Sailing the Flagship: The Knots that Won Trafalgar

By Olivia Cochran, Education Intern at The Mariners’ Museum & Park, Newport News, Virginia

The following exhibition was inspired by my internship at The Mariners’ Museum & Park.

Explore and learn more about Lord Nelson, knots and rigging, the Royal Navy, and the lives of sailors at sea!

“The Nelson Touch”

“When I came to explain to them the Nelson Touch, it was like an electric shock. Some shed tears, all approved – ‘it was new- it was singular –it was simple!’…” –Lord Horatio Nelson

Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Horatio Nelson knew how to bend a crowd. His words and his actions exuded confidence and meaning. His crews knew that they would prevail in any battle with Nelson as their admiral. Created by Lord Nelson himself, the term “Nelson Touch” originally referred to his battle plan at Trafalgar, but has since come to represent the leadership, honor, and legacy that Nelson embodied.

It was new…

Much of Lord Nelson’s leadership was innovative. He took risks in battle and created new ways to lead a fleet. Nelson had served under many different captains and admirals that micro-managed their fleets and he realized how difficult it was to control every single ship in the heat of battle. He preferred a more decentralized command that is exemplified by his “Nelson Touch.” In his book, Seize the Fire, Adam Nicolson states that Nelson’s method of command is comprised of the three elements of the modern notion of honor: inspiration, rigor, and inclusiveness. He led his crews by example, showing compassion when needed and courage when demanded.

Even through his own physical and emotional injuries he inspired his men to do their duty for England. Lastly, Nelson reinvented communication between officers. As a result of the difficulty communicating between ships in the line of battle, Nelson would often divulge his battle plan to his captains so they could make decisions on their own in the thick fog of battle. This allowed miscommunication to be avoided and created a more inclusive atmosphere for the officers under Nelson’s command.

It was singular…

One of the main reasons why Nelson’s men respected him so much was because Nelson respected them. He often referred to his crew as “lads” and a “Band of Brothers”, quoting the battle speech Shakespeare wrote in Henry V:

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he today that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother…”

Nelson loved his captains, because he felt that a naval officer was a “gentleman and acts with honor, because he does his duty” in defeating the enemy. By having courage in battle, Nelson’s comrades were validating their honor, and therefore earning his respect.

Not only were the officers under the Vice-Admiral respected, but Nelson treated his whole crew fairly. There was little difference between seamen and officers, because no one was above the law if the law was broken. Nelson expected everyone to respect the chain of command and to respect each other. Nelson’s impartial discipline pleased his seamen, who felt they were held to the same esteem as the officers on board. He had realized that the sailors aboard his ship were scarcely rewarded for risking their lives for God, king, and country and he treated his “brave fellows” with compassion and respect.

It was simple…

The “Nelson Touch” was a way to keep things simple. There is nothing efficient about giving signals from one ship to all other ships to follow in battle, especially when there is fog from cannon fire, shrapnel whizzing everywhere, and a constant threat of death all around. The “Nelson Touch” allowed for a wide, separated togetherness, meaning Nelson gave the officers a central goal and vision, but expected the captains to fulfill the plan on how they would see fit.

Nicolson compares the “Nelson Touch” to a form of capitalism where Nelson created the market and the plan of attack, but his captains were to execute the plan well and efficiently. His captains were to see themselves as entrepreneurs of battle, relying on their own zeal. Nicolson also describes the “Nelson Touch” as a style of attack that encompassed:

  • Sharing the plan with the officers
  • Creating an air of confidence among the crews
  • Giving officers the initiative in battle, or command over one of the divisions
  • Allowing for structured spontaneity in battle where Nelson’s fleet would enter pell-mell into battle in order to divide the enemy and engage them individually in intimate combat

This approach to battle is one of the the many reasons why Lord Nelson is so fascinating to military scholars and the British public. Nelson’s strategy was smart, it was new, singular, and simple.

Lord Nelson sharing his battle plans with his officers before Trafalgar

The Proof is in the Rigging

During my internship at The Mariners’ Museum and Park, I assisted with many camps and programs for kids ages 18 months to 12. Along with the work I completed in the camps, I was able to create an education station for the museum. Education stations are tables throughout the museum manned by the museum’s volunteers (also known as docents), whereby visitors of the museum can stop and learn a little more about an exhibit. My education station was in the “Nelson’s Touch” exhibit, entitled “The Knots that Won Trafalgar.” The station addressed the little details of war, like how the great ships-of-the-line worked, and more specifically the rigging and their underrated knots. My knots station consisted of:

  • Fun facts about the HMS Victory, including a labeled diagram
  • Instructions on tying 9 different knots
  • A knot tying board for visitors to practice tying various boating knots

A page from my Knotbook used in the Education Station

The rigging of a tall ship is an important aspect in how the ship works, and just as the rigging is essential to a ship’s functioning, knots are essential to the rigging. The safe and secure tying of knots on a ship is important to the safety of the crew. It is fair to say that knots are just as important as the guns resting in the gun deck. For this reason my education station focused on the knots and how to tie them. However, before one delves into the inner workings of a knot, it is good to understand the material being knotted.

The Case

C. Longridge details the extensive process for making the long cords of rope used on one of Nelson’s ships in his book, The Anatomy of Nelson’s Ships. The lines, or rope, on a ship are made of many strands, which are made of even more yarns. The yarns are the base of any rope on a ship, and are made of vegetable fibers, like hemp, that have been twisted up to make yarns. These yarns are then twisted into a strand, and the strands into rope. Longridge points out that different types of ropes require multiple numbers of yarns and strands to be twisted in different directions in order to create the various types of cordage. These ropes are then used for two types of rigging: standing rigging and running rigging.

Both the standing and running rigging are vital to the overall functionality of the ship. In fact, if the Admiral’s cabin was the brain of the ship, the standing rigging would be considered the skeleton and the running rigging the veins. Rigging with minimal movement is considered the standing rigging and consists of stays and shrouds. The stays are found in the center of the ship and support the masts from the fore side, while the shrouds run down and out from the mast to give them even more support.

Although these ropes can be tightened if slacked, they are permanent, residing in the same place for the life of the ship. The running rigging is a lot more mobile than the standing rigging. The ropes used in the running rigging are referred to as lines and are used to alter the position of the sails and spars while sailing. It is a combination of the helmsman’s work at the ship’s wheel, the landsmen’s work on deck, heaving the lines to move the yards, and the seamen’s work up in the yards, trimming and making the sails that make a tall ship move. Without the rigging and the men that move them, the ship would be fairly useless in battle.

The Proof

In Gibson’s Knots and How to Tie Them, he explains to readers that if they cannot tie good knots, then they should tie a lot of them! When knots are used for survival, recreation, or work it is important for them to be tied correctly and securely. Moreover, there are many different types of knots that have different uses in different situations. A knot is broken into three fundamental groups: knots, bends, and hitches.

  • Knots are ties made in a rope either at the end (stopper knot) or in the middle of a rope
  • Bends join two ropes into one longer rope, and should be strong enough to carry a load as one rope
    • Bends are just stronger knots
  • Hitches are used to attach a rope to something; whether it’s a post, ring, or a cleat.
    • Hitches can lead to knots and knots to hitches

From these three fundamental knots an array of knots can be created. Gibson’s book labels a few, but many websites, like Animated Knots by Grog, and books, such as Ashley’s Book of Knots by Clifford W. Ashley, show over a hundred different knots and their uses. From rock climbing to fishing and everything in between, there is a knot for it.

All different types of knots are utilized daily on a ship. For example, the stays and shrouds on a ship depend heavily on securely tied bends, knots, and hitches to help provide support and strength to the masts for the life of the ship. The ratlines and shrouds coming off the sides of the masts are the only way that seaman can climb up to fix the sails. Even the speed of the ship is determined by using knots. Among the miles of cordage aboard a tall ship there are thousands of knots that contribute to the efficient running of the ship.

His Majesty’s Royal Navy

An empire like Great Britain during the 18th century needed a military presence that could live up to its size. Although the mainland is only an island that is smaller than the state of California, Britain’s control was felt on almost every continent. In the 18th century, maritime activity was central to many aspects of British society. Sea power enabled Britain to dominate world trade and acquire an empire. The Royal Navy was a massive organization and by the 1800s had amassed a reputation to match. The Royal Navy had become the best in the world, with swift ships, highly skilled officers, and many victories. Although not without fault, the Navy played an important part in Great Britain’s defense system for home, trade, and territorial expansion.

The Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom

How It Works: The Bureaucracy

In his book, A Sea of Words, Dean King compares climbing the mast of a ship to extend the horizon at sea to climbing up the hierarchy of command to view the wider operations of the Navy. At the top of the hierarchy the global view is not seen from a ship, but rather from London. London was the headquarters of the Royal Naval operation. At the head of it all sat the King, his cabinet, and Parliament.

The British Crown played a substantial role in the daily affairs of the Royal Navy. He possessed great control over national policy and appointed the ministers to his cabinet who exercised the executive power of government in the name of the king and through his authority, as well as through other means provided by Parliament. While Parliament was the primary financial policy maker and a representative force in government, the executives in British politics “dealt with questions of broad naval policy and strategy, including finance, ship construction, and logistical support.” However, rarely did military commands come from this level of the hierarchy, and if they did, they were broad orders for the admiralty to relay to the lower levels of command.

Next in command were the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, who carried the traditional powers and functions that had been given to the office of Lord High Admiral; however, no one person had remained in that position since 1709. As a result, the powers of the Lord High Admiral were vested to a board of seven men who served as the “Commissioners for Executing the Office of Lord High Admiral,” or the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty for short. Three of these seven men were usually naval officers, or “professional Lords,” while the rest were civilians, or “civil Lords.” Even within this level of command a caste system existed with the First lord at the top who was usually a civilian member of the House of Lords. Next was the First Secretary of the Admiralty, a civilian member from the House of Commons whose job was to communicate the decisions of the commissioners to the naval officers in the fleet. The rest of the Lords helped make decisions on the strategic desires of the King and Parliament.

The fourth level of command included the commissioned and warranted Sea officers, which places first in the “lengthiest path to promotion” category. These sea officers came from every class of society. Promotion was generally based on one’s popularity among their senior officers and patronage. All officers had written documents that gave them their rank and authority. The more important officers received commissions from the admiralty, while less important officers, i.e. surgeons and cooks, received warrants from the Navy Board. With each assignment an officer received a new commission or warrant.

Man Power: The Hierarchy


Sir Peter Parker (1721-1811), Admiral of the Fleet

Admirals were at the top of the hierarchical ladder as far as military officers go, more specifically the Admiral of the Red. Like many of the organizations mentioned earlier in this article, there was a path to promotion within the admiralty. This path is denoted by the flags they hung from the masts of their ship. As a result of this flag system, admirals were referred to as flag officers and their ships were called flagships. Their flagship served as the headquarters for their fleet at sea, and was usually a 3-decked 1st rate ship-of-the-line. The different ranks of the admiralty are broken into nine titles; each one is assigned one of three colors.


The position of Admiral was not a necessary step for promotion. If a Captain was given temporary command over a squadron he was then considered a Commodore, and Commodores possessed powers similar to that of a Rear-Admiral. However, the Commodore flew a swallow-tailed broad pendant from their ships mast instead of the flag of a Rear Admiral. It is important to note that all Commodores had to have been Captains, but not all Captains became Commodores.

Captains in the Royal Navy were either Post-Captains or Captains; the difference lay in the size of the ship of which they were captain. Their post was what differentiated the officers between those who commanded unrated vessels or rated ships of the line. Post-Captains received their post rank by being appointed to command a post-ship. This meant that Post-Captains commanded the smaller, unrated vessels.

In order for a Lieutenant to become a Captain, he must become a Commander first. Much like the rule with Commodores and Captains, all Captains were Commanders first, but not all Commanders became Captains.  As a Commander, an officer would command a sloop of war, which was not quite a rated ship.


The Lieutenant served as the Captain’s deputy. There were usually up to six lieutenants on board a 1st rate ship who were ranked by seniority from 1st Lieutenant to 6th Lieutenant. They were commissioned officers and received a new commission from the admiralty with every new post they were given. Yet it took a little more effort for a Lieutenant to be promoted. Most Lieutenants progressed through the chain of command through one of three ways:

  • Gaining patronage from an Admiral
  • Having political influence in London
  • Setting himself apart by doing something extraordinary as an officer

In the case of Lord Nelson, many times he chose the third option. The general sentiment among his superiors was that if an officer succeeded at taking risks, no question was asked. Yet if an officer failed, no answer would be sufficient. Nelson’s risks just happened to work in his favor, helping him become a great Vice Admiral.


Midshipmen were not commissioned officers, but officers in training. They were usually young men ranging from around 12 years-old up to their mid-20’s and early 30’s. Midshipmen were required to serve 2 years in their post and take an examination in order to become a Lieutenant. Midshipmen, like the 12 year-old Horatio Nelson, learned the way of the sea by studying sailing textbooks and observing other officers.


Formed in 1755, Royal Marines played a huge role in the Napoleonic Wars.They served as the combat component in many amphibious battles during this time. The Marines served two purposes on board a battle ship:

  • To protect the ships’ officers and help uphold the rules that they set
  • To allow the warships to attack from two different fronts by firing muskets and boarding the enemy ship to engage in close combat.


These officers received warrants to serve from Admiralty, rather than commissions.

  • Masters: Made up of mainly lower class, Masters specialized in navigation and pilotage. They were required to pass regular examinations, which became gradually more difficult depending on the size of the ship.
  • Surgeons: The Surgeon on board was qualified through the Navy Board after passing the Barber-Surgeon’s Company examination.They were the only medical officers on board a ship.
  • Chaplains: The Chaplain was examined by the Bishop of London; these officers served as religious counselors and teachers. However, many sailors were not very religious and some believed the Chaplain was bad luck.

Some warranted officers were considered “standing officers”, because their assignment often lasted for the lifetime of the ship whether it was in service or not.

  • Pursers: One of the only offices that was not required to take an examination, the Purser managed the supply and issue of food, clothes, and ship’s stores.
  • Boatswains: As specialists in the sails, rigging, and other skills associated with cordage, the Boatswains were warranted by the admiralty under the Navy Board.
  • Gunners: Gunners were in charge of the ship’s guns and ammunition and warranted by the Ordnance Board.
  • Carpenters: Carpenters maintained the hull, masts, and yards of the ship. They were warranted by the Navy Board and usually began as apprentices in the dockyards before receiving a warrant.
  • Cook: The Cook’s position began as a warranted and reputable position, but gradually standards were lowered and Captains began taking their cooks from the injured men on board.


The sailors on board who were not commissioned or warranted officers were separated into three groups based on experience:

  • Able Seaman: A sailor with at least two years’ experience at sea
  • Ordinary Seaman: A sailor with between one and two years’ experience at sea
  • Landsman: A sailor with less than a year’s experience at sea

The seamen, whether Able or Ordinary, often were high up in the yards trimming and making the sails, while the Landsmen stayed on the deck heaving and hauling the line that moved the yards.

Laying the Keel

After understanding how big the Royal Navy had been in terms of its man power, one may wonder how they transported these men. The simple answer is that these men sailed on wooden tall ships of different shapes and sizes. However, there is a little bit more of a complex answer available. The Navy Board, whose job includes maintaining the fleet, assigned a rating system to the different ships based on the ship’s armament. When answering this question, it is important to take into account what these ships were made of, how they were made, and who used which type.

No. 2 Dock at Chatham Dockyard

Now Hiring

It is very impressive to see original tall ships sailing today, but it is even more remarkable to imagine how they were built in the 1700s without the heavy machinery that is found at the majority of shipyards today. Driving past Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS), one can see the shipyard’s 1,050 ton crane nicknamed “Big Blue” hovering over the dry dock. The crane may be carrying a whole engine room meant for an aircraft carrier or a battle ship like the John F. Kennedy (CVN 79) or the supercarrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, which is currently being constructed there. However, in Nelson’s day there was no 1,000+ ton, steel crane, but rather a lot of lumber, iron, and the backbreaking work of many men to build a tall ship. The dockyards and ropeyards of England served essential roles in the military advancements of the 18th century empire, much like NNS serves as America’s primary provider for aircraft carriers today.

By 1750 the British dockyards had become the largest industrial organization in the world and remained so until the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. In 1814, the dockyards had 17,374 employees who, over the course of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, built a total of 119 ships and repaired and outfitted even more. Comparatively, NNS currently employs more than 23,000 employees and is the largest industrial employer in Virginia and the largest shipbuilding company in the United States. Additionally, since 1886, NNS has constructed more than 800 ships. Obviously, technology and growth can be attributed to the difference in numbers; however, relative to the technology of the times in which each shipyard existed, a lot of similarities are found between the dockyards of England and NNS. Furthermore, the dockyards of England, like the shipyard in Newport News, were strategically placed. Most of the Royal Navy’s dockyards were located in southern England, at places like Deptford, Woolwich, Chatham, Portsmouth, and Plymouth. Just like the city if Newport News, these cities are all harbor cities and can be easily accessed by water. Moreover, the Royal Navy had dockyards assembled strategically around the world. There were yards erected in places like Malta in the Mediterranean, Halifax in the North Atlantic, Jamaica and Antigua in the Caribbean, and the East India Company outposts at Bombay in the Indian Ocean that were home to some of the Royal Navy’s largest foreign dockyards.

As stated above, the Navy Board classified their fleet into rates depending on how many guns they had on board. The biggest and most important combat ships were called “Ships-of-the-Line,” which encompassed rates 1-4.  They were named this because of the popular naval warfare strategy of the time: line of battle. In this tactic, opposing sides would form strings of warships, facing bow to stern, and fire broadsides out of the port and starboard sides of the ship where most of the guns were located. This strategy gained popularity in 1649 when England began to make the Speaker class ships. These ships were huge and heavily armed, but they were also much faster and easier to use. This new technology allowed the Royal Navy to match, and surpass, the then ruler of the seas–the Dutch–and England continued to rule the seas for two centuries.

Unrated Ships

In addition to the Ships-of-the-Line of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th rates, there are the frigates of the 5th and 6th rate, which basically served as the all-purpose ship of the Royal Navy. They were fast and reliable. All other ships not included in the rated system consisted of:

  • Sloops: These vessels were generally controlled by Commanders. The Royal Navy used more than 200 of them, and each carried 50-140 men and 10-18 guns.
  • Bomb Vessels and Fireships: While bomb vessels were used to bombard cities and fortifications, fireships were sent blazing into enemy lines in order to ignite ships.
  • Brigs: These were commanded by Lieutenants and carried about 14 short range guns.
  • Cutters: These vessels were fast ships with huge sails hanging from the only mast on board. They often carried 10 guns for protection.
  • Gunboats: These small ships were used for local defense with 1 or 2 guns on the bow and stern.
  • Yachts: High officers would use these fast and sleek vessels on state visits. They were not quite like the yachts of today, but similar in principle.

Ships-of-the-Line, like the HMS Victory, were expensive, technologically advanced, and visually impressive weapons. In his book, The Age of the Ship of the Line, Jonathan Dull states that these ships were floating fortress; however, they had disadvantages that a fortress did not. The bow and stern of a Ship-of-the-Line were not as strong as its port and starboard sides, nor did they have enough space for cannons to sit on their curved decks to protect the ship from frontal or rear attacks. The port and starboard sides of the ship carry all the fire power, while the bow and stern were left vulnerable, so these battle lines were logical ways to defend a ship of the line.

HMS Victory

The HMS Victory was Lord Nelson’s flagship and headquarters from 1803-1805. She was a 1st rate Ship-of-the-Line, and was designed to fire devastating broadsides. Her keel was laid in the No. 2 Dock at Chatham Dockyard on July, 23 1759 in England. She cost £63,176 to make, the equivalent to £50 million or $78,169,500 in today’s economy. Surprisingly, she was not the first Victory. The first Victory had sunk with all hands in 1744, causing many sailors to believe that the name was bad luck. However, construction had started at the peak of Great Britain’s winning streak during the Seven Year’s war, so the name “Victory” seemed fitting. Even the figure head mounted on her bow commemorates the ‘annus mirabilis’ or wonderful year.

The HMS Victory dry docked in Portsmouth, United Kingdom

Although her keel was laid in 1759, the Victory was not launched until May 7, 1765. As result of British successes during the Seven Years War, the need for active ships had declined. Consequently, the Victory experienced a long weathering period, which may be part of the reason that she has survived all these years. She was quick and easy to handle, despite her size, and in good weather she could sail as fast as 8 knots or 10 mph. The maneuverability and speed of the HMS Victory made her one of the most sought after ships in the Royal Navy during her active service that lasted from 1778-1812. Of course her most famous battle was in the Battle of Trafalgar, as Lord Nelson’s Flagship.

HMS Victory Fast Facts

These specs show just how much work and materials were needed to construct the Ships-of-the-Line:

A. The H.M.S. Victory had 3 masts, each made of 7 trees built up tall

B. 4 acres of canvas was made for the 55 sails onboard

C. 27 miles of flax and hemp rope were used in her rigging

D. 6,000 trees, 90% of which were oak were used in her construction

E. 3,923 copper sheets nailed to her hull.

Sailing a 1st Rate Ship-of-the-Line

The making of a Ship-of-the-Line was never truly finished. Line-of-battle ships required constant maintenance as a result of the harsh conditions at sea as well as the occasional battle. The daily life of a ship’s crew was consumed by one part constant repairs, cleaning, and caring for the ship and another part steering and maneuvering the ship through the water. In an attempt to counteract this everlasting monotony, life on board an 18th century warship was also very difficult and very dangerous. Not only were sailors risking their lives in battle, but their lives were also threatened by the very chores they were forced to do.

On board Activities

Munitions room on the HMS Victory

Many times sailors would be assigned to a ship for months or even years. During this assignment, the daily routine was hardly ever broken, except in the case of a battle, emergency, or call to port. The day was separated into 4-hour segments called “watches,” where sailors would be on duty watching for anything that would alarm the crew. The watches were measured by a sand glass and bells were rung every four hours for the new watch. Sailors would alternate four hours on watch and four off.

Officers’ dining cabin on the HMS Victory

During the day sailors cleaned and repaired the ship. Using holy stones, or large blocks of sandstone about the size of a Holy Bible of the time, the crew would take time to scrub the deck down. There were also meals on board, although they were nothing close to gourmet. A dinner meal for the crew consisted of hardtack (a hard biscuit), salt beef, pork with pea soup, and cheese. However, the officers indulged in a much more appealing meal, which cost on average £60, or half of a Lieutenant’s annual pay.

When the crew was not completing chores or eating, they either had free time or combat drills in order to keep battle fresh in their mind. In their free time sailors would play games like dice box or checkers, write letters home if they knew how, or repair their clothing. Yet, most of a sailor’s day was spent executing the strict routine.

The Schedule of Events

A peculiar tradition on board was how the day would start at noon, right after the Master and Midshipmen determined it was noon by measuring the sun at its peak in the sky. They also ate dinner at noon, preceded by eight tolls of the bell and the boatswain’s penny whistle “pipe to dinner,” followed by the distribution of the crews daily liquor ration. The crew received grog, a mixture of rum and water, at 2 half pints daily in addition to a gallon of beer. The consumption of alcohol helped prevent some diseases and kept the crew happy. After the day began, the bell was then rung every 30 minutes. Starting with one gong of the bell at 12:30 p.m., the number of gongs increased by one every 30 minutes until 4 p.m., when the bell rung eight times. This was done so that the crew was able to keep track of what time their next watch would take place.

At 1:30 p.m. all hands could be called to practice ship’s drills, such as firing, boarding, sail handling, gunnery, etc. Later, at 4 p.m., the watch was divided into dog watches, or two 2-hour watches, in order to facilitate supper being served and the second portion of grog. Then, right as the sun began to set, all hands were called to their battle stations for inspection by the officers. Once passed, the crew was sent to take out their hammocks and get ready for sleeping. At 8 p.m. the lights were put out on the ship so that other ships would not see them sailing in the night. The crew slept in watches from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. the next day. They received an early wake up call from the Boatswain and his mates piping “All hands” and yelling, “Larboard watch, ahoy! Rouse out there, you sleepers! Hey! Out or down here!” This was sailors’ language for, “Wake up or we’ll cut your hammock down, forcing you out of bed!” At this time the Midshipmen and Lieutenants were also called to watch, in order to record the ship’s speed. While the Carpenter and his Mates began their repairs on the ship, the Cook would begin to make the breakfast for the crew that was to be served at 8 in the morning. When 5 a.m. rolled around, the watch began to tidy up and clean the ship. Some men washed the decks and polished the planks while others gathered the lines into neat coils in order to declutter the deck. This work was usually finished by 7 a.m., and by 7:30 the crew was ordered to put away their hammocks in preparation for breakfast at 8 a.m.

These hammocks also served as the sailor’s coffin

After thirty minutes the men would return to their duties, completing various tasks between the hours of 8 a.m. and noon including:

  • Standing watch
  • Working in messes or groups to prepare lunch
  • Helping to re-stow, or reposition the ships provisions
  • Re-tarring the rigging or repairing broken weaponry

The end of a sailor’s day was greeted by punishment. If anyone was in need of disciplinary action from any of the previous watches, the Captain might call “All hands” to watch a punishment at 11 a.m. Afterwards the day would start over.

At Sea Excursions

On days where a battle was brewing on the horizon, the day was quite different from the ordinary. This quick change of pace may be part of the reason many men on board were excited for battle. Yet, the crux of battle was not a place any sailor ever wanted to be. Adam Nicholson’s book, Seize the Fire, explores in great detail the gruesome conditions in which the Battle of Trafalgar was fought. During a battle, smoke from deafening cannon fire filled the air obscuring the eyes from seeing even a few feet in front of them. Deadly projectiles including various shots as well as shrapnel flew across the decks with every firing gun. Every second in battle was a near death experience. If one of the crew members was hit, he was taken down to the surgeon on the Orlop Deck who would then either help or hurt the sailor’s injuries even more.

The battle raging on at Trafalgar

As we have seen, the life of sailors was a complex one.  And whether they served with Lord Nelson or not, their efforts and contributions will never be never forgotten.


We would like to thank all of the staff at The Mariners’ Museum and Park who assisted Olivia during her internship in the Education Department.  A very special thanks goes to Wisteria Perry, Manager of Student Programs at the museum.  We truly appreciate these wonderful opportunities that your agency provides for our students!

Pictured below are the Education staff members, from left to right: Lauren Furey, Mark Arduini, Regina Asaro, Olivia Cochran (CNU Public History Intern), Wisteria Perry, & Jane Jones.



Dancy, J. R. The Myth of the Press Gang: Volunteers, Impressment and the Naval Manpower Problem in the Late Eighteenth Century. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2015.

Dull, Jonathan R. The Age of the Ship of the Line: The British Navies, 1650-1815. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

Gibson, Walter B. Knots and How to Tie Them. New York: Gramercy, 1993.

Hayward, Joel. For God and Glory: Lord Nelson and His Way of War. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003.

King, Dean. A Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O’Brian’s Seafaring Tales. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1995

Lincoln, Margarette. Representing the Royal Navy. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002.

Longridge, C. N. The Anatomy of Nelson’s Ships. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1980.

Nicolson, Adam. Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Trafalgar. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2005.

Pope, Dudley. Life in Nelson’s Navy. London: Unwin Hyman Limited, 1989.

Royal Naval Museum. HMS Victory. Stroud : Sutton Publishing, Limited, 1994.

Schom, Alan. Trafalgar: Countdown to Battle 1803-1805. New York: Atheneum, 1990.

“The Nelson Touch”

The HMS Victory dry docked in Portsmouth, UK–photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Lord Nelson in uniform–photo courtesy of National Maritime

Nelson sharing his battle plans with his officers before Trafalgar–photo courtesy of the National Museum of the Royal Navy

The Knots That Won Trafalgar

The cover of my Knotbook for my education station

Olivia Cochran with the kids on Pirate day during one of the camps–photo courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum

The Nelson’s Touch Exhibit inside of the museum–photos courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum

The Proof is in the Rigging

A page from Olivia Cochran’s Knotbook used in her Education Station–photos courtesy of Animated Notes by Grog

Photo courtesy of National Maritime Museum

His Majesty’s Royal Navy

The Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom–photo courtesy of Dickbauch

Man Power: The Hierarchy

“Sir Peter Parker NMM” by Lemuel Francis Abbott–photo courtesy of the National Maritime Museum

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy” (1769–1839) by Richard Evans, 1833–4–photo courtesy of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Commodore’s pendant–photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo courtesy of the National Maritime Museum

“Midshipman of the Royal Navy (c. 1799),”by Thomas Rowlandson–photo courtesy of the National Maritime Museum

“Private of Marines” by S. C H & Joseph Constantine Stadler–photo courtesy of the National Maritime Museum

The “Carpenter”, “Cook” & “Purser” by Thomas Rowlandson–photos courtesy of the National Maritime Museum

“Sailor” by Thomas Rowlandson– photo courtesy of the National Maritime Museum

Laying the Keel

No 2. Dock at Chatham Dockyard–photo courtesy of the National Maritime Museum

Photo courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum

Photo courtesy of the National Maritime Museum

Photo courtesy of the Royal Museums Greenwich

Sailing a 1st Rate Ship-of-the-Line

Munitions room on the HMS Victory–photo courtesy of the HMS Victory Museum

Officer’s dining cabin on the HMS Victory–photo courtesy of the HMS Victory Museum

These hammocks also served as the sailor’s coffin–photo courtesy of the HMS Victory Museum

The battle raging on at Trafalgar–photo courtesy of the HMS Victory Museum


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