Of all the maritime customs I encountered in my voyages, the most unusual, pervasive, and society-shaping is that of the inhabitants of the Western Archipelagos. Like the Darland Coast, they hold that the Prophet came from on high, that the Adversary lurks in the ocean depths, that any child born at sea is subject to possession by a demon, and that the end of the world itself will be brought about by such a sea-born child. Unlike the Darlanders with their wealth of land and resources, life among the Archipelagos requires much travel and trade, and they chose not to ban women from their ships, but to separate them. Vessels in the west are crewed entirely by either men or women, and though they mingle on land like anywhere else, at sea they brook no contact with one another. Even the hulls are color-coded, bright red for the women and gleaming white for the men, that other ships may know from a distance which sex crews them.
The men's ships put to port much as any ship would in the absence of the taboo, save that women are not allowed on board at all, even for the briefest of stays above-decks with an escort, no matter how much your narrator begged for a tour. I even tried to eye a glimpse of the hold of one by dressing as a dock-boy and loading cargo onto it, but the high-cut shirts and tight trousers of the local fashion stymied my plan, perhaps intentionally. I did obtain stories from sailors in dock-side taverns for the price of a mug, and learned nothing of interest to you, my reader.
Boarding one of the women's ships to continue my journey was by far the more interesting half of the tale. In the Archipelago's ports, there is a large walled section known as the Moon Town (or, by the crude, as the Blood Town). The only gates on land are guarded by women at all times, and men are never allowed within on pain of emasculation. To gain access, I had to endure an exceedingly private audience, in which a stern matron confirmed that the blood moon was upon me, as proof that I could not possibly with child. While the occupants are allowed to leave at any time, they may only re-enter at this time of month. Even the guards for the two sides of the gate are different and live upon different sides. There is also a rather brisk business in pleasant inns on the outside of the wall, that offers discounts on stays by the week for women who wish to embark but timed their arrival poorly.
Once within, I found a thriving dockside town, populated entirely by women and serving the likewise all-female crews of the gaudy red ships lined up on that side of the harbor. They seemed exceedingly happy and carefree, much more so than the womenfolk of other ports that I have laid call in. From there, I booked passage to Riordes by way of the Calamitous Shore, and put to sea. The truth of the ships' hulls was proven when we were rounding the Hornspur, and the scout, a girl of no more than fourteen years, began to shout that there were pirates on the horizon. In all the bustle that ensued, I was able to ask the first mate how they knew the other ships were pirates, given that all I could spy with my scrying-glass was a pair of red and white hulls with none of the markings I have previously described as a warning to hand over cargo or die. She replied that it was precisely because there were two ships, one red and one white. Merchant caravans travel like with like, that they may help each other if trouble strikes upon the waves. The pirates traveled with one ship of each type, that they might be able to board with impunity any ship they might overtake, whether crewed by women or men, without even the appearance of mingling at sea.
I was skeptical that such a prohibition would hold even with those so far outside the law, but the proof of the matter came late that day, when the pirates overtook us. Though both fired shots, aiming to rend our sails and cripple us, only red ship pulled alongside to board. It was a pitched battle, like two wildcats in a sack, but we repelled them, and our grenadier set their sails alight, which consumed their attention once we disengaged. The men aboard the white ship cheered what I later discovered were mostly their wives, and unloaded shot upon us, but never once made a move to come on-board, though it would easily have turned the tide of battle, and they made no effort to help their companions deal with the fire. (Which they extinguished—even though they threatened my life, I admit that it would have made sick to see them die, especially while their husbands held still and did nothing to help them.)
I am glad to report that the rest of the trip was entirely uneventful, giving me time to learn a smattering of Calamite vocabulary (enough to make it clear that it's a distant cousin of Antuvian, giving credence to the theory that the lost colony of Anutuvia once lay on the Calamitous Shore), as well as hone my skills at shuffle-ball and stumble through many a shanty best sung when drunk and far from the company of men.