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File:S290-Battle of Trafalgar 17.jpg

"England expects that every man will do his duty."


Journey with us now, just as our hearty forefathers did, in the days of wooden ships and iron men.


A setting and an era, which has become a genre almost unto itself.

In the age of sail, life on board tall ships was hellish in the extreme, by modern standards. Voyages could last up to several years, sanitation was almost nonexistent, the food consisted of weevil-infested rock-hard dried bread and salt pork, scurvy and other diseases ran rampant, discipline was harsh, and death almost certain.

The men who survived these times were tough as nails.

Expect stories set in this world to be filled with hard, uncompromising men who are covered in grime, with awful teeth, wooden legs, and stringy dirty hair. They will be drunk much of the time, usually off rum or grog (rum cut with water and lime juice).[1] They may Talk Like a Pirate, and are quite likely to actually BE Pirates or, if not, fight them.

This trope generally involves a Used Future sort of vision of the age of sail, with dirt, grime, barnacles, scurvy, floggings, and other unpleasant aspects of the real time period not glossed over. If a ship or its crew are suspiciously well-scrubbed and well-fed, it's not this trope. But tales of action and adventure abound, with swashbucklers, pirates, heroes and villains and damsels in distress all around.

Not to be confused with the Avalon Hill Board Game of the same name, which is is where we got the trope name, or with Schizo-Tech settings where wood ships coexist with Powered Armor. The phrase shows up at least as far back as the late 19th century, making it Older Than Radio.

Examples of Wooden Ships and Iron Men include:

Comic Books

Fan Works


  • Pirates of the Caribbean (at least as far as visual aesthetics)
  • HMS Defiant (movie, 1962)
  • Mutiny on the Bounty there were at least 4 film versions: the best known are probably the ones from 1935 with Charles Laughton as Bligh and Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian; and 1962, with Trevor Howard as Bligh and Marlon Brando as Christian.
  • Lampshaded in Star Trek: Generations, when the crew are on the wooden ship version of Enterprise, on the holodeck. (The scene, of course, is a tribute to how the franchise owes this genre big-time.)

Picard: Just imagine what it was like. No engines, no computers. Just the wind and the sea and the stars to guide you.
Riker: Bad food, brutal discipline... no women.



  • The American Tall Tale of A. B. Stormalong took place in this time period. However, like all the great American tall tales, his heart broke when the big battleships set out to sea, iron ships crewed by wooden men.


  • Horatio Hornblower
  • Moby Dick
  • The Aubrey-Maturin stories by Patrick O'Brien.
  • Treasure Island in most of its incarnations.
  • The Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell features this whenever Sharpe has to get somewhere by sea, as in Sharpe's Trafalgar and Sharpe's Devil.
  • Robinson Crusoe
  • The Richard Bolitho series by Alexander Kent.
  • Not a fighting ship, but still pretty much the same presentation of the sailors: Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous
  • Both played straight and somewhat subverted in The Gentlemen Bastards book Red Seas under Red Skies.
  • Billy Budd
  • The Temeraire series is basically this, except the ships are talking dragons.
    • There are plenty of the standard type as well. They frequently do not get along well with the airborne versions, and one of the leads is a navy man adjusting to dragonback service.
  • While David Eddings' Belgariad depicts life at sea rather romantically, its sequel, The Malloreon, paints a considerably more grim picture of the conditions driving a sailor to desert his captain. It still involves a lot of "mateys", though.
  • The Lord Ramage novels of Dudley Pope. They're set in the Horatio Hornblower 'verse; Ramage and Hornblower were midshipmen on the same ship for a time and apparently on fairly good terms (Pope was a friend of Hornblower's author C.S. Forester). It's mentioned that Hornblower did his best to teach trigonometry to Ramage, who lacks an aptitude for math.
  • Much of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle takes place on ships in, well, the Baroque, both European and Middle Eastern. He doesn't gloss over the conditions.
  • James Clavell's Shogun opens up in this setting but good.
  • Rafael Sabatini's swashbuckling Pirate books, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk.
  • Quite a lot of John Ringo's Emerald Sea and Against the Tide, in the Council Wars series, are 40th century recreations of this era, due to the Fall and restrictions imposed by the world-controling AI "Mother" that make combustion-based engines beyond a certain low power output unavailable.
  • Mr. Midshipman Easy by Frederick Marryat is a near-contemporary example, and probably set the tone for most of the later works in this vein.
  • The sections concerning the people of the Iron Islands in A Song of Ice and Fire, especially those that take place on boats, come across like this. Bonus points for them being called the Iron Men.
  • Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet's poem "Clipper Ships and Captains" is an ode to this period, even going so far as to include the lines:

When the best ships still were wooden ships
But the men were iron men.


Live Action Television


Tabletop Games

  • The Trope Namer Wooden Ships and Iron Men.
  • Warhammer40K is this trope Recycled in Space as far as life on board Imperial Fleet ships goes.
    • Rogue Trader, being about people who go to amazing places, meet interesting people, and fleece them for all they're worth, has this in bucketloads. It's not just life on board, either- spaceship combat is very much inspired by Age of Sail strategies.
    • Tactics in Battlefleet Gothic, to some degree, are those of the Age of Sail. The major differences for the Imperial Navy and Chaos are the presence of effective prow-mounted weapons and the independence of the ships on variable winds.
  • 7th Sea draws heavily upon this setting for any of its nautical adventures, especially anything involving the Pirate Nations.
  • Furry Pirates

Theme Parks

  • Disney Theme Parks: Aside from Pirates of the Caribbean, this trope is said word-for-word in the Sailing Ship Columbia attraction.


Video Games

  • As Age of Sail simulation games, Uncharted Waters and its sequel Uncharted Waters: New Horizons use this trope quite a bit. Your captain and some of your mates appear far more clean and healthy than standard (owing to limited portraits and tiny sprites, mostly), but starvation, scurvy, piracy, and rats are all common. Unprepared players leaving European/North African waters for the first time are often in for a rude awakening.
  • Two of the Total War series, namely Empire and Napoleon, are set in or around the Age of Sail and are notably the first games in the series to have fully realised naval battles.
    • Napoleon also features steamships and early ironclads, which led to the end of the Age of Sail, although they are not the strongest ships in the game. Notably, the Spanish Santisima Trinidad is able to blow away an ironclad with a few shots with its heavy guns.
      • Itself notable - the Santisima Trinidad did not have a glorious career.
  • Sid Meier's Pirates! revolves entirely around this period in the Caribbean. The player character is a Privateer (not quite a pirate as it says on the tin) and will fight many (one-on-one) naval battles during the course of his/her career.
  • The naval aspects of the Europa Universalis series live and breathe this trope, since the game spans virtually the entire Golden Age of Sail.

Web Original

  • Open Blue
  • This is the general theme of the Soleil Alliance, based on the East India Company, in Lambda. Except that you swap out "Iron Men" with "Magical Girls".
  • The Choice of Games web game "Choice Of Broadsides" is set here. With the option, at the beginning of the game, to be about Wooden Ships And Iron Women.

Western Animation

Real Life

  • This might not precisely qualify, but in the 1500's Knights of Malta who survived at least a year as a Turkish galley slave and were then rescued frequently lived to nearly 100, in an era in which the average life expectancy hadn't hit 50 yet. Jean Parisot de Valette (who survived a year as a galley slave in his youth) commanded the 9,000 defenders of Malta against 40,000 invading Turks from the front lines and won. At age 70.
    • Jean de Valette was a Four-Star Badass.
    • The Knights of Malta probably fit quite well, actually- they were noted for their love of naval warfare, constantly harrying Ottoman trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish campaign which drove them out of Rhodes, and the later (unsuccessful) campaign to drive them from Malta were intended to end their piracy. They're more strongly remembered as "knights" in the classical sense, given that they are mostly known as the successors of the original crusading order, and because their two most famous battles of the post-medieval era were the sieges of Rhodes and Malta, but naval warfare was actually what their contemporaries most knew them for.
  • Invoked by name by Austrian sailors after winning the Battle of Lissa, remarking that "Men of iron on wooden ships had defeated men of wood on ironclad ships" after doing exactly that (a division of Austrian wooden steam warships had caught by surprise the Italian ironclads. Various wooden vessels got disabled, two ironclads were sunk).
  • Admiral David Farragut in the American Civil War. "Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead."
  • Horatio Nelson's Navy. Obviously.
    • This cannot be overstated. Fair portions of the Napoleonic Royal Navy were renowned for being dangerously brave and immensely tough, with figures such as Howe, Collingwood and Cochrane often taking on far superior odds and winning because they flat out refused to be afraid. Nelson was, of course, the King of this trope, as he supposedly had a death wish, exposing himself to deadly fire at every occasion, until he died at Trafalgar. Considering the wax-wane nature of his popularity, this might've be his plan all along.
    • One of the reasons the Royal Navy became so feared is because it Took a Level in Badass (although it was pretty hard already) after King George II pulled a You Have Failed Me... on Admiral John Byng pour encourager les autres.
  • John Paul Jones, one of the first heroes of the US Navy. When taunted by a British officer during a battle, he famously replied "I have not yet begun to fight!" Later in the same engagement, with his ship sinking, he was asked by the British if he had struck his colors (surrendered). He replied "I may sink, but I'll be damned if I strike." His ship did sink, but not until he had captured the British ship and transferred his crew over. Upon learning that the British captain had been knighted due to his actions in the battle, he said "Should I have the good fortune to fall in with him again, I'll make a lord of him."
  1. Unless officers in a nation's navy, then they will be drunk on port or brandy.