My world is set in ancient times on a planet similar to Earth, but with a different civilization and different geography (and lots of canals). I need to find a way of giving the inhabitants better mobility at sea and on canals. Wind is not reliable enough as it may not blow and when it does blow it might blow from the wrong direction. Human oar power is always available but it’s too slow.

What innovations might an ancient civilization utilize to speed up sea transport? Whatever is used needs to be plausibly discoverable or inventible by the ancient society. The society can be considered to be as inquisitive as necessary, but can’t use steam power or any more modern sources of power. Historically anachronistic artefacts may be used provided there is a plausible mechanism for their discovery or invention (if used please describe).

  • $\begingroup$ You may wish to find out why Viking ships were relatively fast just with sails and oars. $\endgroup$ Nov 4, 2019 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ Depending how fictional you want to go, you could consider underwater draft animals such as conscripted fish or dolphins to pull your ships $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Nov 4, 2019 at 17:52
  • $\begingroup$ Actually you can speed up sail-powered ships quite a bit from ancient civilization levels just by better design. Roman or even medieval ships could do about 4-6 kts, on average. Clipper ships of the 1800s could average around 16 kts on long voyages, while modern cargo ships do around 24 kts. And of course canal boats would be pulled by horses or other draft animals. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Nov 4, 2019 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ Why is steam power not allowed? Humans have used heat and steam as power for a very long time (in different forms). $\endgroup$
    – Trevor
    Nov 4, 2019 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ Well problem is, to use steam effectively early on, you need quite advanced metalurgy and decent knowledge of engineering to do it. Toys like Hero's Aeolipile are interesting, but not really practical and without some era-defying genius like Da Vinci or Archimedes, working design only be reached through slow progression. $\endgroup$ Nov 4, 2019 at 19:27

3 Answers 3


Domesticated animals

Humans are not very strong animals, so in our history our productivity took a big step up when we learned to domesticate animals and extract their superior muscle power. Canals have never been a fast way to travel, but they were a lot faster than eighteenth-century roads, and one horse could 'carry' an awful lot more load pulling a barge than it could pulling a cart.

To speed up movement, make more powerful domesticated animals available. For canals, a huge docile herbivore with six or eight legs that's capable of pulling a heavy load for a long time at a reasonable speed. To extend that concept to the open seas you need an easily-domesticatable sea animal like a whale or dolphin, again capable of speed and carrying power. In both cases you need a creature which can survive by foraging on the surrounding ecosystem, but which can also get all its nutritional needs from spending a short time eating a high-energy food supplied by the humans, thereby leaving most of its time available for load-pulling.


On the sea, the best you can get is sail ships, if you're not willing to accept steam as an option. If you want to speed that up a bit, make sure your people have discovered and mapped Ocean currents.

As for cannals, apart from oars, you can also go for paddlewheels. Yeah, paddlewheel ships, but not ones running on steam, but ones running on animal power.

Either way, don't expect too much speed, without magic or steam, the fastest you can get is a Clipper, and that's if you're willing to sacrifice carry weight for speed. Also, you cannot expect your ancient craftsmen to be anywhere skilled and equipped with tools good enough to make ships this fast.



Simply having good, standardized, well-maintained canals should do the trick. With roads on the sides so that draft animals (or people) can tow the barges against or without winds. Where locks are required, they have the standard size to allow standard barges through.

Ocean Craft:

  • Improved rigging. There was a lot going on, all the way to the 20th century. Some rigs were optimized for easy handling by a small crew, others for sailing as far upwind as possible. Come up with the schooner rig as early as possible.
  • Related to that, improved weaving. Sturdy, densely woven sails.
  • Copper or lead plating. Copper plating could be too expensive early on, but lead may be an alternative.
  • Improved navigation. A good mechanical clock would probably push suspension of disbelief more than an improved rig, so assume that latitude is more important than longitude in your world, by making continents and even big islands run north to south.
  • Improved provisions: Make them understand the remedies against scurvy even if they do not understand the biochemistry behind it, and introduce many different preservation techniques (pickling, fermenting, etc.) for variety.
  • $\begingroup$ Mechanical clock is not really needed. "Lunar distance" had been in wide use until mid XIX century. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Nov 4, 2019 at 22:57

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