Sailing the high seas aboard wooden sailing ships in ancient times took iron men with courage and the unflinching determination to achieve their goals whether exploration of the great unknown, opening new frontiers for commerce, or facing enemies in maritime combat.
The seas have always been a pathway to great achievement and a graveyard for great tragedy.
Mankind will never conquer the sea — only learn to live with it and enjoy its resources.
The hardworking seamen manning the wooden sailing ships often left loved ones for months, or even years. All that time, they’d live in cramped quarters, with poor food and low pay, facing possible injury, disease, bad weather and high seas.
On top of it all, many men were on board against their will. Since the days of King Edward I in the 13th century, England has sent press gangs out to capture men and force them into involuntary service aboard ship.
Since 1664, the Royal Navy used impressment of “eligible men of seafaring habits between the ages of 18 and 55 years,” along with a few non-seamen, to crew their warships.
Britain ended the practice in 1814, after defeating Napoleon.
The U.S. Continental Navy also applied a form of impressment during the American War of Independence.
Britain’s most acclaimed warship during the Age of Sail was the 227-foot long HMS Victory, Lord Horatio Nelson’s flagship when the British fought the French and Spanish navies at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 off the southwest coast of Spain.
Life on warships at sea:
Royal Navy warships had children as young as 8 on board as cabin boys to run errands. Most boys were 13 to 16.
Sometimes there were women on board. They helped too.
Mealtime was always happy time for the crew.
To maintain morale, the ship’s captain made mealtime sacrosanct — lasting 45 to 90 minutes and not to be interrupted except under emergency conditions such as enemy attack.
Along with standard provisions, Royal Navy warships carried livestock: cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, geese, hens and chickens that were slaughtered on board to provide fresh meat, milk and eggs.
The cattle were supplied by the Royal Navy, but other livestock, fruit and vegetables were brought aboard by officers and seamen to supplement their rations.
At sea, crewmembers would also fish for sharks, flying fish, dolphins, porpoises and turtles, as well as shoot birds.
Even the rats commonly found aboard were hunted, caught, cooked and eaten — tasting “nice and delicate… full as good as rabbits.”
Weevils were common in flour, biscuits and bread, and food spoilage always a problem in the days before refrigeration.
The crew’s diet was limited and repetitive, consisting mainly of salted beef and pork, biscuit, peas and oatmeal, butter and cheese stored in casks or bread bags in the ship’s hold.
Barrels often leaked and the food became infested with maggots or eaten by the rats.
An ongoing dietary problem on long sea voyages was scurvy — a lack of vitamin C, usually found in fresh fruits and vegetables.
Later, they realized that the cure was more citrus fruit, so lemon was added to the crew’s rum ration.
All the youngsters helped the cook, carrying buckets of food to the dining areas.
They also carried messages; learned about sails, rigging and weather, and took their turn at the ship’s helm and standing watch.
Some of the 12- to 14-year-old boys had the dangerous job of being a “powder monkey.” Their task was to bring gunpowder up from the ship’s magazine for the cannons during battle. Their smaller size was an advantage in maneuvering quickly in confined spaces and from being shot by enemy snipers.
There was a pecking order among crewmembers. Apart from officers, among “the elite of the 18th century working class” were the crew working high up among the sails and rigging. They wore “colourful clothes, hairstyles, personal jewelry and — after contact with the Polynesian societies of the South Pacific — tattooing.”
(Only officers and midshipmen wore uniforms in those days.)
The rigging crew stayed together on board ship and considered “skilled, daring and resourceful men.”
Like the HMS Victory, America’s frigate USS Constitution has lasted centuries. Moored in Boston Harbor, it receives nearly a million visitors a year.
It’s affectionately known as “Old Ironsides” because during the War of 1812, cannon balls just bounced off its hull made of thick live oak.
Built in 1797 and stretching 207 feet long with a mainmast 210 feet high, the Constitution was armed with 55 heavy cannons. During the War of 1812, the crew numbered more than 480 officers, sailors and Marines.
Ship’s officers kept strict discipline on board to prevent mutiny and keep morale high. Sometimes crewmembers were away from family and home life for months or sometimes even years.
Early U.S. Navy discipline was similar to the Royal Navy’s, but milder. Flogging was outlawed in 1850.
The Royal Navy punishment included being “tarred and feathered,” or “flogged around the fleet,” where the miscreant was flogged with a cat-o-nine tails while being rowed around the fleet at anchor by his shipmates.
Worse was being keel-hauled — tied to a rope and dragged under the ship’s hull. They rarely survived.
Most punishment was flogging, with the rest of the crew ordered to watch. Salt was then poured on the wounds to prevent infection.
Theft was not tolerated by officers or enlisted crew. Punishment was running the gauntlet of being flogged by crewmembers wielding knotted rope ends.
Mutiny or murder resulted in being hanged from the yard arm.
The crew slept in hammocks in cramped quarters, with toilet facilities a square or round seat located on the beakhead (front) in the forward-most part of the ship — the “head,” now the Navy term for toilet. The men were exposed to the wind, water and weather conditions, and they had to devise their own substitute for toilet paper.
It was usually scrap of paper or fibrous material such as oakum.
Adding to the hardship, even a large warship like the HMS Victory with 800 crew, had only a half dozen “seats of easement” over an open drop into the sea.
Officers had it better, with their toilets next to their cabins at the stern of the ship, and for TP, “officers used old newspaper or discarded paper.”
Toilet paper wasn’t invented in Britain until the late 19th century.
Medical service aboard ship was rudimentary. In those days, “most of the public still viewed surgeons as a cross between butchers and sideshow performers, and they weren’t far wrong.”
There were then only 14 real physicians in the entire Royal Navy.
Those chosen to service as shipboard medics usually had little or no medical training. Their assistants would often be the ship’s carpenter, who could aid in sawing off limbs.
There was no anesthetic, nor was there much understanding of hygienic conditions.
They did know that foul-smelling bilge water was unhealthy, and treated it with lots of lime chloride — like Clorox — killing mosquito larvae and various microbes.
Burials of the dead started with sewing the body usually in the person’s regular hammock and adding weights to make sure it would sink.
A religious service was conducted by the ship captain, and then the body would be tipped into the water feet first.
That’s not what happened when Lord Nelson on board the Victory was mortally wounded by a French sniper at Trafalgar.
Attending his dying moments was an Irish physician named William Beatty, one of the Navy’s best.
He made the decision to try to preserve Nelson’s body and take it back to London, where it would to be interred at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The body was placed in a wooden cask filled with either rum or French brandy. History is muddled which one it was. One account says, William Beatty “mixed camphor and myrrh into the cask of brandy and placed the admiral inside.” The official report says simply that the body was placed in “refined spirits.”
It took nearly two months for the badly damaged Victory to limp back to England with a stop at Gibraltar. During that time, Nelson’s body began to deteriorate and expanding gases popped the lid, terrifying a sailor nearby.
Life at sea in those days was indeed high adventure.
It still is.
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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Biggest wooden ship…
Two hundred and 60 feet long with a displacement of 6,959 tons, and armed with 121 guns, the wooden HMS Warrior was the largest warship ever commissioned into service, until the completion of Britain’s first iron-clad HMS Warrior battleship in 1861.
Monster grocery list…
Provisions listed in 1760 for the 74-gun British warship HMS Bellona to feed 650 men for four months:
Beef: 5,200 pieces, 20,800 pounds
Pork: 9,620 pieces, 19,240 pounds
Beer: 236 butts, 29,736 U.S. gallons
Water: 339 butts, 30 puncheons, 60 hogsheads, 49,018 U.S. gallons
Bread: 650 bags, 72,800 pounds
Butter: 3,900 pounds
Cheese: 14,160 pounds
Oatmeal: 19,008 pounds
Peas: 20,800 pounds
Flour: 15,590 pounds
Suet: 2,600 pounds
Vinegar: 709 U.S. gallons
Food eaten first at sea…
When out to sea, the mariners would first eat those foods that spoiled the quickest — like fruit and vegetables. To preserve certain foods such as meat and fish, they were dried, salted, smoked or pickled, and stored aboard ship in wooden barrels.
Better in jail than at sea…
In September 1773, Samuel Johnson wrote, “A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company” than a sailor!
Rum ration on board…
After the British captured Jamaica in 1655, rum became the beverage of choice. It was cheap, was more potent than beer, and could be stored longer in wooden kegs.
If allowed by the captain, sailors could drink it straight until 1740. Then the Admiralty ordered rum rations to be mixed with water, creating “grog,” with each sailor allotted two quarts a day.
After 1810, lemon juice was added to prevent scurvy.
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