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

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Nicholas Blake

Recreational swimming was quite popular during the Nelson era; Trevenen remarks that all the ship’s company of the Resolution can swim in December 1777, and there are various references to it in memoirs. For example:

Landsman Hay: ‘In warm climates bathing is very grateful to Europeans, but this pleasure, from the danger attending it can seldom be enjoyed. If we go overboard from the ship side we are exposed to the greedy jaws of the shark and if we go in from the shore the Alligator is probably lurking about the brink to seize us for its prey. Some times a large sail is suspended by the four corners from the ships yards while the middle of it is allowed to sink for a few feet below the surface of the water. By this way the risk is avoided and the advantages enjoyed.’ (Landsman Hay, p 102)

The Vestal frigate is becalmed for four weeks in 25 degrees West after crossing the line on her journey to the East Indies in 1786 or 1787, and ‘The ship’s company, between four and five in the afternoon, used to bathe alongside in a steering sail, with shot tied in the middle to make it sink; when put into the water and extended it formed a large and deep bath, and the sharks could not molest us, though they were always on the look-out to seize anything that fell overboard.’ (Raigersfeld, 44-5)

‘Whilst here, generally of an evening, the ship’s company had permission to bathe alongside after the decks were cleared up, and it was very amusing to see with what alacrity the men stripped and plunged into the water, some from the fore part of the ship, whilst others, running up the fore rigging, would leap from off the fore and fore-top sail yardarms into the water feet foremost. One of the men used to go off the fore-top gallant yardarm, a height of more than a hundred feet; and as there were stages alongside for the caulkers to caulk the ship’s bends, I was constantly bathing from them five or six times a day, so that at last I became as good a swimmer as any on board, and no one except the man who jumped from the top gallant yard surpassed me, nor would he probably have done so had not the officers forbidden my attempting it. The black man, however, who taught me to swim, excelled in diving: he would go from the spritsail yard head foremost into the water, and passing under the ship’s bottom [the Mediator, 44], come up at the gangway on the opposite side. This I could not do, but when a saucer or earthen plate was thrown overboard, I would, when it had sunk several feet, plunge in head foremost from the main chains, and opening my eyes under water, grasp the object as it was sinking and bring it up. The want of breathing under water is very much felt at first, but by habit you acquire a manner of retaining your breath so as not to feel alarmed, fearing you should be forced to draw it under water, which, if you were, I believe the rush of water into your nostrils and mouth would nearly stifle you for the moment, and unless assistance were at hand, most likely death would follow a second attempt to do so under water. The instant, however, you cease to persevere in diving, a single stroke of your hands and feet brings you directly to the surface, and you seem to rush upwards with an impetuosity that makes the water whiz as you rise; the diver, knowing this buoyancy of his body, feels under no apprehension on that head.’ (Raigersfeld, 25-6)

The Hydra is lying-to during a calm in the Channel in 1800. ‘The time being very tempting for bathing, the ship’s company asked if they might take a swim. Consent was given, and a studding sail was got over for those who could not swim, and was hauled out flat alongside in the usual way with lines from the fore and main yardarms, etc.’ (At Sea with Nelson, 102)

The last quotation suggests that there was a standard evolution, but it’s not the sort of activity that the Georgian Admiralty would have regulated.