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Top 10 nautical drinking traditions

It was once famously noted that life on the high seas was nothing but “rum, sodomy and the lash” (but not actually by Churchill though he did say he wished he had said it).

The Royal Navy has strong links with the trade and drinks

The latter two pecadilloes aside, drink does permeate the history of the world’s fleets and navies, from rum-induced buccaneering to gunboat diplomacy armed with a pink gin and spotlessly white shorts.

Ocean-going trade and exploration has even led to the development of certain drinks and thanks to various nautical exploits introduced a few to foreign shores as well, Q.E.D.

There is also a reason that Vintners Hall in London is beside the Thames and not, like the majority of the guilds, tucked away in the back alleys of the city.

In the days before air freight and lorries the only way wine got to this country was via the seas and Vintners Hall was the principal off-loading point – in fact wine continues to be sent by sea to this day although the more romantic square-riggers have been replaced by the practical (if ugly) freighters of modern commercial shipping.

So with a final “yo ho ho and a bottle of rum”, keelhaul the crew and lets get cracking.

And if you know of any more nautical traditions, let us know.



God bless her and all who sail in her

Jackie-O christening a new ship

What better way to begin your life than being toasted with Champagne, particularly if you’re being served by someone as glamorous as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis?

If you’re a ship you may have had the pleasure. Sailors are a superstitious bunch and seek any excuse to bring greater fortune down upon them.

As the ship is the one thing that keeps all mariners from the Devil and the deep blue sea, it receives an inordinate amount of attention.

Mankind has always celebrated new ships with sacrifices and prayers. The Greeks, Romans and Egyptians would offer libations of wine and invoke the gods to protect them on their voyages.

Wine got less of a look in (in launching ceremonies at least) as Christianity spread and priests would bless the ship and sprinkle it with holy water – a more liquid celebration usually followed close behind.

The ceremony became more secular in England with the Royal Family or senior officers in the Royal Navy taking charge of launches.

However, for the tradition of gleefully smashing good wine over a ship one needs to look to America.

The first ship christening on record is of the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides”, which, as she slid off her rollers and into Boston Sound in 1797, had a bottle of Madeira broken over her bowsprit buy her captain, James Sever.

It must have done her some good because she stayed in service until 1881 and is still, officially, a registered warship of the United States Navy. She is brought out every year for a cruise around Boston harbour. Usually towed she sailed under her own power this year as well as on her 200th birthday in 1997.

As time progressed the ceremonies grew more elaborate and formalised. There would be bands, fireworks, cannon fire and flags everywhere.

In 1846 the sloop Germantown was christened with a bottle of wine by a Miss Lavinia Fanning Watson in Philadelphia.

Whisky was used to launch the USS Princeton and USS Raritan and brandy for the steam sloop San Jacinto.

Sometimes the veil slipped and the rather more appropriate (but ultimately less interesting) bottle of sea water was used. This was the case with famous ironclad CSS Virginia but, unlike the Madeira-soaked Constitution, she was destroyed by her crew at the end of the Civil War.

Perhaps the findings that moderate drinking helps you live longer is equally applicable to ships?

Either way it is Champagne that has become synonymous with ship launches. The first recorded instance of Champagne being used was in 1890 when the US Navy’s first steel battleship the USS Maine, was launched in New York.

Prohibition stopped the practice for a while, although the submarine V-6 was christened with cider and the USS California with a bottle of Napa Valley wine.

Champagne made a triumphant return however in 1922, when it flowed over the bow of the USS Trenton.

Since then major figures from the Queen to Jackie-O and the Duchess of Cambridge (the christeners are nearly always women) have broken or poured bottles of bubbly over new ships.

However, things don’t always go to plan and once or twice a hardy bottle has survived contact with the steel plate before it – testament perhaps to the bottle’s durability but a problem that can definitely be solved by lightweighting.

The bottle of Champagne intended for the launch of the Costa Concordia reportedly failed to break on contact and look what happened to that…

Drinking from the skulls of one’s enemies

As imagined in Asterix

A particularly bloodthirsty and terrifying idea that fits perfectly with the Viking predilection for killing, raping, looting and pillaging – but also unlikely to be true, in the context of the Vikings at least; if you came up against an older Germanic tribe or the Scythians you may not have been so lucky.

Confusion may have arisen due to the Scandinavian toast “skol” or because of the old Norse word for drinking cup, “skál”.

Furthermore, in the 17th century the Danish antiquary Ole Worm translated an old Norse line which said warriors drank from the horns of animals as “ex craniis eorum quos ceciderunt” (from the skulls of those they had slain), which didn’t help either.

One thing that cannot be doubted is the Viking’s superb seamanship, which led them to discover North America in about 1000 – 492 years before Columbus.

The named the area “Vinland” although here again there is a dispute over whether this quite literally meant “Wine-land” or whether, with a shorter “I” sound it actually referred to “meadow” or “pasture-land” instead.

Either way, the Vikings get a mention for the sheer fun of imagining their warriors sipping (Norse American?) wine out of skulls.

Singeing the beard of the King of Spain

Sherry is less violently imported today

In 1587 Sir Francis Drake, English privateer, swashbuckler and all-round schoolboy hero, set out to attack the Spanish fleet that King Philip II was preparing in Cadiz.

The fleet was being prepared for an invasion of England and Drake struck on the night of 29 April using fire ships to destroy close to 30 Spanish ships and delaying the eventual sailing of the Spanish Armada until the following year, which, of course, he went on to defeat as well.

While ransacking the port he not only destroyed many barrels and barrel staves that were needed as water casks, he also made off with 3,000 Sherry butts waiting on the docks.

Sherry had been imported since the middle ages and it was Sir John Falstaff’s beloved “sack”.

However, it was not until Drake returned to a hero’s welcome and the drink became a favourite of the court of Elizabeth I that its fortunes really took off.

Interestingly the aforementioned Columbus and Magellan both took Sherry with them as they explored the New World – presumably as it was one of the few liquids they knew or found that did not spoil on the long voyages of exploration of the 15th and 16th centuries – it was also extremely useful as ballast.

Raising a glass to the enemy

Hampshire and Pélican do battle

This story is a slight one-off and may again not be entirely true but it does demonstrate that naval officers have often ensured that they’ve taken to the waves with good wine to hand.

From 1688 to 1697, Europe was embroiled in a war between Louis XIV’s France and those that sought to curb his expansionist ambitions, the Grand Alliance of the Dutch Republic and Great Britain under William of Orange, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and various other German, Italian and Baltic states.

In North America (where the conflict was known as King William’s War) the fighting between the French and British colonists and their Indian allies devolved into a struggle over the lucrative fur trade.

France sought to expand its influence from the St Lawrence River down to the Mississippi basin and scored numerous successes, while Britain clung grimly on to its possessions as resources were diverted instead to defend the precious Caribbean Islands of Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda and the rest of the British West Indies.

One French success took place at the end of the war in 1697 when a solitary French warship got the better of three British ships in Hudson’s Bay.

The 44-gun French frigate, Pélican, commanded by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, was separated from its squadron in thick fog and set upon near the trading post York Factory by the slightly larger HMS Hampshire under the command of Captain Fletcher, and two smaller Hudson’s Bay Company boats, the Royal Hudson’s Bay and Dering.

After a running battle of a few hours Pélican stood firm and engaged Hampshire in a furious broadside battle.

Soon the Hampshire’s superiority in firepower began to show and, with the decks slick with blood, Captain Fletcher called on d’Iberville to surrender.

When d’Iberville refused Fletcher is said to have called for a glass of wine to be brought to him so that he might toast his rival’s bravery.

However, the very next French broadside detonated Hampshire’s powder magazine and she sank.

The two company ships took very little part in the engagement. Royal Hudson’s Bay struck its colours when Hampshire exploded and Dering beat a hasty retreat.

Pélican however was too badly damaged to pursue and, soon after d’Iberville occupied York Factory, she sank as well.

D’Iberville lived a remarkable life and after the war he led an expedition from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico down the Mississippi.

However, as with so many men serving in the West Indies he died of yellow fever in Havana in 1706.

Kiss me, Hardy

Nelson receives his mortal wound at Trafalgar

Britain’s greatest sailor was not a noted drinker and is perhaps better remembered for his affair with Lady Hamilton, fighting Britain’s enemies at battles such as the Nile, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Cape St Vincent and Copenhagen and losing various parts of his anatomy in the process.

However, after his death alcohol was essential to the preservation of his body on the trip back to England, if he was not often pickled in life he most certainly was in death.

As happened to General James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, Nelson was cut down by French fire in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar as the moment of his greatest triumph approached.

Pacing the quarterdeck of HMS Victory with Captain Hardy, Nelson was shot through the left shoulder by a French marksman in the rigging of the Redoutable.

The bullet cut through his spine and lodged below his right shoulder. Nelson died three hours later having heard that the battle was won.

His body was placed into a cask of brandy mixed with camphor and myrrh. The cask was then lashed to the main mast and the Victory, badly damaged during the battle, was towed to Gibraltar.

In Gibraltar Nelson’s body (still in the cask) was transferred to the rather splendidly and aptly named HMS Pickle and from there was brought to London.

He was placed in a lead-lined coffin filled with “spirits of wine” (a preservative made from brandy or other spirit that had been repeatedly distilled), this was then placed inside a wooden coffin made from the mast of the French battleship L’Orient, which Nelson had captured on the Nile.

After a procession from Greenwhich via the Admiralty, he was buried in St Pauls Cathedral on 6 January 1806.

Naval Toasts

A Royal Navy wardroom as imagined in Master and Commander

Staying with the Royal Navy, a true tradition that persists to this day includes a toast for each day of the week and a rare exception to the tradition of standing to toast the monarch.

Toasts in the wardroom (the naval equivalent of the officer’s mess) follow a set course.

Sunday: Absent friends

Monday: Our ships at sea

Tuesday: Our men

Wednesday: Ourselves (As no one else is likely to concern themselves with our welfare)

Thursday: A bloody war or a sickly season

Friday: A willing foe and sea-room

(And the famous one) Saturday: Wives and sweethearts (may they never meet)

The daily toasts follow the loyal toast which in the Navy is given sitting down. This apparently stems from both Charles II and William IV’s experiences aboard ships.

Charles II apparently complained of the lack of headroom aboard the Naseby (later Royal Charles) which had been sent to bring him back to England for the restoration of the Stuart monarchy and made everyone sit down

Meanwhile, William IV who served in the navy from 1785 to 1790 (and was a friend of Nelson) is said to have understood the difficulty of maintaining one’s balance in rough seas (and after copious amounts of alcohol) coupled with the continued limited headroom afforded by 19thcentury battleships as in the 17th.

Slide, never lift, the decanter around the table or you’ll incur the wrath of the captain or worse, spill the Port.

After cracking his skull once on standing to toast his father, George III, he therefore decreed that, unless a member of the Royal Family was present, something only likely to happen when at anchor, the toast could be made sitting down – the tradition is followed in other Commonwealth navies too.

The only other exception to the rule is in Lincoln Inn Fields in London, where the lawyers remain seated in remembrance of the dinner they threw for Charles II when all present were too drunk to stand.

Finally, when passing the Port at naval dinners always slide it along the table. This again stems from experience in heavy seas when an unsteady hand lifting the decanter could be caught unawares by a sudden roll, sending the liquid everywhere except where a naval officer considers it proper – in his glass and, latterly, inside him.

Up spirits!

While the officers inhabited the wardroom and made sure to keep good wine about them at all times, the crew would be indulging in the equally famous “grog”.

As was mentioned before in reference to Sir Francis Drake, ships need fresh water on their voyages.

However, it was nearly impossible to keep fresh and algae would quickly develop.

Beer or wine would therefore be added to make it not only palatable but also to kill some of the nastier germs and make it safe to drink.

However, with the beer ration pegged at nearly a gallon a day, finding space for it became an equal problem.

When England began to accrue colonies in the West Indies, such as Jamaica in 1655, rum gradually began to replace beer as the daily drink.

Two gills (a half pint) was the daily ration but problems with drunkenness led the Navy to issue a half pint of rum mixed with a quart of water served twice a day; once at noon and at the end of the working day in around the 1740s.

Lemon juice, added to cut down on scurvy, was added later. The name grog is often attributed to Admiral Edward Vernon, who helped introduce the practice, due to the grogham cloak that he used to wear earning him the nickname, “Old Grog”.

The Navy officially sanctioned the practice in its regulations of 1756 and the tradition continued until 1970.

On a sailor’s birthday, his shipmates might share their ration with him and tell him how much they were allowing him to take by saying: “Sippers” (just a sip), “gulpers” (a gulp) or “sandy bottoms” (drink it all).

Rum and the navy is celebrated by various brands, Lamb’s and Pusser’s being the obvious examples.

A more refined version of grog is also a recognised cocktail using rum, (clean) water that might be hot, lemon or lime juice or sometimes both and cinnamon or sugar.


Errol Flynn swashbuckles in the classic pirate flick “Captain Blood”

Finally, pirates. Where would any talk of drink and the high seas be without a discourse on buccaneers?

While the Royal Navy had grog, pirates had bumbo – which used less water (hence the reason it was more popular), nor did it have any citrus in as pirates had access to more fresh fruit and vegetables as their voyages were shorter and thus they suffered less from scurvy.

Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Ann Bonny, Mary Read, Long John Silver, Captain Blood, Henry Every, Bartholemew Roberts, William Kidd, John “Calico Jack” Rackham, the names of pirates real and fictitious is so evocative and the stories so wild it’s hard to know where to begin.

But perhaps as Captain Morgan remains one of the biggest rum brands in the world, a little look at its namesake is in order.

Diageo’s brand is named after the Welsh-born Henry Morgan, later an admiral in the Royal Navy, knighted by the king and the terror of the Spanish Main if ever there was one.

Morgan was born into a relatively prominent family in Monmouthshire in about 1635, but there is very little record of him until he turns up in Barbados in 1655 and then Jamaica in 1658 determined to raise himself up to “fame and fortune by his valour”.

His uncle, Edward Morgan, was lieutenant-governor of Jamaica after Charles II’s restoration and Henry married his daughter (his own cousin) in around 1660.

In 1663 he is thought to have commanded a ship under another privateer, Christopher Myngs.

In due course he took command of a fleet that had been issued with a letter of marque by the new governor of Jamaica which gave him permission to raid the king’s enemies, in effect, with impunity.

His most famous escapade is probably the capture of Porto Bello in Panama, at the time one of the most important Spanish cities in the New World.

Another attack on Panama in 1671 led to his arrest as a peace treaty had been signed between England and Spain in 1670.

Hauled back to London Morgan spoke in his own defence and claimed (perhaps truthfully) that he had had no knowledge of the peace.

The court evidently believed him and he was knighted in 1674 and returned to Jamaica as lieutenant-governor in 1675.

However, he fell out of favour with Charles in the 1680s and, once replaced by a political rival, reverted increasingly to the bottle, gaining a reputation for drunkenness and bawdy behaviour.

He died in 1688 and his grave in Palisadoes cemetery near Kingston was lost to the sea during the massive earthquake that struck Jamaica in 1692.

Diageo may claim that his name is merely meant to be evocative of life on the high seas but they also seem have taken some liberties with his appearance.

As imagined by Diageo


As he really was













Like grog, recipes for bumbo exist to this day. A simple one would be:

Two ounces of rum

One ounce of water

Two sugar cubes

¼ teaspoon of cinnamon

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

Mix and serve, no ice

Pink gins and Horse’s Necks

Pink Gin was developed by the Royal Navy

Alongside rum, Port, Sherry and wine, cocktails have become a staple of any naval officers diet.

The Royal Navy is generally credited with inventing Pink Gin, combining the sweeter Plymouth gin with Angostura bitters to make the latter more palatable.

The bitters were originally used as a cure for sea-sickness, among other maladies, by its inventor Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert.

He went on to found the House of Angostura in Trinidad & Tobago and sold his invention to passing sailors, most notably in the Royal Navy as the islands were part of the British Empire.

In the famous 1953 film The Cruel Sea, Lockhart and Ericson drink Pink Gins when they meet in London.

Having taken the recipe to London’s bars, Pink Gins suffered a decline in popularity in the navy and instead officers in a 1960s wardroom were more likely to be found drinking Horse’s Necks instead.

This American cocktail is a fairly straightforward mix of brandy (or bourbon) and ginger ale, garnished with a long lemon zest and served over ice.

This change in drinking style is evident in another naval film, the 1957 Yangtse Incident where an officer orders one in the wardroom.

At cocktail parties it is (or was) quite common for whole jugs of gin & tonics and horse’s necks to be mixed and offered to the guests.

The sea and the trade

A love of wine and lack of overland routes has meant that for centuries the trade in the UK has been tied to shipping companies to ensure delivery of their wines.

And it’s not a modern link nor a link exclusive to the UK either, with shipwrecks of Roman vessels containing amphorae that may have been used for wine having been found and the shipwrecked Champagne that was probably en route to Russia.

Various wars (usually with France) sometimes meant it was impossible to bring wines over and so gin or Portuguese wines would rise in popularity (and stay popular).

As mentioned earlier, greater loads and general modernisation means that most shipping these days is done in less glamorous or pretty vessels – but it is still shipped, that association hasn’t gone away at all nor is it likely to.

Some merchants and companies do still employ old packet boats for deliveries though. Laithwaite’s Wines shipped back several cases from Bordeaux on board the Irene a couple of years ago and auctioned the wine for charity.

Also out on the ocean wave is Dutch shipping company Fairtransport which, since 2009, has used the 32-metre brigantine Tres Hombres to move freight between Europe, the Americas and Caribbean.

Tres Hombres can carry 35 tonnes – around 12,000 bottles of wine – and the company hopes to construct a full fleet in time to ply back and forth, taking wine westwards and bringing back the company’s own-label rum from the old stomping grounds of the pirates and Royal Navy.

A reliance on wind power may be green but it is also slow, something the market may not stand for in this fast moving world.

Still, if the price of oil continues to climb perhaps it’s not too hard to envisage wine once again being shipped under canvas for short voyages such as across the channel.

The other problem with shipping long distances is heat, particularly across the Equator, and it was this that led of course to the creation of a new wine style.

The link between Madeira and sea voyages is made the wine what it is today. A useful last port of call for ships heading to the Caribbean, America or India, ships and fleets would stop at the island and take fresh supplies on board- including wine.

Life on a ship pitching and rolling and without any temperature control meant the wine would spoil so small measures of spirit or brandy would be added to prevent this on the long trips.

A couple of sweltering passes over the Equator in the ships hold and the resulting vinha da roda (wines that hadn’t been drunk on the voyage) were found to be rather good.

Initially producers would put barrels onto ships and sail them out to recreate the effects but this was not only expensive but potentially disastrous if their ship sank or was captured by pirates and so they created the famous estufas to mimic the ocean voyage instead and they still do.

Madeira had a special place in the fledgling United States, were it was used to toast the Declaration of Independence.

As the American wine industry had not yet begun, just as in England, wine was imported and as Madeira could survive the trip and was exempt from trading laws that stipulated any imported goods had to arrive on British merchantmen, it was the most popular wine.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that Captain Sever chose to christen his new ship with a bottle of Madeira. And on that note it would appear that we have come full circle in our round-up of drinks and the sea.

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