Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Tools of the Trade: Keeping Clean

In this modern age of fiberglass, garden hoses and soogee, it is sometimes hard for today’s sailor to imagine just how much work keeping a wooden ship, well, ship-shape really was. The daily, backbreaking process of scrubbing the decks, gunnels and brass have been nicely – if only briefly – illustrated in movies like Mutiny on the Bounty and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. But what were those guys actually doing on their hands and knees, and what were they doing it with? Glad you asked.

The cleaning of ships has had its own language since before the 1700s. Bibles, prayer books, holy stones, all of these things were better known aboard ship for the religious practice of cleaning than as a source of spiritual guidance. The need for such attention is made abundantly clear in this quote from Captain George Anson aboard HMS Centurion off the coast of Africa in 1732:

We scraped our decks and gave our ship a thorough cleaning; then smoked it between decks, and after all washed every part well with vinegar. These operations were extremely necessary for correcting the noisesome stench on board, destroying the vermin; for from the number of our men, and the heat of the climate, both these nuisances had increased upon us to a very loathsome degree.

One can almost smell the humid, congested reek of Captain Anson’s man-of-war.

By the time the right honorable captain was writing about cleaning his ship, it was beginning to dawn on people that keeping clean, both in body and environment, would prevent disease. Since nothing is more troubling when one has a limited workforce as having able bodies made unable to contribute by illness, the sailors’ mania for cleanliness makes perfect sense. By the turn of the 19th century it was also a matter of pure pride to present a smooth, clean deck, gleaming brass and white sails even to the humblest of visitors.

Captain Anson’s men would have scraped Centurion’s decks with sand brought onto the ship in barrels and replenished in port or, in smaller coastal vessels, literally brought up from the ocean floor. The sand was watered to create a loose mud and then scrubbed over the deck with stones. The stones were of varying sizes; bibles were the largest, about the size of a fireplace brick, and were used for the open spaces away from masts, fittings and rails. Next in size were prayer books, which fit comfortably in one hand and were approximately the size of a modern kitchen sponge. These were used closer to the fittings mentioned. Finally, the holy stones were the size of river rocks and functioned for detail work usually done on Friday or Saturday aboard Royal Navy and U.S. Navy ships. Why the stones’ names referenced religion is still something of a mystery, although folklore has it that they were originally taken from old headstones in English churchyards.

At the end of the process, the deck was rinsed and then swabbed with rope-yarn mops that were initially hand held but eventually had poles attached for convenience. The entire process was to be completed before the ship’s day started when noon was called from the quarterdeck, so an early start in the morning watch around four or five AM was not unusual.

Needless to say, all this scrubbing was hard on both ship and men. Though the process made the deck white as clouds, it also degraded the wood to a point of structural failure. Replacement of decks was an ongoing task when at home. Men gained bone spurs and arthritis for their trouble, particularly in their knees. Reference to the pain of “praying” aka scrubbing the deck was a common gripe. The seaman and writer Felix Riesenberg, who served aboard U.S. ships in the late 19th century, mentioned a clever solution for this problem used aboard the A.J. Fuller:

To overcome the hardness of the deck, we rigged up pieces of board to which three cleats were nailed and a strip of old canvas stretched over them.

These clever contraptions, which were something like little hammocks for a sailor’s knees, could easily be moved along as the men went from bow to stern each morning. Hands and arms were also left raw and chapped by the process; most men begged a bit of slush – cooking grease – from the cook to ease this problem.

So take note, modern sailor; there’s always hard work aboard us but our ancestors – as is so often the case – had a far more difficult time of cleaning their wooden worlds.

Also, just in case you were wondering what soogee is, here is Peter H. Spectre’s easy to make and easy to apply recipe with instructions:

Add a cup of detergent and a cup of bleach to a pail of fresh, hot water. Dip a stiff brush in the soogee and wash down. Clean up with a cotton mop, then flush with cold water.

And when you’re done, Brethren, have a piece of fruit or perhaps a mug o’ grog; it is Scurvy Awareness Day after all…

Header: Admiral Farragut on board USS Hartford via Navy History (impressive decks fit for America’s first Admiral)


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I had already googled "soogee" before I got to the recipe at the end of the post.

I had my orange juice for breakfast and some fruit for lunch, but I guess a margarita would work too. No scurvy for me, thanks...

Pauline said...

Oh ye of little faith!

And yes, in the immortal words of RuPaul: "Scurvy; I'll never go through that again."