One of the articles of faith in most nautical fiction of the Age of Sail is the notion that sailor’s were generally non-swimmers.
The Jack Aubrey novels by Patrick O’Brian note that Jack is unusual in his strong swimming ability and had saved several sailors from drowning. One of the recurring characters, “Awkward” Davies, was saved from this fate twice.
Allegedly, this came from the fatalistic idea that if they went overboard it was best to simply drown and get it over with rather than swimming. That may be the case. It might equally be the equivalent of an urban legend. But a small article in the Naval Chronicle from the December 1810-January 1811 issue indicates that there may be more to this than the imaginings of twentieth century writers.
Reward for Life Saving
The crew of his Majesty’s sloop Childers, has presented an elegant sword, with a suitable inscription, to Mr. George Wilson, master of that ship, as a mark of their esteem for his jumping overboard at sea, and saving, at the risk of his own life, one of their shipmates from a watery grave, who had fallen from the fore-yard-arm, and was in the act of sinking.
From what we know of the ship (it was stationed in the North Sea and operated against Danish and Norwegian shipping from 1808 until it was broken up in 1811) the jump made by Mr. Wilson would have been unpleasant at any time of year and life threatening most of the time. The actions of the crew indicate that such an action was not only unusual but unexpected. The fact that it was mentioned in the Naval Chronicle also indicates this was an unusual act.
Maybe there is a factual basis to the idea of sailors not swimming.