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The Royal Navy of Sailing Ships

Since the thwarted invasion by the Spanish Armada Invencible in 1588, the British naval branch has played a major role in her country's foreign politics and defence, earning the appellation of Senior Service and precedence in military parades and official ceremonies.

From the mid 1700s to the early 1800s it was the only force effectively opposing the Spaniards and French in its wooden sailing ships, flying a national flag that had undergone several changes over time, ultimately leading to the Union Jack:

The Naval Command Organisation

The Admiralty was and still is the British government department responsible for commanding the Royal Navy.

Command was originally exercised by a single person - the Lord High Admiral - then the Admiralty was, from the early 18th century onwards, almost invariably put "in commission" and it pased under the control of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, always a mixture of Admirals - known as Naval Lords or Sea Lords - and Civil Lords, normally politicians, who sat on the Board of Admiralty.

Perhaps the best known and influential First Sea Lord (1801-1804) was Admiral of the Fleet John Jervis, 1st Earl of St Vincent and a patron of Horatio Nelson, followed by Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville (1804-1805, then 1812-1827). Nowadays the title still exists, but modernised as First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff.

John Jervis - Henry Dundas - Evan Nepean
Admiralty House, Whitehall, London

Board of Admiralty meeting (circa 1810)

An equally important but behind-the-scenes figure was that of Sir Evan Nepean MP (from 1780-1782 Purser on HMS Foudroyant for the then Captain John Jervis), Secretary to the Board of Admiralty from 1795 to 1804 and responsible for its day-to-day running during its 10 most crucial years. He would sign and issue the Board's orders starting with "I am commanded by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to..." and including phrases like "with utmost dispatch" or "at your earliest convenience" or "at your leisure" for their execution, depending on the urgency.

The Civil Administration Organisation

The Navy Board, also known as the Navy Office, was the organisation with responsibility for day-to-day civil administration of the Royal Navy, headed by a Comptroller of the Navy assisted by a Comptroller of Treasurer's Accounts, a Treasurer of the Navy, a Surveyor of the Navy (in charge of naval shipbuilding, ship design and running the Royal Dockyards) and a Comptroller of Victualling Accounts.

Subsidiary boards like the Victualling Board, the Sick and Hurt Board and the Transport Board would be established from time to time to oversee certain aspects of the Board's work.

Service Personnel

Manning the ships' crews was a mixture of volunteers - enticed by recruiting posters and receiving the King's shilling as a reward - and forced recruiting by the Impress Service - its Press Gangs would roam the country, particularly the port areas, looking for men without allowed exemptions (i.e. not apprentices or "gentlemen" or on outbound merchantmen) and seize them for service aboard.

Volunteers would be eligible for an advance of 2 months' pay and would be treated more favourably than their pressed counterparts. Clothes and equipment, such as a hammock, had to be bought from the ship's Purser out of the advance. Volunteers were also protected from creditors, up to the value of £20.

Recruiting poster - A Press Gang seizing civilians for Navy service

Alternatively the Captain, ultimately responsible for fully manning his command before sailing, might have to choose between sailing undermanned or asking for convicts from Navy Hulks (naval prisons) and civil prisons (men sentenced to jail by the Courts of Assizes), the latter landsmen (landlubbers) requiring harsh training to understand the bewildering complexity of a sailing ship and acquire their sea legs, started on by their division petty officers' rattan canes or knotted rope ends.

Navy Hulk - Ship's waist

Only about 20% of the seamen was needed for skilled work aloft (topmen), the heavy work of hauling braces and anchor cables was done by the waisters - those who worked in the waist area of the ship (see also Life at Sea in the Royal Navy of the 18th Century) with the help of available Royal Marines (jokingly called bullocks by the sailors for their apparent stolidity), the size of their contingent on board depending on the ship's rate.

No Royal Naval Academy or College for Cadets existed then, and officers started their careers as Midshipmen through patronage, i.e. a ship's Captain would be asked to take on board a youth from an important family - who could later support the Captain's ascent in rank - or from a friend's.

The next career step was Lieutenant, achieved after passing an examination by a Board of Captains periodically convened for the purpose - subject to subsequent Admiralty confirmation. A Lieutenant could be appointed to serve as one of the various Lieutenants (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th) on a ship of the line or frigate, or to command a smaller ship like a two-masted sloop-of-war or brig-of-war, later becoming a Commander (with courtesy title of Captain).

The most important further career step was that of Post Captain, an appointment solely made by the Lords Commissioners of the Adimiralty. A Junior Post Captain (less than 3 years' seniority) could be assigned to command a Frigate, a Senior Post Captain a Ship-of-the-Line (see Ship Rates further down).

Although career advancement was largely a matter of patronage by influential naval and civil figures, nevertheless it could be helped by outstanding feats of arms reported in the official Army and Navy Gazette, and the civilian London Gazette - they also served to bolster faltering British morale, often depressed by Napoleon's continuing land victories on the Continent.

The London Gazette page of 6 November, 1805 at right announces the death of Lord Nelson at Trafalgar.

The Captains' List maintained at the Admiralty recorded their date of appointment: rank seniority determined who would command a group of ships as Commodore, and eventually reach flag rank, first being made a Rear Admiral of the Blue: each Admiral was attached to a squadron of the three available (Blue, White, Red) and a flag officer advanced through them, again by seniority, to Vice-Admiral and later Admiral from Blue, through White, to Red (see also Promotion in the Flag Ranks in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars).

Any sailing vessel belonging to a fleet would fly at the mizzen or main mast a coloured pennant corresponding to the flag rank of its commander, and a corresponding large ensign aft. Admirals with no squadron to command were referred to as Yellow Admirals (see also United Kingdom: Royal Navy rank flags and Heart of Oak).

Pennant of Admiral of the Blue - Cantons for Admiral, Vice-Admiral, Rear-Admiral - Commodore's pennant

Officers with no ship to command or other shore appointment were put on half pay until a new command could be found for them - or were asked to relinquish their commission and leave the Service.

The London Gazette

After the Act of Union of 1801, which united united the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland, the flag of the Royal Navy became the White Ensign, and the Red Ensign that of the British Merchant Navy.

The White Ensign of the Royal Navy - The "Red Duster" of the Merchant Navy


StatusPositionAppointed byPay per Lunar Month
& Berthing
Commissioned OfficerCommodoreAdmiralty£53.18.0Blue frock coat with gold-laced buttons2Great Cabin
Captain£33.12.0, £28.0.0,
£24.10.0, £19.12.0,
(1st to 6th rate)
Blue frock coat, white waist coat
Commander£14.0.01 (left shoulder)
Lieutenant£8.8.0, £5.12.01 (right shoulder)Wardroom
Warrant Officer Acting LieutenantShip's CaptainFrom the last position heldNone
MasterNavy Board£7.7.0Blue frock coat with gold Navy buttons
PurserVictualling Board£3.1.0
SurgeonSick and Hurt Board£14.4.0
ChaplainChurch of England£11.10.9
Cockpit OfficerMidshipmanShip's Captain£2.0.6Blue frock coat, white button collar patchCockpit
Cockpit Mate Master's Mate£2.12.6Blue frock coat with white trim
Midshipman's Mate£1.13.6
Surgeon's MateSick and Hurt Board£9.2.0
Civilian Captain's ClerkHired by
Ship's Captain
£2.18.0Civilian clothing
School Teacher£2.0.6
Standing Officer GunnerShip's Captain£3.1.0Blue frock coat with Navy buttonsCrew's
Petty Officer Master-at-Arms£2.0.6Shipboard-issued
crew clothing

Carpenter's Mate£2.0.6
Sailmaker's Mate£1.18.6
Ship's Corporal
Quartermaster's Mate£1.16.6
Gunner's Mate£1.16.6
Boatswain's Mate£1.16.6
Armourer's Mate
Caulker's Mate
Seaman Quarter Gunner£1.15.6
Carpenter's Crew
Able Seaman£1.13.6
Ordinary Seaman£1.5.6

For those below Commissioned Officer status, the pay balance entitlement was calculated from the Purser's books and doled out in small amounts only with the Captain's permission at the time of shore leave, to prevent excessive drunkenness, lateness in returning on board and possible desertions.

See also:

Extra Benefits

If they captured and brought back an enemy ship, Captains and crew could obtain Prize Money awarded through a complex system of quotas.

Allocation was by eighths of the proceeds from the sale of the ship and its cargo to the Admiralty - or to a commercial enterprise or private person - at the value adjudged by a Prize Court. If a fighting ship was involved, after any necessary repairs she was not usually re-christened and joined the RN fleet under her original name.

Admiral or Commander-in-Chief who signed the ship's written orders (unless given directly by the Admiralty)1 (0)
Ship's Captain(s) or Commander(s) directly involved in the action, or within sight of it2 (3)
Lieutenants, Sailing Master, Captain of Marines1
Wardroom Warrant Officers, Standing Warrant Officers, Lieutenant of Marines, Master's Mates1
Junior Warrant and Petty Officers, their mates, Sergeants of Marines, Captain's Clerk, Surgeon's Mates, Midshipmen1
Crew (pool divided into shares, for each: 2 to Able Seamen, 1½ to Ordinary Seamen, 1 to Landsmen, ½ to Boys)2

Additional benefits accrued if the capture included enemy sailors (Head Money: £5 each) - see also Prize Money.

The system was similar to that for civilian Privateers issued with Letters of Marque and Reprisal, authorising them to make war on enemy shipping. As payment, the privateersmen sold off the aptured booty.

Letter of Marque by Queen Elizabeth I

Ship Rates

George Anson, Admiral of the Fleet and First Lord of the Admiralty during the Seven Years' War (1757–1762), devised a system to classify RN ships with rates reflecting their size and armament. Unrated boats like sloops and brigs and were not considered ships (men-of-war) but simply vessels.The ships were built at various Royal Navy Dockyards like Chatham, Portsmouth, Sheerness, Plymouth, and at private dockyards.

TypeRateDecksGunsMastsCrewBurthen (tons)Cost
Ship of the Line1st3100+3850+2,500£65,000
Great Frigate5th1-228+3200+450-1,450£  8,200
SloopUnrated116+2  90+   380
Brig112+2  20+< 220
Schooner1  6+2  20+< 150£  1,370
George Anson - The Royal Navy Dockyard at Chatham

Ships with more than 3 decks were not present in British fleets since their heavier armament and tonnage meant lesser maneuvrability, as demonstrated by the sinking of the Spanish Santísima Trinidad of almost 5,000 tons at the Battle of Trafalgar.See also Rating system of the Royal Navy.

100-gun Ship of the Line "HMS Royal George" (1st rate) - Frigate (6th rate) - 4-deck, 140-gun Spanish Ship of the Line "Nuestra Señora de la Santísima Trinidad"

Unrated vessels: Sloop of war, Brig of war, Schooner

British-designed ships were generally sturdier and heavier than their French equivalents, considered better sailers but more fragile in battle.

One serious problem afflicting all wood-hulled ships was the growth of teredo worms and barnacles below the waterline - gradually impairing their structural solidity - and the accumulation of other marine life like weeds that reduced sailing performance due to drag. After many years of experiments with different methods and materials, in the late 1770s copper sheathing was introduced throughout the British Fleet to reduce the inevitable phenomenon to more manageable proportions.

Copper-sheathed hull

Naval Guns & Ordnance

Smoothbore guns on board were classified based on the weight of their shot - from 6-pounder bow chasers to 42-pounder long guns and carronades depending on the ship's rate - which was propelled out by an exploding gunpowder charge carried to the gun deck in a cloth or parchment bag from the magazine or powder room by ship boys (powder monkeys).

32-pounder main deck carronade ("Smasher") - Powder bag and bag storage containers - 12-pounder long naval gun (overall weight:1.5 tons)

Parts of a naval cannon

The main powder charge was ignited by applying a burning slow match (special rope impregnated with potassium nitrate) held on a linstock to the touch-hole or vent primed with fine powder, until after 1745 the more reliable lanyard-triggered gunlocks (flintlock mechanisms) began to be mounted on naval cannon. In any case, a reserve of lit slow matches was always kept at hand on the gun decks in tubs with a perforated cover, containing a little water at the bottom to extinguish any sparks.

Linstock - Gunlock - Match tub

Guns could be loaded with various types of solid, non-explosive ammunition having different purposes in a naval engagement:

  • Solid round shot (ball): to smash hull and masts
  • Bar, link, chain shot: to cut spars and rigging
  • Canister, grape shot: to disable personnel
Types of naval ordnance - Swivel guns and blunderbusses for smaller canister- and grape-shot charges - Shot garlands

A ready reserve of ball ammunition was kept at hand in shot garlands in the bulwarks near the guns.

Firing a naval gun involved a complicated ballet for a crew of 4 to 8 seamen - depending on the calibre - each with a specific role and action to perform and a gun captain directing the whole operation, which involved, after a previous discharge:

  1. Reaming the vent to clear it of carbon deposits with a wire gimlet
  2. Removing remains of wads from the barrel with a wad hook
  3. Swabbing out the barrel with a water-soaked sponge rammer to extinguish any smouldering debris
  4. Charging the gun by ramming home wads, cartridge and shot
  5. Pricking the cartridge charge through the vent to expose its powder with a steel or brass twisted skewer
  6. Priming the gun vent with firing tubes or goose quills holding fine powder
  7. Repositioning a recoiled gun through its gun port with cables and tackles
  8. Training the gun horizontally with ash handspikes or iron crowbars, and vertically with quoins (wooden wedges) as required

Finally, when ordered by the Captain through his division officer, the gun captain would fire his gun, having to repeat
the whole performance above until the order to cease fire was given, in case of continuous broadsides.

The whole crew would have to move smartly aside in order to avoid the recoiling gun, the movement of its 4-wheeled carriage restrained by cables and tackles.

See also:

Overhead-stowed gun tools:
charge rammer, wad hook, sponge rammer

Gun crew in action: gun captain ready to fire

The only vessels that could fire explosive shells were the the bomb ketches or bombs, two-masted vessels that carried one or two
large-calibre mortars mounted on revolving platforms, specially reinforced to withstand the heavy recoil.

Given their poor sailing performance, they could only be used against stationary targets like shore fortifications or ships at anchor. See also Naval artillery.

Bomb ketch with mortar forward

Fighting Tactics

One of the most effective battle tactics was raking the enemy's stern - broadsides through that comparatively thin structure would make shot travel all along enemy gun decks, disabling armament and crews.

RN Frigate HMS Penelope raking the stern of the French Ship of the Line Guillaume Tell (1800)

The French navy usually preferred starting ship-to-ship engagements by firing chain shot to reduce the opponent's maneuvrability, while the RN preferred ball broadsides that could be fired at their higher rate - about one every 40 seconds for well-trained crews. If the sea was not calm, guns could be ordered to fire on the up roll for a longer reach - maximum cannon range was about 1 mile, their 'punch' however becoming progressively feebler with increasing distance - or a higher impact.

A disabled ship might strike her ensign to signify surrender and prevent further unnecessary carnage. Otherwise, an enemy ship in difficulties might be boarded by officers and seamen wielding pistols, cutlasses, tomahawks, etc. and Royal Marines with their bayoneted muskets and pikes, and the fight would continue on her decks. See also Sailing ship tactics.

Fight on enemy deck after boarding - Royal Marines - Fighting top

Naval pistol - Cutlass (28" blade) - Boarding axe (tomahawk)

An RN ship would prepare for battle by having a Marine drummer boy play a continuous roll to call the ship's complement to action stations, with seamen running to man the guns and topmen racing aloft to handle the sails, landsmen at the braces to trim the yards and Marine sharpshooters in the fighting tops - platforms at the upper end of each lower mast - to fire their muskets and swivel guns loaded with canister at enemy crew and officers on the quarterdeck in particular - a fate that befell Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, mortally wounded by a French musketeer at the battle of Trafalgar.

Netting would be rigged on the ship's sides to impede boarding, and over the main deck to protect sailors from falling rigging.

RN tactics against anchored enemy ships included using fire ships to set them aflame, and cutting-out expeditions where officers, sailors and Royal Marines on boats - preferably at night or with low visibility - would row silently to board, secure and destroy them, or unmoor and sail them away as prizes if at all possible.

Nelson's death at Trafalgar - Anti-boarding netting - Fire ship attack - Boarders on a cutting-out expedition


Rigging comprises the complex system of ropes, cables, pulley blocks and chains which support a sailing ship's masts and aid in her maneuvrability:

  • Standing rigging, including shrouds and stays - fixed cordage to adjust the position of a vessel's sails and spars
  • Running rigging, including halyards, braces, sheets and vangs - cordage used to control the shape and position of the sails

Standing rigging was made of hemp rope, the same material as running rigging only coated in tar for added strength and protection from the elements. Tar left traces on the hands, bodies and clothes of seamen, hence their Jolly tars sobriquet as in David Garrick's poem, still the official march of the Royal Navy:

"Heart of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men,
we always are ready; Steady, boys, steady!
We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again."

Square sails were also provided with gaskets to reef them, i.e. to reduce the area exposed to the wind in worsening weather conditions like storms and gales, when a ship would shorten sail, for example to just reefed topsails in order to maintain some handling control, an exercise taxing the skill of topmen and endangering their safety as they perched on swaying foot ropes under the yards and furled stiff, uncooperative sails prior to securing them with gaskets.

Medical Facilities

A rated ship's 'hospital' was the sick bay located on the orlop deck - her lowest deck, usually below the waterline - to protect its occupants when in a sea action.

Its 'doctor' was rarely a University-trained physician but normally a surgeon, for whom a medical degree was not a strict professional requirement (see also The Royal Naval Surgeon).

Orlop deck (in red)

Surgeons were required to keep a journal detailing the diagnoses, treatments, and outcomes of their patients, along with a synopsis of illness and injury encountered on a voyage. This journal was to be kept in a “complete and Scientific state” or their pay would be forfeit. These journals formed a centralized medical data base - a collective experience of many medical practitioners in novel environments - information that could be shared and referenced.

Most battle casualties were caused not so much by direct hits but by resulting flying wood splinters that could act as scythes, filling the sick bay with dead and moaning wounded, possibly awaiting a limb amputation by the surgeon helped by his assistant, the loblolly boy - the name comes from the serving of loblolly, a thick porridge, sometimes enhanced with chunks of meat or vegetables, administered to sick or injured crew members to hasten their recovery.

Ship's surgeon amputating a sailor's leg - Surgeon's instruments

Men falling over board in action or bad weather were usually lost because at the time very few could swim.

Apart from battle wounds, a naval surgeon would have to treat seamen's traumatic injuries caused by falls from aloft, venereal disease from contacts with whores ashore or allowed on board as 'wives' to a crew confined in port, dental problems and dietary deficiencies like scurvy, until it was found in 1793 that the juice of lemons, oranges and other fruit could prevent it.

As evidenced by the table at right, casualties from enemy action were a mere 8% of the total.

Sailors' "wives" below deck
Causes of Death (1810)Number%
Individual Accident1,63031.5
Foundering, Wreck, Fire, Explosion   53010.2
Enemy (killed in action)   281  5.4
Enemy (died of wounds)   150  2.9
All Causes5,183 100
Fatal RN Casualties

Wounded crew were granted Sick Pay on top of daily pay while incapacitated - if declared incurable would receive a pension from the Chest at Chatham or be admitted to the Royal Hospital at Greenwich.

PositionSick Pay
Petty Officers and Able Seamen+ 5/6d per month
Ordinary Seamen, Landsmen+ 4/6d per month
Marine Sergeants, Corporals and Drummers+ 2d    per day
Marine Privates+ 2¼d per day
Royal Hospital, Greenwich

Widows were granted the husband's full pay for a year as Gratuity for Death, and a Pension of an amount depending on their husband's rank.

The most dreaded problem that could confront a ship's surgeon was an epidemic disease like typhus or other worse, lethal diseases endemic in hot areas like Africa and the Americas: they could spread like wildfire in the unsanitary confined spaces of a ship at sea, also cohabited by rats, fleas, lice, cockroaches and other pests.


Discipline on board was enforced on defaulters by the ship's Commanding Officer based on the Articles of War, a list of 35 offenses and crimes and their punishment, which could vary from a minimum of 6 lashes with a freshly prepared cat o' nine tails given by the Master at Arms at the grating, to flogging around the fleet, keelhauling and hanging. The punishment was entirely at the discretion of the ship's Commanding Officer if no Court Martial could be suitably arranged for the more serious breaches of discipline, and Article 35 gave him much latitude:

"All other crimes not capital committed by any person or persons in the fleet,
which are not mentioned in this act,
or for which no punishment is hereby directed to be inflicted,
shall be punished by the laws and customs in such cases used at sea."

An ante-litteram Catch-22 .

Sailor flogged at the grating

The Articles of War were to be all read aloud by the ship's Commanding Officer to the whole crew assembled on deck on Sunday Divisions after the Mass Service.

Officers were not normally subject to physical punishment - one notable exception was that of Admiral John Byng, shot by firing squad in 1757 for failing "to do his utmost" to prevent Minorca falling to the French - but to Courts of Inquiry and Courts Martial which could issue reprimands, disrate or cashier those found guilty of negligence, cowardice, etc.

The verdict of a Court Martial was first indicated by positioning the officer's sword hilt towards him if absolved, the blade if found guilty of charges.

Midshipmen found wanting in their diligence were made to kiss the gunner's daughter, i.e. were bent over the breech of a cannon and their bare buttocks caned. See also Corporal punishment in the Royal Navy.

Daily Life on Board

The daily ship routine was based on a system of 7 watches, an odd number to ensure that each would not be manned by the same personnel:

  • First Watch: 20:00 to 00:00
  • Middle Watch: 00:00 to 04:00
  • Morning Watch: 04:00 to 08:00
  • Forenoon Watch: 08:00 to 12:00
  • Afternoon Watch: 12:00 to 16:00
  • First Dog Watch: 16:00 to 18:00
  • Second Dog Watch: 18:00 to 20:00

In each watch the ship's bell would be struck every 30 minutes, as measured by a sand hourglass near the binnacle.

Each member of the crew was assigned to a specific watch as indicated in the Quartermaster's Watch, Quarter and Station Bills prepared by Watch Officers and approved by the Captain.

Typically on a ship at sea, the day started about 30 minutes before dawn with the crew called to action stations to verify if any enemy ship was in sight after the dark of night. If not, the crew was sent to their breakfast in their respective messes below decks.

Thereafter those of the crew not on watch were given various maintenance tasks like holystoning the main deck, checking the rigging and sails, pumping out the bilge water, etc. etc. (see Alexander Dingwall Fordyce's book "Outlines of Naval Routine").

In port, the colours would be hoisted at sunrise and struck at sunset, a formal ceremony with the band and guard of the day paraded (see also Flags).

At sea the national colours were not necessarily flown, and an accepted ruse de guerre was flying the enemy's, to be replaced with one's own just before starting the engagement of a thus confused opponent.

If the enemy's colours had been shot away during the action, waving a white flag or any other clearly visible piece of white cloth could be accepted as a sign of surrender.

Watch time keeping on board: bell, hourglass

(Click here to enlarge)

The noon meal was served at the end of the Forenoon Watch, followed between 11 am and 12 noon by the always-welcome cry of Up spirits! or Splice the mainbrace signalling the distribution on deck by the Purser of grog, a tot from the Rum Tub, a small barrel inscribed with words of toast to the Sovereign.

The tot was 1/8 (70 mL) of an Imperial pint of Jamaica rum at 95.5 proof, neat for Senior Ratings (Petty Officers and above) and seamen over 20 y.o., diluted with two parts of water to make 3/8 of a pint for Junior Ratings. Sailors under 20 were not permitted a rum ration and were marked on the ship's books as "UA" (Under Age).Officers did not get a rum ration, but could have their own stocks of personally acquired wines and spirits.

Each mess had a "Rum Bosun" who would collect the right number of tots for each mess. The ceremony was supervised by a couple of Royal Marines to ensure no rowdiness, jostling, etc.

The Rum Tub

Not all sailors necessarily drew their rum – each had the option to be marked on the books as "G" (for Grog) or "T" (for Temperate). Sailors who opted for "T" were given three pence (3d) a day instead of the rum ration, although very few sailors took this option - instead they gave away their ration in exchange for favours, like the tobacco ration.

The evening meal was served at the end of the Afternoon Watch.

The sailors' diet, as detailed in the Purser’s Instructions, was not much varied: each day they would receive a pound of biscuit and a gallon of beer, as well as:

  • On Sundays, Thursdays: 1 pound pork, ½ pint peas
  • On Mondays, Fridays: 1 pint oatmeal, 2 ounces butter
  • On Tuesdays, Saturdays: 2 pounds beef
  • On Wednesdays: ½ pint peas, 1 pint oatmeal, 2 ounces butter, 4 ounces cheese

Pork and beef came packed in casks of 4-pound pieces pickled in brine, known to the men as salt horse. Peas, oatmeal, and flour came dried in casks to protect them from rats, but sometimes in bags. Butter was found in small tubs called firkins, which indicated the weight they held. On long cruises, salted meat would eventually deteriorate and weevils grow in biscuit, hence the habit of tapping it on the mess table before eating.

Meat cask

Men on board ship divided themselves up into messes of 6 men each. Each day at the appointed time when the Purser would begin to distribute the day’s rations, each mess would send a representative to the designated location – e.g. the foredeck – to collect his mess’s share of provisions in a small wooden bucket called a kid, prepare the food for cooking and take it to the cook in the galley (see also 1776 salt horse).

Mess kid - Ship's cook in galley

Since space was at a premium below decks, when not in use the seamens' mess tables would be swung up against the ship's sides and their hammocks rolled up tightly and stowed in nets along the gunwales - as additional protection during a sea action.

Seamen not on watch or without other assigned duties could spend their spare time on personal diversions - gambling officially prohibited - before retiring to their hammocks below deck for a well-earned sleep.

The commanding officer could decide to grant a "make and mend" afternoon, usually on Sundays, to his sailors so that they could attend to their clothing and their long hair queues, a prized mark of distinction among them and often embellished with intertwined coloured ribbons.

Duty watches were usually adjusted to local time, particularly when sailing in distant zones.

For seamen it was a harsh life considering the highly unhygienic conditions of overcrowded messes, poor food, possibly tyrannic Officers and Petty Officers enforcing rigid discipline, and the risk of losing life and limb in sea battles, all for a meagre pay - which explains the mutinies that occurred from time to time and usually were punished by hanging, pursuant to Article of War 33. A sure sign of crew disaffection with their officers would be a cannon ball unobtrusively removed from its garland at night and left to roll on the main deck, the resulting racket audible throughout the ship.

The air below decks was usually foul for the aroma from the bilges and unwashed bodies - since some form of ventilation was possible only in fair weather - and the lavatory facilities for non-Officers were the heads in the bows: at right, the two port and starboard box-like, open-air "toilets".

The "Heads"


Bringing square-rigged ships where desired was no simple matter since they could not head directly to windward, but at most 66° off it when sailing close-hauled. As a consequence, they had to use tacking, i.e. adopt a zig-zag course in the desired direction if that was markedly upwind of their current position.

Points of sailing - 32-point compass card

Steering orders were given to the ship's Quartermaster as points, either one of the 32 indicated on the compass card or as a number larboard or starboard of the current heading - a point is an angle of 11° ¼ (360/32).

Currents, tides, and unreliable charts might add to navigational difficulties. However, the most serious problem was determining "where on earth" one was with land not in sight or no Sailing Directions - with maps, nautical details and sketches of prominent coastline features - were available for the area.

The problem was mostly solved in the mid 1700s when accurate marine chronometers became available. Official time on board was always the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) to which were set all the ship's chronometers, permitting to determine longitude with some accuracy and hence fix the ship's position at sea along with latitude calculated by measuring the angle of the sun over the horizon.

Sailing directions for a bay, with visible coastline details at left

Fixing the Ship's Position at Sea

Suppose your ship left Portsmouth bound for the West Indies on a SW course. After a week's sailing she would be somewhere in the North Atlantic, without any land in sight.

At about local noon you would start determining the sun's height over the horizon with your sextant or quadrant, and note the angle when at its maximum (the zenith position).

An angle of 32.5° would give you a latitude of 32°30' N. At this very time you would also check the ship's chronometer showing, say, 9:00 AM: thus 12:00 (local) - 09:00 (GMT) would indicate a difference of 3 hours.

Since the sun's apparent motion is 15°/hour, you would be 15°x3 (45°) West of Greenwich, and your approximate position would be the X on the map at right, i.e.

Latitude 32°30' N, Longitude 45°00' W

Navigational instruments: Marine chronometer (1763) - Sextant - Quadrant - Compass

If weather conditions prevented taking noon sun sights, then the only alternative was dead reckoning - i.e. relying on logged estimated courses and speeds - and taking soundings with the lead swung overboard by a reliable seaman, who might add some tallow to its end to pick up any bottom fragments when local depth allowed - otherwise his cry "No bottom with this line" would be reassuring about possible submerged hazards within 20 fathoms (120') below the keel, but leave position still an informed guess at best.

Chip log to estimate speed - Lead line to measure depth


Exchanging information and passing orders at sea was accomplished through signal flags by day and signal flares and lanterns at night or with poor visibility.

The officer commanding a group of ships would usually first fire a signal gun to draw attention, then hoist on a yardarm with halyards the signal flags representing his order based on a codebook issued before sailing - with lead-weighted covers to dispose of it quickly in case of capture or other mishap that could compromise its confidentiality.

The flags would fly until properly repeated in acknowledgment by the other ships, then down-hauled to order execution.

The codebook would also contain the private signals (recognition codes) identifying each ship of a fleet, to be hoisted when challenged or challenging for identification.

Signal flags at yardarm and order of their reading

The use of naval code signalling began with the invention of maritime signal flags in the mid-17th century by the Duke of York.

In 1790, Admiral Lord Howe issued a new signal book for a numerary system using numeral flags to signal a number; the number indicating the message After 1800, RN codebooks were based on Captain later Sir Admiral Home Popham's Telegraph Signal Book.

In 1793 Napoleon had chains of semaphore towers (Chappe stations) erected as the world's first telegraph network, carrying messages across 19h-Century France faster than ever before.

The Admiralty thought it a good idea and in 1795 built a similar chain with 15 nodes connecting the Admiralty at Whitehall with the naval bases at Portsmouth and Plymouth, using Lord George Murray's six-shutter system: messages could be sent over the 100+ km path in about 15 minutes (see also sema4).

Popham's telegraph signals - A Chappe semaphore tower - Murray's 6-shutter system

Mastery of the Seas

The principal objective of RN naval operations was maintaining British dominance of sea routes around the world, a strategically important task given the island's dependance on commercial traffic to supply its military and civil needs.

This meant fulfilling a wide variety of duties - that produced valuable experiences used effectively in later wars - like:

  • Blockading enemy ports such as Calais, Le Havre, Cherbourg, Brest, Bordeaux, Toulon, Cadiz, etc.
  • Pursuing enemy ships that had managed to evade the blockade.
  • Escorting inbound and outbound convoys of merchantmen.
  • Fighting piracy and enemy privateers.
  • Stopping and inspecting neutral ships for contraband cargo - and possible RN deserters.
  • Transporting Army troops to their debarkation areas and then re-supplying them.

Blockading enemy fleets had the additional advantage of denying the enemy crews the opportunity of being trained regularly in vital activities like sail-handling and gun-firing, while British seamen were exercised almost daily with a resulting much higher fighting efficiency - which would embolden RN captains to engage larger French vessels.

After the Revolution, the French Navy also suffered from a marked degradation in the quality of their officers - most previously being from aristocratic families who had fled abroad or suffered the guillotine. In many cases these new officers were either masters of merchantmen or naval petty officers raised to a higher and unfamiliar rank, with little opportunity of significant on-the-job experience while forced to remain idly anchored in harbour. Admirals were the only tolerated nobles: see the list of French naval commanders of the_Napoleonic Wars, where they number about half of the total.

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