Saturday, February 16, 2013

Underway in the Aether, Part I: An introduction and boarding an airship!

Part of a series that I started ages ago on the Steampunk Shipyard was one about the similarities between nautical ships (past and present) versus airships.  Not so much regarding the technical aspects of a Steampunk airship, as the real nautical mechanics are academic when compared to Steampunk airships (e.g. most Steampunk "science" is a "hand wave" when it comes to airship propulsion and power generation, be it a bag of lighter-than-air gas, unexplained "aether", or some alternative means of keeping an airship aloft and moving).  Most individuals are actually more interested in the goings on aboard a ship (at least within a story-telling vein).  For those not familiar with the sea-going world, a ship can be an odd place, full of strange ranks, words, and traditions.  Thus... I'll do my bit to attempt to lend a hand, not only in explaining the nautical world, but how they might logically be applied to Steampunk.

Two brief disclaimers... starting with "why Navy and not 'Air Force'"?  My belief (and bias, which will display in a moment), is airships would have more in common with sea ships, than an organized air force (at least as we've come to know it today).  There is a higher propensity for an airship to be isolated from civilization (as a ship), or take off / be sent onto unknown destinations (and adventure), whereas an "aero-force" exists on a more direct military basis - an aero-force Coronal likely would not simply send a flight out for an extended period of time to "explore".  I would think a stringent timeline would come into play ("go here, do this, come back"), along with a limitation of supplies (most importantly fuel... which then begins to buffer into Dieselpunk).  One could always make the argument for a giant aircraft, as per Sky Captain's giant aircraft ship (and Angelenia Jolie in her tight leather - every soldier and sailor's fantasy superior officer), but... I digress.  I'm of the opinion that airships of the era would mostly likely be associated with naval ships, and thus business aboard one would be treated as such.

The other disclaimer is my own RL experience.  I was in the Navy for about twenty years, so I have had the opportunity to "enjoy" some of the nautical traditions I'll be writing about in the series - both good (e.g. port calls, qualifications, homecomings, etc...), and not so great (e.g. field days, qualifications, watches, etc...).    I have nothing against the other branches of service, aside from a blatant bias towards my own (which serves me well when I bet against the Steampunk Tribune's younger member (who served in the 82nd) during the annual US Army-Navy game - he's worn a plethora of Navy gear the day after)!  Thus, I'll talk from my own experiences and extrapolations....

Nautical traditions have existed from well, since the seas have been plied. There is a lot that goes on that is alien to most - from directions (e.g. port, starboard, fore, aft), meals (all four - breakfast, lunch, dinner, midrats), drills (necessary but hated), sleeping arrangement (e.g. bunks, staterooms, hot-racking) and all the other minute things that make a ship a ship - and unfamiliar to those onland.

I'll begin with a simple but important tradition - boarding a large(er) ship (as opposed to a small craft, which has its own unique actions).  When approaching a larger ship, one walks up/on a "gangplank" (also known as a "brow"), a removable walkway from a pier to a ship.  When one reaches the end (the part attached to the ship - this would be called the quarterdeck), if one is in uniform, one salutes the ensign (the flag), then the OOD (Officer of the Deck, who is an officer, but often times this watches is manned an enlisted watchstander (the case on subs) - it just depends on the size of the ship, and its policies), and request "Permission to come aboard".  The OOD will return the salute, and (usually) respond "Permission granted".  At this point, if one is coming aboard, a person may need to show some identification and if they are brining anything aboard (say in a seabag or suitcase) inspected, especially if the person in question is not a member of the ship's compliment (crew).  If one is not a member of the crew, the OOD may ask the business a non-crew member has with regards to the ship (e.g. conducting maintenance, supplies, etc...).

Essentially, this is the first line of defense for a ship of any notable size.  One would not want shady character or just wandering persons (or as per the story above, an unannounced Admiral) walking onboard a ship for no particular reason, so the OOD (and an armed guard, the sentry), control passage onto a ship.  So entry and access to a ship is a vital aspect to it (although the "Hey, Shipwreck" series does provide a different, albeit more science-fiction-y take on topside watches, especially on a mid-watch).

The watch itself is unique - the daytime is usually busy, but after dinner things slow down and get a bit boring... the topside watch keeps logs, the sentry patrols the area around the ship, and takes draft readings.  For those in the know, I'll address shipboard announcements at a later date - that topic merits its own entry (or two)!

Steampunk correlation: Not much would be different, I would say.  A gang plank would be key to go from pier to ship (unless one can jump very far), but I'm thinking the gangplank would be very nicely done and decorated (as opposed to the current bare industrial metal ones used today... though nice vinyl graphics are displayed on them to identify the ship in question).  Coming aboard is the same - salute the ensign, salute the OOD, state your business, and move along (assuming you are allowed on board to conduct business).
This would even apply to shall we say "independent" ships (e.g. the proverbial "pirate" airships).  Even they would want to maintain control of access to the ship!

A pier usually a kind of dirty/industrial place, so a person's first impression of a ship is usually the quarterdeck and the conduct of the OOD... so bear this in mind!  If it is a formal Navy, and the quarterdeck is polished brass and attentive watches, its probably a tightly run ship... if the quarterdeck is dirty, worn, and ill-cared for, and lack luster watch conduct is displayed, well... problems are likely to abound onboard!

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