Frigate, Life at Sea

40 Kanonen-Fregatte der Royal Navy von 1768, als Modell auf Deck 2 des Internationalen Maritimen Museum Hamburg.

The model of a 40-gun frigate of the British Royal Navy, 1768, on Deck 2 of the International Maritime Museum Hamburg.

Life at sea:
Exmplified on board of a 40-gun frigate of the Royal Navy from 1768

  1. The Ship’s Bell
  2. The Drummer
  3. Pumping the Bilges
  4. The Capstan
  5. Description of the Sails
  6. Furling the Sails
  7. Sail Area
  8. Extra Spars
  9. Nature’s Call
  10. The Marines
  11. Officers
  12. On the Top
  13. Gun Crews
  14. Powder Monkeys
  15. Canon Balls
  16. Additional Cover
  17. Captain’s Privileges

The Ship’s Bell

Die Schiffsglocke einer Fregatte der Royal Navy um 1768. Schiffmodell uaf Deck 2 der Internationale Maritime Museum Hamburg. Schiffsmodell

The daily routine onboard a ship was regulated by the ship’s bell. The day was divided into 4 hour sections beginning at 12 noon. At 12:30 the bell told once. Thereafter every 30 minutes an additional bell, until at 16:00 with 8 bells (4 double strokes) the routine started anew. Another way of timing the day was a system of watch going and off watch in which however at all times all hands could be called for manoeuvres.

Der Trommler

Trommler an Bord der Royal Navy Fregatte. Schiffsmodell auf Deck 2, Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg.

On board of sailing war ships seamen and marines were called to action station by acoustical signals from the drummer boy in addition to shouted orders. Signals for sailing manoeuvres were mainly given by the calls of the boatswain and the boatswain’s mates.

Pumping the Bilges

Matrosen pumpen Wasser, auch lenzen genannt, an bord der Britische Fregatte. Modell im Internationalen Maritimen Museum Hamburg.

The complex structure of a wooden ship was never absolutely tight. Therefore sounding and pumping the bilges was a routine job performed on each watch. After a collision or hits sustained during battle all pumps had to be manned and operated till total exhaustion, to keep the ship afloat.

The Capstan

Weighing the anchor was one of the hardest tasks onboard a ship. Hence it was an all hands manoeuvre. The capstan was moved by capstan bars manned by up to five seamen. Sometimes a seaman with a musical instrument – most often a fiddle – sat on the capstan head and the men at the bars sang a song (shanty) to ease the mutual backbreaking task. These songs were not for entertainment but coordinated the work.

Description of Sails

Die Bezeichnungen der Segeln eine Fregatte der zweite Hälfte der 18. Jahrhundert. Schiffsmodell auf Deck 2 der Internationale Maritime Museum Hamburg.
  • 1: fore spritsail
  • 2: spritsail
  • 3: jib
  • 4: fore topmast staysail
  • 5: fore topgallant sail
  • 6: fore topsail
  • 7: foresail
  • 8: main topgallant sail
  • 9: main topsail
  • 10: main sail
  • 11: mizzen topsail
  • 12: driver

Furling the Sails

Matrosen packen die Segeln eine Fregatte der Royal Navy um 1768. Schiffsmodell auf Deck 2 der Internationale Maritime Museum Hamburg.

Prior to engaging the enemy in battle the seamen furled the lower sails to minimize the danger of fire through sparks. Doing this they stood on ropes fastened to the yards called horses or footropes. To unfurl the sails the seamen started at the yard-arms to unlash the clew with clew lines and sheets working inside to reduce the danger of being thrown from the yard by the billowing sail. Nevertheless working in the rigging was always dangerous no matter how careful the seamen acted.

Sail Area

Die Segel der Fregatte. Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg.

The sail area could be reduced by reefing part of the sail in response to the force of the wind without having to furl the complete sail. The reef points were utilized to tie the reduced sail to the yard. On the other hand speed could be increased by enlarging the sail area in favourable weather conditions by bending studding sails to the studding sail booms.

Extra Spars

Ersatz Spieren, auch Rahen oder Toppmasten genannt, wurden am Rumpf Transportiert.

Spars could be damaged by storms or battle action. While on a trip far away from the home bases these spars could not be procured. Therefore extra spars have been carried along. Here a reserve spar is lashed to the channel outboards. From the same channels the depth of the water would be sounded using a sounding line.

Toiletten für die Matrosen an Borde der Fregatte. Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg.

Such holes at the head of the ship served as toilets for the seamen. The captain and the officers used personal toilets aft. During bad weathere – specially in case of storm and heavy sea – the seamen released themselves into the bilges.

The Marines

Die Marineinfanterie der Royal Navy am bord der Fregatte.

Throughout the Napoleonic Wars the Royal Marines served onboard of the Royal Navy ships in every notable naval battle. The number of marines on board Royal Naval ships depended on the size of the ship and was generally kept at a ratio of one marine per gun; for example: a First Rate Ship of the Line had 104 marines while a 28 gun Frigate had 29. The marines were easily distinguished from the rest of the crew by their red uniforms. Their main tasks were amphibious operations, maintaining the discipline on board and to act as sharpshooters from the tops and the poop deck during battle as well as participating in boarding enemy ships and to repel boarders. They were not involved in day-to-day handling of the ship. Neither did they operate the guns on board which were served by specially trained gun crews.


Offiziere der Royal Navy am Bord der Fregatte.

Beginning in 1748 it was mandatory for the officers of the Royal Navy to wear the typical blue and white uniforms. Prior to this time they stood out against the sailors through their attire according to rank and title and their wigs.

On the Top

Mars, Plattform an die Masten der Fregatte. Modelschiff auf Deck 2 der Internationale Maritime Museum Hamburg.

On a traditional square rigged ship, the top is the platform at the upper end of each (lower) mast. The main purpose of the top is to anchor the shrouds of the topmast that extends above it. The futtock shrouds carry the load of the upper shrouds into the mast below. Furthermore the top served as a place for lookouts as long as they were not on the topgallant trestle trees. They could also be manned by snipers armed with muskets or rifles; Horatio Nelson was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar by a sniper firing from a fighting top of the french ship „Redoutable“.

Gun Crews

Matrosen bedienen die Kanonen an Bord der Fregatte. Schiffsmodell auf Deck 2, Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg.

Each gun on board of a ship of this size was manned by a crew of at least six. To simplify the gun drill each member was addressed by a number. Number One, the gun captain, was responsible for making the gun ready to fire; he aimed and fired the gun. Number Two aimed the gun with hand spikes and rope tackles; Three was loading the gun with cartridge and cannon ball after Four had sponged out the barrel to douse the sparks still left from the last firing. Five handled the ammunition and Six, the powder monkey, picked up new cartridges from the filling room in the powder room. Through gun drill co-ordinated gun crews have been the winning factor in many battles. Reloading and being ready to fire took sometimes only about two minutes. Each battery on a gun deck was commanded by a lieutenant.

Powder Monkeys

Ein sogenannte Pulveraffe rennt auf dem Deck der Fregatte. Schiffsmodell im Internationalesn Maritimen Museum Hamburg.

Powder monkeys were boys at the age of about ten years who carried the cartridges from the filling room to their respective gun. They were the youngest crew members. Due to their minimal size they were faster in the tightness between decks. (In case of women being on board they helped with these scores.)

Canon Balls

Kanonenkugel Werden am Bord der Fregatte transportiert. Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg.

Canon balls were carried to the guns during action. The heavy canon balls were stowed next to the keel to increase the stability of the ship. Due to the humidity in the lower body of a ship they got rusty and had to be cleaned and fattened prior to using them.

Additional Cover

Hängematten in Finknetze als zusätliche Schutz am Deck der Fregatte. Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg.

The sailors had to lash up their hammocks into a sausage-shaped roll. These rolls were stacked in orderly fashion in the hammock nettings, where they formed sort of a barricade around the decks against small arm fire.

Captain’s Privileges

Die Heckgalerie des Schiffes, ein Privileg des Kapitän der Fregatte. Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg.

The captain of the ship enjoyed special privileges. Besides his day cabin he owned a dining cabin and a sleeping cabin, which together covered the complete breadth of the ship on the quarter deck. The officers had their own little cabins and a common mess. The quarter gallery was reserved for the captain.