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"They Came By Sea"
Lesson 2: Life Aboard a Sailing Ship

Excerpts from primary sources

From Domestic Life on American Sailing Ships, by Joanna C. Colcord, in American Neptune, July 1942.

Five generations of Joanna Colcord’s descendants were seafarers. Though her home on land was in Searsport, she was born in a ship’s cabin in the South Pacific. She and her brother, Lincoln, spent much of their childhood at sea, because their father was a shipmaster, commanding ships in the China trade. She became a social worker and a successful author.

On the conditions of the ship’s cabin:

In pleasant weather, when the skylights could be opened and the rooms ventilated, the cabins were pleasant living rooms; but during heavy weather, they were necessarily dark and gloomy. The all-pervading odor from the ship’s bilges crept into them, and in spite of the protection of shutters, battens, and coamings at the doorways, some of the salt water washing about decks inevitably found its way down into the cabins. The steward was kept busy mopping it up; but after a good wetting down with salt water, the cabin was damp and clammy till the weather cleared.

On the food aboard ship:

The only milk was the treacly condensed variety in cans; evaporated milk and cream had not yet come on the market. Tinned Danish butter was always fresh, although it got pretty soft and oily in the tropics . . . .

In general our meals were excellent, even in heavy weather. We always had a dinner of three courses, soup, meat or fish, and dessert. Split pea or bean soup was a meal in itself, and vegetable soup turned up long after the fresh vegetables were gone. Monday, not Friday, was fish day, the staple for dinner being salt cod and pork scraps, with boiled potatoes. Breakfast also was a hearty meal, with cereal and possibly salt mackerel or tongues and sounds, or a cold meat. For supper we would have hash or some form of hearty food, topped off with canned peaches or pears and cake. Always there were plenty of biscuits, in which infrequently a weevil appeared, startlingly black against the whiteness of the bread . . . .

Occasionally a dolphin or bonito would be caught, or a porpoise grained, and any flying fish that landed aboard were by custom sent aft to the captain’s wife, unless the ship’s cat got them first. Porpoise was especially delicious, the steaks a sort of half-meat and half-fish, the liver like the finest of calf’s liver. Some masters carried hens, rabbits, or even pigs, and I have heard of vessels equipped with milch goats when there were young children aboard.

On playtime:

At all times except at meal times and in the early evening dogwatch some one of the officers would be sleeping in his room at the forward end of the after house. Piano-playing by the captain’s lady, noisy romping by the children, were taboo except for those evening hours. The children played quietly . . . .On our ship, we became quite ingenious in developing quiet games. With dominoes for ships, we would charter, load, and sail them on a chart spread on the cabin floor . . . . We read or played games in silence, inventing grimaced signals to take the place of words.

On pastimes:

Boys learned to splice and tie knots, girls learned to sew and do fancy-work, and both, so soon as they were old enough, learned from their fathers some of the processes of navigation . . . .

There was a ship’s library, in a yellow wooden case, changed each voyage by the American Seamen’s Friend Society, and the family’s own books and periodicals were swapped with other shipmasters’ families in every port. Our family was fond of reading aloud, and many pleasant evenings passed with this and with cards, authors and dominoes. I still have a folding table with the scores entered on the bottom, of a cribbage tournament that was kept up for an entire voyage.

Sometimes, they would converse with other families on passing ships. She tells of a letter her grandmother wrote in 1877, in which she describes one of these encounters—in the middle of the ocean, they came across neighbors, the McClure’s, who lived just up the road from them in Searsport:

One morning when Father came on deck and was spying at the ships around, he saw one a little bit ahead of us that he said looked some like the John C. Potter. We gained on her and before long he could read the name . . . . They signaled, and before long we came up with them so that they could speak. We kept along together so that they got all the home news we could give them, and two or three times we were so near that Mrs. McClure and I could speak. Father threw a line with a lead on it on board their ship, and sent a nice new ham, a late newspaper, a bag of walnuts, and some candy that Bert happened to have for the children.

From Childhood at Sea: A Legacy for Penobscot Marine Museum and Searsport, by Joanna Colcord. The Bay Chronicle, Spring, 1995.

On lessons at sea:

Lessons went on daily. Our parents consulted with the teachers in the home school before taking us away, and we covered the same subjects, from the same books, as did our schoolmates. We were living geography, although we knew only the edges of the continents. One of our favorite games, in stormy weather, was to spread a chart on the cabin floor, and with dominoes for ships, charter, load and sail them from port to port with an occasional shipwreck or brush with Chinese pirate junks to liven things up . . . . Mathematics, too, was a living subject: our vessel found its way about the world by its aid. As we grew older we participated in the operations of finding the sun’s position daily, casting the ship’s reckoning, and laying off on the chart the previous day’s run.

From A Seafaring Legacy: the Photographs, Diaries, Letters and Memorabilia of a Maine Sea Captain and His Wife, ed. Julianna FreeHand. New York: Random House. 1981.

Sumner Drinkwater worked as a ship’s captain, and he often brought along his wife, Alice. She kept a journal during their travels. Here, she describes a terrible storm:

We had a heavy gale from the SW with tremendous cross seas. It threatened all day & at 6 p.m. it burst in all its fury. The Bar. [barometer] was very low: 29.20. They took in sail until only lower topsails were on & there was danger of them going to pieces. We layed to all night & she rolled something terrible & shipped heavy seas constantly . . .

Sumner was up all night and I never turned in. Once I layed down on the berth with the weather board in but in a few minutes I was fired down against the partition, board, pillows & all. The sea that did it nearly put her on her beam ends & filled the main deck solid full of water so it took half an hour to free herself of it . . . . This is the worst gail [sic] I have experienced so far & don’t care if I never see another like it.

The Drinkwaters meet a family of fellow Mainers at port in Newcastle, Australia. Alice writes of their Fourth of July celebration:

We celebrated the 4th of July by us four taking a trip to Sydney for the day . . . . We spent 6 hours there & after having dinner at the Metropole Hotel, we made the most of our time & see [sic] as much as possible of the City. There are some magnificent buildings & very lofty. One could almost imagine themselves in N.Y. only there is no life & rush to the people & the St. cars are dirty smoky steam cars which almost spoil the beauty of the place. We went into the gardens & through the Art Gallery which is well worth visiting & did a little ‘Souvenir’ shopping & by that time we had to think of getting supper & starting on our way back to N. We all enjoyed the day verry [sic] much. The 80 miles ride took 4 hours but the scenery was grand about all the way & where it was not grand it was all new to us & interesting. We passed large fields of growing Pineapples from 50 to 100 acres in some of them, Orange groves & many sights that one does not see in the State of Maine. In some places we could see where the Shafts go down into the [coal] mines & the track running to them. It was verry mountainous & we thought perhaps was pretty well undermined as they have dug for coal for years under those same mountains . . . . Coming back it was dark, only a large moon that would light up the beautiful lakes & hills making grand moonlight scenes . . . .

Alice describes a Christmas spent in the Indian Ocean:

This is the warmest & finest Xmas day I have ever experienced so far. This morning the Ther. [thermometer] was at 78° . . . . We have had Xmas presents even if we are at Sea. Sumner gave me a pair of Japanese vases, & a Jewelry box made of Japan wood. I made him a house jacket, & gave him a cegar [sic] stand which is quite a novelty. We also had a nice Xmas dinner consisting of roast chickens, frigasee [sic], tomato-soup, string beans, sweet potatoes & pudding. The Chickens were real ones only being Chinese instead of Yankee ones . . ..

This is a great contrast to what the day must be at home. It is now 8:40 p.m. with us & 1:30 p.m. at home. I know it is cold there & wonder if there is snow on the ground. It is hard to realize the diference [sic]. We have worn thin clothes all day & they are wearing furs & sitting by the stoves.

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