I have a community that subsists mostly on whaling. Because wood is scarce, they use boats made of bones and skin, kinda like Inuit. I would like them to continue using skin and bone as much as possible even as their technology advances, but I can't find any examples bigger/stronger than umiak, probably for a reason.

People operating the ships are quite heavy, but way stronger than normal humans (tall as a modern person, with musculature similar to neanderthal, plus magic making them even stronger).

What factors do I need to consider to make big ships of this king possible? Making up animals with convenient traits isn't a problem, a little magic is allowed, but I would like to keep it to minimum.

If such ships are possible, what would be their advantages/drawbacks?

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    $\begingroup$ Main problem: organic mater decomposes, so you'll need these bones and skin to undergo special treatment/magic protection for them to last longer. If your giant marine behemoths have bones as dense as wood and resistant enough skin, I'd expect to see sail ships up to the side of Caravels. $\endgroup$ Jun 29, 2020 at 1:44

2 Answers 2


The maximum length of such a ship would be about 93 feet long. This question is right up my alley because I know a thing or two about ships.

The type of wood that bone is as strong as can be seen on Mythbusters - poplar.

It really depends on the needs of the culture in question when it comes to building boats and ships.

The main difference between a boat and a ship is that a boat is any vessel below 500 tons in displacement, while a ship is above 500 tons. In this context, the limit for such boats would be 97 tons displacement if they are made out of bone and skin. This is a decent size and is suitable for a whaling culture.

The main advantage is that they would be three times faster to build than a wooden boat. It can take months or even years to dry good lumber and the boat builder has to prepare the lumber. It's a long process. A boat can take dozens if not over a hundred trees to build.

The downside for the bone and skin boat in the 97 ton option is how hard it would be to make the keel. They'd no doubt work around that. Humans always find solutions to problems.

The strength of the bone-framed hull would be almost identical to a wooden one of equal length and displacement.

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    $\begingroup$ Is all bone as strong as poplar, or is human bone as strong as poplar? $\endgroup$ Jun 29, 2020 at 3:33
  • $\begingroup$ it was human thigh bone i saw them test, and that bone broke at 600 Lbs of force, but animal bone would naturally be stronger than human bone because most animals, unlike most humans, eat what they're supposed to. Also because most people procrastinate when it comes to keeping healthy. as for me, I routinely do up to 40 miles a day on my bicycle. $\endgroup$ Jun 29, 2020 at 3:38
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    $\begingroup$ You can put a boat on a ship, but you can't put a ship on a boat. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Jun 29, 2020 at 7:59
  • $\begingroup$ "A boat is any thing below 500 tons in displacement, while a ship is above 500 tons": maybe in the 21st century that's true, I don't know. But I am absolutely sure that a 100 tons burthen vessel was considered a perfectly reasonable ship (commercial or military) from the Antiquity to the Renaissance and well into the Early Modern period. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 29, 2020 at 9:55
  • $\begingroup$ That is a fairly arbitrary definition of boat vs ship. I give you another one: “A ship has a Captain, a boat operates by consent”. (Read one in a fantasy novel some years ago. Can’t recall the which novel, but I found the phrase apt.) $\endgroup$
    – Tonny
    Jun 30, 2020 at 10:48

The limits are the same or even greater than wooden ships. Large animal bones are relativly stronger - they need to hold greater weight. And skin is much lighter per square meter than wooden hull.

The bigest serial wooden ships (with lots of metal parts) were manila_galleons. They were about 50 meters long, about 20 meters wide and had a gross weight above 2 000 tons.

So you may expect skin-bone ship to have gross weight about 2000-2500 tons and be about 50-60 meters long.

But you would realy need to kill all the mamonths and whales in the area to build even couple of such ships (not all bones and skin parts a suitable for construction). And they would not last longer than wooden analog. And since animals grow biomass at least ten times slower than woods - bone and skin is highly impractical building material for large boats and ships.

It would be much more practiacal to have large fleet of drakkar-like ships (about 30m long, about 50-200 t gross-weight).


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