The journey into the West by Elves leaving Middle-Earth was a one-way trip. Not a shuttle service.

That would imply that any nautical crews on the ships also weren't coming back.

However, floating the boats isn't a task for amateurs: you'd need to make sure that any trip had properly trained crews.

I had this silly image in my head where things go something like this:

Elrond: Avast, ye landlubbers!

Galadriel: ... what?

Elrond: Just lightening the mood. We're outta this here sad and sorry lands. Next stop: Tol Eressea. Now, everybody call me captain!

Gandalf: I've got your "captain" right here, boyo! Now, who knows how to steer one of these things? Cirdan gave me a ring, not a Boating for Dummies book.

Galadriel: Is this thing supposed to be taking on water?

Elrond: No idea, but we can always throw one of the hobbits overboard. They're really just ballast.

Bilbo and Frodo: ...

Seriously now:

Who steered/crewed the Grey Ships and where did the crews come from seeing as it was, by definition, an attrition process?

Were they "magical", imbued with some pathfinding auto-pilot by Cirdan? Then, how did Legolas' ship work? He was a landlubber, from Mirkwood.

Did Cirdan keep training crews among those who had decided to leave, with just enough minimal personnel to get them safely into the West?

Was it just one of those "Elves instinctively know bloody everything"?

  • 3
    They weren't self-driving? Jun 17, 2016 at 4:12
  • 7
    Maybe it was a one-way trip BECAUSE they didn't have trained crews to sail the ships?
    – Erik
    Jun 17, 2016 at 11:52
  • How hard can it be to head West? Oct 26, 2021 at 12:28
  • 2
    Well, Elrond happens to be son of the most famous elven sailor of all time and grew up at the coast at the Havens of Sirion... I'm sure he'd manage.
    – Amarth
    Oct 26, 2021 at 16:21
  • Men can learn to sail in a couple of years. I don't think it would be an issue for a 3000-year-old Legolas.
    – OrangeDog
    Oct 28, 2021 at 11:14

3 Answers 3


Reading the Silmarillion gives the impression that a lot (almost all) elves eventually spent some time on ships - either when the sons of Feanor returned from the West, or up and down the coast and around Belfalas.

It's also possible that the Valar simply take control and help the ship cross over - as we see Ulmo do at various times (including the crossing of Glorfindel).

  • 1
    Well, seeing as they leave the Circles of the World and watch the waves fall below them (or something like that is said in either Akallabeth or Of The Rings of Power), wouldn't that put it in Lady "just call me Janeway" Varda's domain? More seriously, IIRC it's actually stated in the Silmarillion that knowledge of shipcraft and nautical skills were rare, except among the Teleri. Wasn't the Kinslaying all about stealing ships? And many Noldor marched through Helkaraxe.
    – Marakai
    Jun 17, 2016 at 3:50
  • @Marakai - well, once they've gotten far enough west, I suppose Ulmo will handover to Varda... As for rare shipcraft and nautical skills - what might have been true at the time of kinslaying doesn't necessary hold true later: there are many references to elves in the east sailing on Cirdan's ships
    – HorusKol
    Jun 17, 2016 at 7:05
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    hoo boy, you just introduced ATC to Middle-earth: Aman Traffic Control: "Ulmo Control, this is Ringbearer-3, requesting clearance to depart circles of world."; "Ringbearer-3, this is Ulmo, your are cleared to Tol Eressea, contact Varda approach, good day."
    – Marakai
    Jun 17, 2016 at 7:55
  • 1
    @Marakai: Congratulations for linking up Tolkien with Kennedy Steve in my head...
    – DevSolar
    Jun 17, 2016 at 10:00

While most Elves were heading west at the end of the Third Age, there is nothing to stop a few going in the opposite direction. It is likely that there had been sailors going back and forth between the Grey Havens and the West since the start of the Second Age.

Keep in mind that Gandalf and the rest of the Istari arrived by ship at the Grey Havens from the West.

  • 2
    I'd been wondering that exact thing, but do we have any indication that two-way travel was a thing? In all the HoM, and from what I remember of the Letters, this was NOT a common thing. Even Glorfindel was a special case. Oh, and imagine the jetlag! ;)
    – Marakai
    Jun 17, 2016 at 2:54
  • 1
    @Marakai Perhaps not a common thing, but at least occasional.
    – Blackwood
    Jun 17, 2016 at 2:57
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    I can see that this would be the case during the Second Age - up until the World Was Made Round, after the destruction of Numenor. After that it was supposed to be a special Grace to even find the Straight Road (capitals copied from where Tolkien used them)
    – Marakai
    Jun 17, 2016 at 2:59
  • @Marakai I'm not really disagreeing, but the ships that sailed west from the Grey Havens clearly has that special Grace, so I assume there is no reason why they can't also return.
    – Blackwood
    Jun 17, 2016 at 3:05
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    Yeah, and I like your thinking (thus upvoted). Provided Cirdan could keep finding crews who would actually WANT to go back once they'd seen the Light.
    – Marakai
    Jun 17, 2016 at 3:09

Most of the Elves living at the Grey Havens, and most of the Elves in Middle Earth in general, were Teleri.

The greatest host came last, and they are named the Teleri, for they tarried on the road, and were not wholly of a mind to pass from the dusk to the light of Valinor. In water they had great delight, and those that came at last to the western shores were enamoured of the sea. The Sea-elves therefore they became in the land of Aman, the Falmari, for they made music beside the breaking waves.

― Quenta Silmarillion, "Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor"

They were especially noted for being expert mariners, and none of them would have any trouble steering ships to Valinor. They didn't all leave at once, but gradually, so there were always someone available if some land-lubber Noldo turned up. Legolas and Gimli sailed there in a ship he built himself ("it is said"), so you don't need lots of people.

Círdan in particular, who ruled the Havens and made sure he was the last to leave, was possibly the greatest sailor ever known.

The Noldor weren't incompetent sailors either, half of them having gotten back to Middle Earth by boat in the first place, and the other half only walked the long way round because the first half burned all the remaining ships. Though arguably that was before you had to find the Straight Road.

So in short, most Elves were skilled sailors. Being skilled at everything (due to their long lives) being one of the primary Elven traits.

  • Was Cirdan the Shipwright a better sailor than Earendil the Mariner? Doubt it. :)
    – Shamshiel
    Oct 26, 2021 at 11:54
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    @Shamshiel given that Cirdan was, when he left, probably the oldest corporeal being ever to be in Middle Earth, I'm going to bet on him for being best at the stuff he did. Earendil was only ~30 years old when he left.
    – OrangeDog
    Oct 26, 2021 at 13:25
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    The trip into the West was not one-way for the mariners who sailed the ships. For example, Gandalf and the other Istari got to Middle-Earth by ship. And this was in the Third Age, after the Downfall of Númenor.
    – Spencer
    Oct 26, 2021 at 15:48
  • 2
    @Spencer there's no evidence that any Elves sailing from the Grey Havens ever returned. There's also no evidence of any Elves sailing from Valinor after the Downfall. You need some actual evidence that the Elves were operating a shuttle service, when the simpler solution is that Elves who wanted to leave simply sailed themselves, or waited for another Elf to sail with them.
    – OrangeDog
    Oct 26, 2021 at 16:55
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    @Spencer I wasn't, but so what if I were? He was sent by the Valar - it makes perfect sense if Manwë gave him perfect winds or just told Ulmo to pull him across. Or Gandalf is simply capable of sailing a small craft by himself, if for some reason Manwë wasn't going to help his own messenger get where he was sent. And I have no idea what relevance you think Círdan giving him the ring has.
    – OrangeDog
    Oct 26, 2021 at 18:23

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