from the Arsenal. In fact, Martin’s modeled Braavos on Venice in several ways — the origin as a place of refuge, the shallow lagoon and the city’s canals and slowly sinking foundations — and its fleet is another part of that. The Arsenal is clearly related to the Renaissance Arsenal in Venice, which became known for the ability to turn out a ship a day thanks to standardized plans, per-fabricated parts, and something very closely approaching an assembly-line approach to building a galley. With so much power at sea, and the ability to raise more at need, Braavos may not have stone walls about its city, but it has wooden walls that seem to been sufficient to help break the power of the Volantene in the Century of Blood and to impose its will on Pentos about a century ago, when they forced the Pentoshi to give up slavery (which the Pentoshi have eventually worked their way around, but still). Will the Sealord of Braavos ever end up throwing his fleet into the wars raging in Westeros? He’d be a powerful ally, and Tyrion did send Myrcella to Braavos, first, where the Sealord would provide ships to carry her to Dorne…

The TV show has dropped all the galleys, the longships, the cogs and the whalers. The swan-ships of the Summer Islanders, the greatest sailors and navigators in the setting with ships that carry a great breadth of sail and can outrace anything with a good wind behind them, don’t make an appearance (neither do the Summer Islanders, for that matter, save in the show’s casual change of Xaro and Salladhor into Summer Islanders — both shown as having adopted foreign homes, Qarth and Lys respectively, rather than remaining native to their culture). Doubtless part of this is just budget: galleys dipping oars require animation that would increase the cost of showing them, and every type of craft you show means another model to create and render. The simplification is certainly understandable, and what was shown on the screen was stunning, practically at the level of film quality. But still, it’s just a bit more complex, and a bit grander, in the novels.

And if you’ve read to A Dance with Dragons, you’ve an inkling about the importance of naval fleets…