Seafaring Diet – salt content and skin complaints, such as boils

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    Frank Scott

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

      Memoirs from the age of sail regularly comment on crew members suffering from painful boils, which were treated onboard in a seriously ‘robust’ manner. Just the sort of character forming experience that I am glad to have avoided.

      In an exhibition at the German Maritime Museum at Bremerhaven some years ago there was a brief mention in one display that this problem was mainly due to the high salt content of the diet (salt pork, etc). However, it did not give any references, and I have not come across anything further on this subject. Certainly it sounds likely that the salt content of the diet at sea was much too high by modern standards, but I have not seen any data, nor anything more on any link with boils and other skin complaints. I would be interested to know more.

      Frank Scott

      Sam Willis

        This comes from Rick Spilman:

        From all that I have read (and a bit that I have experienced) the boils
        suffered by sailors tended to be related to chafing of clothes and foul
        weather gear, which never really dried due to the constant immersion and
        the hygroscopic nature of salt. The body and soul lashings tied to keep
        sleeves and pant legs closed to the wind and water seemed to be a cause of
        a lot of the chafing. There accounts from modern sources, presumably with
        lower sail diets that point to chafe and salt water immersion as the cause
        of boils. The Robertsons (of “Survive the Savage Sea” fame) had problems
        with boils as did the survivors of the sinking of the Pride if Baltimore.

        Reading about high salt diets, I haven’t seen any indications of boils as
        side effect. Boils can be caused by a blockage of the sweat glands in a
        condition called Hidradenitis Suppurativa, but diet doesn’t seem to be
        listed as a cause.

        As an aside, related to chafing, salt water sores are a big problem for
        long distance rowers. A female team rowing across the the Indian Ocean
        earned some publicity a few years ago when they announced that they would
        be rowing naked as much as possible to avoid sores. Male rowers apparently
        have a particular problem with chafing sores on their testicles. On one
        coed rowing team, a female rower, who was also a nurse, was responsible for
        tending to boils and sores. At the end of the race, she commented that she
        had seen ‘enough male dangly bits to last a lifetime.’

        Ocean Rowing – Chafe, Nudity and Intimate Sores

        Frank Scott

          What Rick writes coincides with what I have always understood to be the causes of salt water boils, rashes, etc., amongst seafarers.

          However, as the reference to the influence of salt in the diet comes from the excellent German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven, I could not simply disregard it, and wondered if anyone could provide any firm basis for the theory, or a refutation. I also wonder how high the salt content of the diet was compared to modern recommendations, and what the long term impact of that was on seafarers’ health as a whole.

          Frank Scott

            I have received the following answers from members of the MarHst-L forum:

            From Joan Druett:
            Professor J. Worth Estes, who studied medical records on the earliest American ships of war, makes the rather amusing observation that while seamen got boils, officers were more commonly listed with syphilis. Whether food, relative affluence, or way of life were factors can only be estimated, of course.

            John Woodall in The Surgeon’s Mate (London, 1617) has a great deal to say about boils, which he knew as ‘apostumes’ (also spelled ‘apostemes’). This includes ulcers and skin tumours, as they were all classed as nasty lumps with virulent matter underneath. A common remedy was to place the mouth of small, heated bottle over the boil and press hard.
            Whalemen suffered very badly from boils. This was caused by organisms in the black skin of the whale, which of course was handled during flensing and trying out, and whale rescue teams today face the same hazard.

            From Paul Benyon:
            An article from the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, Wednesday 21 December 1864, probably produced as a result of the recent government report on the Health of the Navy in 1864, does not go into too much detail where boils are mentioned:
            ‘Diseases of the Skin and Cellular Tissue. – As heretofore the greatest daily loss of service from these diseases was from abscesses and ulcers. For the former affections including boils, 317.7 men were, on an average, daily under treatment, and for the latter 268.4. There were four deaths from erysipelas, three from abscess, and one from ulcer. Two men were invalided for erysipelas; twenty-three for different forms of scrofulous disease; one for sympathetic bubo; twenty-seven for boils and abscesses; seventy-seven for ulcer, and five for skin diseases. See

            The article goes on to discuss salt pork, followed by cases of abscess, which seems to fit nicely:
            The unwholesome nature of much of the food served out at sea, especially when the voyage is unusually protracted, is a fruitful source of disease. A very favourite article with the Admiralty is salt pork. If toujours perdrix becomes wearisome to the epicure, how speedily that cheap and somewhat nasty article of food must become hateful to the sailor can only be guessed by those who have ever eaten it. Tired of it boiled, loathing it fried, he is sometimes glad to eat it raw, with terrible results. Tapeworm attack the sufferer, and frequently cause him a great deal of suffering and debility, but leave behind them diseases which are scarcely ever cured. But even supposing the crew are privileged in having a cook who does not utter spoil everything he touches, but contrives to make even the common mess-pork an eatable article of food, there still remains the fact that, by the present process of salting, beef and pork lose a very large proportion of their nutritive elements. Seamen, upon whose physical powers the strain is both great and continuous, cannot afford thus to lose the nutriment from their food. If they do the result is inevitably to be found in the sick list, as was the case in 1861, when the Mersey, which was 225 days on salt provisions, had 152 cases of abscess out of 615 men; and during the first quarter of the year, when salt provisions were issued for unusually long-continued periods, a terrible form of sloughing ulcer because became common. Exposure and infection produce also a large amount of rheumatism, fever, and small-pox..’

            But only mentioning the salt pork, and not salt beef, seems to suggest to me that like many things in those days, they were heading in the right direction but had not yet discovered the actual cause.

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