Lost at sea

Tales my grandfather would have told me. A sailor's life 1910-1941

A sailor’s life – 17. The devil provides the cook

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Ship's biscuit, presented to a Miss Blackett in 1784, from the collection of National Maritime Museum Greenwich

Ship's biscuit, presented to a Miss Blacket in 1784, from the collection of National Maritime Museum Greenwich

Imagine if you will a world without cheese, or milk, or apples, or even a carrot or cabbage leaf. Imagine day after day, tin pannikins with the same boiled salt meat and dried pulses, uniform brown, with never a hint of tomato, unrelieved by soft bread or clean water.

The sailing ship indenture Bert Sivell signed in August 1911 specified that John Stewart & Co were to provide “sufficient” meat, drink and lodging. But “sufficient” is a subjective term.

The provision of food in British merchant ships was regulated by the Board of Trade and a scale was printed in the ship’s articles where all aboard might read it, forestalling argument. But there was a saying in sailing ships that while God provides the food, the Devil provides the cook.

Vegetables and fruit lasted about a fortnight after leaving port, fresh milk and butter rather less. Thereafter – possibly for months on end until the next landfall – there were sacks of rice and flour and split peas, and casks of meat, and evaporated milk and butter in tins.

The Board of Trade stipulated masters should provide each man with a quart of water and a pound of salted pork or beef a day, which was usually served on alternate days with pea soup or rice or (weather permitting) bread, and whatever was left over appeared again for dinner. All quantities were strictly laid down: a pound of bread daily, 1/4 lb rice twice a week, 2 oz of preserved potatoes three times a week, and 2/3 pint of peas. The agreement even detailed acceptable substitutes — a pound of ship’s biscuit in the absence of flour, 1/4 oz of tea instead of 1/2 oz coffee beans.

Tea, coffee beans, sugar, marmalade, butter and condiments were distributed as weekly stores for individual use and safekeeping, and again in the quantities strictly laid down by the Board of Trade.

Although bigger ships might carry chickens and a couple of pigs, they too were prey to the weather, and after ten days on salt meat British masters were legally obliged to serve lime juice, to prevent scurvy, which made your gums swell and your teeth fall out. “Limeys,” jeered American crews. By his mid-twenties Bert needed false plates top and bottom.

Meat on Monkbarns was kept, unrefrigerated of course, in casks of brine below decks and tipped into a locked, iron-bound teak harness cask on deck abaft the mizzen mast as needed. There, it warped in the wet and heated in the sun until the surface ran with all the colours of the rainbow and “care was needed in passing to leeward if you were fastidious”. It was served, boiled with dried potatoes and beans, as wet hash (stew) or dry hash (cottage pie), or sometimes as curry with rice or “Boston baked beans” (in molasses).

On Sundays, as a treat, there was tinned meat and “duff” – plain suet with molasses. And on cold days there was “burgoo” or oatmeal porridge, galley fires permitting. But everything was prone to decay.

Drinking water went brackish in the sun and weevils soon wriggled in the flour, the oatmeal, and even in the hard tack or ship’s biscuits, which were three-inch squares triple-baked to a rock-like dessication that was supposed to ensure they “kept” for five years. The trick was to tap them on the table so the beetles fell out and then soak them in coffee, Bert told his son. He had little sympathy with children who would not eat their sprouts.

In the half deck the growing apprentice boys, always hungry, obsessed about food. Cracker hash and dandy funk were favourites, both featuring biscuit (less “the more obvious weevils”) crushed with a belaying pin, and then either mixed with chopped pork and lard, or with brown sugar, marmalade and a dab of butter. Baked on tin plates by stealth in the galley when the cook’s back was turned the result was, one elderly seadog wrote mistily, “a magnificent delicacy particularly suitable for afternoon tea on Sundays, provided, of course, you are on board a square-rigger bound for Cape Horn.”

As the weeks stretched into months at sea, the packages of little comforts packed by the mothers far away slowly emptied and the new dungarees began to sprout rents and patches. Saltwater boils erupted on necks and wrists from the chafing oilskins, and the daily scrubbing wore calluses into hands and knees.

From the bridge of his Shell oil tanker, not so many years later, Bert acknowledged the past discomforts. “One night,” he wrote, “I think it was last Tuesday, some very heavy squalls came along when I was on watch, accompanied by torrential rain. While they were on I just looked up aloft and smiled to myself that there were no sails up there to be looked after. I kept that watch on the bridge without oilskins or sea-boots and at midnight when I was relieved I was as dry as a bone  … and people wonder why they can’t get officers for sail.”

Read on: Corsars’ flying horse figurehead
Previously: Learning the ropes

*Victor Fall and Harry Fountain, ex-Monkbarns apprentices
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  1. […] on: A sailor’s life 17. The devil provides the cook Halliards haul up yards, braces swing yards, clewlines haul up the clews or corners of sail to the […]


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