Reply To: Jack all at sea – swimming in the sailing navy

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Frank Scott

A few thoughts:
Contemporary seamanship manuals, such as that by Captain Anselm Griffiths (1824), all devote space to the problem of man-overboard recovery, which in itself indicates some expectation that the person in the water could stay afloat long enough to be rescued. Even when lifebuoys came into general use they were of no value unless the man could swim well enough to reach them.
One issue may have been that in heavy weather, particularly running fast down-sea, it was impossible even to heave-to, let alone launch a seaboat, so there was no chance of recovery. In such circumstances people may well have consoled themselves with the thought that the man in the water would not have suffered long because they could not swim.
Another issue is that the most common cause of a man-overboard incident was a fall from aloft. Except when working close in to the mast, falls from aloft tend to result in a man-overboard, and in the process that person is often either injured by striking something in his way down, or stunned by awkward impact with the sea. Thus a fair number of these people would have sunk before any rescuer could get to them, again possibly encouraging a belief that the reason was their inability to swim.

Admiral G. A. Ballard’s article [writing as G.A.B.] ‘The Ariadne Boat Disaster, 1872’, Naval Review vol 36 no. 3, 1948 pp274-277, provides a good explanation of the problems and risks involved in man-overboard recovery under sail.
My survey and report for the Nautical Institute in 1998, and the relevant chapter in my book, A Square Rig Handbook: operations, safety, training, equipment, Nautical Institute, London 1992, revised edition 2001, come to similar conclusions.