So I am working on a species of large quadrupedal sentient beings at a level of technology similar to 16th century Asia. Specifically I was trying to conjure up an image to what their sailing vessels might look like when a thought struck me.

Would these creatures bother with sails?

Now here is why that particular thought struck me. You see the sentient creature I am working on are fairly similar to giraffes in general body plan. Their necks are noticeably shorter and their heads are a bit larger, but they’re about the same size, their tongues and lips are dexterous (allowing tool use) and evolved from the similar niche of tree top browser.

Why is this relevant?

Well, handling sails on larger ships usually requires an ability to climb, and while the human body plan is pretty good at climbing and rigging necessary for sailing, the giraffe body plan is not. Now I was thinking on how they could row like the old style Thai barges.

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I’m not sure if these could be properly scaled up for ocean going vessels, but I think these creatures grabbing an oar with their mouth and rowing would be more plausible than shimmying their 1.2-2 ton body up a mast to unfurl a top sail.

So here is my question Would hoofed creatures too large and cumbersome to climb, bother with sails on their ships?

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    $\begingroup$ Quadrupedal sentient beings, without any hands? Would they ever bother with shipbuilding? That tech requires strength and dexterity that might not be available for your tongue-driven giraffes. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Commented Sep 1, 2022 at 7:30
  • $\begingroup$ I think it might be difficult, but I don’t necessarily think it would be impossible. This is not the first time I’ve thought about those limitations, and thankfully I wasn’t the only one. worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/183431/… $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 1, 2022 at 8:15
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    $\begingroup$ Sails are free energy. Do humans not use fire because we aren't flameproof? Does the cost of making it work outweigh the benefit? $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Sep 1, 2022 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ They sound a bit like the Houyhnhnms from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, albeit with longer necks and larger bodies, and I would actually expect them to not be seafaring at all, much like the aforementioned Houyhnhnms. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 1, 2022 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ Leaving aside how they manage to build ships: how do they make the sails? have they developed looms? I'm trying to imagine one of these criatures stranded in island and managing to build a raft and it sounds plausible if they can use a huge leaf or somthing natural as a sail. Then maybe this concept could be developed into bigger ships.. What's your tech tree look like for them arriving to the type of ship you describe? $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 1, 2022 at 18:55

3 Answers 3


They do not need to climb.

If you are thinking at 16th century european ships, yes they had high masts and it was necessary to climb them, which is probably not feasible for your species (I do not know about asian ships). But if you go back a few centuries or looking at other regions, to the vikings or polynesians, they had quite big ships where setting sails did not require any climbing (see this video for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90uKGICMbAI&t=5m44s). They were not as big as the big european ones, but still able to cross the atlantic (vikings) and the pacific (polynesians) and while it was possible to row them, they mostly relied on wind for longer travels.

I do not think that pure rowing is feasible for them for longer journies since it requires too many rowers and hence too many supplies

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    $\begingroup$ Huh, this was surprisingly helpful, thank you. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 1, 2022 at 8:47
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    $\begingroup$ A simpler way with the same point - for smaller ships you start with a tree and put some canvass on it to make a sail. Giraffe reaches the top of that tree (to eat leaves), so it will reach the top of that mast as well => there is no need to climb to have sails (at least at start). $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 2, 2022 at 12:55
  • $\begingroup$ @ZizyArcher Don't even need to reach the top if you can just lower the mast. Many small sailboats have masts you can raise and lower easily using the "stay" and "shroud" lines. (And really nothing prevents this from applying to a larger ship with enough muscle power.) And a halyard makes it easy to raise or lower the sail without touching the top of the mast. $\endgroup$
    – Brianorca
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 17:19

One of humanity's achievements is the ability to domesticate and train other species. this is done for companionship (pets), as a way to obtain a reliable food source, or to accomplish tasks for which the animals are better suited physically.

Focusing on that last one, examples include Oxen to plough fields, dogs to herd and protect sheep, in at least in one case a baboon as a train signalman. Domesticated animals were also used in seafaring, having a ship's cat was quite common to control the rodent population.

While the example of the ox and the cat above either rely on having a way of controlling the animal or relying on its natural instincts to do the job, shepherd dogs and especially the trained baboon are examples where they were trained by humans and learned to do a relatively complex task

Your quadrupedal creatures would probably be able to identify an animal that's a good climber and trainable. Going up a mast and pulling on a rope isn't the most complicated of tasks.

Then again, it might not be necessary. Some hoofed animals are surprisingly good at climbing. Goats in a tree source

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    $\begingroup$ These are giraffe-like, but I almost typed a comment like "Did you ever meet a goat?" before I scrolled down. Seriously, though -- goats don't climb, they levitate. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Sep 1, 2022 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ Turns out those goats may not be climbing trees by choice... $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 2, 2022 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman the linked article calls it an exploitative scam, implying they are selling a lie to the tourists and and says that the goats are "unable or unwilling to move from where they are placed in the trees by people", but there's videos of the goats climbing and navigating the trees. The goats can and do climb the trees for food when the fruit are ripe, but need to be persuaded (at times with unethical methods) by the farmers to do it for the tourists the rest of the year. The relevant point for this answer is that they are able to climb. $\endgroup$
    – Aubreal
    Commented Sep 2, 2022 at 16:55

Yes, they would

The other answers already point out how it would be feasible, or not actually that big of a hindrance if their physiology is bad for climbing, but that is not as important, because (assuming they think somewhat like humans): if there is a need for something a way will be found to achieve that.

And prior to fuel-powered engines, sails are the ONLY way to cross larger distances of water. Even if you build engines powered by work animals, you cannot bring enough feed for longer travel. Using your own muscle power is also too inefficient in terms of energy produced per weight of foodstuff required.

So either they do not develop any sea-based long range travel at all until a fairly late industrial age, or they find a workaround for their not-fit-for-easy-sails physiology. Since the other answers already produce very valid workarounds and the interest in what's beyond the ocean has driven (humans at least) for ages, I think it would definitely be the latter. Where there is a will, there is a way.


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