All Hands on Deck: Learning Adventures Aboard Old Ironsides
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Herman Melville, in White Jacket, tells the whole truth about hammocks.

Let me speak of my hammock and the tribulations I endured therefrom. Give me plenty of room to swing it in, and I would not exchange my coarse canvas hammock for the grand state-bed in which they tuck in a king. ...But when, with five hundred other hammocks, yours is crowded and jammed on all sides,
on a frigate berth deck, when “spreaders” are prohibited by an express edict from the captain’s cabin; and every man about you is jealously watchful of the rights and privileges of his own hammock, as settled by law and usage; then your hammock is your Bastille and canvas jug; into which, or out of which, it is very hard to get; and where sleep is but a mockery and a name.

Eighteen inches a man is all they allow you; eighteen inches in width; in that you must swing. Dreadful! they give you more swing than that at the gallows.

Constitution's crew slept in hammocks just inches apart from one another.One extremely warm night, during a calm, when it was so hot that only a skeleton could keep cool (from the free current of air through its bones) after being drenched in my own perspiration, I managed to wedge myself out of my hammock; and with what little strength I had left, lowered myself gently to the deck. Let me see now, thought I, whether my ingenuity cannot devise some method whereby I can have room to breathe and sleep at the same time. I have it. I will lower my hammock underneath all these others; and then — upon that separate and independent level, at least — I shall have the whole berth deck to myself. Accordingly, I lowered away my pallet to the desired point — about three inches from the floor — and crawled into it again.

But alas! this arrangement made such a sweeping semicircle of my hammock,
that, while my head and feet were at par, the small of my back was settling down indefinitely; I felt as if some gigantic archer had hold of me for a bow.

But there was another plan left. I triced up my hammock with all my strength,
so as to bring it wholly above the tiers of pallets around me. This done, by a last effort, I hoisted myself into it; but, alas, it was much worse than before. My luckless hammock was stiff and straight as a board; and there I was — laid out in
it with my nose against the ceiling, like a dead man’s against the lid of his coffin.


Interpreting Signal Flags

In addition to representing letters of the alphabet, International Alphabet Flags have other meanings, shown below.
Flag Message Flag Message
dangerous cargo
keep clear
altering course to starboard
want a pilot

about to sail
request a doctor

To run the ship, stores were needed for six months of operation. Food, of course, was included, tons of it, since the crew consumed about 1.75 tons a day. Typically, Constitution left port carrying 10,000 pounds of bread, 48,500 gallons of water, and sizable quantities of such foodstuffs as butter, molasses, beans, potatoes and turnips.

According to the daily ration fixed by Congress in 1801, a seaman was entitled to one pound of bread, one pound of salted beef or pork, 14 ounces of cheese or vegetables, if available, and a half pint of spirits. A sailor’s breakfast usually included hardtack (unleavened bread). Their one hot meal a day was at noon. Salted beef, pork or fish were their main meats; dried beans or peas, the vegetables. In order to preserve it, everything had to be pickled in brine, salted or dried in order to preserve it.

A sailors’ joke was that barrels loaded onto ships were stamped: Unfit for human consumption, but good enough for sailors. Fresh food was scarce, unless the ship was in port or had just sailed.

A ship newly at sea from a well-stocked port might present a startling sight and a barnyard aroma: bullocks penned in the manger area of the gun deck; freshly slaughtered halves and quarters hanging from adjacent beams; perhaps pigs and sheep restrained in some of the nested boats, and crated chickens in others; and in the vicinity, the baled hay and bagged corn with which to sustain the animals for the three or four weeks the luckiest would live.

From Tyrone G. Martin’s A Most Fortunate Ship

Men of the sea were the first international society on earth, traveling to all its corners and carrying its riches to every part. It was these world travelers who brought new products and new words back to their home lands and enriched both lives and languages.
In such a way was dungaree, cot, hammock and hurricane brought to English. Common terms that evolved from the age of sail are: short handed, loose cannon, know the ropes, show true colors, squared away, on an even keel, pooped, good deal, toe the line, mind your P’s and Q’s. (pints and quarts of spirits that were rationed by the Navy).

adapted from Tyrone G. Martin’s “Captain Speaks” Series

Plum Duff

In A Most Fortunate Ship, Tyrone G. Martin describes in detail the vermin that infested the ships stores of food. He finishes his disclosure with the recipe for the one “delicacy” served on board.

The bright spot, to the sailors, in this grim gastronomic picture, was the promise of “duff” on Sundays. Duff was the one “dessert” available to the crew. To make it, the mess cook would beat biscuits into a coarse flour. To this, he would add raisins, water, and “slush” — the residue of beef fat scraped from the coppers of the caboose. The resultant mixture was spooned into a light canvas bag and delivered to the cook, who boiled it into a glutinous consistency in the bag. Not unlike a cannon ball in density, to the crew it was the closest thing to a delicacy.

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