shipboard work

An able bodied seaman could practice all the skills of his trade when he could ‘hand, reef and steer’.

‘Hand and reef’ meant that he could work the sails. He could climb masts 30 metres or higher. He could hand or furl sails, that is, draw them into compact rolls to stop them catching wind. He could tie {tooltip}reefs {end-text  Seafarers reduce sails in strong winds so that ships can move more safely and comfortably. Sails are made with rows of small ropes attached to them and these are tied around spars to reduce the amount of sail exposed to the wind. The amount of sail taken in by securing one set of ropes is called a reef.” {end-tooltip}  in the sails to reduce the canvas exposed to a wind. The work was done in all weather, in the dark and in high winds. It could be critical to the safety of the ship to reduce sail in a storm. It was extraordinarily dangerous and falls from the masts could be fatal.

Steering the ship could be the seafarer’s most difficult task. A big wind could place enormous pressure on the ship’s wheel and it took great strength to steer a straight course. It also took diligence and skill. Sailing too close to the wind could turn the sails and imperil the ship. Sailing off course could lose time. The work was performed in two hour shifts, or ‘tricks’, under the close watch of officers.

The ship was a vast network of canvas and ropes and shipboard work was a constant routine of adjusting the sails to meet changing winds. It was also a routine of repairing, replacing and overhauling the ship’s equipment. Crew scrubbed the timber decks with sandstone blocks, lubricated the pulleys (blocks) that guided the ropes and repaired the sails and lines.

The crew was divided into watches that took turns to work four-hour shifts through the day and night. They were frequently tired, wet and cold and were sustained by diets of salt pork and beef, potatoes and ship biscuit. They shared accommodation, had no privacy and no escape till the end of a voyage.

While shipboard work was very tough, it could also be an adventure. In traditions of art and literature mariners are excited by the speed of a ship under full sail, the size of the oceans and the chance to visit new lands. Laws passed in 1825 reserved three-quarters of the places on British ships for British seamen.

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