How Much Was Enough On A Man O’ War?

Yet something had to be done. The Lydia had supplied him with two hundred able-bodied seamen (his placard said nothing of the fact that they had been compulsorily transferred without a chance of setting foot on English soil after a commission of two years’ duration) but to complete his crew he needed another fifty seamen and two hundred landsmen and boys. The guardship had found him none at all. Failure to complete his crew might mean loss of his command, and from that would result unemployment and half-pay — eight shillings a day — for the rest of his life.

One of the underlying themes of most novels set during the Age of Sail is the difficulty of manning a ship of the era. Those familiar with C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower will recall the sleepless nights Captain Hornblower spent worrying about his ability to man HMS Sutherland (quoted above) because he knew if he could not man her, Admiralty would give her to someone who could.

Manning a ship was hard for a number of reasons, not the least of which seems to be a grossly inefficient system for distributing the resources that did exist. For instance, during the 1797 mutiny at The Nore, the receiving ship HMS Sandwich was criminally overcrowded while the warships moored nearby went wanting. As the war dragged on the pool of volunteers dried up and the navy was forced to rely on petty criminals who were avoiding prison sentences by serving in the navy and social ne’er do wells and misfits swept up under the quota system.

Despite what one might think, a surprisingly small number of the hands on a man o’ war were actually prime seamen, those who might be rated as “able seamen.” Going back to the example of the Sutherland, a 64 gun third rate, Captain Hornblower would have needed about 490 men for her to be at full strength. In actuality, he would have been happy with anything above 80% strength. But based on the 490 number, 47 of the strength would be filled by the commissioned officers, warrant officers, and petty officers which would be fairly easy to come by leaving 443 hammocks to fill.

According to a contemporaneous source an ideal crew was one-fifth marines, one-third able seamen, and the rest ordinary seamen or landsmen. In our example that would be 89 marines, 148 able seamen, and 207 ordinary seamen or landsmen. The actual allocation of marines to a third rate was 57 so we could say with some confidence that the target for a captain of that time manning a bottom of the list third rate was something on the order of 57 marines, 148 able seamen, and 249 ordinary seamen and landsmen.

Obviously he would take a better mix if he could get it, but it wasn’t necessary to fill the crew with trained seamen. A good portion of the jobs aboard ship, either during sailing or during action, required nothing more than brute strength hauling on ropes to either set or trim sails or run out guns.

From the standpoint of the Admiralty, a high number of able seamen on any ship would have been bad management. In one year in the early 1800s, the Admiralty had a budget for 120,000 men but there were only 118,000 mariners in Britain so it was imperative that the cadre of able seamen be distributed to maximize their impact on every vessel. Having said that, I’ve found no evidence that there was any system to ensure an equitable distribution of skilled seamen throughout the fleet.

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