Time at sea in Nelson’s day

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    Malcolm Lewis

    On Wednesday 1 August 1798 at 3.00pm, off Alexandria, Egypt, Nelson ordered his fleet to clear for action against the French anchored in Aboukir Bay.
    Alexandria today is one hour ahead of UK time. How did ships in Nelson’s day note the date and time of day in their logs before time zones were established?
    How did ships in a fleet coordinate their time of day?
    When voyaging when did they change the times of their ship’s clocks?
    Malcolm Lewis

    Frank Scott

    Until 1805 the Royal Navy had three ways of measuring a day: nautical; civil; astronomical.
    The nautical day ran ahead of civil time, thus in 1798 a log entry for 6 o’clock in the afternoon of 2 August would be considered to be 1 August by civil/modern reckoning.
    By contrast the astronomical day was the opposite, and the Astronomical 1 August began at noon 1 August (civil time), and ran from 0h to 24h ending at noon on 2 August (civil time). This was the time used in the Nautical Almanac (first published in 1767) and clearly that employed for Astro-Navigation, though not for the ship’s log.
    To confuse the issue further, private journals (such as Cook’s) tended to be in civil time.
    An Admiralty order of 11 October 1805 changed log reckoning to the civil system, running from midnight to midnight. However, although this preceded Trafalgar, it came out too late to reach Nelson’s fleet, and that battle was still fought under the old system.
    At sea the log was kept in ship’s time, which was the local apparent time. By custom this was adjusted at noon, when ‘noon sight’ for latitude was taken. The officer taking the sight reported ‘Twelve o’clock, Sir’, and the Captain said ‘Make it so’. Obviously cloud cover and other events could cause there to be no noon sight, in which case one presumes that ship time was not adjusted. Moreover, when we speak of ship time being adjusted, that is merely the time used for the routine work onboard. The chronometer(s) were never adjusted, and always remained on Greenwich Time in British ships (most maritime nations used their own prime meridian in this era). Observed chronometer errors were noted, when possible, but the instrument itself was never disturbed except for winding.
    It would have been possible to co-ordinate fleet time by signal flag, but I suspect that each ship ran its own time as the differences would have been so minor.

    As a point of fact Alexandria, at 029° 55′ E, is almost exactly two hours ahead of Greenwich.
    Time zones can be a real issue. I recall doing a medevac in autumn 1977 from HMS Tiger to a Greek airbase when our exercise was running in Zulu time (GMT), the ship was running in one time zone, and Greece was in another. Variously I had to use all three time zones, and considerable concentration was necessary to avoid slipping into the wrong zone.
    Frank Scott


    Many Navy Board Masters kept the traditional maritime practice of starting the new day at noon for several years after 1805, which sometimes leads to confusion when comparing times in Captain’s and Master’s journals of proceedings (‘ship’s logs’) for specific ships – see the logs for the Imperieuse during the action at Rosas in November and December 1808 for example.1
    A few Captains and Lieutenants used civil time in their official journals and dispatches before the Admiralty order, another source of confusion for the unwary historian.
    Ships in a navy squadron were sometimes synchronised by a time gun, an ancient tradition also followed ashore. For example, as the squadron left the Bay of Rosas at the end of British naval support against the Napoleonic siege of 1808, a signal gun was fired at exactly 09.00 local time to synchronise the ships who were then about to disperse.

    As Frank rightly says, in respect of its longitude Alexandria is almost two hours ahead of Greenwich, but authorities in Egypt have chosen to keep that country in phase with western European time. Athens – further west than Alexandria longitudinally – is two hours ahead of Greenwich and thus ironically out of sync. with the rest of Europe.

    1. Journals of Proceedings, HM Ship Imperieuse: Captain’s journal ref The National Archives of England and Wales ADM 51/2462, Master’s log TNA ADM 52/4149

    Justin Reay

    P. H

    Tidal observers across the world from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, mostly used solar time – because it was so easily found. Seamen did so too, and hence their time (zone) self adjusted as they moved, and so did the date. Only experts could rise to sidereal or solar mean time, so they were rarely employed. Whichever was employed is usually a tacit understanding, but one important to sort out. Mean time became a commonly given expression from 1830 onwards because it was so novel.
    Twisting your question, many catalogues use the word ‘log’ for seventeenth century artefacts that turn out to be journals on inspection. When did the term log-book arise?
    Paul Hughes


    The Oxford English Dictionary gives the earliest recorded published date for log-book as being between 1679 and 1681:
    Log-book : a. Naut. A book in which the particulars of a ship’s voyage (including her rate of progress as indicated by the log) are entered daily from the log-board. Hence a journal of travel.
    a1679 Sir Jonas Moore, A new systeme of the mathematicks, (1681) vol I p271: ‘This account ruff taken off the Log-board, ought to be entred into a Book called a Traverse Book or Log Book.’
    1753 Chambers’s Cyclopaedia Suppl.: ‘Log-book, at sea, a book ruled and columned like the log-board.’
    1791 James Boswell, Life of Dr. Johnson vol II anno 1779, p309: ‘My Chester journal..is truly a log-book of felicity.’
    1813 Theatrical Inquisitor vol II p362: ‘It [the voyage] was divested of all log-book lumber.’
    1821 Lord Byron Diary in Works (1846) pp677/1: ‘This additional page of life’s log-book.’
    1889 W. C. Russell Marooned vol II chap iii p76: ‘The mate’s log-book was upon the table.’

    Log : Naut. and derived senses. An apparatus for ascertaining the rate of a ship’s motion, consisting of a thin quadrant of wood, loaded so as to float upright in the water, and fastened to a line wound on a reel. Hence in phrases to heave, throw the log, (to sail or calculate one’s way) by the log. Said also of other appliances having the same object.
    1574 William Bourne, A regiment for the sea (1577) ch xiv. 42b: ‘They hale in the logge or piece of wood again, and looke how many fadome the shippe hath gone in that time.’
    1644 Henry Manwayring, The sea-mans dictionary: or, An exposition and demonstration of all the parts and things belonging to a shippe: together with an explanation of all the terms and phrases used in the practique… (1644) at Logg-line: ‘One stands by with a Minut~glasse, while another out of the gallery lets fall the logg.’
    1669 Samuel Sturmy, The mariners magazine: or, Sturmy’s mathematical and practical arts. Whereunto is annexed, A compendium of fortification (by P. Staynred) (1669) vol IV chap ii p146: ‘We throw the Log every two Hours.’
    1769 William Falconer, An universal dictionary of the marine … A new edition, corrected (1780): ‘It is usual to heave the log once every hour in ships of war.’
    1834 Captain Frederick Marryat Peter Simple vol 1 chap xii p156: ‘It’s now within five minutes of two bells, so we’ll heave the log and mark the board.’

    Traverse-book n. (also travis-book) a log-book.
    a1679 Moore (1681) ibid
    1728 Chambers’s Cyclopaedia at Log: ‘They are enter’d into the Log-Book, or Traverse-Book, ruled and column’d just as the Log-Board is.’

    Log-board : n. a hinged pair of boards on which the particulars of a ship’s log are noted for transcription into the log-book.
    1669 Sturmy The mariners magazine (1669) ibid: ‘Next we will work the Courses of the Log-board.’
    1834 Marryat Peter Simple (1834) ibid: ‘O’Brien reported the rate of sailing to the master, marked it down on the log-board, and then returned.’
    1867 William Henry Smyth The sailor’s word-book: an alphabetical digest of nautical terms 1st edition (1867)
    Justin Reay

    Malcolm Lewis

    Most interesting replies thank you.
    I have a time for sunset on 1 August 2012 for Alexandria as 1850 (local). With Nelson’s decision at 1500 on 1.8.1798 to enter Aboukir Bay would sunset have occured at around 1900 on that day? It was a brave decision to take on a night encounter in an entirely unknown anchorage and without decent charts.
    Malcolm Lewis

    P. H

    The 2002 Nautical Almanac as a reasonable guide gives sunset at 18:56 local mean time for Alexandria (31deg09’N:29deg53’E); the possible variation should not exceed two minutes of time. Sunset was actually at 19:02 local time.
    Paul Hughes

    Sheila B

    I should like to refer to Frank Scott’s information about the Admiralty Order dated 11th October, instructing that days be recorded midnight to midnight.
    During my research I have discovered that this instruction was received by the Ville de Paris, flagship of the Channel Fleet, on 4th November 1805 so, yes, too late for Trafalgar.

    Reference: TNA ADM.51/1528, Captain John Whitby’s Log [Captain’s Journal of Proceedings for] Ville de Paris, October 1805-February 1806.
    Sheila Bransfield

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