We joined the Navy to see the world,
And what did we see? We saw the sea.

IRVING BERLIN (1888-1989)

The Navy


Rum Rations

The origin of grog lies with Vice-Admiral William Penn, father of the founder of Pennsylvania. He captured Jamaica in 1775 and with very little there to plunder except rum, he used it as a ration. Rum had a great advantage over other liquids as it didn't attract algae like water and didn't go sour like beer. Of course, it also didn't have the bulk of beer.
Until 1740 the daily ration was half a pint of neat rum, twice a day. The seamen would supposedly check their rum had not been watered down by pouring it onto gunpowder and setting light to it, from where the term 'proof' originates.
The idea of mixing rum with water deliberately was the brainchild of one Admiral Edward Vernon (born in 1684). Vernon was famed for wearing a coarse woollen ‘grogram’ cloak (from the French ‘grosgrain’) and as such he was nicknamed ‘Old Grog’ - hence the name for the beverage. Famed for his daring assault on the Spanish stronghold in the West Indies, the then Vice Admiral made an order on August 21 1749 that the rum rations given to sailors of the fleet should be watered down in order to reduce drunkenness. The mix was three parts water, one part rum.
He said: 'The pernicious custom of the seamen drinking their allowance of rum in drams and often at once is attended with many fatal consequences to their morals as well as their health'.
As a result of Vernon’s nickname the beverage he enforced on the Navy became known as ‘grog’. Sailors described their state of mind having drunk the mixture as ‘groggy'.
There was no system of imprisonment, or financial penalty in the Navy – only corporal punishment – the stopping of rum rations therefore was often used.

The End of Rum Rations

In 1823 the Admiralty conducted an experiment cutting the daily rum ration in half, to one quarter pint (gill). In compensation they issued tea and cocoa, increased pay two shillings a month. In 1824 the experiment became permanent with the added bonus of an increased meat ration. However, as a gill at that time was equal to four double whiskies today, it was still a very strong mix.
In 1850 the Admiralty's Grog Committee, which had been appointed to investigate problems associated with the ration, released a report which confirmed the relationship between drunkenness and discipline problems, and recommended the ration be eliminated altogether, but it hung on all the way until the 1970s. 31 July 1970 is known in the navy as Black Tot Day – it was the day that the ration was finally ended as they felt it would hinder sailors' ability to operate increasingly complex weapons systems and navigational tools.
Black arm-bands were worn as the Queen was toasted. Tots were buried at sea and in one navy training camp, sailors paraded a black coffin flanked by drummers and a piper.


There is no cannibalism in the British navy, absolutely none, and when I say none, I mean there is a certain amount.

Naval Animals

Only one dog has ever been admitted to the Royal Navy. Able Seaman 'Just Nuisance', served in South Africa, and was a Great Dane.  He got his name from sleeping in narrow ships' corridors. Although he never went to sea, he did once go up in a 'Fairey Fulmer' looking for submarines.

He was buried with full military honours, and there's now a festival every year in Simonstown honouring him (and any lookalikes). 

Trained dolphins have worked as sentries and mine detectors for the US Navy since the Vietnam War. The US Navy currently employs about 100 dolphins and 30 other assorted sea mammals. Six sealions have recently posted to join the Task Force in Iraq.


Before the BBC, I joined the Navy in order to travel.

Burial at Sea

Burial at sea, a simple yet most impressive and dignified ceremony, is the most natural means of disposing of a body from a ship at sea. It is still the custom to sew the body into a hammock or other piece of canvass with heavy weights, formerly several cannonballs, at the feet to compensate the tendency of a partly decomposed body (as would be the case in the tropics) to float.

To satisfy superstition, or to ensure that the body is actually dead, the last stitch of the sailmaker's needle is through the nose. Ensigns of ships and establishments in the port area are half-masted during a funeral. 

It is a custom of the service for the coxswain or master-at-arms to auction a deceased man's kit to his shipmates, all proceeds being applied to the man's estate. Many articles sell for several times their original cost, only to be returned to the auctioneer for resale.

Sitting Toast

The Royal Navy deliver the toast to the monarch sat down. This custom dates from King William IV, who served as a naval officer and knew the discomfort of standing up below decks, and authorized the Royal Navy to toast him sitting down. 


There were gentlemen and there were seamen in the navy of Charles the Second. But the seamen were not gentlemen: and the gentlemen were not seamen.

Widows' Men

By act of Parliament in 1760 the cost of pay and victuals of one able seaman per hundred borne was set aside for the relief of poor officers' widows. These imaginary men were known as widows' men. This odd form of charity was abolished in 1823. 


The slang that's specific to the Royal Navy is called JackSpeak.  The officer's mess is called the ‘Wardroom’ and the toilets are the 'heads'. A call to 'clear the lower decks' means everyone is to be addressed by a senior officer while the 'upper deck' refers to officers only. This address will be announced by a 'pipe'.

In Jackspeak the term for coitus interruptus is 'getting off at Fratton’. This is because Fratton is the last train stop before Portsmouth.

According to the Mary Rose Museum: In the British Navy in the 18th Century, sailors washed their clothes in urine.

Sailors during the Napoleonic Wars made their own tattoos by piercing their skin and rubbing gunpowder into the wounds.

HMS Barfleur was the last large Royal Navy ship to be fitted with a figurehead, in 1892.

In the Great Storm of 1703, 8,000 British sailors drowned, including a quarter of the Royal Navy.

The modern Spanish Navy is still called the 'Armada Española'.


The USS Enterprise is the largest warship in the US Navy.

The American Navy ended their rum ration on September 1, 1862, over a hundred years before their British counterparts.

The largest body of water in Idaho is called Pend Oreille Lake. It is so deep that the US Navy uses it to test submarines.

Hippopotamus Ships

In the Nigerian Navy, there are twenty ships all of whose names mean 'hippopotamus' in various local dialects. Warships include:

NNS Erinomi (Hippopotamus in Yoruba), NNS Enyimiri (Hippopotamus in Igbo), NNS Dorina (Hippopotamus in Hausa) and NNS Otobo (Hippopotamus in Idoma, Ijaw, Igbani and Kalabari).

The Naming of Ships

Spanker, Banterer and Flirt were ships in the Royal Navy, and there have been two merchant ships called Titan Uranus – an oil tanker and an ore carrier, respectively (although the mythological Uranus was actually the father of the Titans, not a Titan himself). There have been four ships called HMS Spanker (a spanker is a kind of sail), six called HMS Banterer and six HMS Flirts (a ‘flirt’ used to mean a sudden movement).

The navy has had ships named after animals: Ant, Bat, Bee, Bird, Fly, Gnat, Kangaroo, Weazel and Zebra.

There are personality traits: Attentive, Attentive II, Dainty, Desperate, Indignant, Insolent, Irresistible, Spiteful and Vindictive.

Christian names include Bruce, Bryony, Desiree, Garry, Nancy, Rodney, Vernon and Wilhelmina.

Brand names include Bounty, Mars, Quorn and Strongbow. There have also been HMS Cardigan, Eclair, Cockchafer, Pansy, and Happy Entrance. 


Diamond Rock, a tiny island on the southern coast of Martinique, was officially classified as a ship during the Napoleonic Wars: HM Sloop of War Fort Diamond.

It was manned by 120 men because of its position – it could easily fire on any French ships approaching the nearby isle of Fort-de-France.

It annoyed the French so much they attacked and captured it in 1805.


Royal Navy officers wore pigtails until 1805. Other ranks wore them until about 1820. In the late C 18th, they were so fashionable that some sailors wore falsies. After Nelson died, his pigtail was cut off and is now in the National Maritime Museum. 

The naval salute is done with a flat palm. It is believed to be so that sailors could hide the grease and tar on their hands.

Bolivia is landlocked but has a 5,000-man navy, who sail on the country’s rivers.

How to Avoid Huge Ships; or, I Never Met a Ship I Liked won the Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year in 1992.