Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Sailing, Sailing O’er the Ocean Blue . . .

In any century, tall ships take one’s breath away.
I’m stuck learning stuff I really don’t want to have to learn (a sensation that my students are no doubt familiar with) now that Anne is leaving England via watercraft.  There’s a great lore around tall ships and a very picky vocabulary, and there’s nothing for it but to master at least the rudiments.  Sigh.

So for instance, if Anne is leaning over the railing looking at the water -- what’s that railing called?  That’s not the gunwale, is it?  I think “gunwale” would apply to the upper lip of a smaller craft.  I asked Dr. Google, who helpfully supplied me with many diagrams of ships, the different parts labelled, but none had the name of the railing thing.

It’s hard to track down the details that I need to know.  For instance, how do you get on a ship, in the 17th century?  A gangway, Love Boat-style?  Or do the passengers have to mount some sort of ladder affair?  I decided it had to be a gangway, and with as little description as possible (the less to err) I put one in.  I spent a couple of hours yesterday trawling the internet trying to track down the answer to that question, and I’ve got a couple of book titles to check as well, if I feel highly inspired down the road to figure it out.

And what about the sleeping arrangements?  The replica of the Mayflower has bunks for its passengers, but if that was so, I sure hope they had seat belts for those things.  Can you imagine being in a bunk when a storm hit?  A storm at sea was like a roller coaster.  British sailors were killed by being thrown out of their bunks until the British Navy switched to hammocks around 1600.  These were the deep hammocks, so you’re in a sort of cocoon when you’re inside them.  Even if the ship is pitching, you’re still secure, since the hammock would sway with the motion and the occupant would remain balanced.

My puritans had to be in hammocks.  Hammocks were safer and cheaper than bunks.  One of the chief drawbacks would be that you’d sleep cold in a hammock, and it was cold out at sea.  (If you’ve ever camped in cold weather and foolishly slept on an air mattress -- you know what a hammock on the ocean would be like.)  But you’d have some sort of padding in the bottom of your hammock (probably a straw-filled mattress) to help with that.

I was pleased to learn that the Arbella, Anne’s ship, was a large ship, stately even, with a cargo hold twice the size of the Mayflower’s.  She had an eagle on her prow and three masts.  Most of the people were housed belowdecks, on a middle deck that was above the hold.  Likely Anne was not there, though.  Some makeshift cabins were constructed on the main deck for the ladies of high rank.  Surely one of those ladies was Arbella Fiennes Clinton Johnson, daughter and sister of earls and wife of one of the most prominent colonists -- and for whom the boat was named.  Arbella’s family owned Sempringham, the manor where Anne spent so many years of her girlhood.  I would imagine that a few ladies housed with Arbella to wait on her (they brought England with them, at least at first).  The logical choices for that role would be Anne and her mother. I think men and women slept separately on this trip -- even married couples -- though I’m not sure.

The problem with these cabins was that if the Arbella’s guns had to be fired -- and she was bristling with weapons -- the cabins would have to be taken down or else they would be in the way of the gun sights.  (So these were cannons on the main deck, I suppose).  And that did happen, in the early days of the voyage.  Some of the women’s stuff was tossed in the sea so it would not be ignited by any flaming arrows that the enemy might send over.  Maybe the gentlewomen might have been better off living belowdecks; at least they would not have lost some of their blankets into the English Channel.


  1. Ha ha. Interesting post. A friend in my writer's group writes a lot about ships and pirates and such. You might find her blog helpful.

    1. I took a look, Helen -- it’s a cool blog.

  2. I sail. On my boat I call it a railing. Very nice blog.

  3. And it was probably called a railing 400 years ago, too. Last week I found that explorer John Smith wrote something that he called “A Sea Grammar” that appears to go over the parts of the sailing ship. I haven’t read it yet; it’s a little intimidating. But I bet at the end of the day (and after all that work), the thing is called a railing.