Before the 1930s, commercial air-travel was but the dream of fools. And before the mid 1800s, an ocean-voyage in a ship powered by something other than oars or the wind, was seen as absurd. From the earliest days of the Age of Sail, starting in the 1500s, until sailing ships were finally declared obsolete by the faster and more powerful steamships, life at sea was hard, dangerous and scary, even at the best of times. A voyage from England to America, India or even as far as Singapore or Australia, took weeks, even months of travel-time, stopping off at ports on the way, to pick up fresh supplies and to deliver and pick up cargo.
What was life onboard a sailing ship like? What kind of food did people eat? How did they sleep? Go to the toilet? How the hell did they even know where they were GOING? These questions, and more, will hopefully be clearly answered in the contents of this post.
Arguably, the most important part of a sea-voyage was navigation; knowing where the hell you were going, and how to get there. Navigation required a lot of skill when you were out in the middle of the ocean without a landmass within sight to act as a point of reference. So, how was it done?
Determining direction was easily accomplished by using a standard compass, with a needle which would point to Magnetic North. Using a compass, you could determine your direction. This was easy enough; even without a compass you could determine your direction, based on the movement of the sun. But how did you determine your position?
Finding out your co-ordinates (the two reference-points which, when put together, would pinpoint your position on the globe), took considerably more skill. Using a sextant or octant, you were able (by measuring the angle of the sun against the horizon), to determine how far north or south you were. This, with some practice, became fairly easy. The real challenge was determining how far east or west you were, from a given point. Longitude (east-west bearing) had been nearly impossible to determine accurately, until the last quarter of the 18th century. An English clockmaker named John Harrison created the world’s first marine chronometer, a clock (or watch) which was accurate enough to be used for navigation at sea. The most accurate clocks in the world at the time, were big longcase pendulum clocks (grandfather clocks). While they could keep almost dead-accurate time, they were useless out in the middle of the ocean, where the waves would throw the pendulum-swing out of kilter. Pocket-watches small enough to be brought out into the ocean were too inaccurate to serve as reliable time-standards. Over the years, Harrison refined his chronometer until it was good enough to be used at sea. His reward for his invention? A princely ten thousand pounds from the British government.
The Marine Chronometer.
The marine chronometer was arguably the most important invention of the 18th century. Without it, ocean-travel as we know it today, would likely never have taken place at all. Using the chronometer (which was set at Greenwich Mean Time), a navigator could determine how far from land he was, by counting the time-difference between the time on the clock, and the position of the sun at noon each day. Marine chronometers (‘chronos’ meaning ‘time’, ‘meter’ for ‘measure’), had to be incredibly accurate. A variation of just a few seconds each day, was enough to throw a ship off-course by MILES. In his voyage from England to Australia in the 1780s, Captain Cook (who agreed to test Mr. Harrison’s new invention), recorded in his papers that this newfangled clock managed to keep an accuracy of +/-5 seconds after one month at sea. Now that’s good timekeeping!
With navigation solved, the ship was ready to be provisioned. What kinds of things did a ship carry back in the 1700s?
When a sea-voyage could last a month at its shortest, stocking enough provisions onboard ship was of vital importance. Provisions included everything. Water, food, spare sails, spare spars, spare ropes, nails, oakum, pitch, tar, gunpowder, shot, cargo, medical supplies, clothing, candles, coal, timber and oil.
The modern refrigerator as we know it today, did not exist until the 1930s. How the hell did they stop all the food from going rotten?
Preventing food-spoilage was a big problem onboard ships. Captains typically loaded their vessels with foods that could last for weeks or months without needing refrigeration. So how was it done?
Shipboard food included such delicacies as salted pork, dried or salted fish, hard-tack (also called a ship’s biscuit), grains such as oats or cornmeal, and maybe a bit of nice cheese. Drinks included barrels of water, wine, rum and grog (which was watered-down rum). So, what were all these things?
Pork was salted. That is to say, it was packed into massive barrels of salt, to preserve it. Fish was either dried, to prevent it from going mouldy, or it too, was packed into barrels and salted. Grains such as oats, barley and cornmeal, which would be used for making porridge, were stored in sacks and barrels, tightly sealed. And last but not least, there was the ever-present, ever-despised hard-tack or the ‘ship’s biscuit’.
If you’ve ever eaten an ANZAC biscuit, you’ll know how hard and tough it can be. Hard-tack made ANZAC biscuits feel like overcooked pasta. Hard-tack was a special kind of cookie which was baked so that when it came out of the oven, it was literally rock hard. You could drive a nail into a plank of wood with this thing, and it wouldn’t break. Hard-tack was notoriously difficult to eat. But why did they stock it? Because hard-tack is like the cockroach of foodstuffs. It can survive almost anything. Provided that it was sealed properly and kept dry, hard-tack could keep fresh for months, even years at sea. Hard-tack was so damn tough that if you ate it ‘raw’, you’d probably break your teeth off! So instead, sailors would dunk it into their tea or coffee to soften it up a bit before taking a bite out of it. But before you dunked it into the tea, you had to bang it on the table a few times to knock out the beetles and weevils and other nasty little insects that had taken up residence inside your lunch.
You’ll notice that there is a distinct lack of greenery in the shipboard diet. Keeping things like fruits and vegetables fresh onboard a sailing ship with no fridges, was a nearly impossible task. Fruit goes mouldy after a few days, a few weeks if you’re lucky. And greens were important, and still are important, for preventing the horrific disease called scurvy.
Scurvy was nasty. It caused your joints to ache, it made your gums bleed, it made you go dizzy and faint, and when it was really bad, your teeth rotted and you’d be spitting your pearly-whites all over the floor. To prevent this, sailors drank great quantities of fruit-juice. It’s for this reason that British sailors were called “Limeys”; because they drank gallons and gallons of lime-juice. On the same ticket, German sailors ate pounds and pounds of sauerkraut. It’s for this reason that Germans are called “Krauts”.
It’s well-known that sailors slept in hammocks onboard ships, even as recently as the mid 20th century. But why would you want to sleep in a rocking, rolling hammock that could pitch you out onto the floor when the ship hit a swell?
Ship’s hammocks are not like garden hammocks. They’re more compact. When you get in, the sides of the hammock spring upwards and wrap around you, so that you’re as snug as a bug in a rug. Being wrapped up like this prevents you from falling out if the ship rolls. Sailors didn’t sleep in beds because there was no room for them. And at any rate, it was easier to be thrown out of a bed than a hammock, during a storm. Naval tradition dictated that when a sailor died, he was sewn up in his hammock (with the last stitch through his nose, to make sure he wasn’t snoozing), he had a pair of holystones (a type of scouring-rock, used to clean the deck) tied, with a rope, around his ankles…and then his body was tipped into the sea.
Open flames were forbidden on sailing-ships. While the only source of light was fire, its use was strictly regulated. All candles had to be housed in lanterns, for extra safety, and the only fire permitted onboard, was in the galley stove. Most ships would have had a stern lantern (a big lantern hammered onto the back of the ship), to act a bit like the tail-light of a car. It would make it easier to spot in the dark. When escaping an enemy ship, captains usually doused the stern lantern to remain hidden in the dark.
When a sea-voyage could take months at a time, keeping yourself entertained was pretty important. Sailors would play cards, dominoes, chess, checkers or play on whatever musical instruments they had, like flutes or violins. The most well-known aspect of shipboard entertainment during the Age of Sail was the sea-shanty. A shanty was a song which sailors sang onboard ship, while they worked. The most famous shanty, “The Drunken Sailor”, was typically sung when the crew was downstairs, running around the capstan, hauling up the anchor. The chorus “Hey, ho, and up she rises!” was the cue for sailors to start pushing on the capstan-bars to raise the anchor.