Life at Sea, Going Ashore, a Mariners Life



In ancient times brewing, distilling and seafaring always went together, partly for health reasons. The Dutch VOC (United East India Company) was a trading colossus, the world’s first multinational company. Its dominance was such that between 1602 and 1796 its 1800 ships made nearly 4722 outward and 3359 return voyages to and from Asia.


The first share ever issued on September 6, 1602.

Durable beer was very important on board. Beer provided some nutrition and needed calories while not harboring harmful microorganisms. It could also soften during the long voyages the hard bread or hardtack, the bread that lasted forever.

The Dutch had effectively found a cure for scurvy in the 16th century, although at this early date it wasn’t understood why beer and fruits prevented scurvy. Each crew member got therefore per day about two liters of beer and a small shot of wine or Dutch gin or jenever, but the beer they drank was weak beer, only one percent of alcohol, nevertheless it served its purpose. The problem was that this beer had a limited shelf life, it should be consumed within three months after which the only alternative would be the often contaminated water supply. Rain water was an important source of drinking water then. Wine and jenever lasted much longer. Jenever could be bought by the crew. The Owners liked that because it was deducted from their pay at the end of the voyage.


An authentic measuring cup used for distributing an Oorlam.

With special occasions, for instance after a heavy storm, the crew got a shot of jenever, also on each Saturday. The crew would line up and the bosun would pour the drinks in a measuring cup. It seems that it was common practice for the bosun to dilute the jenever to increase his share. This company drink was called an ‘oorlam’ or a ‘schootaan’. The first name it seems came from the Indonesian language, the second was Dutch where ‘schoot’ stands for ‘sheet’ on a sailing ship, translated something like ‘tighten the (main)sheet’.

And now the funny part. When I sailed on a Van Ommeren tanker it was still custom that during the voyage before lunch time the officers got a complimentary company ‘oorlam’. Also in good tradition of hundreds of years on Saturdays the crew lined up to get a free drink poured by the third officer, bosuns still not to be trusted. At that time I didn’t know that this custom dated this far back


I like the title of this thread, and since we are delving into the past attach the following about the British Merchant Shipping Act, which I wrote for my website:

Everyone who went to sea on a British ship between 1894 and 1998 did so being regulated by the Merchant Shipping Act 1894. The version I have was printed on or about 1972, because the price is given in old money £1 10s 0d, and new money £1.50. There were a lot of advantages of going digital.

Strikingly the document runs to more than 300 pages. We used to sign on for two years after which it would be necessary for the ship operator to repatriate the crew, although should the ship return to home trade waters within that period it was allowed for crew members to sign off if they wished. The act contained the regulations for the provision of allotments so that seamen’s families would be supported while they were away, and in some companies the Second Mate did the ship’s accounts and before allowing a crew member to draw money would calculate “what he had in the ship” taking the allotments into account.

There are many really interesting sections in the act, incuding some real gems. Take page 89, for instance where destitute seamen are discussed, and bear in mind that this act was in force until 1998. Quote:

If any person being a native of any country in Asia or Africa, or of any island in the South Seas or the Pacific Ocean, or of any country not having a consular officer in the United Kingdom, is brought to the United Kingdom in a ship, British or foreign, as a seaman, and is left in the United Kingdom, and within six months of his being so left becomes chargeable upon the poor rate, or commits any act by reason whereof he is liable to be convicted as an idle and disorderly person, or any other act of vagrancy, the master or owner of the ship at the time of the seaman being so left as aforesaid, shall be liable to a fine not exceeding thirty pounds, unless he can show that the person left as aforesaid quitted the ship without the consent of the master, or that the master, owner or consignee, has afforded him due means of returning to his native country, or to the country in which he was shipped.

And I randomly opened a further page and found this:

Every emigrant ship shall be provided to the satisfaction of the emigration officer at the port of clearance with at least two privies, and with two additional privies on deck for every one hundred steerage passengers on board, and in ships carrying in as many as fifty female steerage passengers with at least two water closets under the poop or elsewhere on the upper deck to the satisfaction of the emigration officer for the exclusive use of women and young children. The privies shall be placed in equal numbers on each side of the ship, and need not in any case exceed twelve in number.

In 1906 some modifications to the Merchant Shipping Act were carried out in order to provide a scale of provisions for seafarers, and these were quite well known being appended to the Articles of Agreement and published in the Almanacs available at the time. Further modifications to the scale were carried out in 1957 and the result was published in Brown’s Nautical Almanac for 1962 as follows:

Article Allowance per week

Water 28 quarts
Soft bread 7 lb
Smoked ham or bacon 12 oz
Fresh meat 7 lb 4 oz
Fresh fish 7 lb 4 oz
Potatoes 7 lb
Eggs 4 per week (see note)
Dried vegetables ¼ lb
Flour 1 lb
Rice 6 oz
Oatmeal etc 6 oz
Tea 4 ½ oz
Coffee (not containing
more than 25% chickory) 2 oz
Cocoa (or cholcolate) 3 oz
Sugar 1 ½ lb
Milk Condensed 14 oz
Or dried 6 oz
Or homogenised 1 ¾ pints
Butter 10 ½ oz
Suet 2 oz
Cooking fat or oil or marge 4 oz
Marmalade, jam or syrup 8 oz
Cheese 5 oz
Pickles 3 oz
Bottled sauces 2 oz
Onions 8 oz
Dried fruit 3 oz
Tinned, frozen or fresh fruit 6 oz
Fine salt 2 oz
Mustard ¼ oz
Pepper ¼ oz
Curry powder ¼ oz

There are 36 items on the list plus a number of notes, mostly too boring to be included here, but I found my attention drawn to the provision of eggs, which back in the 1960s were still a fairly rare commodity. Blue Star ships were said to provide eggs every day, but most of us were limited to one a week. Hence I was surprised to see that the scale requires that four eggs should be issued during the first fortnight of the voyage and two eggs for each week thereafter. For a long time it therefore seems that many of us were short changed by an egg a week.

Some other quantities seem quite high by today’s standards. 7lb 4oz of fresh meat per week is quite a lot, the equivalent of a medium sized steak a day although it is pointed out that on ships without refrigeration it may be unwise to issue fresh meat if it is more than 15 days old. It also says that the weight of the meat may include bone which provides a window of opportunity for the more unscrupulous ship owners.

You might also be surprised to learn that between 1894 and 1900 there had been 150 questions raised in the Houses of Parliament about the act, ranging from questions about “lascar accommodation on P&O vessels” to the patrolling of the Western Isles herring fisheries by the fishery cruisers. And the questions in the house go on into the 20thcentury with such frequency and in such detail that one wonders how they had time to do anything else.


Apart from the food also something has to be said about the drinking habits on board. When I was at sea on Dutch ships for officers there were no restrictions regarding the use of alcoholic beverages except for one golden rule, that was that when you came on watch intoxicated or drank alcohol, any type, during watch time you were fired on the spot. That rule proved to be very effective as during my years at sea I never met a situation that somebody was fired for that reason.

Beer, mostly Heineken, was stored by the shipping company. Everybody, except the officers, were allowed two or three beers per day and no hard liquor for the crew except the Oorlam on Saturdays on board Van Ommeren tankers. Officers could order drinks as they saw fit. Later with Shell Tankers the officers had to store their supply of jenever for the voyage privately. I normally ordered 144 bottles of Blankenheym - Nolet old Dutch jenever which were put in the store room behind lock and seal.

That number looks like a lot but the voyages then where much longer. For instance I sailed over 2 years on one Shell tanker. If you had to leave the ship earlier then expected there were always more than enough good samaritans who were so kind as to relieve you of the remnants. Before lunch and dinner times we usually rolled the dice. If you won you had free drinks, if not it would cost you. Sometimes we supplemented our supplies with Trinidad rum in 20 liter wicker bottles in exchange for a carton of cigarettes.

The situation on for instance Norwegian ships was quite different as no alcohol in any form was allowed. That led to absurd situations when our Norwegian brethren went ashore. In Curaçao there was just outside the main gate a Seamen’s recreational facility with a bar with the then famous Cuba Libre, a small shop, billiards and table tennis tables etc. When a Norwegian ship arrived the bar was soon flooded with the crew. We had timed it that after about 20 minutes the first Norwegian fell off his bar stool, totally drunk. They could not hold their liquor very well, out of practice. The next predictable phase was that they started to fight amongst each other. This was our cue to leave as next, we knew, they would extend the fight to everybody present including the black bar men. These guys joined happily the fight with swinging billiard queues. After that the guards on the gate stepped in with their long batons. Funny was that most of them had removed their heavy army type boots. As they said later, when we asked, that they didn’t want to kill anybody…

I understand that nowadays that most ships are ‘dry’ ships also. Rule upon rule. Rules made by people ashore who would probably be offended very much if their boss ordered them not to drink in their free time, weekends included.


Here’s a pretty good site for swl’ers:


Yeah. The Norwegians were consistent. I have seen them bail off bar stools everywhere.


Very good and thanks ! I notice Universal Radio has a banner ad there too. They are just a few hours up the road from me. RC.Joe