Companions - Adventure on a Tall Ship
Entering Nootka Sound aboard HMS Discovery, 1792
Captain George Vancouver smiled to himself as he recognized the smell and gazed upon the familiar landscape of British Columbia’s coastline. This visit was full of responsibilities, unlike his earlier visits as a midshipman under Captain Cook. Some days he longed for the carefree abandon of his youth. He couldn’t help escaping into those thoughts as he watched the antics of his English cabin boy and his wild-eyed cook’s helper from the Caribbean.
“Guess it serves me right for using the Captain’s head. If he ever catches me, I’ll get more than a bump, but it’s worth it!” he thought to himself. “The frayed end of the rope that the Captain uses is much softer than the coarse fibers used by the crew. My rear end deserves the best!” he chuckled and began his duties as the Captain’s cabin boy. He tidied the desk in the Great Cabin; telescope, sextant, compass, and ship’s log placed exactly where the Captain expected them.
Captain Vancouver burst through the door just as Simon stood back from the desk. “Down to the galley with you lad! Bring me some food and not those rotten ship’s biscuits. They are crawling with weevils! Tell Monsieur Georges to send a bottle of wine. I’m feeling good today; the winds are fair, the sea is brisk and I can smell land.”
“Aye, Sir.” Simon turned to leave.
“Is that a fresh bruise on your noggin boy?” the Captain asked suspiciously.
Simon hurried out the door before the Captain could respond. He didn’t like to lie but the story was half true. Miguel was his best friend. They were the youngest on board. They loved to play and roughhouse even if it did get a bit serious at times.
Miguel slept next to Simon on the berth deck and as per regulations, only 14” separated the hammocks. That was the distance from Simon’s fingertips to his elbow. Earlier that morning, it had been easy for him to lean over and shove the broken end of a belaying pin through the hole in Miguel’s tattered hammock. Simon had stabbed Miguel in the upper leg and his friend woke up with a scream. He flung his arm out. Simon had anticipated the thrust and rolled to the deck laughing hilariously. He scurried up the gangway to the main deck, flipped the glass, and had headed for the Captain’s cabin to begin his day.
So it was with caution that Simon entered the galley. Miguel was the cook’s assistant and he had a temper. He was from the Caribbean Island of Cuba and had the form of a long green lizard tattooed across his young chest. The red eyes of the lizard glowed like hot coals when Miguel was angry, and Simon recognized the warning. One of the smaller ship’s blocks flew past Simon’s ear and landed noisily amongst the hanging pots and pans.
The ship’s cook turned abruptly from his boiling stew and yelled at the boys. “Monsieur Georges does not allow fighting in his galley! That noise sounded like a broadside and Monsieur Georges thought he would be adding both of you urchins to the butcher’s bill. Heed Monsieur Georges or he’ll call the bosun. The bosun will lash you to the grating and get out his cat-o-nine tails for a proper flogging, he will!”
The cook had an odd habit of referring to himself in the third person. His arms were as thick as a mizzen mast and his body as solid as a capstan. “Now both of you get down in the hold and bring me back a bottle of the Captain’s wine.”
“Wait!” the cook bellowed, and threw each boy a lemon. “Monsieur Georges does not want his assistants to get scurvy.”
The boys hated the taste of the lemons. However, they didn’t resist and in fact, eagerly chewed on the bitter fruit. They looked at each other, screwed up their faces, squeezed their shoulders tight and up to their ears, held their knees together and shivered as the tangy juice assaulted their taste buds.
Both boys had helped the surgeon while circling the Cape. All the fruit and vegetables on board had gone bad and several crew members died when their gums turned black and their teeth fell out from the scourge of vitamin C deficiency. The boys had to help the men drink their own urine to stop the infection and that was enough to convince them that eating a lemon each day was worth the “zing” of the first bite.
Down in the hold they could hear the rats scurrying about. Barrels of water and rum, coils of ropes for rigging, crates of tea, flour, and other provisions filled the storage space. Simon and Miguel found the Captain’s wine rack and grabbed a bottle of the finest. They petted the goats that were bleating pitifully, and headed back to the galley.
It was a beautiful day and the boys stopped to watch the Midshipmen learning about navigation, and the ship’s crew holy-stoning the deck and pulling on the halyards to set the sails. They ran from starboard to port and shielded their eyes as they peered towards the sun and watched the topmen scramble along the spars. They jumped as the Captain stepped onto the quarterdeck and barked an order to change course. The sailors quickly responded, bending on and beating to weather.
Simon and Miguel decided to get out of sight of the Captain and the other officers and returned to the galley with the wine. They stopped dead in the gangway when they heard the bosun talking to Monsieur Georges. Terrible images of being whipped across their bare back made them jitter as they entered the small quarters. Monsieur Georges laughed out loud because he knew exactly what the boys were thinking.
“Fine lads these, Mr. Brooks. You’ll never have to discipline them. They do exactly as I tell them – right boys!?” The cook glared at the two quivering ship’s boys.
“YES SIR!” they answered in unison.
Simon looked at Miguel. His friend had a devilish look on his face which Simon recognized. “Oh! No!” he said to himself.
“Mr. Brooks,” Miguel said politely. “I can give you one out of two parts of this delicious salt beef or one out of eight parts. What would you like?”
Mr. Brooks scratched his head. “You can’t fool me laddy. I know that eight is a bigger number than two. I’ll take one-eighth. And be quick about it!”
“Aye. Aye. Sir.” Miguel divided the salt beef, keeping a large portion for he and Simon.
The bosun left a happy man, but not so Monsieur Georges. WHAP! A large wooden spoon landed against Miguel’s backside.
“OW!” Miguel screamed and Simon grinned. “What’s that for?”
“Do not play innocent with Monsieur Georges, young man. I know my numbers! You are on defaulters tonight and you will wash all the dishes by yourself. If you complain I will tell Mr. Brooks about the trick and your fear of the cat will become a reality! Now out of here, both of you.”
The boys went back up on deck as Miguel rubbed his new bruise and soothed his hurt feelings. However, within minutes the boys joined the Midshipmen in organizing a race against the goats that had been dragged up from the hold. The frightened critters ran around the weather deck pursued by a dozen yelling boys, all determined to outrun the poor beasts - and each other. The Midshipmen had finished their knot training and calligraphy lessons and were allowed free time before the sun set.
The ship had moored for the day, the water was calm and the sailing master told them they could go swimming in the cool North Pacific sea. The deck was strewn with fancy top hats, royal blue long coats, checkered and striped shirts, bell-bottom trousers, and knee-length stockings. The uniforms became as heavy as lead when they got wet so the boys discarded everything before plunging into the sea.
Simon and Miguel felt left out. They were under orders to the Captain so they gingerly approached the quarterdeck and asked to speak to the Master of the ship. He was a busy man but took a minute to listen to the two sad characters looking up at him.
“Please Sir. May we join the Midshipmen and go swimming. The sea is full of seals, porpoises, even orca whales. We’ve scoured, swabbed, scraped, and polished all day.” They begged earnestly.
“Alright!” The Captain replied, “On one condition.”
“Yes Sir!” The boys nodded in agreement.
The Captain leaned over the railing and stared directly at Simon. “Promise me that you will never use my personal ‘head’ again!”
Simon’s mouth fell open. “Of course not Sir. I would never do that! I promise!”
Miguel laughed out loud and Simon’s face turned as red as the setting sun.
DEFINITIONS FROM THE STORY
TELESCOPE – a long thin leather and glass tube with special lenses that makes it easy to see objects at a great distance.
SEXTANT – a hand-held instrument that measures the sun’s height at noon. It was used on early sailing ships to determine the ship’s position north or south.
COURSE – the direction of the ship at sea.
COMPASS – a small round device used to determine the ship’s course.
SHIP’S LOG - a daily diary about the happenings on board, such as sea conditions, ocean depth, wind and weather, number of sails set, course, ocean currents, and speed.
SHIP’S GLASS – encased sand in an egg-timer shaped glass. The cabin boy or watchkeeper turned the hourglass to tell how long the ship had been traveling in a specific compass direction.
“I want to be more than a cabin boy someday.” Simon held up the telescope.
“Me too!” Miguel agreed. “I think we would look very official in those Midshipmens’ uniforms. And I want to walk on the quarterdeck!”
“Those guys are so snobby! Let’s put some fresh weevils in their soup tonight!”
Both boys laughed.
Head – toilets at the bow (front) of the ship. Sailors considered the front the head and hence the name. Holes were cut into the deck planking with a seat built over them. The head or toilets were not protected from the weather and there was no privacy. Toilet paper was non-existent and sailors used a piece of thick rope unraveled like a soft (or not so soft) brush. It dangled into the sea and was simply pulled up at the appropriate time.
“You’re lying!” Miguel pointed his finger at Simon.
“No I’m not!” the cabin boy spat back.
Miguel sneered, “You don’t need to use the Captain’s toilet. You can dangle over the bow line like everyone else!”
“No – sometimes I really have to go and I can’t make it to the front of the ship.” Simon tried to explain.
“You just like the soft rope the Captain uses instead of that wiry one we all have to use!” Miguel laughed
“Don’t tell him OK?” Simon pleaded.
Tattoos are permanent marks embedded into the body. They are usually a picture or symbol of some relevance to the person. More than ninety percent of sailors in the nineteenth century wore tattoos.
“Did it hurt?” Simon ran his finger over Miguel’s tattoo.
“YEAH! It hurt a lot!” Miguel said clearly. “The shark’s tooth hammer bit into my chest and I could feel every tap. It even bled a little bit.”
“Why did you do it?” Simon asked.
“I miss Cuba. I miss the Long Green Lizard. When a sailor crosses the Atlantic, he gets an anchor tattoo. If he goes to China, he gets a dragon. Cuba is shaped like a lizard and this tattoo reminds me of home.”
Punishment was swift and severe on a tall ship. Sailors guilty of stealing, lying, and /or insubordination (talking back to an officer or refusing an order) were stripped to the waist, tied to a grating (wooden slats), and whipped. The boatswain or bosun was the disciplinarian on the ship and he used a cat-o-nine tails to whip the offender. A cat-o-nine tails was a whip made by unraveling half a short length of rope, which made “nine tails” attached to the rope. A less serious offense usually resulted in defaulters (back), which meant that the sailor who broke the rule is punished by being given extra duty, or one that was not very popular, such as cleaning the “heads” or extra work in the kitchen.
“You can’t whip him mate! He’s only a boy. You’ll open his back with those nine ropes and he’ll be scarred for life.”
“Then keep him under control Monsieur. He’s one of the crew and I’ll tie him to the wooden grate like anyone else on this ship!” The bosun lifted the nasty whip in front of the cook.
Jonah – refers to a person on board a ship who brings bad luck. Sailors were very superstitious. The creaking of the wooden vessel in the dark nights at sea and the eerie noises of the rigging during foul weather all frightened sailors.
Do you know that Monsieur Georges says he actually sailed with a sailor named Jonah!” Miguel’s eyes widened like big, round plates.
“No way Miguel. They wouldn’t even let someone with that name set foot on a ship. You know it would bring bad luck!” Simon shook his head.
“Well you go ask Monsieur Georges and then call him a liar. That’s bad luck!!!” Miguel laughed at his friend.
Bulwark/bulkhead – a partition (wood or canvas) used to form cabins or compartments. The bulwark refers to the wooden sides or “walls” of the ship and the interior beams and supports.
“No midday meal for you laddie!” Monsieur Georges sounded serious.
“But, Monsieur, I’m sooooooo hungry!” Simon whined.
The cook grabbed the boy by the shirt and held him firm against the wooden side of the ship. “Look. It’s true. I’ve been measuring you on this bulwark. You are growing too fast. You are almost hitting your head on this upper deck beam.”
“Why do they make the decks so low?” Simon complained.
“These ships are for our big guns, not people! Here a biscuit is all you get. Be off with you!” Simon rubbed his belly and left the galley feeling very sorry for himself.
There were a number of positions on board a tall ship. Each position had its own role and responsibilities and also privileges.
Admiral - in charge of several ships. Many ships working together were called a fleet.
Captain – the senior man aboard a ship. He was responsible for the well being of the ship and its crew. It was a lonely job.
Lieutenant – highest ranking member of the crew after the Captain.
Officer> – any member of the crew who had authority over other sailors back
Midshipmen – young trainee officers who could be as young as twelve years. back
Rating – seamen/crew below the rank of officer who carried out all the duties and tasks required to sail the ship. For example, the bosun had specific responsibilities as defined in the story and this attachment. Part of a Midshipman’s training included the fine art of handwriting, called calligraphy, so that he could prepare official documents and write letters.
Bosun (Boatswain) – the rating in charge of all the sails, rigging, and the anchor. There were twenty-five miles of rope and more than 20 sails on the average sailing ship. Because it was such an important job, the bosun was also the disciplinarian on the ship. back
Topmen - a rating or seaman whose responsibility is to work on the sails and position himself along the masts and yardarms.
Cabin Boy – essentially a servant for officers. Cabin boys were young like Midshipmen but they were not being trained for higher roles. Despite the harsh conditions, cabin boys were usually better off than if they were orphans or street children in a big city. back
Powder Monkeys – boys as young as eight who were responsible for carrying powder to the gun crews during battle. They had a very dangerous job.
The Surgeon (back) was an officer and the ship’s doctor. But often these men had minimal training and could do little more than offer first aid. The butcher’s bill was the list of injured and killed after a battle. back
Everyone on a sailing ship had to learn to tie knots. There are dozens of knots or special ways to tie knots. However, there are four main classifications of knots at sea:
- Hitch – makes a rope secure to another object
- Bend – join two rope ends
- Splice – joins two loose rope ends by weaving the strands together
- Knots – any knot not included under the other headings
Each sailor on a ship was allotted approximately seven pounds of biscuits a week, seven gallons of beer, a half pint of vinegar and lime juice, four pounds of beef, and two pounds of pork. Officers were fortunate because the ship carried cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, hens, and geese for fresh meat and eggs for their meals.
BISCUIT – a solid piece of flour and bread that was as hard as toffee. Maggots loved them and often each biscuit was crawling with well-fed weevils the size of beetles.
GROG – watered down rum (one part rum/ three parts water). Sailors were issued a glass of rum twice a day. The stronger the rum the longer it lasted. Water tended to turn to green slime but rum lasted a long time.
SALT BEEF – exactly as it sounds except the salt was like gun powder and the beef so hard it could bounce off the decks!
MOLASSES – a natural sweetener that was cheaper than sugar.
LIME – lime delivered a strong dose of vitamins necessary to prevent the dreaded disease, scurvy.
SCURVY - scurvy was a dreaded disease at sea. It was hard to preserve food at sea and so fresh fruit and vegetables quickly went bad and were a luxury. When at sea for a long time, sailors did not have these foods and suffered from a lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid). The most notable evidence of scurvy is when the gums become black and swollen and spongy. The gums bleed and the teeth fall out.
WEEVIL – a type of beetle, big and crunchy, that loved to live in and eat the grains and biscuits on ships.
Monsieur Georges mumbled to himself. “Nobody appreciates me! I makes delicious meals for 200 ungrateful sailors every day. Do they thank me? No! Do they appreciate me? No!” The frustrated cook drove his carving knife into the wooden table.
He continued talking to himself. “Look at this scrumptious biscuit. I made them with my own hands. I try to pick out the weevils. I even spread molasses on them for sweetness. And still they complain. ‘Tastes like my shoe’, one of the lads complained. No wonder I threw my cooking pot at him.”
PARTS OF THE SHIP
A ship was a very complex and complicated structure. It was a moving home for over 200 men and the wind and weather of the sea made constant repairs necessary.
UPPER DECK – divided into forecastle and quarterdeck and was open to the weather in the middle.
FORECASTLE (Foc’s’l)back– the area of the ship at the front or bow. Many of the sails were controlled from here and the sailors enjoyed relaxing on this part of the ship.
QUARTERDECKback – a raised deck near the back or stern of the vessel. Only Officers and Midshipmen could walk on the Quarterdeck.
POOP DECK – the highest open deck on the ship. It was at the far stern of the vessel and carried the signal flags. Interestingly, sailors “pooped” at the front of the ship – the exact opposite end of the ship from the Poop Deck.
BELOW DECKS - covered decks for guns and living quarters.
MIDDLE DECK – closed off from the weather and where the Galley (kitchen and home of Monsieur Georges) was located.
LOWER DECK – location of guns and living quarters.
ORLOP DECK – food storage and living quarters for Midshipmen and the Surgeon.
HOLD – giant warehouse area near the bottom of the ship.
Note: The Captain’s Cabin (back) was immediately below the Quarterdeck and was used as both a sleeping area and a Great Cabin for dining and entertaining officers.
MIZZEN MAST – one of the three masts for holding sails (foremast, main mast, mizzen mast). The mizzen mast was located at the back (stern) of the ship.
BENDING ON AND BEATING TO WEATHER - bending refers to rigging a sail into place so that it can be used for sailing. Beating to weather refers to a ship sailing a zigzag path into the weather to move forward or upwind.
BROADSIDE this term is usually used during battles at sea to refer to a situation where one ship is able to aim and fire all of its guns along one side. The more guns you could direct at your opponent, the greater the chance of winning the fight.
CAPSTAN – a large drum-shaped winch that the crews turned by hand to lift heavy weights such as the anchor. back
The halyards are lines used to raise and set a sail. back
Spars are like wooden poles that are at right angles to the masts. The sails are held in place by the spars. A yardarm is a spar that is used to rig square sails. back
A holystone was used for polishing the decks on your hands and knees. They are blocks of sandstone about the size and shape of the typical family bible of the time and, hence, the name. They scrubbed the decks clean and smooth and made them gleam almost white.
The full day is divided into six four-hour “watches” on a ship. A sailor is on duty for four hours and off for four hours. Watches change at 12, 4, and 8. The morning watch is from 4:00 am until 8:00 am. back
The removable platform allowing people on and off a ship. back
There were many belaying pins on a sailing ship. They were located on all the decks and bulwarks to help secure lines and rigging. They were usually tapered to fit into special slots along the railing. back
Wooden blocks were used as pulleys and made it easier to haul heavy objects, like barrels, up and down from the hold. back
“I get sick of running around this ship!” Simon complained to Miguel. “You get to stay in the Galley but I have to run errands and do whatever the Captain tells me. The head, foc’s’l, waist, quarterdeck, poop deck, upper deck, middle deck, lower deck, orlop deck, hold, and even the carpenter’s walk between the hull and the bulwark. No wonder I’m so skinny.”
“Hey Simon.” Miguel ignored his friend’s complaining. “Have you seen any rats lately?”
Simon shrugged. “The hold is full of them. They’re eating all the biscuits!”
“Get me one! Those Midshipmen called me a ‘Cuban mulatto’. They can insult me but not my Long Green Lizard, my Cuba. I’ll put a dead rat in their hammocks tonight!”back
Clothing was functional and varied depending on your rank. Officers wore dress uniforms and ratings wore easy fitting pants and shirts. Shoes did not distinguish between the left and right foot and pants had no pockets.
Shirts – shirts were made of hemp and were quite tight fitting around the shoulders. Sailors often brought or bought their own material and, hence, shirts of different stripes and checks and colours.
Coats – coats were personal property and the wealthier the officer the better the quality of overcoat. However, they became incredibly heavy when wet.
Pants – ratings wore pants of any material including hemp and extra canvas from the sails. Officers’ pants were more formal and tight fitting. back
HAMMOCK – a hanging bed of cloth or canvas with ropes attached to each end. They are usually three feet wide and six feet long. They were hung above the guns at night and were no more than 14 inches apart. Needless to say, the lower decks became very sweaty and dirty with so many men sleeping so close together. However, there was a positive side to the space constriction. With the movement of the ship, the hammocks swung together instead of individually and thus prevented everyone from banging into each other all night.
“Monsieur, I hate these pants!” Miguel pulled on the seat of his britches.
“Quit complaining. It’s the only clothes you wear – you whelp!”
“But they rub on my skin and make my legs and rear end raw.”
“Here, put some of this grease on your ‘sensitive skin’ and get back to work!