July 28, 2013

Hari Ragat: Naval Combat


I’m now writing up naval combat for Hari Ragat. Since all the references I could find are very sketchy about naval tactics, and in any case record 'anomalous' engagements -- karakoas were never built to take on gun-laden galleons! -- I'm having to extrapolate quite a bit based on the design of the karakoa. From this and from what’s known of ancient Filipino weaponry, I’m making the following assumptions:

1) The karakoa is not built for ‘ship to ship’ combat as we understand it with our modern thinking, as it’s not equipped to destroy enemy ships. Instead it’s built as a fighting platform for warriors using personal weapons.

2) The karakoa is so narrow that ranged attacks by its occupants are most effective when the karakoa is broadside-on to its opponent. If a karakoa is bow- or stern-on to its opponent, I’ll only allow 2-3 characters to make ranged attacks in a round. You’re throwing/shooting from a catwalk that’s only about 8-10 feet wide. When broadside on, all fighters can make ranged attacks if capable (and not assigned to steering or rowing/paddling).

3) The outriggers make boarding from abeam difficult, so boarding attacks are made from the prow to either the bow or stern of the enemy.

4) From the above, I believe karakoa captains would use one of two tactics depending on the strength of the opponent:

Smaller vessels or those with weak crews will be overtaken, and as soon as the karakoa’s prow contacts the enemy’s stern the most agile warriors will jump aboard and try to open a bridgehead for the rest. The hand to hand combat will be savage, since it’ll be at very close quarters.

A karakoa captain will try to circle around stronger enemy vessels, maneuvering to get broadside-on to the enemy so his warriors can make ranged attacks while trying to prevent boarding combat until the enemy has been sufficiently weakened.

5) I’ve found no mention of how karakoas did boarding combat, but I’ll assume some kind of grappling device was used. Maybe grappling hooks, maybe just plain rope, tied on by the bravest warriors willing to have both hands occupied while under threat of attack.

6) Because the vessels in this milieu have very low freeboard and the outriggers provide convenient means for climbing onto them from the water, I suspect divers/swimmers could be very useful in attack. A ‘commando’ group could surreptitiously dive from the far side of their ship, unseen by the enemy, swim underwater to the enemy ship, and emerge on the far side of the enemy ship where they wreak havoc on the oarsmen before climbing up to attack the helmsman or the warriors on the fighting deck.

What do you think?


  1. The Medieval Khmer appear to have used grappling hooks in their naval battles, which also seem to have involved a lot of boarding actions. They would also try to ram and swamp the other boat, but as you say the outriggers would guard against this (though perhaps they could be smashed by a ram rendering the craft unstable?)

    Swimmers might work though perhaps dangerous if there were blood in the water? And what weapons would they use (that wouldn't hamper their swimming?)

  2. Thanks for the Khmer reference, I was wondering about that. Well, if the Khmers had them ... and they fought the Chams, who were related to the Malays ... I guess the Malay peoples would've had grappling hooks too.

    Ramming to overturn or crush smaller boats is probably possible. I'd imagine though that if I were captaining a karakoa, I'd be very wary of fouling my outriggers on my enemy's outriggers. I'm also wondering how the sewn construction of these vessels affects their capability to ram. I'm thinking vessels that are built with nails are more rigid throughout, delivering their full force potential when they ram, but sewn vessels may harm themselves as much as the enemy?

    I'd imagine swimmers would use daggers. Daggers were often worn hung from the neck, or could be strapped to the arms. They'd have to be suicidally courageous ... or have magical tattoos that protect them against sharks!


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