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Magic is extremely common, it is essentially part of the dna of each race. Each race has magical power that allows them to better dominate their native environment. One race can shapeshift, other can create and control fire/heat, etc...

One of these races evolved with a sea-faring lifestyle. They are spread arround the world and vary greatly in culture and traditions due to this geographic distribution, but they are regarded as the best sailors wherever they are found. Naturally their innate magic plays a role in their naval dominance,but what role?

I've been thinking about this for quite a while, but I still have not found a satisfatory solution: What kind of magic would aid sailing the most? I came up with a few candidates, but I am probably forgetting some obviously better options. I am not interested in creating overly powered individuals, but racial advantages, so if magic is too powerful, it might need many individuals to power it.

Precognition: being able to predict the near future, or at least what it is likely to happen if everything stays the same (and they hardly do). Precognition is particularly useful to predict the weather, as there is few things that would stop or cause a storm to happen out of nowhere, giving them a nice strategic edge.

Weatherkynesis: a more straight foward way of influencing the travel. Due to my own rule, it would take many of them to make grand feats, e.g. it would take a fleet to create or dismiss a sea storm. Not my favorite as it do not benefit individual sailors and its overpower (if you try to outnaval them, they can just send a storm to destroy the enemy fleet).

Hydrokynesis: the most intuitive of the bunch. They might not be better them others at predicting the weather or avoiding pirates and sea-monsters, but once they get caught in these situations they are able to handle themselves better than most, being able to break the most dangerous waves, extract drinkable water from the sea and outrun other ships of similar size.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think the most useful would being able to lower the viscosity of water/saltwater within a few inches of the ship's hull. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Jun 30 at 19:50
  • $\begingroup$ That guy with his cheeks puffed out on old maps and navigational charts before the steamship era <i>blowing wind</i>. $\endgroup$
    – Sharmani
    Jun 30 at 22:43
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnO Viscosity is not really a factor in fluid resistance. It only matters if you are going to move through the same region multiple times (like many ships following after one another), as viscosity mostly governs how fast the fluid calms down after you have passed. The reason people think it affects resistance, I believe, is because it definitely affects resistance when stirring in a cup. However, in that case, the resistance you feel when stirring syrup, but not when stirring water is the fact that you get the water moving around the cup quickly, but the syrup just stays put. $\endgroup$
    – Arthur
    Jun 30 at 23:18
  • $\begingroup$ What type of sailing: combat, trade, or exploration? Is the world map known, or not? Can the other races sail, and are they at war with each other? How viable is land war vs naval war? Does the seafaring race want to subjugate the other ones militarily? or just discover expensive commodities? $\endgroup$
    – smci
    Jul 1 at 20:20
  • $\begingroup$ An anti-sea-sickness spell. :-) Well that would help me the most. $\endgroup$
    – StephenG
    Jul 1 at 20:28

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First and foremost: sailing within sight of the shore is generally not a huge challenge. The real problems arise when you sail far away from shore.

Anything that aids with navigation

One of the biggest problems that faced the sailing world was that they didn't have GPS. The closest things were the stars and the sun, but the stars are only useful if you know the constellations (and when the weather is clear, and at night) -- so sailors from the northern hemisphere became lost if they sailed south, and vice-versa -- and the sun is only helpful if you have a good clock, which is an obstacle in determining your East-West position (aka longitude). This last is actually a huge problem that loomed over all seafaring nations for a long time, and it's had major impacts on history.

There's a brief non-fiction book by Dava Sobel called Longitude, which lays all this out in detail. Most of this section of my answer is taken from (my memory of) that. The subtitle is "The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time", and every word in that is 100% accurate. The problem was to accurately measure longitude by building a seaworthy clock.

You can't figure your longitude from the sun's position if you don't know the correct time. The problem is that clocks of the day were pretty bad; they lost many seconds or even minutes each day. So, you couldn't just synchronize watches on shore, because they'd be inaccurate before long and thus foul your navigation. Why?

Clocks of the day were either spring-wound or pendulum-driven. Pendulums do not fare well on ships that roll with the waves. Springs don't hold up well under the humid, salty air at sea. These were insurmountable engineering problems. The best minds of the Western world dedicated themselves to this task for centuries, with little progress to show for it. Kings set gargantuan bounties for anyone who could demonstrate a working solution.

IIRC, the guy who eventually solved this was a self-taught inventor who constructed a mechanical clock that was both tightly-sealed against the environment, and used a couple of redundant systems to counteract each others' predictable drift. I think it was a little bigger than a microwave oven, made of wood and metal, but was sturdy enough to go to sea. His solution was exactly what everyone needed, but the Crown stiffed him. Read the book, it's great.

Umberto Eco wrote a wonderful novel called The Island of the Day Before, which talks about some real crazy things Europeans did to try to solve the longitude problem. One theory that stuck out was the belief that there was some kind of sympathetic link between a weapon and the wounds it inflicts. So the thinking went: if you cut yourself with a knife, and then later the knife is heated, your wound will hurt, no matter how far you are from the knife. So, one experiment in the book is that a sailing ship would take aboard a dog that had been cut with a knife. Over the course of the voyage, they would deliberately prevent the wound from closing and healing (which is monstrous). Meanwhile, back on the shore, they would heat the knife every day at precisely noon, the idea being that the sailors would know from the dog's yelping that it was noon, which then allowed them to figure out their longitude from the sun's position1.

So, as far as magic: anything that can be used to reliably tell the time, even just once per day, would have been an absolute godsend. The caster would likely be the most highly paid person on the ship, even moreso than the captain or navigator, and all they'd need to do is report the exact time.

Or you could short-circuit the complicated navigational reckoning and just have the caster know the ship's true position. It would have been revolutionary. The political history of Europe would be different, because fortunes were lost due to navigational mishaps.

Anything that allows them to grow fresh fruit

Scurvy killed about half of all sailors during the Age of Sail. If you went to sea, you probably died from scurvy. Here's a pretty good summary of how bad it was:

Scurvy killed more than two million sailors between the time of Columbus's transatlantic voyage and the rise of steam engines in the mid-19th century. The problem was so common that shipowners and governments assumed a 50% death rate from scurvy for their sailors on any major voyage

-- Science History's Age of Scurvy

No kidding.

Scurvy is what happens when your body runs out of Vitamin C. Many parts of the human body need C, and when you don't get it, each fails at a different rate and in a different way. The results are bad. It's painful, and the brain also stops working right, so you also go kind of crazy. There is some speculation that famous sea monsters like the kraken, mermaids, and the like are actually based on sincere accounts from sailors who were suffering from scurvy. IIRC, it takes 3-4 weeks for the first symptoms of scurvy to appear. Here's a list of selected symptoms from Wikipedia:

  • weakness
  • feeling tired and sore arms and legs
  • gum disease
  • bleeding from the skin
  • poor wound healing
  • personality changes

(That last item is a clever euphemism for being so delirious every waking moment as to be "bat-shit crazy.")

Left untreated, scurvy is always fatal.

The cure for scurvy has been discovered and then lost again at least 7 times in history. The final time it was discovered, it was the result of the first major experiment carried out under what modern society would consider "science": with a hypothesis, an experimental design, control and experimental groups, etc. And even then they almost bungled it -- and Science with it -- because after they confirmed that Vitamin C (from lime juice, IIRC) is how you keep scurvy away, the process they used to mass-produce C supplies for the Royal Navy used copper tubing, which denatured the C, rendering it worthless. This caused them to briefly reject not only their conclusion but the new-fangled "scientific" methodology they'd used to reach it.

It is no exaggeration to say that scurvy didn't just kill more sailors than all other dangers combined, it almost killed the enterprise of modern science itself.

So, magically: anything that helps you grow fresh fruit at sea. That could be the classic rain-maker, or it could be the ability to simply grow a healthy plant from a seed without water & nutrients. Or I guess if you could just summon fruit. (If you can teleport supplies, that undermines a lot of the purpose of sailing -- not all, but a lot: just teleport the goods you're shipping, or the travelers or colonists or whatever.)

Weather control

Last, but still pretty good, would be the ability to control the weather.

Most importantly here would be the ability to control the wind. Sailing ships can literally only go where the wind blows. So, it's not accurate to think of the Atlantic Ocean as a giant open space where people can sail anywhere they want. More accurately, it was a vast desert with only a couple of specific routes that could be traveled, those routes being the trade winds.

The trade winds are in specific places, and they blow in specific directions. And the wind isn't exactly guaranteed, either. Ships were lost with all hands because they got stuck in the doldrums and ran out of supplies before they could reach a port. Also, by traveling along known routes, you're an easy mark for pirates.

A ship that could make its own wind could sail in any direction and by any route it chose. That would be a terrific advantage in trade, war, and exploration. You could sail in a straight line at top speed the entire way.

You almost might not need good navigation if you could guarantee the wind will blow a specific direction for the entire voyage (which would literally be a major miracle even if it happened only one time in history). A ship that could do this reliably would be so fantastically fortunate it's almost hard to imagine the impacts.

Of course, control over other aspects of the weather would be enormously valuable as well. For one, summoning rain would help combat scurvy, because you could keep plants alive. Not even grow new ones, just keep the ones alive that you brought with you from shore.

Also, bad weather at sea was a big danger. Storms absolutely sank ships, even without making them crash into things. Masts can snap, vessels can capsize, and a ship can only carry so many spares (and carpenters). Bad weather also makes navigation hard, and once the storm is past, you have to reacquire your position (which is its own challenge). Being able to prevent storms won't help you get to your destination or even know where you are, but it does reduce the risk of a successful voyage turning into a catastrophe in just a few hours.


To the very best of my knowledge, these were the three greatest problems in the Age of Sail: not knowing where you are, not being able to go where and when you want, and probably dying painfully because all your organs (especially including your brain) independently shut down before you can get there.

There are probably countless ways to tackle each of those problems. Any magic that engages with even one of them will be an incalculable boon; anything that fails to mitigate at least one of them will fail to fundamentally alter a vessel's chances of success.


1 Minor clarification: the sailors would know that it was noon back home at that instant. From that, and the sun's apparent position, they could work out how far East they'd traveled.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem with anti-scurvy magic is that (as you point out) people kept latching onto different theories on what caused scurvy in the first place. Magic might help them supply vitamin C at sea, but it won't help them establish that it's necessary to do so, which by all accounts is the difficult part. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Jun 30 at 5:29
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    $\begingroup$ They didn't know it was vitamin C specifically, but it was long known that fresh fruit kept scurvy away. The reason the C experiment was a game-changer is that fruit juice keeps longer than fresh fruit. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Jun 30 at 5:40
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    $\begingroup$ For the second item, why not skip the middleman and just magically generate vitamin C in the body or remove the need for it in the first place? (c.f., OP's, "One race can shapeshift... " etc.) $\endgroup$ Jun 30 at 21:02
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    $\begingroup$ As an addition, producing fresh drinkable water, either from nowhere or by purifying seawater. $\endgroup$
    – Shadur
    Jul 1 at 11:36
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielR.Collins I mean, vitamin C wouldn't have to be created magically. Most animals in the real world create ascorbate quite naturally. We just have a gene defect that makes it a vitamin in the first place. It's quite conceivable that a certain group of people would re-evolve the ability to produce the substance, especially if there is enough evolutionary pressure due to their ascorbate-poor lifestyle out at sea. $\endgroup$
    – Christian
    Jul 1 at 13:53
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Wind-power solves almost all their problems

Hands-down the single most useful magical trait for a pre-steamship oceanic society is the ability to produce/manipulate winds. It needn't be as powerful as "summon/dissipate hurricanes" either. The "simple" ability to maintain a strong wind from astern and divert a headwind would make them damn near unconquerable and incomparable sailors.

It makes you militarily superior. Being independent of the wind in battle is hugely advantageous. If you can maintain best speed no matter where you are on the compass, your enemy will be slaughtered and it won't even be close. Or you'll be able to near-effortlessly flee overwhelming force. You can also attempt tactics your opponent's couldn't even dream of. For example, Age of Sail fleet combat relied on lines of ships sailing one after another. This was for Command and Control purposes, but also because it was a known fact that a fleet sailing in different directions would A: become widely scattered and have trouble coming to the aid of the whole fleet (Squadron A might be able to help squadron B "downwind" of them, but Squadron B couldn't help squadron A because it would take too long to sail into the wind.) and B: having an element of your fleet detached in such a manner ensured SOMEBODY was sailing without the weather gauge regardless of what happens. If your fleet doesn't care about the wind it can suddenly do all sorts of strategic and tactical things the your opponents can't.

An secondary bonus is that it makes you MUCH less likely to develop scurvy or other afflictions. Why? Because you ALWAYS know how long it'll take to get from point A to point B. Most ships where scurvy developed in the Age of Sail packed something to combat it (fresh fruits & veggies) but ran out before they got where they were going. Why? Bad winds. Or no winds at all. Your ships, with their constant "perfect point of sail" winds, no longer have that problem. Just being able to say "we can with 99% certainty leave port X and arrive at port Y in 10 days" makes your crews largely immune to vitamin deficiencies.

Finally it makes you the #1 Best Choice for cargo transport. City needs 100 tons of grain a day? Give THAT charter to the people that will never get becalmed for 2 weeks. Need a packet ship to deliver the God-Emperor's orders to a far-flung colony? Give it to the people that will always make it in 2 weeks both directions.

Like I said, it doesn't even need to be storm-making/breaking levels. A hurricane or typhoon can be seen and usually outrun. Or if not, the minor wind-breaking can at least lesson the fury of the winds hitting the ship directly, or allow you to "run before the storm" knowing the second you're out of it you can get back without worrying you were blown into a region with unfavorable prevailing winds.

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  • $\begingroup$ Adding to this, making the power small enough to only affect the ships sails (instead of an area of weather) is better than large-scale weather changes $\endgroup$
    – Mirror318
    Jun 30 at 23:53
  • $\begingroup$ This was going to be my answer. You missed a bit though: How does it benefit individual sailors? The trick is to make it additive. The more sailors you have providing the affect, the better the ship performs. Also, make the crew excellent archers. $\endgroup$
    – ShadoCat
    Jul 1 at 19:51
  • $\begingroup$ Make the crew sport a miniaturized version of Aang's airbending. $\endgroup$ Jul 2 at 16:53
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Hydrokinesis is more powerful than you think

Hydrokinesis effectively allows your ships to no longer need sails because they now have the equivalent of water jets. This is huge because it means the ship never suffers from being 'becalmed' or stuck in place because there is no wind.

The ships are also much more maneuverable than any sailing ship. Yes, a sailing ship can, with good math, skilled sailors, and proper sail shape and design sail against the wind. Your ships don't need any of that to sail against the wind... or against any currents... or any direction they please just by aiming your hydrokinesis wielders in a different direction.

Your ships basically don't have to worry about pirates or weather at all. On the open ocean, you can see threats like major storms or enemy ships from far off and then... just go around them long before they become a threat.

In fact, your civilization is much more likely to BE the pirates. They can operate very fast, very versatile crafts that are harder for other ships to spot and much much harder for other ships to avoid. Without the need for sails and masts, there is more room for personnel and cannons. There is also a very big incentive to destroy the masts of enemy ships so that they become dead in the water... yet still completely usable by your hydrokinetic civilization.

Sea monsters are a different problem. Churning up the sea to move your ship might attract beasts from the depths that a traditional sailing ship would not have attracted.

The most important side-effects of hydrokinesis probably include that your ship builders will think about building ships differently. The speed of a ship is no longer related to the number of masts and the size of the sails a ship can hold, but instead how many hydrokinesis wielders fit aboard. You no longer need any strong fabrics for actually constructing the sails. This means the ship building industry isn't reliant on the textile industry at all in this society.

In freshwater, your hydrokinesis society would not care too much about the flow of rivers. Any waterway is a high-speed low-cost transport highway. Small crafts with a lone hydrokinesis wielder are effectively jet-skis.

The only drawback is that once you start using hydrokinesis to create water jet powered crafts... your civilization is no longer actually 'sailing'.

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As a plot device already used in the Odyssey, controlling the winds is a great aid for navigation

After the escape, Aeolus gave Odysseus a leather bag containing all the winds, except the west wind, a gift that should have ensured a safe return home.

Having always favorable winds is a great aid, both in trade and war, even without the need of throwing a storm at your enemies/competitor.

Of course, if needed, you can scale up the effort and play seriously, but the effort has to be proportional to the gain, as in everything.

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    $\begingroup$ So, Odysseus really had everything going for him until he was unnecessarily rude to Polyphemus after escaping. Talk about a critical fail. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Jul 1 at 2:01
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This answer is somewhat of an addition to the other answers posted rather than a completely independent one.

I think you're asking two different questions here.

The first is the title question, what magic aids sailing the most and that's the one people have mostly answered and answered very effectively. But in the body of your question you say that this race is regarded as the best sailors around the world and their magic must play a role in that, but what role?

The reason these questions are different is that the magic which is best for sailing won't necessarily make your race known for being the best sailors.

For example:

A couple of answers have been the ability to grow fresh fruit and by implication fresh veg and potentially any plants on the ships. While on ships this means no scurvy on land this means your race just has an inexhaustible and completely reliable supply of food and drinking water, just juice the fruit, meaning their not the best sailors they're just the best. Their forts can't be taken by siege only by assault, their armies don't need to disband for the harvest as they don't have a harvest time and depending on how quickly the plants are grown their armies may not even need supply lines. Their style of warfare would probably just be to send raiding parties in to burn everyone else's crops and then when the inevitable famine happens just supply food in exchange for capitulation. Areas like deserts and mountains which are typically really inhospitable because its so hard to get food there suddenly become very desirable as that lack of food isn't an issue for them but is for their enemies.

Controlling the wind is useful on ships as it means your not beholden to the trade winds and you can't be becalmed. But on land it means you have an inexhaustible supply of power. For most of history if you needed large amounts of reliable constant power you either needed huge teams of people/animals working in shifts or a waterwheel both of which have drawbacks. People and animals can be anywhere but need a large infrastructure to feed and house them while waterwheels need a river strong enough to power it. Windmills where known about and used but wind power is notoriously unreliable and like waterwheels they can't be just placed anywhere they need constant wind to be useful. If you can control the wind though then that's everywhere. As an example of what they could do with it look up Sinhalese monsoon furnaces, people on Sri Lanka where using monsoon winds to make high quality steel in large amounts as early as 700ad and maybe as early as 300bc, so if your race can control the wind that's year long production of good steel centuries before anyone else. You could also use it to power sail driven chariots for communication or trade or even war, historically horses were only really used by the rich because they're very expensive to breed and maintain, sails are not. Or airships and hot air balloons, not hard to build and could be really useful for reconnaissance but the fickle nature of the wind makes them unreliable.

Controlling the sea with hydrokinesis is a bit a different and might be viable as it's not a huge help on land. River trade would be greatly enhanced but you couldn't supercharge waterwheels really as rivers only have so much water in them. The main problem with it is that if we're in a navel battle and I can literally control the sea in any meaningful way then I've won the battle. Which in turn means that this race won't be regarded as the best sailors, they'll be the only sailors. Everyone else will have to hire this race's ships or hire members of this race to crew their ships because if they don't their ships will at best be so out competed they'll be uneconomical or at worst they'll just get sunk.

Precognition which you mention yourself is also useful at sea but also super useful on land, military campaigns come to mind in particular. If you know what the enemy are planning maybe even before they know themselves, you will almost certainly dominate the battlefield. Similarly buffing the sailors while good at sea would also be really good in an army or just for your workers.

So I would suggest that the best magic would be something like the ability to tell the time once a day as mentioned in Tom's answer. Really useful specifically at sea for navigation but not for much else. However it wouldn't explain why they evolved a sea faring culture to start with.

The ability to breath underwater however would. As well as the advantages mentioned in Clair's answer it would also provide an incentive/justification for this race to live near the sea. Which in turn would mean they would evolve a sea faring culture and so have the most experience with ships and the sea and that could be why they are regarded as the best sailors. Also when they do have an accident which sinks their ship they're much less likely to die meaning they can learn from it further improving their skills. They're not so overpowered that they're the only people to sail the sea they're just the best.

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    $\begingroup$ "this race is regarded as the best sailors around the world and their magic must play a role in that, but what role?" -- Good point. For a somewhat snarky answer: They could just have a psychic magic power that just convinces everyone that they're good sailors. $\endgroup$
    – LukeN
    Jun 30 at 19:55
  • $\begingroup$ Nice complementary answer. Water wheels wouldn't require rivers. You would only make a large pool of water, fill it up once and cover it to prevent evaporation, then use those hydrokinesis powers to keep it running indefinitely. Plus you have solved irrigation. Wind power is also great both for and against archers. $\endgroup$ Jul 1 at 9:00
  • $\begingroup$ Though a solution would be easy - make power proportional to amount of water nearby. Open ocean with huge waters all around gives powerful effects making these powers unbeatable. Coastal region has still useful powers but nothing game changing. Better than competition but not like you can use just that power to win even naval combat. These powers would be nearly nonexistent on land. $\endgroup$ Jul 1 at 9:05
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Most of what I thought of has already been said. It's all been good stuff. But there is always a few more idea when we come together.

Number one is what you mean by sailing. Just thinking about it summons romantic images of sailing across the cloudless seas. But, I even I like to forget some of less pleasant parts of a sailing ship.

Example... BANG! Your mast collapses. Its not the wind or weather, its just old, and old things break. Not to mention you went calling the port carpenter's father... well these things happen. It's not like that cheapskate would have done a good job anyways.

Now you have your seafaring species on board. Let's see what she can do, if they have genders anyways.

Growing Trees and Manipulating Plants

I once read a story of elves singing to trees to grow them in certain shapes. In both building the ships and sailing them the magic power over would. Plus the dangers of the sea be they rock and cliffs or enemy ships and sea monsters. (I don't know the story or what they'll be facing).

Lumber

Naturally some of these you might be able to do at sea, but they are still useful.

  • Building
  • Repairing
  • Adjusting the Draft
  • Increase Cargo Space
  • Increase Speed in Water

Dangers of the Sea

Rocks and cliffs or enemy ships and sea monsters. (I don't know the story or what they'll be facing).

  • Strengthening the Wood for Impacts
  • Manipulating the Wood to Maneuver

Plants Aboard Ship

Plants and Plant material can be very useful:

  • Sailcloth: A wide variety of materials that from natural fibers, such as flax, hemp or cotton in forms of sail canvas.
  • Birch and Pine Tar: In fantasy, used as a water repellent coating for boats, ships, and roofs.

Food and Drink

Always having fresh fruit by growing it from the ship itself

  • Growing fresh fruit prevents scurvy, don't do scurvy.
  • Fruit juice works as well, just add rum and you got grog.

Tools

I won't go through an exhaustive list but there is plenty that is made from plants not metal, and some metal ones' have wooden equivalents. And I haven't even mentioned rope and twine. You'll find rope everywhere on a sailing ship.

Under the Sea

Now I am focusing on being underwater not controlling it for this section.

The Crew's Worst Nightmare

  • Careening, the practice of grounding a sailing vessel at high tide, in order to expose one side of its hull for maintenance and repairs below the water line when the tide goes out. Maintenance might include repairing damage caused by dry rot or cannon shot, tarring the exterior to reduce leakage, or removing barnacles, to increase the ship's speed.
  • You can just do it underwater in a cove. That way you don't have to beach the ship or pay for dry dock, which is perfect for pirates and explorers.

The Crew's Greatest Joy

  • A sunken Treasure Ship or a submerged Sea Beast; Both worth a fortune.
  • Both expeditions risky, but the crew would likely mutiny than miss the chance.

An Example

I'm including the example for two reasons:

  • Most of the advice seems to be about humans with magic not different races. I may sound contradictory, but, as bad as scurvy is, fish people just won't get it. And you should figure out how they work in nature and in relation to you're characters and plot
  • I worked to get into the mindset type of writing advice you wanted. After an hour or so I realized I wrote a bit more than advice, but I'll leave it here because I think you'll find it helpful.

The Zussi are a group of frogmen clans. All is know is they came from a mangrove near the tropics and have the magical power to connect strongly with the mangrove trees and others although not as strongly. They can manipulate the trees and the extent depends on the tree and Zussi. In their barges you can hear a deep croaking chant. It is quite unnerving.

They keep there homes well-hidden in mangroves along the coasts. Unlike human ships their ships are living barges with long, stout branches that row as they chant. Most are merchants. They trade fish and fruit for an assortment of large bugs and small mammals. No accounting for taste, but it seems everyone likes chicken. Their staple in port is chicken or hare and crickets.

In battle? Not much is known. They mostly fight other clans of different color skins. Their boarding parties submerges before they board. They stay friendly for the most part, but their pirates are terrifying. I heard, if don't surrender, they rip out chunks of your hull underwater. Then they 'salvage'. But they're primitive and smart enough to know it. Just keep in mind, they can through a wooden javelin through a metal cuirass.

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Hydrokinesis

  1. Nearly frictionless hull. Holding a smooth film of water next to the hull will significantly reduce the drag produced by the hull material and any barnacles or similar that would disrupt the smooth flow of water around the hull.
  2. Always sailing 'downhill/downstream'. Raising the water slightly at the stern of the ship will 'push' the ship forward with a steady acceleration, allowing high speeds to be reached. Moving the bulge to the fore of the ship (possibly combined with causing the film to shift to a 'braking' shape) would slow the ship.
  3. Turn on a dime. By moving the water around the ship, the ship itself can be turned very quickly. Adding appropriate bulges would be needed if this was done while moving at high speeds.
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Hypersurf

We live in a world of three dimensions, and sailors work in a world of two. But these sailors know that there is more to the sea than meets the eye - endless vistas of trackless wave where the ordinary mariner may briefly go astray, and in which the unluckiest may vanish never to be found. With their understanding of the higher-order connections of the sea, your special sailors can maneuver out of sight, gradually fading from the privateer's view in previously unnoticed mists, then arrive at their destination in a quarter of the expected time. Others who follow them are likely lost, or may arrive years later with preposterous tales of monsters and mythical islands where men have eyes in their chests and lack heads.

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Frame Challenge: Magic that Helps Sailing is Less Important than Other Factors

Regardless of how good a race's magic is at sailing, they aren't going to sail if they are in a landlocked country. Britain had some of the best navy in the past, because they are from a small island nation.

Furthermore, shipbuilding and technological advancement is the the best way to ensure naval dominance. People in 18th century ships are not going stand a chance against a race with 20th century ships. There is a reason global travel has greatly increased in the last century. All the problems that can be solved with magic can also be solved with science.

Some minor racial characteristics can be significantly more beneficial to sailing than magic. For example, the ability to drink salt water.

Finally, being good at sailing is less important than having a purpose in sailing. Unless there is a reason for them to sail, it doesn't matter how good they are at it. A race that has some reason to be in deep waters a lot of their lives are going to be the best sailors.

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It depends on the things you allow. But looking from a physics standpoint and assuming mana has a loose connection to the amount of force you can generate, I would say that buffing the men on the ship would be the most efficient use of mana and spells.

A breeze across a flat plain contains immense amounts of energy, getting that energy out is the problem. Similarly conjuring up favorable winds would take immense amounts of forces and would likely distort the local weather systems, increasing the chance exceptional weather hits the ship and the mages need to recast their spells. But most of the energy wont even hit the sail, that's a lot of wastws energy!

Buffing your men and using oars to push the boat where you want to go would sound a lot less intensive in comparison. It would allow your oars to have much larger surface area without hindering the rowers in their speed. You can aim the ship more easily where you want, you need less men to change the direction of the sails you would likely still use and potentially you can keep your men healthy and protect them from disease and malnutritions like Scurvy. It also helps ashore where you can load/unload ships faster, keep up their energy on long voyages and fight when necessary.

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They should be thinking with portals. One of the best magical powers is Teleportation.

Together a crew can perform a magical ritual on the deck of their ship that opens up a magical portal that the ship can sail right into, and re-appear somewhere else, leagues away.

Of course if they just teleported from port A to port B, no one would consider them good sailors, and there's not much point in actually using ships, but you could get around that by saying that the ritual takes a while to perform, or requires a lot of open space, or requires salt water and a whale carcass as key components.

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    $\begingroup$ The portal’s radius is r, and a sphere’s volume is is ⁴⁄₃πr³. I suggest you make it a blood sacrifice, where the closer the volume of the carcasses is to 100 % of that sphere, the closer you arrive at your destination. If they have mechanical or magical means to fold or tip their masts, the radius would be much, much smaller. $\endgroup$
    – Canned Man
    Jun 30 at 23:14
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I will attempt answering the question posited in the title by writing it up as a spell:

Sailfish

Target: Part of hull in contact with water.
Casting time: 1 hour (ancestral ritual).
Spell lasts for: 2 hours per level for a maximum of one day and night (24 hours).
Benefit: Hull ignores inertia from water; travel speed thus equals wind speed.
Cost: 1 pound of pure gold dust, a merman’s fin, 1 pint of high-grade codliver oil, life-force.

This secret spell, passed down to first-born children for ages, has allowed the master sailing race to plow through the waters at speeds that seem impossible. Drawn from their inner magical abilities, they are able to channel forth the strength from their soul, inherited from their forebears from many generations ago. These ancient progenitors of their race were shore-dwelling people, able to swim to the deepest depths with ease, and in time developed magical abilities that allowed them to stay underwater longer than should be ‘humanly’ possible. Much time has passed since then, but the magical strength is still within them. Should a competing race somehow steal the secret of the spell from someone, they will be able to cast the spell, but at a terrible cost: Whilst the sea-faring race whom the spell originates with are able to regain the lost life-force over a full day and night of rest with the fresh ocean breeze revitalising them, this is not possible for other races, who do not have the connection to the sea-faring race’s ancestors for whom the spell is meant. Thus few from without have attempted it, and the few who have succeeded have horribly experienced that the price is far to dear to pay lest in the gravest of need.

Note

The sailfish can achieve speeds of nearly 70 mph.

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    $\begingroup$ Sailing vessels rely on the friction between the hull and the water to orient themselves and steer. This spell would make the ship like a balloon, unable to travel in any direction except directly downwind. Without the ability to also control the wind direction, this makes the affected vessel inferior to all other sailing vessels in most situations. $\endgroup$ Jun 30 at 23:29
  • $\begingroup$ I disagree. They could steer with some hovercraft-like implements both at the front and the rear. For hovercraft, this method of steering do not work at low speeds, but at low speeds (such as harbour approaches), this spell would not be useful; at high speeds, the fins behind the fans is the main means of steering the craft, as I understand them. $\endgroup$
    – Canned Man
    Jul 1 at 9:48
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    $\begingroup$ Trying to reference physics in a spell description will certainly lead to lots of problems unless you write up a full scientific paper. Better to just make it sound mysterious, magical. $\endgroup$
    – LukeN
    Jul 1 at 12:55
  • $\begingroup$ Or one could add a little bit of practical mechanics to it, then explain the rest with magic; makes for a pill that is a little bit easier to swallow. $\endgroup$
    – Canned Man
    Jul 3 at 22:37
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Wind control has been mentioned by others, but as a variant, how about controlling water currents? If you could routinely do that, you could construct a boat that doesn't have a sail at all but an underwater surface that makes maximum use of the flow of the water around it, independently from the wind.

While wind magic affects you and your enemies alike, changing the water currents affects your specialized ships much more than the ones having to sail by the wind. You could more or less speed-boat around your enemy's ships.

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Another idea:

Wayfinding:

The elves of Tolkiens middle-earth were able to sail to valinor across a straight line, where any human who tried to do the same would sail the great circle of middle earth and never be able to reach valinor. A wayfinder could find the straight path between two locations and not have to sail across the great circle.

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Definite wind control.

  1. Incoming storm? Either blow it away or sail around it.
  2. Poor navigation sent you to the wrong place? Sail around the coast until you find it.
  3. SPEED. You'll get where you're going a lot faster.
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