Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Naval Inspection

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Naval Inspection

Article excerpt

VICTORIA MOORE on what keeps our sailors afloat

Sailors have the best words for everything. "Let's splice the main brace" sounds robust and hearty, even before you know that it means, "Let's have another tot of rum". But it also means, "Let's mend the big thick rope that's attached to the yard for trimming the sail", which was somewhat less fun. The main brace would be several inches thick and only a long splice (as opposed to a short one) would do the job. Since the ship could not be steered properly with a broken main brace, it called for the attentions of the best and nimblest-fingered seamen.

In the navy, rum would be issued as a reward to those who had done the hard work. Splicing the main brace then became the term used when extra rum was handed out. Now, it is reserved solely for special occasions -- "I expect we shall splice the main brace for the Queen's golden jubilee next year," says a spokesman -- and only the sovereign or the Admiralty can give the order. It is the only time that men can now get their mitts on free service rum.

Usually, the form is this: one-eighth of a pint of rum is issued to every officer and man over the age of 20 who wants it. Men who rank below petty officer have their rum mixed with water. Those not taking rum can have lemonade.

These days, navy rations for the over-18s consists of three 12oz cans of beer "or their equivalent" per day, and the men have to pay for these themselves if they want them. Yet for centuries rum was the thing. But why rum? Of all the drinks in all the world, how did rum become, for about 300 years, the navy's official drink? It was not always so. Before the 17th century, the ration of drink in the navy was an astonishing whole gallon of beer or wine a day.

But beer at sea was rank stuff. According to one man who led an appeal to improve what he called the navy's "pernicious provisions", the beer stood, "as abominably as the foul stagnant water which is pumped out of many cellars in London at the midnight hour and the sailors were under the necessity of shutting their eyes and stopping their breath by holding their noses before they could conquer their aversion so as to prevail upon themselves in their extreme necessities to drink it". …

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