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The Royal Navy of Sailing Ships

Since the thwarted invasion by the Spanish Armada Invencible, the naval service of the British armed forces established in 1546 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 in its wooden sailing ships the Spaniards and French, flying a national flag that had undergone several changes over time, ultimately leading to the Union Jack:

A glossary of 700 nautical terms, 635 illustrated by images linked from the Internet, is available in 2 versions listed in the menu at left.

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 passed 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 headed by a First Sea Lord.

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 Viscount Horatio Nelson, preceded by Richard Howe, 1st Earl Howe in 1783 and 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.

Richard Howe - John Jervis - Horatio Nelson - Henry Dundas - George Brydges Rodney - Samuel Hood - Charles Middleton
Admiralty House, Whitehall, London

Board of Admiralty meeting (circa 1810)

Other famous figures of the time were those of Admiral Baron Rodney, Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, Baron and later Viscount, and Admiral Charles Middleton, 1st Baron Barham - all commanders during the American War of Independence and the French Revolutionary Wars and later honoured by having several RN ships named after them.

Battleship HMS Howe (1943) - Battleship HMS Nelson (1925) -Battleship HMS Rodney (1942) - Battle Cruiser HMS Hood (1941) - Battleship HMS Barham (1941)

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.

Evan Nepean

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 protections (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. Clothing (slops) and equipment, such as a hammock, had to be bought from the ship's Purser out of the advance. Volunteers were often men fleeing from awkward situations like pregnant women and their irate fathers or husbands, and unpaid debts (they were protected from creditors up to the value of £20 - a very substantial sum for the times).

Recruiting poster - A Press Gang seizing civilians for Navy service

Alternatively the Captain, ultimately responsible for fully manning his command before sailing, could ask for unemployed seamen from Accommodation Hulks hosting them between assignments, or 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.

Only about 20% of the seamen was needed for skilled work aloft (topmen), the heavy work of hauling braces and anchor cables - often relieved by singing shanties with an apt rhythm (see Sea-Inspired Music on another page) - 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 solidity/stolidity) out of uniform, the size of their contingent on board depending on the ship's rate - their Corps having been established in 1775.

Navy Hulk - Ship's waist

No Royal Naval Academy or College for Cadets existed then: 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.

Rarely, a well-regarded Petty Officer could be raised to Midshipman's status or "come up through the hawse pipe", meaning promotion from the lower deck.

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 and therefore becoming a Commissioned Officer. 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 the 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 seniority and "interest" (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 - which also served to bolster faltering British morale, often depressed by Napoleon's continuing land victories on the Continent.

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

The Captains' List maintained at the Admiralty recorded their date of appointment: thus 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 Commanding Admiral, 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.

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

Naval Ranks

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 with gold buttons, white waistcoat, stock, breeches and socks, black buckle shoes
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 buttons, white waistcoat, black stock and boots
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 patchGunroom,
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 buttons
Petty Officer Master-at-Arms£2.0.6
Carpenter's Mate£2.0.6
Sailmaker's Mate£1.18.6
Ship's Corporal£1.16.6
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£1.15.6Shipboard-issued crew clothing (slops)
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.

The pay of personnel serving in foreign stations was deducted an "allotment" for the benefit of relations at home.

See also:

Extra Benefits

If they captured and brought back an enemy ship, Captains and crew could obtain Prize Money awarded from the Naval Prize Fund 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 and Nelson and His Navy - Prize Money. Since it was granted to the Navy under Royal warrant which took some considerable time to materialise, in the meantime seamen might be issued with Paymaster's Certificates which they could have discounted ashore at a fraction of their value by local moneylenders, to invest in entertainments with liquor and women.

Letter of Marque by Queen Elizabeth I

The system was similar to that for civilian Privateers issued with Letters of Marque and Reprisal, authorising them to make war on and seize enemy shipping. As payment, the privateersmen could sell off the captured booty, while captured ships were subject to condemnation and sale under Prize Law, with the proceeds divided between the privateer sponsors, shipowners, captains and crew. A percentage share usually went to the issuer of the commission.

Ships' Rates

George Anson, Admiral of the Fleet and First Lord of the Admiralty (1751-1756/1757–1762), devised a system to classify RN ships with rates reflecting their size and armament. Unrated boats like sloops and brigs were not considered ships (men-of-war) but simply vessels.

TypeRateDecksGunsMastsCrewBurthen (tons)Approx.
Ship of the Line1st3-4100+3850+2,500£65,000
Great Frigate5th1-228+3200+450-1,450£  8,200
Sloop of war, CorvetteUnrated116+2  90+   380
Brig112+2  20+< 220
Schooner1  6+2  20+< 150£  1,370
George Anson - The Royal Navy Dockyard at Chatham

See also Rating system of the Royal Navy.

In 1741 George Anson commanded a squadron of 6 six warships for a cruise around the world, returning in 1744 after capturing the Spanish treasure galleon Covadonga with 1,313,843 pieces of eight off Cape Espiritu Santo in the Philippines.

RN ships were built at various Royal Navy Dockyards like Chatham, Portsmouth, Sheerness and Plymouth, as well as at private dockyards as the demand for more ships increased during the wars with France.

Ships with more than 3 decks were rare in British fleets since their heavier armament and tonnage meant lesser maneuvrability, as demonstrated by the foundering of HMS Royal George whilst undergoing routine maintenance work at anchor off Portsmouth and of the Spanish Santísima Trinidad of almost 5,000 tons at the Battle of Trafalgar

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 (Corvette), Brig of war, Schooner

British-designed ships were generally sturdier and heavier than their French equivalents, the latter considered better sailers but more fragile in battle. See also Georges Carrack's Ships of the Royal Navy: A Complete Record of all Fighting Ships of the Royal Navy from the 15th Century to the Present, and:

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 but still requiring occasional careening.

Copper-sheathed hull - Careening in port - Beached ships careened at low tide

Ships' Armament

Smoothbore guns on board were classified based on the weight of their shot - from 6-pounder bow or stern chasers to 42-pounder long guns and carronades depending on the ship's rate

Shot was propelled out of the bore 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)

32-pounders on lower gun deck - 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.

Unlit slow match on 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 - Bulwark 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 into its barrel
  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 necessary.

Finally, when ordered by the Captain through his division officer supervising a battery of 4 or more guns, the gun captain would fire his gun, having to repeat rapidly the whole performance in case of continuous broadsides until the order to cease fire was given.

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. A well-trained gun crew could complete the whole reload sequence in less than 1', thus assuring a high rate of fire.

See also:

Gun crew and gun captain ready to fire

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

The only vessels that could fire explosive shells were the the bomb ketches or bombs, two-masted vessels that carried 1 or 2 large-calibre mortars mounted on revolving platforms, specially reinforced to withstand their heavy recoil.

Given their poor sailing performance, they could only be used against stationary targets like shore fortifications or ships at anchor in port.

See also Naval Artillery.

Bomb ketch with mortar forward
Ships' Boats

A sailing ship would carry - stowed amidships on chocks, sometimes nested one atop the other - several boats like longboats, cutters, launches, barges, pinnaces, gigs, whaleboats, jolly boats, etc.

They had various uses like ferrying passengers and mail, communicating between vessels, sounding anchorages, conveying water and provisions, patrolling at night near the anchored mother vessel to prevent desertions, or carrying armed sailors for boarding expeditions.

Stowed boats - Guard boats around an anchored brig - Longboat armed with swivel gun

The boats were usually rowed but could be rigged with a small mast and sail for use in favourable winds. Prior to an engament, they would be hoisted out and towed behind, and even cast adrift to avoid both damage and flying wood splinters, sometimes also carrying the ship's livestock from their manger on the foredeck.

A Captain's gig, rowed by a selected crew of smartly dressed seamen commanded by a Coxswain, would convey the commanding officer ashore or to another ship, naval etiquette requiring him to be piped overboard and onboard by the trilling of a boatswain's whistle, with saluting officers, Midshipmen and Royal Marines standing at attention in two rows as sideboys at the entry port.

He would be the last to board the waiting boat, and the first to leave it.

Captain's gig - Lower-deck entry port - Longboats towing a becalmed ship - Vessel sweeps

A becalmed ship could be forced to lower her boats and be towed to move at all, while vessels with a low freeboard were equipped with sweeps (long oars) for the same purpose.

An approaching boat would be hailed "Boat ahoy!", the answer being her ship's name if carrying her commanding officer - or "Aye, aye" for a lower grade - who would then have to climb the battens to the entry port, a long climb if summoned to an Admiral's 3-decker by the signal "Captain repair onboard".

Flags 5-1-L-E: signal meaning "All Captains repair onboard"

Naval Engagements

Ship fighting tactics evolved over a long period of time, from the battle of Salamis in 480 BC between the Greek and Persian fleets - based on ramming with bow rostra - and the battles between Carthaginian and Roman fleets during the 3 Punic Wars of 264-146 BC, when boarding over a corvus (crow) bridge was first introduced. The only early form of "artillery" - adapted from land warfare - could be a ballista throwing heavy rocks over a limited distance.

At the time the sails were used only to approach the enemy rather than for close infighting, done by rowing with sweeps.

The appearance of cannon in the Middle Ages modified tactics profoundly, since it made fighting in direct contact no longer essential. Its first recorded use at sea was during the Battle of Arnemuiden between England and France in 1338.

Roman quinquereme with raised "corvus" boarding bridge - Battle of Arnemuiden

Efficiency in the use of sails improved gradually, and made fighting tactics evolve again, with formal doctrines developed and codified by many national navies - not always adhered to by enterprising fleet commanders like Nelson - which included gaining an advantageous upwind position for freer maneuvering.

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

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 rigging and maneuvrability, while the RN preferred ball broadsides that could be fired at their higher rate - about one every 40 seconds for well-trained crews - to hole hulls and dismast.

If the sea was not calm, guns could be ordered to fire on the up roll for a higher impact or a longer reach - maximum cannon range was about 1 mile, their 'punch' however becoming progressively feebler with increasing distance.

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 bayonetted 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.

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

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

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 possible.

Ships' Rigging

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:

"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."

It is still the official march of the Royal Navy.

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 reefed topsails only - 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 the stiff, uncooperative sails prior to securing them with gaskets.

Topman furling a topsail and securing it to the yard with gaskets - Canvas sea anchor (drogue)

In heavy weather a sea anchor or drogue made of sail canvas could be attached to the stern trailing on a long line (one-half of the length of the prevailing waves) to slow the ship down and to keep the hull perpendicular to them. The end rope was used to nullify its effect prior to hauling it back on board when no longer necessary in calmer seas.

Medical Facilities

A rated ship's 'hospital' was the sick bay or lazarette 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 centralised medical data base - the 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 mates, the loblolly boys - 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, and their ship could not or would not stop to recover them.

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.

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

As evidenced by the table above, in 1810 deaths from enemy action were a mere 8.3% of the total, while disease was responsible for a staggering 50% and accidents for more than 30%, therefore 80%+ for "occupational hazards" .

During a sea battle dead seamen were usually dumped hastily overboard to clear the deck of obstructions, while in calmer moments they were sown up in their hammocks weighted by a cannonball - the last stitch supposedly through the dead man's nose to make certain that he was no longer alive - and committed to the deep with a proper 'burial' service.

Fallen sailor on Jack-coverd plank

Wounded crewmen were granted Sick Pay on top of daily pay while incapacitated - if declared incurable they would receive a pension from the Chatham Chest - a fund set up in 1588 - 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 would receive their husbands' full pay for a year as Gratuity for Death, and a Pension of an amount depending on their husbands' 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 administered by the Master at Arms at the grating, to flogging around the fleet 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 - given by him if the ship's rate did not contemplate the presence on board of an Anglican Chaplain.

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 that could decide on further Courts Martials 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 tip of 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 and John D. Byrne, Jr.'s book Crime and Punishment in the Royal Navy: Discipline on the Leeward Islands Station, 1784-1812.

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 in turn by the same personnel:

  • First Watch: 20:00 to 00:00 (midnight)
  • Middle Watch: 00:00 to 04:00
  • Morning Watch: 04:00 to 08:00
  • Forenoon Watch: 08:00 to 12:00 (noon)
  • Afternoon Watch: 12:00 to 16:00
  • First Dog Watch: 16:00 to 18:00
  • Second Dog Watch: 18:00 to 20:00
Watch time-keeping on board: Bell, Hourglass - Ship's log - Mercury barometer

In each watch the ship's bell would be struck every 30 minutes, as measured by a sand hourglass near the binnacle, and every hour the log would be cast and the ship's speed and course annotated on a slate and later in the ship's log, along with weather conditions and barometer readings.

Each member of the crew was assigned to specific watches 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 working 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.

Lowering one's colours during a battle was an indication of surrender to a victorious enemy - if the 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 an equivalent sign.

(Click here to enlarge)

The noon meal was served at the end of the Forenoon Watch at 12 noon, followed about 1 hour later 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 (16:00).

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 small 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 (9 dry gallons). 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 6-8 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 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 in bags to a diameter of 7" - checked by a bosun's hoop - 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.

Sailors' mess tables on gun deck - Bagged rolled hammocks on gunwales

Duty watches were adjusted daily to local time after determining the noon position of the sun - see "Fixing Your Ship's Position at Sea" below - the Lieutenant on watch duty would report "Noon, Sir" to the commanding officer, who would reply "Make it so" in order to have the hourglass set to the beginning of the Afternoon Watch, the naval day thus always starting officially at 12:00.

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 at:

  • Spithead in May 1797: when the situation calmed, Admiral Lord Howe intervened to negotiate an agreement that saw a Royal Pardon for all crews, reassignment of some of the unpopular officers, and a pay raise.
  • The Nore in May-June 1797: a list of eight demands was presented which mainly involved pardons, increased pay and modification of the Articles of War, eventually expanding to a demand that the King dissolve Parliament and make immediate peace with France. The mutineers then expanded their initial grievances and blockaded London. They were denied food and water, and the mutiny failed. Richard Parker, "President of the Delegates of the Fleet", was quickly convicted of treason and piracy and hanged from the yardarm of HMS Sandwich where the mutiny had started. In the reprisals which followed, 29 were hanged pursuant to Article of War 33, 29 were imprisoned, and 9 flogged, while others were sentenced to transportation to Australia.

A sure sign of crew discontent and disaffection with their officers would be a cannonball unobtrusively removed from its garland at night and left to roll on the main deck, the resulting racket audible throughout the ship. On the contrary, seamen singing sea shanties while working - see some examples on another page - was usually the sign of a happy 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".

Richard Parker about to be hanged

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 directions 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 meaningful Sailing Directions - with maps, nautical details and sketches of prominent coastline features - available for the local area.

The problem was mostly solved in the mid 1700s when accurate marine chronometers became available. Navigational time on board was 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.

Altenative methods of celestial navigation with star sights (angular measurements taken between a celestial body and the visible horizon) were more complicated and time-consuming, as well as requiring not often available good visibility and unclouded night skies.

Fixing Your Ship's Position at Sea

Suppose your ship left Plymouth on June 25 bound for the West Indies on a general SW course. On July 1, 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), finding it to be 80°30'. You would calculate your Latitude using the formula:

90°-80°30'+23° (sun declination for the day) = 32°30' N

Animation by Joaquim Alves Gaspar (1-2-3-4-5-6)
showing the sun at noon brought down to the horizon to determine local Latitude

At this very time you would also check your ship's chronometer showing, say, 9:30 AM: therefore 12:00 (local) - 09:30 (GMT) would indicate a difference of 2h 30' (2.5 hours). Since the sun's apparent motion is 15°/hour, you would be at a Longitude of 15° x 2.5 (37.5°) West of Greenwich. Therefore your ship's position would be approximatively the X marked on the map above, that is:

Latitude 32°30' N, Longitude 37°30' W

Navigational instruments and aids: Marine chronometer (1763) - Sextant - Quadrant - Compass - Traverse board

If weather conditions prevented taking noon sun sights, then the only alternative was dead reckoning - i.e. relying on estimated courses and speeds first noted on the traverse board then recorded officially in the logbook by the Sailing Master - 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 (out-in, top-bottom),

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 system using flags
to signal a number indicating the message.

After 1800, RN codebooks were based on Captain later Admiral Sir Home Riggs Popham's Telegraph Signal Book - see it in a PDF version.. He also supported Robert Fulton's eventually unsuccessful torpedo project.

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.

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

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 distance in about 15 minutes (see also sema4).

The Strategy: 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: it may be said that it had literally "lost its head" .

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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