Life as a Sailor


The jobs of a seaman aboard a schooner were many. Most merchant schooners carried a Captain or Sailing Master, who was sometimes the owner of the vessel. The mate was second-in-command, and was usually responsible for a crew of 3 - 4 seamen and a cabin boy. Any one of these people could assume the role of pilot, and the boy often acted as cook, although some vessels had a full-time cook on board. The "boy" was just a title - the person could be a grown man or woman.


he crew's duties required a lot of muscle, for raising the masts, hoisting the anchor, and manning the winches that loaded cargo on board. You also would not want to be afraid of heights!

A crew member's day was divided into watches, with each crew member alternating four hour on and four hours off. The night watches were taxing on the seamen, who often had trouble staying awake.

When they were not sailing, the seamen had to help maintain the ship. The rigging had to be repaired, and the masts had to be oiled. The flax sails also had to be repaired and maintained. Every ship, no matter how well built, still took on water, so the ship had to be pumped every day. And, at least once a year, the ship was re-caulked, tarred and painted.

Military Ships / Gun Loading

The regular duties of a seaman were increased if the vessel was in military service. In addition to their regular positions, some men on military vessels were assigned to a gun. In times of war, the gun crew spent the night sleeping beside their gun (as did Ned Myers and his guncrew). The Scourge carried enough men to fire all the guns on one side of the ship. Each gun crew had a captain; on the night that the Scourge capsized, Ned Myers was a gun crew captain. The gun captain commanded the crew on where to point the gun and when to fire, with each crew member being assigned a specific role in the loading and firing sequence. Some of the steps in this sequence would include:

  • Loosing the gun from its lashings.
  • Removing the tompion.
  • Loading the gun by pushing a flannel bag of gunpowder into the bore, followed by a shot, and finally a wad to prevent the shot from rolling out. This would be rammed as tightly as possible into the gun.

Once loaded, the gun was then "run out" of the gunport (each cannon could roll or slide back onto the deck for loading).

The cartridge was pricked by a wire through the touch-hole on the top of the cannon, and then the touch-hole itself was filled with gun powder.

Once the gun was aimed, the gun's captain fired it by touching a glowing match to the touch hole, being sure to leap away from the gun to avoid the recoil after the gun fired.

After firing, the gun was rolled back onto the deck and "sponged" to extinguish any remaining fire (if fire remained, the gun could go off before the loading sequence was complete).

Then the gun could be loaded again.


Captains had to feed and provision their crews. On March 15, 1812, Commodore Woolsey ordered food for the men stationed at Sackets Harbor. For a year's worth of supplies for 120 men, he ordered:

"74 barrels of beef, 70 barrels of pork, 24 barrels of flour, 27500 pounds of bread, 1600 pounds of cheese, 650 pounds of butter, 2064 gallons of whiskey, 286 gallons of vinegar and 72 bushels of beans."


The crew of the Hamilton and Scourge had to purchase their "slops", or working uniforms, from the ship's purser. Many sailors made their own clothes, because the purser was allowed to mark up the cost of slop clothing and keep the profit for himself. A contemporary list of slop clothing included: common hats, pea jackets, cloth jackets, duck jackets, cloth and duck trousers, duck frocks, Guernsey frocks, check shirts, shoes, stockings, blankets, mattresses.

Entertainment and Seasonal Activities

In the winter, when the lake was frozen, sailing activities were at a standstill. The ships were wintered by dismantling the riggings and covering the hulls of the ship with planks to keep off the snow and preserve the decks.

According to Ned Myers, "the winter lasted more than four months, and we made good times of it. We often went after wood, and occasionally we knocked over a deer. We had a target out on the lake, and this we practices on, making ourselves rather expert cannoneers. Now and then they rowed us out on a false alarm, but I know of no serious attempts being made by the enemy to molest us."

At other times in the year, there were still moments of repose and entertainment, but the sailors and commanding officers found that entertaining in the manner to which they were accustomed was more difficult in this frontier wilderness.

When the Oneida was launched on March 31, 1809, a ball was held which exemplifies the problems:

"Building a brig hundreds of miles from a ship-yard was a trifle compared to the attempt to give a ball in the wilderness. True, one fiddle and a half a dozen officers were something to open the ball with; refreshments and a military ball-room might also be hoped for, but where, pray, were the ladies to come from? The officers declared that they would not dance with each other. Ladies must be found .... At length, by dint of sending boats miles in one direction, and carts miles in another, the feat was accomplished; ladies were invited, and ladies accepted."


Virtual History - Visit the Hamilton Civic Museums to learn more about upcoming special events and exhibitions.

Support provided by the Government of Canada - The archaeology of this site was made possible by the generous support of Parks Canada.

Visiting Ontario - When you plan your trip to Hamilton Civic Museums, see what else Ontario has to offer.