Living in Close Quarters

Compared to modern frigates that are 400 feet long and displace 4,000 tons, an 18th Century frigate is really small. They were around 120 – 130 feet long, had a beam around 35 feet, drew 12 feet of water and displaced 650 – 700 tons. They carried 28 – 36 cannon with a main battery of 24 twelve-pounders, a pair of 9-pounders as bow chasers, and a half dozen or so smaller six-pounders. Food, drink, ammunition, logs to use to repair masts, sail cloth, and other “stuff” needed for a four to six months voyage without replenishing were packed in the hold.

“Enlisted” men slept in hammocks on the berthing deck. Midshipmen slept in a compartment smaller than most pantries. The officers, ship’s surgeon, master, purser, senior Marine officer lived in two man spaces smaller than most walk-in closets. Only the captain had a cabin to himself.

All in all, roughly 220 men lived on the frigate without fresh, much less running, water or toilets. Ventilation was provided by opening the between the deck hatches and gun ports. Bathing and washing clothes wasn’t the ritual it is today. So the odor must have been, shall we say strong.

Sailing in hot weather, the pitch and tar used for caulking would ooze out of the seams. It added an aroma of its own.

These small ships sailed every ocean. During winters, mariners had the good sense to avoid the stormy regions of the Atlantic and Pacific. Cold weather makes canvas and rope stiff. Yet, on a daily basis, the crew climbed the rigging, walked along the footropes under a spar 70 feet above the water and furled or loosened sails. It was an act that would give an OSHA inspector nightmares.

Radiant heat from the ship’s stove augmented by body heat from the men sleeping in hammocks made it tolerable on the berthing deck except in the coldest winter days. The officer compartments were heated differently. One method was heating cannon balls in the ship’s stove and then deftly dropping them in an iron bucket that was hung from the overhead.

Water stored in wooden casks was another problem. It quickly putrefied and was undrinkable within days. The solution was beer. The alcohol content was 2 – 3% and, along with the tot of rum or grog every day, the crew had something to drink.

Discipline to keep 220 men packed into a small vessel for long periods of time was strict. Corporal punishment was allowed for minor offenses.

It took a special breed of men to survive in this environment, yet there were no shortage of volunteers. Naval service provided the basics – three meals a day, clothing, steady pay, medical care – and, if you were lucky, prize money. Add in the opportunity for adventure and visiting new places and you’ll understand why roughly 60% of the crews were volunteers. Two centuries later, the attraction of going to sea still exists, or as the U.S. Navy’s recruiting slogan used from 1976 to 1988 stated – Its not a job, its an adventure!

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