The (as of yet pretty ill-defined) setting of one of my worldbuilding projects is the Vārẽn Sea (working title). It's a large gulf that opens into waters with a large amount of small islands, similar to the South China or Agean Sea, or to a lesser extent the Gulf of Mexico or Hudson Bay. There isn't very much wind in the sea itself, with stronger winds in the open sea that facilitate trade with faraway civilizations to the North and South. The dominating society of the region (the Vārẽn) are seafarers and traders, and as a result also make long journeys outside of the sea to nearby nations further north and south.

My question is: what would be the most likely design of their ships?

Would they use oar galleys to navigate the many islands and calm seas? Would they just use sailing ships intended for the rougher journeys on open seas even in the small island chains around their homes?

If they do use sails, I'm also struggling with how they might actually rig them. They need maneuverability in the islands, ability to operate in both strong trade winds in the open ocean and softer breezes in the gulf, and the resilience to withstand these long journeys.

I've been considering several Philippine ships, or galleys similar to the Ancient Greek design, but nothing has really stuck well yet. The reliance on oars for both is especially problematic for me, since their larger ships will be regularly sailing over long stretches of open ocean, and i kind of just don't like them.

Following some suggestions posted here since, I'm considering designs closer to Viking longships and several smaller Asian trading vessels. I'm split between Junk or Square sail rigging, and I've since cut out my previous idea of possibly having outriggers.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ What’s their tech like? What materials are available to build with? At the moment ‘bamboo canoe with an outrigger’ and ‘fibreglass hulled hydroplane jet boat’ are equally valid answers. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Sep 17, 2021 at 5:46
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    $\begingroup$ Galleys were ships of war. They have very small cargo capacity and they have severely limited endurance. Ancient commercial transports were sailing ships, powered by wind. Nobody ever used galleys as merchant ships. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 17, 2021 at 7:37
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    $\begingroup$ One thing to consider is that you may also invert the problem: Trade (and to some degree also people) follow the wind patterns. Where it is difficult to sail, given the tech available, there won't be much trade, with ships following the easy routes. $\endgroup$
    – Whitecold
    Sep 17, 2021 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ Regarding winds, you might want to clarify "there isn't very much wind" with what you say later, "many wind conditions (oceanic trade winds to soft island breezes)". Also, I'm going to remove your last paragraph because, as written, it is seeking opinions. You really should consider and ask a series of proper questions about Vārẽn society! Sounds like an interesting setting, and I hope to see future questions about it! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Sep 17, 2021 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ Vārẽn technology is complicated, but roughly equivalent to the early middle ages or possibly late classical era. And I do hope to make more questions about the Vārẽn in the future! They're my oldest surviving worldbuilding scenario to date, but unfortunately also my least developed. $\endgroup$
    – INPU
    Sep 17, 2021 at 18:01

2 Answers 2


Viking-line of ships:

The kind of ships built by a culture are very dependent on the available materials, technology, and very specific usage requirements, so any suggestions will perforce have some opinion. I would look to cultures that had similar geographic distributions, where towns/villages are separated, trade via ships is central, and land transport is low/non-existent.

The Vikings built a family of ships with similar designs, but slightly different for specialized functions. They were fairly small, often easy to pull up on shores without a formal port, yet quite robust for long sea voyages. For a culture that is disparate (spread across numerous islands) with both local trade and oceanic voyages, these vessels seem optimum, barring specific technological or magical requirements/alternatives/restrictions.

Common vessels included the karve, knarr, and longship. They share clinker-built design, allowing a light, flexible hull. Many of these vessels COULD be operated by oars, but generally didn't require oars for routine operations. The cargo ships usually had small crews, while those used for military roles used more people and more oars.

If this isn't to your liking, consider ships from cultures with similar requirements, like the Polynesians and their double-hull canoe/outrigger canoe family of similar ships for various functions. The Chinese Junk was also an extremely versatile design base, allowing many functions in one basic engineering set and made of soft woods, yet it proved very seaworthy.

  • $\begingroup$ I hadn't considered Chinese Junks! I might also pay more attention to Norse ships going forward; i overlooked them before because of their strong associations with their respectove culture and climate, but in hindsight they do seem very versatile for the Vārẽn homelands! Thank you! $\endgroup$
    – INPU
    Sep 17, 2021 at 18:04
  • $\begingroup$ I believe some of the smaller Viking boats were light enough to be pulled out of the water and dragged across land by the crew if necessary. This is useful feature if the islands are VERY close together and the water is too shallow to use oars or sails. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Sep 19, 2021 at 19:02

Specialization leads to Profit

With a wide variety of needs and external conditions, you will probably see a wide variety of solutions.


Small, catamaran style vessels with hybrid oar / sail set ups allow for quick transport in relatively calm waters. Outriggers could be used in the Gulf and Islands for transport of people and perishable goods. They are cheap to build, use oars when it's calm or near shallows, and use sails whenever they can.


For bulk transport in the Gulf, barges are a good fit. Large, simple, sail powered vessels, you might need to use outriggers to unload them if the destination has reefs or tricky harbors, but again, these are cheap, easy, and "good enough" for relatively protected waters. Downsides - it's slow, and these would be terrible in a storm.

Ocean Going Vessels

Large sailing ships are really your only good option for long sea voyages. You need storage for your own supplies, as well as your trade goods, which all pushes towards a larger ship. Above a certain size sails are really your only option for propulsion in a pre-steam power world.

  • $\begingroup$ Barges are very un-seaworthy for even the most basic functions, and until the 19th century were almost exclusively used on rivers, lakes, and inside ports. That's still how they are mostly used. I don't think they would work. I agree with outrigger canoes, and the Polynesians made extensive use of double-hull designs for longer voyages with more cargo. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Sep 17, 2021 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ That's a good point. Maybe islands closer to the shores would use less powerful, more maneuverable ships, while the ones further from the mainland and other islands would use more robust, seaworthy ships. Lots to consider! Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – INPU
    Sep 17, 2021 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ This is a question of investment. Yes, you get more profit out of specialization, but you have to sink in more up front. It may not be worth it -- to all, or to some, of them. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Sep 17, 2021 at 22:51

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