How Dangerous Were Sailing Vessels?

To give this question some specifics to make it answerable, let’s start with this:

A friend of Ben Franklin’s in England tried to get Ben to convince his wife to move to England. As part of the argument, he said to mention to Deborah that no ship sailing between London and the colonies had gone down in anyone’s memory.

Somehow I thought ships in the eighteenth century were more dangerous than that.

Let’s eliminate whaling ships, privateers, warships and the like - if a person booked passage on a ship across the Atlantic in the 1700’s, how dangerous a prospect was it?

Dangerous compared to what?


Indian raids?

Freezing/starving to death in winter?

House burning down due to carelessness with candles/fire?

Any of hundreds of other ways to come to an untimely end in the 1700’s?

Compared to now, daily life back then was considerably riskier than today. On top of that, spending a month or two on a wooden sailing vessel of the time would be unpleasent even if it was safe - rot, mold, mildew, food going off, stench of seldom-washed people… it was gross, OK?

“In 1646, the townspeople of New Haven, Connecticut, feeling squeezed by the neighboring settlements of Boston, to the north, and New Amsterdam, to the south, sent a ship full of their finest wares and personages to England, to assert their primacy as a New World trading center. The ship sank…[New Haven’s] commercial and cultural standing never recovered…”

Single data point. From The New Yorker, Talk of the Town, page 34, March 13, 2006. Couldn’t resist it.

No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned…A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.

Samuel Johnson ~ Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (August 16, 1773)

I was under the impression that a sailor’s life was so miserable that gangs were used to find and collect “volunteers”.

How much did money have to do with your chances of survival? I would guess that the well-off had better accomodations and larger/faster ships.

You’re probably thinking of the “press gangs” in Britain who summarily conscripted men for naval service during the Napoleonic era. But that was a government draft during a war. However if you got drunk in the wrong tavern and woke up “Shanghaied” on a slow boat to the Indies, you were pretty much out of luck. Before the days of radio and reformed laws, the Captain of a ship was pretty much an absolute despot at sea.

OK, I know this is GQ. If I may be permitted alittle bit of leeway, though, I would most heartily reccommend Sterling Hayden’s nove “Voyage.”

A lot of what has been said above was included in this novel. I do not speak to the historical accuracy, but I do believe that this was mostly accurate, if one leaves out some of the character’s foibles.

It’s got the Communists, it’s got the Shanghied sailors, and it’s got a lot more.

Even if not 100% accurate, you will definitely get a feel for those days. FWIW