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Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest

2009 November 13
Let's face it. Most of us sailors head to the Caribbean for the caressing sun, turquoise sea, and because it's a place where we can act like we're 10 years old. It's all yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

I'd bet most of you have a few friends who are gray suit conservatives but break out of the mold when they arrive in Tortola, gladly abandoning their Scotch for a bottle of Pusser's or Mount Gay. I sure know it happens to me, and I'm not exactly what you might call a model of Republican reserve. I don't even have a Brooks Brothers regimental stripe tie to swap for that Hawaiian puka shell necklace, but nobody seems to care.

The St. Something Islands are for shaking loose and refueling on rum, which is a spirit that's hard to keep out of mind since just about everything connects back to its historical significance and local popularity. Even when you make a concerted effort not think about rum, it's there in your face. Just ask any sailor in the BVI who follows Drake Passage from Tortola to Virgin Gorda. You can't help but pass by box-shaped Dead Chest Island.

For those of you unfamiliar with Robert Lewis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, he penned a verse in the late 1800s entitled "Derelict" that was later renamed "Fifteen Men on A Dead Man's Chest." It's a bloody poem about sailors abandoned on the barren island by their infamous captain, Blackbeard, who left them only a barrel of rum. Those who didn't die from fighting drowned while trying to float on the barrel to neighboring Peter Island.

The shanty goes like this:

Fifteen men on a dead man's chest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum
Drink and the devil had done for the rest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
The mate was fixed by the bosun's pike
The bosun brained with a marlinspike
And cookey's throat was marked belike
It had been gripped by fingers ten;
And there they lay, all good dead men
Like break o'day in a boozing ken.
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

There are several more stanzas, but I'm sure you get point that when we sing the words "yo ho ho and a bottle of rum', it's to this morbid verse we pay tribute.

No matter the tragic circumstances, drinking rum has been intertwined with sailing for centuries. It was a sad day in 1970 when the British Navy eliminated the twice-a-day ration to its sailors. Before that, grog-basically rum diluted with three parts water-was as common aboard Her Majesty's fighting ships as gunpowder.

British Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, nicknamed Old Grog, introduced the tradition on Aug. 21, 1740, and with good reason. On long voyages, spoilage was a problem. Water stored in casks became slimy, grew algae, and tasted worse. The admiral ordered lime or lemon juice added to make it more palatable, and by default his grog-swilling crews were judged healthier than sailors from other Admiralty fleets. The routine of drinking citrus-flavored water led to Royal Navy sailors being referred to as Limeys.

Vernon had discovered that the properties of citrus, mostly vitamin C, helped ward off scurvy. His daily grog also did wonders for morale, even when the rum was watered down to keep the sailors from getting snookered and falling out of the yardarms or forgetting to lash down the cannons in a pitching sea.

It's probably important to note that about 90 years before Vernon allowed his sailors to sip grog, the British had conquered Jamaica. Read that: availability of cheap rum.

It soon became common for a half pint or "two gills" of rum to replace beer and brandy as the drink of choice. The Royal Navy practice of serving grog aboard ship was carried over into the Continental Navy and, ultimately, the U.S. Navy, but there it met a new attitude toward drinking. It seemed American sailors preferred rye to rum, prompting Robert Smith, then Secretary of the U.S. Navy, to make the change permanent in the early 1800s.

Nobody seemed to know why, since the Prohibition movement had not taken hold, but the U.S. Navy discontinued its daily "ration" of spirits in 1862, amid the Civil War. The British, however, held tight to their tradition of dispensing grog for another century.

Grog may have been the preferred drink among British sailors, but historians say pirates and merchantmen more often quaffed bumboo-rum with water, sugar and nutmeg. These days, the dark n' stormy seemingly has taken over among the pirate set, whether bluewater sailors or weekend round-the-mark racers.

No matter. It's all about sailing and rum, an intertwined relationship that often seems to manifest itself in bottles of Mount Gay. Just think about it. Not only can you learn the geography of Barbados from studying the label, you can gain prestige among fellow sailors by wearing a Mount Gay visored cap, faded from bright red to erotic pink. The rattier the hat, the more coveted. It's all part of rum culture.

After some friends and I had crossed the Gulf Stream on our way to Bermuda last year, we broke out a bottle of Mount Gay. With glasses poured to the brim all around, we cranked up the tunes through the on-deck speakers and toasted til the bottle was gone. It was loads of fun and one lyric still sounds loud and clear in my head: "Yo ho yo ho, a pirate's life for me."