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Life on Sailing Ships

None of the novels I have planned are set on sailing ships, but those ships have always fascinated me. They look wonderful, but life on them must have been hard. A few years ago I had a holiday on the Lord Nelson, a modern square-rigged sailing ship, taking part in one leg of the Tall Ships race, from Belfast to Ålesund in Norway.

Even though it was a holiday, the idea was to sail the ship, so we all had to stand watches. In our case it was only a small proportion of each day; life on a warship in Regency times was much harder.

Mary Anne Yarde has hosted several of my articles on life at sea on her website, so I won’t repeat them here.

Life in the Time of Sailing Ships – Part I looks at how some sailing terms have become part of our language (second-rate, loose cannon, and nipper).

Part II looks at how men (and some women) slept, ate and went to the loo on a warship.

Part III is another look at words we get from the days of sail (slush fund, learning the ropes, to the bitter end, and taken aback).

Here are some pics from the tall ships race to give a bit of a flavour of life at sea. The Lord Nelson had an engine, but we only used it at the very end as we were taking part in a sailing race. Here, some of the crew are enjoying the sunshine on deck. This was in September, but as you can see they are all wearing full ‘oilskins’ (not made of oiled cotton any more). In Regency times, sailors would not have had such warm and waterproof clothing.

Enjoying the sunshine

The Lord Nelson is designed to be sailed from the deck – the sails can be raised and lowered without having to climb into the rigging. However we could, if we wanted to, climb to the platforms between each section of mast. We had to wear safety harnesses – something unknown and unthought of in Regency times.


Occasionally, part of a rope or pulley would need mending. There were several experienced volunteer crew who would do this. The photo below shows them working out on one of the yards. In Regency times (and before), sailors would have to do this to furl (take up) the sails or to let them down, often while the ship was heeling over or pitching up and down, in rain and wind.


What we landlubberly holiday-makers did  have to do on the Lord Nelson was help to trim the sails–adjust the angle of the sails to get the best forward speed on the ship. There were usually about five of us per rope, all under the instruction of someone who had already ‘learned the ropes’.


We also had fresh food to eat, not salted meat that had been in a barrel for months or even years, fresh water to drink (in tea or coffee), not water that was going green from being stored for too long, and warm, dry, well-ventilated bunks to sleep in. What they had that we didn’t, though, was a daily ration of grog (watered down rum), intended to make the stale water more palatable.

This view of Ålesund harbour gives just a small flavour of what a port town must have looked like in the time of sailing ships – the well-used phrase ‘a forest of  masts’ makes perfect sense.

And finally, just because sailing ships are pretty to look at, this one was in just the right place at the right time for this shot.


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