Friday, August 24, 2012

The Sailor's Life For Me 2012

Seeing some of the great pictures that Maggie Thurber posted in her blog "Thurber's Thoughts" on the Glass City's Navy Week took me back some five years ago on one of the last occasions that the Niagra visited Toledo.  I decided to drag out that old post and clean up some of the typos and grammatical errors in order to share it with some of you who may not have been reading "Just Blowing Smoke" back in those days (unlike today, when most of you are not reading "Just Blowing Smoke").  I hope that it, like Maggie's pictures, intrigues you enough to want to see and learn more.

I was in downtown Toledo in July of 2007 while the Niagara happened to be paying the city a visit. The Niagara is a replica of a Great Lakes brig built around the time of the War of 1812 (with a few timbers of the original actually used).  Fortunately for me, the group that had brought the ship to Toledo was also providing guided tours of the ship.  Being surrounded by the reality of this ship took me back to many of the seafaring novels that I had read years before by Alexander Kent and Patrick O'Brien, and of the purported romance of those gallant days of high adventure.  Being able to see their reality was also a brutal reminder of the conditions that sailors dealt with during this period in history. Banging my head a number of times as I walked below decks persuaded me that sharing some part of their pain with you might be of some value. So here in brief, is my take on the life a sailor in the British Navy (and many others) during the "Golden Age of Sail".

 *  Most of the common sailors were either debtors, criminals, or "impressed". This final term usually meant that they had been kidnapped by "press gangs" who either got them drunk or simply bashed them on the head before taking them to their ship, or were captured when a British ship defeated theirs in battle; regardless of whether it was a combatant or non-combatant in Britain's war with France at the time, and whether it was a military or merchant vessel. (The British practice of doing this to American ships was one of the reasons over which the War of 1812 was fought.)   

 *  Terms of service were undefined, but normally lasted for years, or until hostilities ended (whichever came last).

 *  Leave was non-existent or at the very least restricted, as these mostly kidnapped sailors would desert if given half a chance.

 *  Storage of provisions was as good as it could be at the time, but that was mostly horrible. Most of those at sea were often very shortly on rations that consisted of poorly salted meats, bread that contained maggots, and water that had gone rancid in the barrels.  (Remember that rations were issue to ships by 'shiny pants' government bureaucrats who in spite of their responsibilities, granted proper supplies only when bribed, usually by the ship's captain.  The graft and outright thievery of these government officials was as appalling then as it can be now.)

 *  The ships of the time were exceptionally small when considered against those of a modern navy and were often on the verge of being top-heavy from the weight of the cannons they carried. Hulls were often crusted over with barnacles that slowed them down enough to make them easier targets and leaked badly enough to require the constant maintenance of stuffing rags or wedges between their boards so that the bilge pumps could stay ahead of the water leaking in.  These vessels were always on the verge of capsizing at worst, and rolling horrifically at best, as were undoubtedly the stomachs of those on them - especially during storms.

 *  Most of the sailors' duties consisted of working with the sails. This involved climbing into the air a couple of hundred feet into rope rigging that found them swaying 30 feet and more from side to side with the rolling of the ship; while trying to man-handle heavy tackle and canvas in order to properly control the ship. The expression of the time was, "One hand for the ship, and one for yourself".

 *  When your duties didn't involve such indirect attempts being made to kill you above deck in the rigging, you got to spend your days scrubbing those decks with stones in order to maintain them, spending hours on your knees in the blistering sun. 

 *  Discipline was extremely strict (especially by today's standards), and usually involved being put on bread and water (which did wonders for your digestive system) or a having the skin peeled from your back by being beat with a bunch of leather strips with knots at the end that had been soaked in seawater to harden them (a cat o' nine tails).

 *  Sleeping arrangements consisted of a hammock, approximately 18" wide where you ended up sleeping side by side.  You were literally packed shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the crew, who like you, hadn't had a chance to bathe in some time. These hammocks had multiple uses however, as they also served as burial shrouds should you make the ultimate sacrifice for ship and country. (Curiously and by tradition, the last stitch made in your burial shroud was made through your lip or nose to make sure that you were actually dead.)  

 *  When the mind-numbing labor and mindless tedium of the everyday existence sailing was interrupted by battle with another ship or ground fortifications, these same sailors found themselves faced with: grape shot (a cannon used like a giant shotgun), chain or bar shot (two small cannon balls connected by a chain or bar) and used to attempt to bring the masts and rigging down on their heads, or being skewered by the splinters from the impact of solid shot on the wood of the vessels on which they served.

 *  Wounds suffered from these battles were treated by "doctors" who were usually of the worst possible kind, often barely better than butchers. If you didn't die bleeding to death before being finally treated, you normally faced some form of amputation (without anesthetic) to staunch the wound.     

 *  Thereafter, if you didn't die of infection (sterilization was not particularly well known at the time), you faced the rest of the voyage (and no doubt your life) without a limb, and without the wonderful prosthetic devices that are available today. 

 *  When your term of service (usually the war) was finally over, you were cut loose in a heartbeat at whatever port the ship finally ended up in, usually without any kind of pension. 

Now, just so you don't think that there was no bright side to this equation, there were some perks to this rather brutal existence.  For example, each sailor was issued a "Rum Ration" every day which consisted of a mug of liquor purported to be five times more powerful than what we distill today. (in other words, they sailed in a state of almost constant inebriation). Of course they usually mixed their rations with the water (which was the only way to kill the bugs growing in it by then), but hey a drink is a drink. They were also issued clothing (at least at the beginning of the voyage) to wear on ship while serving.  In addition, while in port wives, girlfriends, and professional hostesses (hookers for those of you not politically correct) were often rowed out to the ships to help keep sailors with no liberty happy enough not to attempt desertion. In addition, many sailors were afforded the chance to win "prize money" (booty) for the ships that were captured to help supplement what was really lousy pay.

I don't know about you, but when I think on these days of high a
dventure and potential to travel to exotic lands in the luxury conditions like this, all I can say is that I am in awe of those who managed to survive such an experience.  Let me add as a consequence, that by neither definition of the word should they feel the need to impress me.