Jack all at sea – swimming in the sailing navy

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      Please note that we will exploring this topic in a series on sailors and seamanship in the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. Enjoy! Dr Sam Willis, Editor.

      I have been asked by an Oxford colleague, who is researching the history of swimming in England, whether mariners in the age of sail commonly swam, and whether there was any instruction or other encouragement for it in the Royal Navy.
      This research is for an article for The Queen’s College newsletter about Everard Digby’s instruction book De Arte Natandi, London 1587, a copy of which is in the College collection.
      He tells me that his researches so far have shown
      that the Queen’s Regulations for the Royal Navy were amended in 1879 so that seamen were required to take a swim test or to learn to swim. My copy of Naval Instructions (precursor of the King’s/Queen’s Regs) for 1772 has no mention of swimming.
      I wonder if any member knows when this change in attitude happened, and the title of the first manual for swimming instruction produced by or for the Navy?
      My colleague also wonders if there are any data indicating how many mariners – merchant or Navy – could swim in the 17th, 18th and/or 19th centuries.
      I have turned up a blank on this apart from pointing out the heroic actions of Captain Frederick Marryat on several occasions in saving sailors who had fallen overboard, earning him the Gold Medal of the Humane Society. Such actions predicate that sailors did not, as a rule, learn to swim. I have read that swimming was frowned on in the RN as it might encourage desertion inshore, but I would have thought the benefits of such a useful activity in a number of operational situations would have outweighed the risk of such nefarious use of this skill.
      I and my colleague would be grateful for any information or thoughts on this.

      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.

        Sheila B

          I thought you might like to hear of my enquiries [relating to this topic].
          I am researching the life of someone who was in the Royal Navy 1803-1821. I have come across several [incidents of] men overboard and, as you say, mostly they have fallen from the rigging.
          I was at the National Maritime College of Ireland in Ringaskiddy in 2008 and I asked the Principal, Captain John Clarence, about swimming. His reply was that sailors at that time had no desire to learn to swim because “it was quicker to die from drowning than from hyperthermia”!
          He did not verify the comment so I accept that this may be his personal view, but it seems logical.

          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.

            Alastair Wilson

              By Alastair Wilson
              If anyone is seriously interested in pursuing this, I would suggest looking through RN ratings’ Service Certificates at NA, Kew, to find the earliest record of P(assed) S(wimming) T(est). I would think it was in the 1880s, following the change to QR&AI, as stated by Justin R in his initial posting.
              I find it interesting that there were instances, such as that quoted by N.B., where all members of a ship’s company could swim. I would suggest that this was more likely in pre-industrial England, when sea-farers were drawn almost exclusively from those who dwelt by the sea, and so would at least have had a facility to learn to swim. From about 1850 onwards, when greater mobility given by the railways, enabled enabled young men to ‘run away to sea’, and men from inland areas joined the Royal Navy in increasing numbers, I would have expected the incidence on non-swimmers to have increased.
              It would be interesting, too, to examine the records of the various training ships run by such bodies as the Marine Society, to establish whether, and from what date, they taught their boys to swim.
              And it is also instructive to see the number of awards made by the (Royal) Humane Society (Captain Maryatt was by no means alone) – they will be found in the Navy Lists for the period). As an example, Vice-Admiral Sir James Startin (1855-1948) received three awards from the Society, as well as the Albert Medal, awarded in 1918 when he was 63 years old, and serving as a Commodore RNR, having volunteered to serve in a lower rank during the war.

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