Since the dawn of time, sailing and alcohol have had a close relationship. Whether the Royal Navy’s old tradition of keeping its men addled by giving them half a pint of rum containing 70% alcohol every day (yet giving them the Cat o’ Nine Tails if found to be drunk on duty) or your stereotypical sailor drinking and whoring when on a run ashore, booze and seafaring go hand in hand.
This article will look at the relationship and show how it is better to be sober as soon as you leave the dock for your own safety…
The night after the end of the 30,000 mile Volvo Ocean Race, two sailors on the Spanish boat Mapfre were apparently refused more drink at the bar of the Ocean Race Club in Gothenburg.
Unfortunately the bouncers at the club found that these guys were rather stronger and more willing to get to the bottom of another bottle than most people, and the bouncers had to be taken to hospital in the fracas that ensued. The sailors ended up tasting the hospitality of the local police station as a result.
As one who has come close to being arrested on several occasions during my years at sea due to my addled mind making decisions I may not make when sober or between drinking sessions, I have every sympathy with the sailors. Even extremely luxurious Swedish prisons aren’t a good place to wake up with a hangover and no idea what the hell you did the night before!
On one occasion I was on a delivery of a sailing ship from the Great Lakes to her home port of Bridgeport, Connecticut. We were allowed off the boat for four hours at Quebec City while the tide turned – the tidal current on the St Lawrence Seaway can hit 15mph or more and we just had to tie up while it blasted the wrong way.
One of my shipmates told me that he knew a place in Quebec that sold Irish Guinness and did the best burritos in Canada. To cut a long story short, full of burritos and Guinness, we returned to the ship only to remember that every time we hit the dock the ship’s rule was that the crews’ watches rotated and we were on duty. Being sent 60 feet into the mainmast to work aloft when you can barely walk a straight line on solid ground isn’t to be recommended…
Under UK and many European navies’ tradition you are allowed a drink off watch but shouldn’t be drunk on duty. This is why you could be given the lash in the days of Nelson for being drunk on duty, despite the vast amount of alcohol almost guaranteeing intoxication.
On US ships however, you’re not allowed to consume booze at all when the ship is at sea or at anchor. Even before I gave up booze for good a decade ago, I thoroughly appreciated the US legislation.
The old saying ‘a little of what you fancy can’t hurt you’, does not apply to alcohol at sea. In calm conditions you have to have sure footing on deck and, honestly, even sober people go in the water when hurled off a bucking foredeck while changing sails or tripping over a line. Booze really doesn’t help your coordination.
Though alcohol makes you ‘feel’ warmer, with a warm flush on your face and skin, this is a product of your body cooling down. According to the medical research foundation, the Mayo Clinic, “Alcohol may make your body feel warm inside, but it causes your blood vessels to dilate, or expand, resulting in more rapid heat loss from the surface of your skin. The body’s natural shivering response is diminished in people who’ve been drinking alcohol.”
There are two things to consider here. Firstly with alcohol in your system, in temperate waters where the water is cold, you will have far less time to be pulled out of the water before you fall unconscious because the body is shutting down from hypothermia. You’ll drown quicker.
If you haul someone else out of the water, then the tradition of giving them a swig of brandy could actually do the reverse of what you seek. In trying to warm them up with strong booze, you’re actually cooling them down. In this instance, a cup of hot and sweet tea, chocolate or coffee will have the results you desire.
Sailing is fun, and in most places around the world, having a few beers is an accepted way of having that fun. When learning to sail, just keep in mind that a run ashore after a week or so at sea can be really refreshing. However, it really isn’t sensible to begin your run ashore before you hit the dock as it could shorten your enjoyment – there’s no proof that you can go sailing in the afterlife…