Collecting Rain Water at Sea

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    Lawrie Phillips

    There are many references to ships collecting rainwater when short of drinking water. As rainwater was far fresher than stored water, and one imagines much more acceptable, was rainwater collection a shipboard routine?

    • This topic was modified 5 years, 2 months ago by Lawrie Phillips.
    • This topic was modified 5 years, 2 months ago by Sam Willis.
    Nicholas Blake

    Rainwater was certainly collected by some officers. As with so much of the Georgian navy, it was likely that it was a routine for the more conscientious and zealous ones, and possibly that it was for most, and the ordinary officers left no trace. Captain Pasley, who was an enterprising officer, and left a useful collection of Private Sea Journals, mentions it three times:

    Between the Cape Verde Islands and the Cape of Good Hope, on 16 Mar 1780 the Sybil (28) experiences ‘a heavy and uncommon fall of Rain; on the Coast of Guinea only I recollect to have seen it equalled. Filled several Tons of Water which, altho’ we are not in immedeate want, enables me to give a larger allowance of this necessary Element to the Seamen, than which nothing contributes more to their health in long Southern Voyages. The men drink when, and as much as, they please – restrained only in carrying away more than one Pint each for Breakfast.’ Private Sea Journals, 72.

    On 11 May 1781 in the Jupiter (50) he has ‘Thunder, lightning and Rain in abundance this 24 hours, altho’ we could not from its variableness and our Vicinity to other Ships fill above one Ton.’ Private Sea Journals, 146

    On 6 Feb 1782, in the Jupiter: ‘Still Calm with heavy Rains; filled in the Evening a Ton and a half of Water for the use of the Cooks, being greatly superior to any other for breaking the Pease.’ Private Sea Journals, 229

    On the other hand it is possible that he recorded it because it was unusual. William Hickey notes that when the Castle Eden homeward-bound Indiaman runs out of water and the crew are reduced to a pint a day each, the still is set up for the livestock, but fortunately rain falls and it is not needed (IV, 442)

    Ships had been supplied with a variety of machines for sweetening sea water since at least the 1770s, and later there came machines for recovering water from the steam produced by cooking.

    It was probably an evolution rather than a routine.

    Byrne McLeod

    The only example I know of the provision for collecting rainwater in a sailing ship is from Irving Johnson’s ‘The Peking Battles Cape Horn’, 1932, reprint 1995 The National Maritime Historical Society, New York. p 97:

    A regular doldrum downpour started in, and we hurriedly swept off the midships deck, set buckets under the pipes that let the water run to the lower decks, and as fast as the buckets filled carried them to a couple of big steel tanks, one on the fore deck, and one on the after deck. Those held our water for washing.

    Our big deck tanks had only a two inch hole in the top, and through that we had to get the water by dangling down a little can on a string. This sort of water conservation is the limit of inconvenience, and thereby, I suppose, achieves its purposes. Naturally, we sailors unexpectedly found a half bucket of the water drawn up through that little hole sufficient to wash a great quantity of clothes. P 104.

    It surprises me that the eighteenth century Navy, which fitted amongst other things wind scoops and pumps, apparently made no effort to catch rain water.

    AMG McL


    In my reading of 18th century logs I never found a mention of collecting rain water at sea. In the West Indies there were constant references to having to go this island or that for ‘watering’, and Archibald Kennedy gave a detailed description of the island he discovered off the Portuguese coast where the spring of sweet water ran down to the beach. As the penalties for running out of water were so profound, it seems short-sighted of the Admiralty to leave it to the personal initiative of captains like Thomas Pasley who caught rainwater at sea.

    Frank Scott

    The obvious trouble with rain as source of fresh water is that you cannot rely on it. Moreover, if the downpour is accompanied by a serious strength of wind, then the sea spray generated will pollute the rain water too much. In any case you need to let the water run for quite a while to clear the salt residue from the rigging & decks, only then can you block the scuppers and set up water butts. It is thus not surprising that all the cases quoted were all in the tropics.
    Whilst I cannot turn my hand to them at this moment, I have come across quite a few examples of rain water collected by commercial sailing ships.
    Worth noting that even the Peking, which as a training ship was comparatively heavily manned with a crew of 76, had much less of a fresh water problem that Pasley faced in the Jupiter, with a crew of some 350.
    I have spent quite a lot of time operating around the Caribbean Islands, and would certainly not have liked to rely on rain, rather than regular watering stops. At sea my experience was that tropical rain showers were as likely to pass you by, as they were to give you enough time for a quick upper deck shower (always a delight), let alone replenish your water supplies to any significant extent.

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