Assuming magically animated skeletons capable of projecting the same muscle force as an average human (note: not someone who has trained a bunch or such, average) that are tireless and unceasing, what are the respective benefits and drawbacks of oars versus paddlewheel arrangements for the propulsion of oceangoing warships.

The warships are assumed to be similar in construction and style to medieval Venetian galleys but other kinds of ships (sticking to medieval and maybe renaissance construction abilities) are acceptable.

Weaponry for the ships can be assumed to be those of Middle Ages: rams, arrows, catapults, maybe greek fire or ballista.

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    $\begingroup$ You can easily have a hundred rowers on a galley, and it was done from the Antiquity to the Renaissance -- you have one sweep for each rower or team of two or three rowers. It is very much more difficult to have one hundred people combine their muscular power to turn a paddlewheel. Just try to imagine the complicated mechanical linkages to make it work. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 6, 2020 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP that's not so bad - just imagine a hamster wheel for 100 hamsters. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jul 6, 2020 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ As someone who has done a workout or two, rowing allows the use of many more muscles than paddling, especially if combined with sliding seats. You could push with your legs, curl your back and pull with your arms in one motion. Whereas paddling uses only one of those muscle groups. If your rowers don't get tired, they will output a lot more raw energy when rowing. $\endgroup$
    – Plutian
    Jul 6, 2020 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ Everybody's stuck thinking of pedal-powered paddleboats. In reality, you'd end up with a crankshaft closer in size to the sweep of the oar, like was used to power some US Civil War submarines. Which means you'd end up using the same muscles as for rowing. $\endgroup$ Jul 6, 2020 at 23:27

5 Answers 5


As an alternative to either oars or paddle wheels, you could attach a diver's weight belt and a tow cable to each of your undead and then drop them overboard. Once they sink to the bottom, they could pull your galley along behind them as they walk in whatever direction you command. Since your skeletons no longer need to breath, their efforts need not be confined to the traction-less surface of the water.

...And think about how cool it would look... your galley just floats upstream with no visible means of locomotion.

...Also, during close combat, some of the skeletons can detach their weight belts and swim up to the surface to join the fight while the rest stay still, holding your galley perfectly still so that your archers have a more stable platform to aim from.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think it's practical, but it's too fun an idea not to upvote! $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Jul 6, 2020 at 16:28
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    $\begingroup$ LOL. I hope the galley wouldn't need to go over Mariana trench. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jul 6, 2020 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ Average depth of the ocean is 3500 meters. That's going to be a long rope. $\endgroup$ Jul 6, 2020 at 19:45
  • $\begingroup$ And there are mountains on seabed, so you will have to give them climbing equipment ) $\endgroup$
    – Vashu
    Jul 7, 2020 at 0:36

Besides allowing for much greater maneuverability in combat situations and navigating complex water ways, oars are surprisingly efficient! This study by Cornell puts the efficiency of oars at 84-85%

The real reason for a paddle wheel is to convert rotational energy into motion so you can use your steam engine to turn a paddle wheel and push the boat upstream. With rowers, there is no need for this so having the fine control of paddles makes a lot more sense.

Unlike a paddle wheel, an oar doesn't have a large amount of rotational inertia so the rower can change direction in an instant. Paddles can be raised or lowered in the water to change the amount of force applied to the water per stroke. Finally having a bunch of undead skeletons pushing on what amounts to a paddle boat would look quite silly compared to an army of the undead rowing a Trireme at ramming speed.

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    $\begingroup$ @SurpiseDog It is a fact that the Chinese used man powered paddle boats and ships since the early Middle Ages. Presumably each type of paddle driven craft that was used was considered to be superior to oar driven equivalents in one way or another. $\endgroup$ Jul 6, 2020 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ @M.A.Golding do you have a reference? $\endgroup$
    – UVphoton
    Jul 6, 2020 at 18:45
  • $\begingroup$ @UVPhoton My answer has a reference. $\endgroup$ Jul 8, 2020 at 18:04

what are the respective benefits and drawbacks of oars versus paddlewheel arrangements for the propulsion of oceangoing warships.

Paddle wheels definitely!

If these creatures have anything like the mentality of zombies, the co-ordination needed to row as a team is going to be way beyond them. Also steering on a rowed boat depends largely on the rowers and less so on the tiller. These skeletons may be capable of learning to make crude rowing movements individually but the fine details are going to are going to be a nightmare.

I suggest that they do have zombie mentality and they run relentlessly toward anything living that is nearby.

The ship design would have two large hamster-wheels that are side-by-side but divided by a screen. These are each connected to a paddle wheel. A crew member could stand enticingly in front (or behind) each wheel to make them run in the desired direction. When turning, one of the crew members can hide and the other can move nearer to their hamster-wheel, causing the runners to speed up. To stop, both 'target' crew members disappear from view. To turn on the spot, one crew member stands in front of their tread-wheel and the other stands behind theirs.

Sorry, it would have taken too long to edit in a full team of skeletons, but here's the idea.

enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ note a persons skeleton will be very light making a treadmill vastly less effective. a human skeleton only weighs around ~20-30 lbs. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 6, 2020 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ @John - Not a problem - give each a backpack filled with lead. $\endgroup$ Jul 6, 2020 at 22:33
  • $\begingroup$ that picture is 2spoopy5me $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Jul 7, 2020 at 8:13
  • $\begingroup$ @John Or use a curve treadmill $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Jul 8, 2020 at 13:29

I am not an expert on the relative merits of oars and man powered paddlewheels.

But it is a historic fact that man powered paddlewheel boats and ships were used in China for centuries, so it may be presumed that they had some advantages over oars for some purposes.


The first mention of a paddle-wheel ship from China is in the History of the Southern Dynasties, compiled in the 7th century but describing the naval ships of the Liu Song Dynasty (420–479) used by admiral Wang Zhen'e in his campaign against the Qiang in 418 AD. The ancient Chinese mathematician and astronomer Zu Chongzhi (429–500) had a paddle-wheel ship built on the Xinting River (south of Nanjing) known as the "thousand league boat".[16] When campaigning against Hou Jing in 552, the Liang Dynasty (502–557) admiral Xu Shipu employed paddle-wheel boats called "water-wheel boats". At the siege of Liyang in 573, the admiral Huang Faqiu employed foot-treadle powered paddle-wheel boats. A successful paddle-wheel warship design was made in China by Prince Li Gao in 784 AD, during an imperial examination of the provinces by the Tang Dynasty (618–907) emperor.[17] The Chinese Song Dynasty (960–1279) issued the construction of many paddle-wheel ships for its standing navy, and according to the British biochemist, historian, and sinologist Joseph Needham:

"...between 1132 and 1183 (AD) a great number of treadmill-operated paddle-wheel craft, large and small, were built, including sternwheelers and ships with as many as 11 paddle-wheels a side,".[18]

The standard Chinese term "wheel ship" was used by the Song period, whereas a litany of colorful terms were used to describe it beforehand. In the 12th century, the Song government used paddle-wheel ships en masse to defeat opposing armies of pirates armed with their own paddle-wheel ships. At the Battle of Caishi in 1161, paddle-wheelers were also used with great success against the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234) navy.[19] The Chinese used the paddle-wheel ship even during the First Opium War (1839–1842) and for transport around the Pearl River during the early 20th century.


So a study of the history of man powered paddlewheel vessels in China to see what their uses were and how they compared to oar powered vessels would be useful.

Of course your undead zombie crew would not get tired or need food and water like living crew members. And that should change the relative benefits of using oars or paddlewheels in ways I can't think of at the moment.


Please Note:

I have no real experience in either paddleboats or rowboats, but I believe the relative benefits of undead in the sailing/shipping industry are obvious.


  1. No Pay Required-Undead workers follow orders without question and without pay.

  2. No Food or Water Required-For obvious reasons, undead do not require food or water, or even air for that matter.

  3. Reliability-Zombies and skeletons operate (or can operate) at maximum performance 24/7. They need no breaks, they do not hesitate, and they can keep working as hard as they can for as long as required. If they can be "programmed" to follow simple commands (even lists of simple commands) then you essentially have robots that can spring into action and rectify the situation when emergencies arise.

However, in most settings, the undead do not have the awareness and/or intelligence to recognize problems (or potential problems) in their environment and act accordingly, so this is probably a moot point.


  1. Decomposition-Unless some magical and/or natural preservation techniques are maintaining your undead, they'll come apart when exposed to moisture, microbes, rats, or fungi. For the sake of #3 above, your zombies should really have some Enchantments of Preservation or high-grade mummification or resin coatings to keep them "fresh."

  2. Lack of awareness/intelligence-As stated in #3 above, most undead lack all but the most rudimentary intelligence and awareness of their environment. This leads to problems akin to what I sometimes experience with computers; since they only understand one language, and they have no creativity, lots of orders will get misinterpreted or lost in translation.

Basically, undead need either advanced "programming," higher intelligence, or a living being directing them in order to be helpful when situations change and initiative is required. However, in emergency situations, hesitation, panic, and even fainting are common, and that essentially takes out any advantage to a living director.

In any emergency situation, you have at least a 10% chance of the director (captain?) being overcome and becoming absolutely useless, which results in failure and likely death as well.

  1. Lack of precision-Undead are not known for fine motor control. Clumsy, robotic undead are a common fixture of any setting that include undead, and that would make rowing the obviously inferior choice. However, if undead retain the skills they had in life, or if they are capable of learning and executing tasks with precision, rowing is a more aesthetically pleasing (and perhaps more advantageous!) option.

In summary, it depends on the undead in your setting.


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