In Ghosts of Saltmarsh, there is a lot of information about ships, naval combat, and the sea in general. However, I can't find any information on how to get a ship in the first place. I want to run this adventure compilation, and I don't want to have to sideline the game for 30 minutes to find out how to get a ship in the first place. Could someone please explain how my players can get a ship?
This answer comes from a DM perspective, and thus is full of hopefully-minor spoilers.
The Sea Ghost is the logical choice
During the first adventure of Ghosts of Saltmarsh, the Saltmarsh Town Council asks the characters to take deal with some unsavory types on a ship. The adventure's conclusion provides the following suggestion (p. 59):
Royal agents might also claim the [Sea Ghost], but at your option, if the characters have proven eager to aid the crown, they are given the ship and pledged the service of a contingent of sailors to man it for one year.
When I ran Ghosts of Saltmarsh, my players completed this part of the mission in the second four-hour session. A map of the decks of the Sea Ghost is available on page 53, along with rigging diagrams for all your swashbuckling needs!
Subsequent adventures start with a journey by ship
If the Sea Ghost doesn't work out*, there are plenty of other opportunities to offer the party a ship. All of the adventures in Ghosts of Saltmarsh (except the first one) mostly likely begin with a journey by sea:
- Danger at Dunwater starts with a three-hour trip by sea or a twelve-hour trek over difficult terrain (p. 65-66). The adventurers are offered the use of a keelboat, but it would be easy for the Saltmarsh Town Council to provide them with whatever type you please.
- Aubreck, the quest-giver in Salvage Mission, has already hired a ship to take the PCs to a derelict ship (p. 88). When I ran the adventure, Aubreck offered the use of a ship, but had no problem with the party using their own. Note that the PCs probably won't be able to salvage the derelict, because:
the ship is attacked by a giant octopus - two minutes flat from floating to sunk!
- The party undertakes the quest in Isle of the Abbey on behalf of the local mariners' guild, who could easily provide the party with a variety of ships - perhaps in exchange for their help. In particular, the party will need some transportation (p. 98) to:
the titular isle - a six-hour trip by rowboat.
- The Saltmarsh Town Council will provide a keelboat in The Final Enemy (p. 112), though this could logically be any type of ship.
- Tammaraut's Fate expects the characters to travel by sea to a nearby village, though it doesn't provide a strong hook. If the party only books passage on an existing ship, the village council can provide a large rowboat (p. 145):
for the three-mile journey to Firewatch Island, where the adventure primarily takes place.
- The Styes takes place in a port town, but doesn't provide the party with a ship. They will likely need a small one later on (p. 183) in order to:
travel the mile or so to Landgrave's Folly.
* The first adventure has an entire sidebar (p. 52) about the party cutting a hole in the Sea Ghost or burning it to the waterline. The authors definitely paid attention in Player Psychology 101!
In addition to the fine explanation by Red Orca, the simplest answer would be 'you are the DM, and so you give the party a ship by whatever means you find convenient'. They could find an abandoned boat on the shore. They could charter a boat from a fisherman or other sailor. They could encounter pirates and 'confiscate' the pirate ship. Endless options, really. Remember, you aren't bound by the strict terms of the book. In the words of a famous pirate movie franchise: "Think of the Code more as... guidelines than actual rules."