"The Romance of Sail"

Many people that read about sailing ships, or look at oil paintings or even photographs, of these beautiful majestic vessels, get carried away by the glamour and romance of it all. But we should realize that there is another side to the story. Life on these vessels was far from romantic, and glamour would not be a word you'd hear very often around their decks. For example unlike steam ships, sailing ships could not sail in direct lines or along the shortest routes, they were at the mercy of wind and weather, and a voyage of say 8.000 miles for instance might be in reality nearer 12.000 because of their having to take advantage of prevailing winds (and sometimes no wind at all, as in the Doldrums) and having to tack, or wear ship, which to the layman means to swing all the square sail yards around an angle of perhaps 80 degrees in order to catch a breeze, however small. When one realizes that the main yards of some latter-day sailing ships weighed in the region of seven tons each, it can be seen what sheer hard work this entailed. And all hands were ordered on deck, every time there was a change in course, day after day, week after week, handling stiff wet canvas, often in freezing rain or snow and sometimes in pitch darkness.

Food in those days was usually of very poor quality; rations were kept to the absolute minimum and often bought from wily ship’s chandlers who gave out back-handers to a captain at the expense of the crews. After a few weeks such desirable commodities as potatoes, vegetables and bread had disappeared from the menu. And all that was left was salt beef or pork, and weevil-ridden biscuits and the like. Fresh water was rationed, sometimes to half a bucket a day for drinking, washing clothes and brewing tea. To add to this the crew, which could numbered twenty or more on the larger vessels, were usually accommodated below the fo’c’sle, a damp, musty, dimly lit space often awash with sea water and the accumulated debris of smashed crockery and fittings which had come adrift in heavy weather. Many of the crew suffered saltwater boils, and serious complaints like scurvy (a condition caused through lack of fresh fruit, vegetables, and as we know now, vitamin deficiency). There was no means of drying clothes and bedding, and the misery could go on for months, until the ship reached warmer climates, when all the crews’ pitiful collection of mildewed possessions could be brought up on deck to dry.

So difficult was it to get crews in the 1800s that men would often get “Shanghaied” onto ships, they were piled with cheap drink at dockside taverns, and before they knew it they would awake miles out to sea, and on their way on another voyage. None of these ships carried doctors, and it was usually the captain’s job to reset broken arms or legs, and to extract molars, and more than one seaman survived primitive operations for appendicitis. The usual anesthetic was rum or some other spirit.

You may well ask why did these men go to sea at all? The truth of the mater is, life then was nearly as bad for those at home, and children as young as 12 were sent away to sea, as their families could not afford to keep them. This was the agony and hardship that mariners experienced in the "good old days of sail".

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The best book I have read on this subject is “The Last Grain Race” by Eric Newby. It’s a brilliant and true account of life on the last of the Windjammers, in the late 1930s.

 

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