Or, more specifically : How, starting with a regular ~16th something-century sailing ship, could it be possible to modify it to go on both land and sea?
In a pre-industrial setting, no fuel, no steam.
Ideally, I'm looking for a solution that allows a seamless transition from water to land with little to no need to stop and change setup.
My first instinct was to simply add huge wheels under the hull and maybe steer it with a second helm, but I have a feeling it might not be so simple.

I'm not looking for a completely detailed scientific explanation, but for a mechanism that would be plausible enough without getting deeply into specifics.

Edit : After reading some of the answers, I'd like to add a few questions on compromises :

  • Would going for detachable wheels result in a more realistic construct?
  • If it were to use some kind of supernatural force, what should it impact to be most effective? The wind? The weight of the ship? The resistance of materials?
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Jul 24 '18 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ What kind of environment are they in? Because transitioning to pack ice with runners or deep snow would possibly be doable. $\endgroup$ – Brizzy Jul 25 '18 at 10:57
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure I understand the suggestion. The region is mostly Mediterranean typed. $\endgroup$ – Jill Jul 25 '18 at 11:12
  • $\begingroup$ So no go on that idea then. $\endgroup$ – Brizzy Jul 25 '18 at 11:20
  • $\begingroup$ Just to clarify for an answer below. Are you intending this craft to be wind-powered both on land and on water? That was my understanding of your question with "a seamless transition from water to land", and it seems to be most people's too, but it'd be good to explicitly say this. $\endgroup$ – Graham Jul 25 '18 at 11:35

12 Answers 12


The earliest text describing the Chinese use of mounting masts and sails on large vehicles is the Book of the Golden Hall Master written by the Daoist scholar and crown prince Xiao Yi, who later became Emperor Yuan of Liang (r. 552–554 AD). He wrote that Gaocang Wushu invented a "wind-driven carriage" which was able to carry thirty people at once. There was another built in about 610 for the Emperor Yang of Sui (r. 604–617), as described in the Continuation of the New Discourses on the Talk of the Times.

The precursor to the modern land yacht was invented in the summer of the year 1600 by the Flemish scientist Simon Stevin in Flanders as a commission for Prince Maurice of Orange. It was used by Prince Maurice for entertaining his guests. - Land sailing

The real problem is that there were no roads to speak of, suspension was basic at best and couldn't take much load, no concept of pneumatic tyres. All the things that allow us to take a 40 ton lorry across the country didn't exist. Remember that we limit at around 40 tons and these are vehicles that are slow on hills, Magellan (for example) had small ships, they weighed upwards of 75 tons, wind alone would not have the power to move them up the beach, never mind up a hill.

You're basically limited to putting wheels on a sailing skiff, the smallest and lightest boats they made. After which you end up with something that could be horrible to sail on land or water, but it might work.

Use a setup with wheels on leeboards with the ability to lock the leeboards down into position. You'll want front wheel steering, rather than a rear rudder for stability on land unless you're only expecting to move at a crawl. Balance is going to be interesting. You need the leeboards aft of the centre of mass but they need to be at the centre of (lateral) water resistance. Fold up front wheel, make sure you get the wheels down while still in the water and you should be good to go.

Finding a beach you can actually use wheels on is an entirely different matter. Most of the UK coast is shingle or mud which is hopeless, you need a sand that compacts nicely when wet, soft sand is hopeless.

You need gentle shelving beaches up to your target destination, hills are going to stop you in your tracks if you want to sail. If you want pack animals to haul it on land then you have a better bet, but you probably won't be able to use a boat big enough to take them with you.

  • $\begingroup$ Aditionally, if you are landing on a friendly coast, you coulde build some roads for your ships, avoiding the mud and sand. $\endgroup$ – AleOtero93 Jul 24 '18 at 19:26

Given the right conditions: a relatively flat beach, long stretches of flat land, relatively light weight boats etc... you can build sand sails. A modern example is here: enter image description here Image taken from here

On googling a bit, I found that land-sailing with sand-yachts have apparently existed since the 6th century CE. An older (probably Victorian) example can be seen below:


Image taken from here


Actually you don't need to guess:

The vikings did this by making VERY flexible light flat bottomed ridged hulls on their long ships and they were designed deliberately to be dragged / bent / stretched over land.

Contrary to most "re-enactments" on TV or by amatuer enthusiasts, (and even the academic fraternity who won't admit they don't know wood) Viking longships were "bendy" they wobbled along the sea! they were NOT stiff. Despite all the reenactments by modern historians they constantly (wrongly) modeled Long Ships trying to make them stiff hulled (they way we make them today) - they were NOT. They were made using splits of spring wood that was then sort of "carved out flat" CARVED using a special tool we no longer make to be straight. NOT what we think of when we say "planks". All these skills are lost to us now. Look up Thomas Finderup.

"a ship that doesn’t need to fight the forces of the sea, but rather leans sideways and dances her way through the waves"

The log has been split into halves, quarters, eights and sixteenths. Chopping the planks can begin. (Photo: Thomas Finderup)

The log has been split into halves, quarters, eights and sixteenths. Chopping the planks can begin. (Photo: Thomas Finderup)

I've seen Norwegian woodsmiths trying to copy it but they admit they are keen amateurs in what they realise is a life time craft. They know they did it by the tools they left behind. (like a upsidown trenching tool) It was a "normal" way for the Viking long ship to be used. they traveled from Scandinavia to Byzantium (Black Sea/ Turkey) through Russia using this technique - by using only long ships and the rivers are not joined up.

And do not think this was a rare event:

Damascus Steel from Arabia was traded/introduced into northern Europe by the Vikings (they consistently supplied it, despite never knowing the recipe themselves!) It made the material incredibly infamous almost 1,000 years before it was "invented" again, it's the origin of the idea of a "magical sword". And this journey they made habitually was so widespread it's the reason "Russia" got the name "Russia"! (The Byzantines/Turks named them "Russ from the North" because they believed the northerners were from what we call Russia" but we know they weren't - we know now they were Vikings from Scandinavia merely coming from "Russia") hence the name "Russ" meaning "Red headed people" - it was a misunderstanding of how far they had traveled in ships over land and river and evidence of how often they did it.

The vikings crewed/loaded their ships with enough men to row, sail AND heave the long ship over land (without logs etc). They were seen as synonymous activities. the ship keel warped and "slid" to the shape of the ground and kept in constant contact with the land across a large area and so slid amazingly well

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Portage, where a boat is pushed slowly and laboriously over land using rollers, rails or skids, is not the same as land sailing. Even if the wind behind you (or in front of you) provides some help pushing, it will not avoid the need for people or animals to be the main pushing force. And of course portage still needs people pushing to direct the boat as well, which is a major issue when you get to a downhill section and need to slow it down. As someone who's done quite a lot of sailing, and has pushed boats through town on trailers for the local fete, I've got the T-shirt on that. $\endgroup$ – Graham Jul 24 '18 at 12:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Graham that's not what I talked about your vessel is not designed to do "portage" I am talking about entire economic theaters pre-disposed to rely on over land ship maneuver. There have been such developments. Towns/Cities/Village exist because they did it. Also this example of a elastic hull EXACTLY answers the question. It's only you that thought of "land sailing". the modern idea of rolling a boat on rollers is not what I am talking about. The boats flexed in a way we do not accurately have the ability to emulate, not even close. $\endgroup$ – Mr Heelis Jul 24 '18 at 12:14
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The OP specifically asked for land sailing. You haven't answered the question. As for portage, a trailer with modern axles and pneumatic tyres running on tarmac is the most advanced and lowest-effort portage that has ever existed, and for any reasonable-sized boat, it's still damn hard work pushing it. Wooden boats are heavy. $\endgroup$ – Graham Jul 24 '18 at 13:38
  • $\begingroup$ Portaging and logs to drag them over if you don't have enough manpower to lift them, +1. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jul 24 '18 at 15:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Graham he didn't mention land sailing... no-where at all :/ I and I COMPLETELY answered the question "I'm looking for a solution that allows a seamless transition from water to land with little to no need to stop and change setup." .. TLDR; you don't have to get all strange and weird it already happened $\endgroup$ – Mr Heelis Jul 25 '18 at 11:30

You have to ask yourself if there is a reason that ships benefit from traveling over land when in our world it's such a rare occurrence. I trust that there probably is.

You will certainly need wheels and suspension. They will need to withstand the compression of the entire ship, which likely means many small wheels for flexibility and redundancy. For the suspension, look at ones on ore hauling trucks or other massive mining machines, or the ones on tanks because of the many driven wheels. It could be inside the ship and not explained, though. If you use the minimum number of wheels, probably three, you will get three inconvenient, drag inducing discs while in the water.

Your power source, wind, will work some of the time, but at reduced power. You will be becalmed often. I would say use beasts of burden, but that would only work if the pack animals were sourced externally when the ship docks, as there is no way to carry such a herd onboard. Whether you have triceratops or mules, the power required to pull the ship is the same, only the number of animals differs.

Otherwise, you will have to use fuel or magic. I know you said pre-industrial, but technology associated with industrialization can exist without triggering it. If there are pressures to invent land-ships, the innovations will come.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks :) Being becalmed often isn't really an issue in this case. Speed either. $\endgroup$ – Jill Jul 24 '18 at 7:10
  • $\begingroup$ the minimum number of wheels, probably three. On the other hand, you could have a massive awesome sailbike. Though getting stranded when the wind dies down is an issue. $\endgroup$ – Flater Jul 24 '18 at 11:57

You could build big boats or small ships with windmills (this was actually proposed about 400 years ago) or with some type of wind turbines, that are geared to turn lots of paddle wheels on the sides. With proper mechanisms, the side wheels will drive the ship forward no matter what direction the wind blows from, and the ship will not have to tack or anything.

So maybe those ships become common in your world, and then maybe someone thinks of modifying the side wheels to be able to take the ships over (flat) land.

Many rivers have sandbars at their mouths, and thus many ports had sandbars and ships often had to wait until high tide and/or lighten their loads to get over those bars. I think there was even a process to attach two special barges called "camels" to a cargo ship and pump water out of the 2 camels so they would rise and lift the cargo ship high enough to pass over the bar.


Abraham Lincoln patented a device to lift riverboats over sandbars.


So if the wind turbine driven paddle wheels can move ships over land as well as sea, they can be used to drive the ships over the sandbars at many harbors.

And maybe in your world there are two oceans separated by an isthmus which is very flat and low at its narrowest part. It is miles wide at the narrowest point, but so low and flat that the ocassional storms flood it and the waves keep the land flat. So these ships can sail over the flat part of the isthmus instead of going thousands of miles out of their way around one or the other continent.

An alternative would be to have a ship which uses sails to sail on the ocean but also has wheels or can attach wheels to sail over flat land when the wind is good enough. If the wind is bad the ship will have to tack a lot and the going will be slow, just as it is on water.

And I can imagine a ship like a galley, which had both oars and sails, but instead of oars has treadmills for the sailors to walk on & turn many side wheels. And maybe those side wheels can be used to move the ship over flat land. And sometimes when the ship is on land and the wind is from the right direction the sails can be used to help drive the ship on land.

  • $\begingroup$ And the prop geared to wheels vehicles do work, e.g. nalsa.org/DownWind.html The problem with any wheeled vehicle, whatever the power source, is that you need a relatively smooth surface (in relation to wheel diameter) to drive on. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jul 25 '18 at 5:32
  • $\begingroup$ Your answer is the only one hitting the mark - no feasible amount of sail area is going to produce enough force directly to overcome the friction resistance of all the axles (no ball bearings!) necessary to bear the tens of tons of a ship. Huge leverage is needed. If rotary windmills detract too much from the sailship looks, consider that Festo did some pretty amazing wind power harvesting with non-rotary setups. Imagine the sails going back and forth, powering on one (or even both) strokes. Will need ultra flat, specialized roads in any way, though. $\endgroup$ – bukwyrm Jul 25 '18 at 14:26

enter image description hereAs previous answers mentioned this would have been super difficult to pull off back in the day. I think the closest I've ever heard of was of Lewis and Clark using pretty light canoes made from trimming the inside of tree trunks and leaving a couple of the branch stubs on to use as handles when carrying between minor rivers. The scale of this project would be a lot bigger. The most practical would be to try to add wheels in the bottom the your boat but that has insane room for error, and even the simple task of getting ashore would be difficult.

How ridiculous are you willing to make your design? It sounds super stupid, but what if you made a giant wooden hampster wheel with a horse inside? Until the horse dies, it could make the hamster wheel go over flat surfaces like roads, and even make some progress on water if the wheel had treads engraved into the rims and sides.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm willing to exaggerate properties like strenght, resistance of materials and pushing power to unnatural levels, but I'd rather avoid introducing a completely new physic $\endgroup$ – Jill Jul 24 '18 at 7:37
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ +1 for the mad idea of a horsewheel powered landboat alone. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jul 24 '18 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ Can you expand the description of your horsewheel powered vehicle? I sketch would be awesome! $\endgroup$ – Jerry Jeremiah Jul 25 '18 at 21:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Here is an example of doing this on water: yahoo.com/amphtml/blogs/good-news/… $\endgroup$ – Jerry Jeremiah Jul 27 '18 at 2:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ And example of a car with hamster wheels run by people: i.ytimg.com/vi/CbdyQroQVmM/maxresdefault.jpg $\endgroup$ – Jerry Jeremiah Jul 27 '18 at 2:49

If you want sixteenth century sailing ships that can transition from sea to land and sail on land, and other answers point out the benefits and difficulties of land-sailing, you need the power of magical levitation.

It is noted that magic isn't forbidden in the question, so this answer will apply it as a proposed solution.

Magical levitation will be effectively a ground effect similar to hovercraft, but powered by magic. The magic levitation only works wood (which sailing ships are usually made of, especially sixteenth vessels) and the ground (soil, rocks, and the other stuff land is made of). Water tends to nullify the levitation. This means it only works above the land.

A sailing ship that levitate to a modest height, say, a metre or two or whatever you feel is comfortable for land-faring, levitating mariners, will be able to behave exactly like a conventional sailing ship above and on land as it were, in the same manner that it would if it was sailing the seven seas. This model doesn't require any complicated refitting of vessels when they go from to sea to and, and vice versa.

There is no need to overload your world with too many forms of magic. Introduce only this one form of magic levitation and ships can sail land and sea.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The problem here is one of directed resistance and if the levitation magic can provide that or not. A sailboat moves in very simple terms from the force on the sails pushing against the resistance of the water. If the magical levitation does not provide said resistance, the boat will just sail off in whatever direction the wind is blowing. $\endgroup$ – rebusB Jul 24 '18 at 17:20
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @rebusB Thanks for your excellent advice. Naturally the magical levitation will provide the required resistance to ensure sailing ships perform precisely as if they sailing in water. It is magic, after all. I am really grateful for enlightening information about sailing ships and the forces governing their movement. Well done! $\endgroup$ – a4android Jul 25 '18 at 7:33

You never said anything about magic, but judging by the fact that you want no oil or steam engines involved, I'm going to assume that you want a pure pseudo-engineering answer.

Wheels was also the first thing that came to my mind, but you mentioned that the boat shoud be ready to ride earth as soon as it comes out of the sea.

So, the first part of this answer is treadmills.

enter image description here

Of course they would have to be made of wood since you're proposing a 16th century boat. Also, there's the aerodynamics issue - I don't know much about boat design but I'm pretty sure the bottom part of the ship must be smooth.

If you choose not to ignore the aerodynamics factor, meaning they can't be permanently attached to the ship's bottom, these treadmills are probably kept within the boat (maybe in the same fashion as lifeboats are stored, kind of hanging by the side of the boat). Once the boat approaches the shore, they are lowered and, with enough speed, the boat can make a transition to land. It's not ideal, but I think it deals with rougher terrain better than wheels and also it will be harder to get it stuck on sand, for example.

EDIT: The treadmills could be in water level, or even submerged. They could have pads attached to them in a perpendicular way and they would be connected to a wheeling system. So this boat would need people to turn these wheels. These people would move the wheels, make the treadmills run and move the pads, what would also accelerate the ship. So this cound be an archaic acceleration system for this ship AND the very thing that makes it amphibious. When close to land, some contraption would lower them, retract the perpendicular pads and place them in a tank-like manner. It would have momentum to move in land and people to keep wheeling it and making it move.

  • $\begingroup$ Do you mean "streamlining" instead of "aerodynamics"? $\endgroup$ – Jasper Jul 25 '18 at 6:03
  • $\begingroup$ Hydrodynamics perhaps $\endgroup$ – Ruadhan Jul 25 '18 at 11:24
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, it probably was a poor choice of words (and I did write it in a bit of hurry). Also, english is not my first language haha. $\endgroup$ – Magus Jul 25 '18 at 11:45

I’m imagining the places below decks where many rows of people rowed big oars together to propel a boat. However, these are replaced with cranks that spin wheels instead. Perhaps it could be on a lower deck than the one with the oars.


Making a ship that works on land forces you to take the worst of both worlds.

Ships are designed/built to withstand different stresses than land vehicles. They also steer/work differently than land vehicles.


Trying to combine both traits together into a single vehicle is something that we can't/won't do even with modern technology. Therefore, less advanced technology isn't going to solve this problem

As brought up before, in order to steer, a ship needs resistance. Ships heel - they tip - as part of their normal steerage. In order to replicate this, you'd need an entire suspension system built - which would be heavy, ruin the sailing profile of the ship unless it's completely retractable, be well beyond the capabilities of the time period to produce, and be very easy to break even if you got it running.

Therefore, we need magic.

The core problem is that ships travel on water, and land is not water - so let's make the land act like water.

Your ship has a good working relationship with the

Alchemist's Guild

Your ship has a keel lined in lead, and a series of pipes/masts projecting forward from the hull. There are a number of simple pumps that push small amounts of liquid out of a series of tiny little holes at the front of these pipes. This does make your ship a little less agile in the water than it would otherwise be, but when you approach land, your crew starts in on the pumps, pushing a mixture of air and....



Yes, the universal solvent! Generally thought to be useful only to clean out those really stubborn stains, you've figured out a second use for it.

Projected with sufficient force, with a mixture of air, you create what is in effect a cavitation effect in soil enter image description here

Which with the proper mix allows your ship to simply plow through soil as if it were water. Your turning radius isn't great, and if the pumps ever all fail you have some problems, and you want a relatively flat surface. But hey, you can sail on land!

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting, I might use that. Wouldn't that leave huge trenches behind the ship wherever it goes, thought? $\endgroup$ – Jill Jul 25 '18 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ No, the soil would settle like water before the alkahest completely failed. Stopping for long periods might stick you. Need something for that. Maybe there are auxillary pumps along the keel. You would tear up anything you went through, so avoiding fields and roads would be nice. $\endgroup$ – Brizzy Jul 25 '18 at 18:11

How about port facilities that provide you with wheeled trailers? You sail as normal at will and get strapped onto wheels, with minimal hassle, when approaching land.

This is what happens now anyways with (relatively small) yachts: When (anything up to) a traditional wooden boat of say 12 meters gets out of the water where I live, typically every two years early winter, you sail to the inclined plane of the harbour where somebody has rolled a trailer into the water (attached to a tractor or a fixed winch), you somewhat fasten the boat to the trailer and the boat gets dragged out. You need a lot of power, because it's a 20degree or more slope. [[Bigger boats in other locations get lifted out with cranes, which give opportunities for disasters, cranes toppling or cradling bands snapping or boats sliding out --- enough videos on YouTube.]] Once out of the water, mostly the weight keeps the boat in place on the trailer.

Now in your situation, the terrain would be suitable and an economy would have sprung up around it. So you'd have wide open hard sandy beaches (or purpose-built causeway across) connecting to flat(tish) hinterland giving clean and sufficient wind (obstacles cause turbulence). Then there's no need for external power as there's no steep incline, nor seawalls blocking wind, nor sharp corners from incline to workyard. So the receiving harbourmaster in his watchtower sees your boat approach from far, directs you to the right lane ---one for large boats, multiple for smaller boats; possibly more destinations out for smaller boats as they're more manoeuvrable and can be pushed/turned manually at a pinch-,--- and he'll have a correctly-rated trailer ready for your boat to fasten to; you'll rent this trailer until you return to this (or an allied, see the Hanseatic League) port where you reverse the move.

Note that on average, during the day wind goes from beach to land but at night from land to beach; this due to temperature difference causing air pressure difference. Thus scheduling to return to the same beach isn't ruled out, as it isn't pure chance how the wind will blow, so some economic infrastructure can be sketched out for this. Or you can imagine some sort of guiderail-infrastructure crisscrossing the hinterland, taking over the role of a keel/sword in sailboats.

I'd have a large flat deserted island with cities on hilly outcrops where something special is mined; otherwise either the houses in the plain would get randomly destroyed (day or night) by these rather hard-to-stop juggernauts, or there would be no reason for crossing this desert and hence all this infrastructure. And maybe tricky creatures/crevasses in that desert, making foot/horseback/camelback travel unwise, and robust boats the answer; otherwise the jump from individual/caravan travel to the large cooperative setup required might not be feasible.

  • $\begingroup$ The trailer idea sounds smart, but I'm not sure it solves the issue of weight. Plus, for narrative reasons, there can't be adapted ports, it's a single specific ship, not a common way of travelling. $\endgroup$ – Jill Jul 25 '18 at 10:18

A short hail to vikings in the other answer.


Basically, relatively small ships can be howled by manual labour or horse power over some distance and relatively smooth land areas, typically from a river to another river or lake. In Scotland and Ireland such places are known as tarberts. In canoeing this is also known as a "carry".

enter image description here Image source.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.