Scratchbuilding the “Princess Cecile” – Part 1

July 1, 2009
Author David Drake (left) with the late Jim Baen, publisher of the RCN novels

Author David Drake (left) with the late Jim Baen, publisher of the RCN novels

A discussion I’ve been involved in over at the StarShipModeler web boards prompted me to post this information. This is the first section of the material I’ve collected as I began work scratchbuilding a model starship from the RCN/Daniel Leary books written by David Drake. The model is barely begun, but I’ve collected a lot of information and speculated a great deal, and once my big Moebius Seaview model is finished I will be diving into this model with a vengeance!

Scratchbuilding RCS Princess Cecile

In 1998 Baen Books published the first of David Drake’s “RCN” series – concerning the Republic of Cinnabar Navy – which is a “space opera” series modeled after Patrick O’Brian’s “Jack Aubrey” series of sea novels. So far six novels have been published, detailing the exploits of young Captain Daniel Leary, his Signals Officer (and intelligence operative for the Republic) Adele Mundy, and the crew of the RCS Princess Cecile.

Mr. Drake is best known for his military science fiction and historical fantasy novels, and oftentimes parts of the plots of the RCN novels are inspired by actual historical events. Not all the action takes place on the starship – in fact, in several of the books the Princess Cecile is a minor character – but the design intrigued me a great deal because it is so unusual. In the Spring of 2008 I set out to determine what would be required to scratchbuild a model of it. There are no plans or drawings of the ship, and only one cover painting – and that one is terribly inaccurate.

The ship is a “corvette,” supposedly 230 feet long and 1200 tons. This is considerably smaller than today’s typical attack submarine. To put it into perspective – the USS Skipjack, a post-Nautilus US attack sub of the 1960s, was 250 feet long and displaced 3000 tons. The Virginia of today is 377 feet long and displaces over 7000 tons!

The starships of the Republic of Cinnabar Navy, and all starships of the RCN universe, travel from star to star by means of the “Matrix” – a method of transiting from one “bubble universe” to another, where physical constants are different than in our own. Through the use of sails of light, electrically-charged fabric on 90-foot masts the ship can be maneuvered from bubble to bubble using the residual velocity it had when it left normal space and the pressure of Casimir radiation on the sails. The Princess Cecile has 24 masts with very thin, charged sails, and no “warp engines” or other external FTL drive.

On the other hand, starships in the RCN have two other drive systems; a “plasma drive” that ejects high-speed ions for thrust, used to lift the ship from a planetary surface, and a “High Drive,” a matter-antimatter drive that is used for maneuvering in space. Both are powered by a fusion bottle, called a “Tokamak” in early books after the old Russian fusion test reactor design. Apparently the creation of antimatter can be accomplished easily on board ship, since the only fuel needed by the startship is “reaction mass” – usually water.

Starships usually have two “outriggers,” attached by oleo struts that I envision much like aircraft landing gear. The ship usually floats on a body of water on the outriggers to keep the plasma drive nozzles out of the water. The High Drive engines are on the outriggers, however, since they cannot be used until the ship is in vacuum. Rarely do starships land on hard surfaces, and all major ports have facilities with ponds or pools to absorb the blast of the plasma drive and to provide reaction mass. Bringing a starship down on dry land is difficult; the plasma exhaust tends to blow back toward the vessel in unpredictable ways, which makes it too likely the ship could become unstable and crash.

The ship is a curious mixture of high- and low-tech. The hull is steel; no exotic materials are apparently used there. However, boron monocrystal is routinely used in rigging for high tensile strength. Communication is by modulated laser or radio. There is no FTL radio, and messages must be carried by ship, sometimes taking days or weeks to travel from star to star through the Matrix. While in the Matrix, no electronic devices can be used on the hull because it can disturb the delicate charges on the sails, which would cause the ship to move in unpredictable ways – and this could maroon the ship in a bubble universe from which it could not escape, or in a part of the universe from which it could not return. There are no suit radios, and there are no electric winches. Sails and masts are moved hydraulically and sometimes freeze or become damaged in battle. One of the most dangerous jobs on a ship is that of rigger, a crewman outside on the hull while the ship is in the Matrix. Should repairs be needed they are accomplished by the riggers using brute force. Communication with the riggers is by a mechanical semaphore system mounted in two sets, forward and aft on the ship’s hull.

Many ship’s repairs can be made using the local technology and materials on the relatively-low-tech worlds the RCN often visits. Hull plating, hydraulics, even limited electrical repairs can be accomplished in many places. However, the sail materials, astrogation computers and fusion bottles required by a starship are only available on high-tech worlds. One high-tech component common to the RCN ships is the large number of holographic data displays. Even Adele Mundy’s personal data unit – a pocket computer, in essence – uses a holographic display projected above the device.

The Princess Cecile was actually commandeered by Lieutenant Leary on the planet Kostromo following a government coup; she was not Cinnabar-built. While she has served through the novels as a Cinnabar navy ship, she is also almost scrapped – then rebuilt and sold to wealthy tourists. She is again acquired by Lieutenant Leary and ultimately returns to Republic of Cinnabar service. Princess Cecile was the name the ship held when Leary appropriated it; spacers consider it bad luck to rename a ship, so despite the fact that the original Princess Cecile was a princess of Kostromo, not Cinnabar, the name remained.

I contacted the author, David Drake, to see if he had done any sketches of the ship in the process of writing any of the books. He said he had not, and felt his drafting skills were somewhat poor! Therefore, I had to look for clues in the descriptions of the Princess Cecile and little touches in the descriptions of takeoffs, landings and battles.

For example, the Sissy (as she is often referred to by her crew) is described as a cylinder 230 feet long and 55 feet in diameter. At times she is referred to as a cylinder and sometimes as “cigar-shaped;” this gave me leeway as to how the ends of the cylinder should look. Her hull mounts four rows of masts: dorsal, ventral, port, and starboard, with six masts per row. The ship always remains oriented on its long axis with the decks running the length of the ship like a submarine. The High Drive and plasma engines are located on the bottom; the plasma nozzles on the underside of the hull and the High Drive motors on the outriggers. Often the ship remains in “powered orbit,” at a slower velocity than would be required for actual orbit, using the engines to remain in what is really a hover at an extreme altitude. This allows the ship to remain under either gravity of a planet or under acceleration most of the time. The ship is rarely in free fall. It is not clear why the ship is not in free fall when in the Matrix – spacers on the hull must use magnetic boots to stay firmly on the hull. When in atmosphere the ship’s masts are telescoped and stowed on the exterior of the hull. Drake often mentions that a starship is not designed very aerodynamically and that care must be taken on landing and takeoff not to lose or damage the rigging on the outside of the vessel. This makes for a somewhat odd visualization of the ship moving at right angles to its long axis – not nose-first.

Two double plasma cannon emplacements are visible on the ship’s exterior, one starboard forward, one port aft. They are mostly retracted into the hull when the Princess Cecile is in atmosphere. The cannon can be used as offensive weapons at short range but usually are used as anti-torpedo defenses. Torpedoes are the primary long-distance armament; these are stored inside the hull and consist of a High Drive motor, guidance electronics and reaction mass tank. (Drake says at the speed the torpedo strikes its target – a “significant” fraction of lightspeed – the effect of adding a nuclear warhead is negligible.) Torpedoes are moved onto the launching tracks by a combination of human power and machinery and are launched from the torpedo tubes by steam pressure. The torpedoes are apparently launched along the long axis of the ship, somewhat like a modern submarine.

The first book of the RCN Series

The first book of the RCN Series

There is almost nothing about the cover illustration of “With The Lightnings” that is accurate in its depiction of a starship in the book! There is some kind of Star Wars-type reaction engine aft (and the ship is traveling along the direction of its long axis), the ship is not cylindrical, and while there are sails, they are only on the top of the vessel.

Drake describes six major hatches and “many” small ports. When a ship is on a planet and there are no security concerns, the ports and hatches are generally left open to improve air circulation within the vessel. Perhaps two or three hatches are large enough to allow a score of crew to assemble, and at various times Leary’s crew is called upon to land and quickly assault an objective. At least one hatch must be large enough to accommodate the loading of larger supply items and, at one point, an air-cushion flying vehicle.

An airlock that can hold several riggers in armored suits at a time can be found on either side of the ship. The other large hatches are generally only used when the ship has landed and therefore do not require airlocks. There is also evidence of a dedicated hatch on the top of the ship to facilitate the replacement of the fusion bottle.

Two books give different extended lengths of the masts – 70 or 90 feet. There are apparently three sets of sails per mast. Some sort of folding arrangement will need be shown for the masts and yards.  Depending upon the scale chosen for the model, the rigging lines may be too thin to see, since they are made of boron monocrystal fiber, which is very thin for its strength.

The relative diameter of the outriggers is also in question. Since they are used for flotation, they should either contain large air-filled spaces or at least some sort of foamed flotation material. The size of the High Drive motors is not given in the books, although at one point the motors from a larger abandoned vessel are removed on the ground, moved by the crew, and installed on another larger ship. They are described as weighing over a ton apiece. Determining how the antimatter is moved through the ship to the High Drive motors is certainly another challenge!

The Princess Cecile has an internal arrangement of five decks. There is no mention of where the water storage tanks are for reaction mass, but it is implied that there is considerable storage space on the ship. An antimatter drive can use matter in two ways. In a straight 50/50 arrangement, a small amount of antimatter is combined with an equal amount of matter to provide total annihilation to provide energy. When a “rocket” drive is used, antimatter is conserved by annihilating a very small amount, and using the resulting release of energy to heat a working reaction mass as a sort of “super rocket.” Since Drake describes the sound of the High Drive as a loud vibration throughout the hull, it is likely the second reaction is what he had in mind. This requires less antimatter but more reaction mass.

The crew numbers a bit less than 100 persons under usual conditions, up to 120 if fully crewed. Even so, with reaction mass storage, food storage, and torpedo storage, there is very little free space in the Princess Cecile.

Little detail is given as to the other hull fittings except to mention that there are numerous locations for riggers to attach safety lines. There are no windows on the ship, and all exterior views are derived from video cameras mounted on the hull. The exact number and types of antennas are also left to the imagination. There are a few mentions of cameras and antennae being disabled or destroyed in battle, but locations are not specific. There is a mention of antennae being located “fore and aft,” but that gives the modeler much leeway. Depending upon the scale chosen for the model, many of these fittings may not even be visible.

The ship’s structure flexes somewhat when stressed in maneuvering under thrust, and it is possible to open a seam on the hull in battle with the ship still remaining essentially spaceworthy. Battle strategies often hinge upon the destruction of masts, spars and sails; this prevents a ship from escaping into the Matrix to flee the attacker. As in the “Age of Sail” on Earth, bringing down the rigging on a ship makes it far easier for an attacker to finish a victim off at its leisure or demand that the victim surrender.

(To be continued.)



  1. Well done! I’m at the end of book two and was looking for some images of the “Sissy” and stumbled upon your post. Great refresher to remind a reader of the specs and tech. Some additional details that won’t help your project but that might help regardless are below;

    The Princess Cecile is double hulled. The space in between the hulls are used to store spare masts and rigging as well as other large bulk items.

    The Princess Cecile has a hatch that accommodates an air cushion jeep that seats 4 very closely. Drake mentions that RCN ships have an appropriately sized air cushion vehicle attached to the ship. Book 2 references that an RCN Cruiser has a spacious 12 seat air car attached.

    While planet side the ship has crew improvised hard points for crew served impellers (gauss technology hi velocity slug throwers) the were added in book 2.

    Riggers are described as having magnetic strips on their boots to stick to the hull during ops. They have but don’t often use safety lines since they work around the rigging by pulling themselves up and down.

    Another communications tech they use microwave.

    looking forward to seeing your end product.


  2. I’m a very big fan of the series, and I was looking for images of the sissy and found this page. There are only two sketches of it on the net that I could find, them being http://www.flickr.com/photos/webkaizen/3778813789/in/photostream/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/webkaizen/3534244891/in/photostream/ I hope they help.

  3. Something that I didn’t see in your account. The Princess Cecile also has 4 4inch plasma gun turrets with one gun each. 2 on top, and 2 on bottom. They are on extending rams that allow for them to move outward of the hull so they can pivot like a tank turret. They have hatches that allow them to be accessed from the inside of the ship, as there are several references to allowing air ventilation through the extended upper turrets, and they also have to be able to close, as they can be used while the ship is “airtight” in space. There is no reference to the length of the guns, just that they are programmed not to fire while there is something obstructing them.

    • I hadn’t recalled that! Thanks! I’m amazed someone is reading this at all, and the fact that you felt compelled to comment – well, many thanks to you! I appreciate all the help I can get!

      I haven’t checked the details in some time. I started this project almost three years ago, and for over a year it’s been sitting there, waiting for me, while other things have intervened. Every time I get ready to tackle it again something takes precedence over model building! I have a stash of really great unbuilt models, especially from Fantastic Plastic, that I’m itching to get to. I just haven’t had the time.

      I’ve continued to read the Drake novels as they have come out. The new one, The Road To Danger, just came out a month or so ago. All I can recall is that Drake refers to a dorsal and a ventral turret. Justin Floyd’s excellent sketches (see link in a previous comment) show a single turret, too. I have a suspicion that he changed the ship’s guns from one book to another. The masts have changed height a couple of times, and I think the weight of the ship has changed as well. As I recall, even the length of the ship has changed once or twice, and I know the number of decks has changed!

      Dave Drake is a smart author. He only gives us enough details to fill in the ship’s appearance in our imaginations! A writer wants to give enough description, but not too much! (Except for Tolkien, who I think had to hunt for more words in the English language he could use to describe hills!) Trying to make space opera fit into tactics from the Age of Sail was no doubt a challenge. I particularly like the fact that Drake’s ships have no artificial gravity: he uses something called a “powered orbit” – stationkeeping at less than orbital velocity, basically a high hover – to give the ship gravity while near a planet. I haven’t tried to figure out if that would actually work!

      Often in the books, the Gunner, Sun – who has been with the Sissies for a long time – has been depicted climbing into the turret, so that agrees with what you have found about how they work. Drake refers a lot to the turrets extending when battle is imminent. I just don’t remember that there were two of each. I did have in my mind a single turret with two guns, one on the top forward and one on the bottom near the stern. Now I have to go back through the books and look at those descriptions again! I’ll probably find other details that I missed!

      That’s one problem with an extended project of this kind – I made my initial notes almost a year before I started building, and now another two and a half years have gone by and my memory is kind of dim.

      Thanks for your comments! I hope I can get back to this thing this summer and eventually finish it!

  4. Oh. One other point. In a couple of the books, it talks of the ship blowing the missiles out beyond the ships hull, due to the missiles high drive. And I did see a few references to pushing the missiles beyond the hull with steam, like you referenced. But the reference also says that it is punching the missiles out of the path of the sails. Not sure if this in reference to the missile tubes being in the sidewall or not.

  5. […] scratchbuilding project, the Princess Cecile corvette from David Drake’s “Lt. Leary” series of military science fiction novels, has […]

  6. Found these excelent images (3d) http://www.flickr.com/photos/69018756@N04/6275766132/in/photostream/

    Good luck with your build!

    • Those are great! And they show that all of us have different pictures of the ship in our imaginations! I think that’s the mark of a great writer – to give us just enough for our minds to construct the ship (or whatever) in our imaginations, and no more. I’ve seen some that look very Trek-influenced as well. These were very well done! Thanks for the link!

  7. […] space battles: one fan of David Drake’s RCN series, as it is known, is committed to building a model, from scratch, of the protagonist’s first ship, the Princess Cecile. Tagged sciencefiction […]

  8. I just discovered this series and am starting the second book, so I definitely appreciate how this article compiles the descriptions in one convenient location. I have the added complication of having long had my own idea for a very similar kind of sailing starship and I have to keep the images from my own mental universe separate from Drake’s ships or else I might miss something.

    P.S. The cover art for the first book is terrible in all ways. Not only does the ship look completely inaccurate, but the character portraits don’t bear much resemblance to how Drake describes them. I wonder how much information the artist was given in advance; probably just a brief description I imagine.

    • David Drake didn’t give any sketches or anything to the artist; he mentioned that to me in a personal email. As you go through the books, the Princess Cecile changes size a bit, the Matrix acquires a name (from “sponge space” in the first book), and other details change as well.

      The idea of cover designs having much to do with the books – well, that seems to vary throughout the Baen Books catalog. David Mattingly did the original cover for “With The Lightnings,” but the rest were done by Steve Hickman. They are only slightly better at accurately depicting the story. They tend to make Daniel Leary somewhat more heroic-looking than I see him in my imagination, and I see Mundy as less pixie-like than on the covers.

      I like Mattingly’s covers for the Honor Harrington books a lot. I don’t recall how accurate they are; I’ve not read one in a while. As the series progressed they got so talky…

      I recall reading someplace that John Ringo mentioned having discussions with cover illustrators, but I don’t know that is the general practice.

      But the first book has a bunch of other little issues. Daniel Leary’s name changed from Leary Daniels to Oliver Leary at least (as I recall) but the basics of the world-building were good.

      If you know the Aubrey/Maturin naval books, you will see the parallels in the Leary/Mundy series, but it’s not essential to know them. The series stands pretty well on its own. I’ve liked them well enough to spend the money on the eArcs for most of them because I could read them earlier. I don’t do that with anybody else except Ringo and Doc Travis Taylor!

  9. The drawing of the “Sissy” shows four sails on the top (dorsal?) side. Should there have been four sales on the ventral side?.

    • It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at this! And no more progress, really! Too many thing have intervened – both of my parents were ill, and eventually passed away, over the last five years. But yes, Mike, the image is incorrect from the descriptions. In fact, there should be four sets of sails, spaced at 90 degree intervals around the ship. (See the continued links above on this page.) Someplace up above in the comments I remark about how little the original artwork looked like the ship and main characters.

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