Life Aboard an 18th Century Frigate

Just like it is today, going to sea on either an 18th Century merchant ship or a warship in either the Royal or Continental Navy was not for everyone. The framers of the workplace regulations for OSHA would be apoplectic if they saw men walking 70 feet above the deck along a footrope with one arm draped around yard and the other working to either loosen or free a sail. OMG, no one wore a safety harness!

Modern HR executives would have a hissy fit if they listened to the language bo’suns used to encourage the men pushing bars on the capstan to raise an anchor or haul on a sheet. Today, they would be accused of creating a hostile work environment.

Discipline was strict under the Articles of War. Captains had broad powers to mete out punishment. How punishment was determined and delivered would give trial lawyers today a target rich environment.

However, compared to what it took to make a living and survive in the 18th Century, life on board a ship wasn’t all that bad. First, they were fed at least three times a day. The boring diet of salted beef, pork or fish, dried fruits and vegetables and oatmeal and occasional fresh fruit was not, by 21st century standards five star but it was healthy for the time.

The three meals a day provided five to six thousand calories a day washed down by weak beer. Water in the wooden casks quickly putrefied so the men drank beer, probably with less than 3% alcohol. Sailors were given either a daily tot of rum or grog that was one part rum diluted by four parts of water and often mixed with lemon or lime juice and spiced with cinnamon.

Sailors were also well clothed. In the 18th Century, there were no uniforms for ratings or what we call enlisted men. They brought what they had and could by additional clothing that from the “sloppes” which we would call today a ship’s store. If the ship took a prize, the clothing was either given to the crew or auctioned it off and the amount was deducted from the man’s pay.

Most frigates and larger ships had a surgeon who often had one or two assistants. He brought along his own “tools” as well as medicines. Again, while primitive by today’s metrics, it was medical care that met the standards of the day.

The men were paid a guaranteed amount set by law. It wasn’t a lot but it was a working wage. If the ship took a prize, everyone received his share based on his rank.

Was life at sea better than on land? The short answer is probably. At least it was better than being drafted into the army!

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