Home . Articles . Columns & Blogs . Full and By . Sailing history is soaked in booze for good, healthy reasons

Sailing history is soaked in booze for good, healthy reasons

2008 September 17
My crew and I have made a lot of sailors' repairs during races, including fashioning a rather creative splint for a badly kinked boom, but we've never spliced the main brace, and not just because we don't have a main brace.

Braces are lines used to trim the angle of the yards of square sails, but "splice the main brace" is not an order to perform an act of marlinespike seamanship, but rather a call to have an alcoholic drink.

It's not out of intolerance for the imbibing of beer, wine or spirits (perish the thought) that I don't issue that order. It's that having those drinks implies relaxation, which is not something to be encouraged during a sailboat race.

This is pretty much the norm on seriously raced boats, which goes to show you how far we sailors have strayed from our roots. Everyone knows sailing history is soaked
in booze.

Though this led to certain stereotypes-"Congress is spending like a bunch of drunken sailors," bloggers fulminated last year-there were good reasons to mix alcohol with sea water. English Navy ships may have had hearts of oak, but it could have been the rum in the veins of their sailors that kept them dominant on the seas for so long.

Life was hell on those ships, and that was when they weren't fighting. When the cannons were firing and the cannonballs, grapeshot, chain, broken spars and splinters were flying, it was worse than hell. The daily ration of rum or its somewhat watered down variant grog probably didn't make that enjoyable, but it helps explain the low incidence of mutiny on his or her majesty's ships.

It might also have supplied some of the courage needed to board an enemy ship or crawl to the end of a yardarm in a sleeting Cape Horn gale. It even eased everyday chores. Splicing the main brace-a 5-inch thick line on some ships- was such an onerous job that the crew often got an extra ration of rum after completing it, which explains the term's alternate definition.

Still, it's not quite fair that rum has been awarded the status of the official sailors' drink. Rightfully that honor belongs to beer.
Think of beer as the Gatorade of Nelson's navy-a healthful alternative to water, much of which was not fit to drink on land, much less at sea. Put into stinky casks and stored in the holds of ships, this nasty stew of germs and parasites became a poison that could fell a crew faster than a French broadside. To avoid that, the navy turned to one of man's greatest inventions-beer.

The purifying effect of alcohol made beer a safe way to drink what was once water. Sailors drank beer (often "small beer" brewed to have less alcohol than standard beer, the "lite" beer of the day) with breakfast-the better to drown the weevils consumed with the hardtack- and at other times during the day, sometimes even in company with the ration of rum, thereby perhaps pioneering the shot-and-a-beer drink known as a boilermaker that has a following of hardy imbibers to this day.

There's more to this story, and if you're up to it you can find it in a book that is livelier reading than its clumsy title would suggest-The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic-and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World.

Author Steven Johnson goes beyond making the point that when drinking water was the source of deadly cholera and dysentery, "The solution was to drink alcohol." He maintains that the need of our ancestors to drink that alcohol centuries ago has had lasting effects on all of us, and he's not talking about a hangover.

The people who were best able to tolerate alcohol were hardy survivors who strengthened the gene pool, he writes. Thus: "Most of the world's population today is made up of descendants of those early beer drinkers, and we have largely inherited their genetic tolerance for alcohol."

Political columnist George Will read the book, concluded, "Beer is a health food" and enlisted the words of Benjamin Franklin to support the claim-"Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

I'll go along with Franklin, Will and Johnson, though it seems to me the genetic ability to hold our liquor has been passed on selectively, based on what I've seen in post-race celebrations.

Rum companies have been generous in their support of sailboat racing in smart marketing efforts to reinforce the idea that rum is the official sailor's drink. Mount Gay has been particularly aggressive. One of the qualities of that brand is that it's smooth and mellow and goes down easy and often. (I liked Mount Gay better when I discovered it in the Windward Islands eons ago for a buck and half a liter; today I prefer the more challenging Pusser's, whose bracing taste leaves no doubt you're quaffing a strong alcoholic beverage.)

Besides giving sailors red hats, Mount Gay nurtures the affection of sailors by putting on post-race parties where the rum is free. I attended one that was extended by a delay in computing racing results. As the rum flowed unabated it became evident that the forebears of some of the drinkers had not consumed enough beer to properly fortify the booze tolerance gene.

A band was making some island type music, but lusty choruses of the "Drunken Sailor" sea chanty would have been more fitting. It got to the point where police hauled a few incapacitated sailors away in garden carts.

So, what shall we do with the drunken sailor?

Dump him on the compost heap,
Early in the morning.