Water provisions

As one of the key provisions needed to sustain life at sea, water had to be potable (drinkable) and portable (easy to store). Large casks or ‘butts’ of fresh water were brought on board as part of the initial provisions and stored in the hold. These water rations would have quickly turned stale. Once stale, sugar, alcohol (beer, rum or wine) or vinegar was added to make it sweeter and more palatable. Cutting the water rations with alcohol also helped to make it last longer, as one of the worst fates for nineteenth-century voyagers was to be stranded in the ocean without drinking water.

Old water rations were just as deadly. Algae formed on the surface of stagnant water, and thirsty rats and mice crawled into the water barrels and drowned. Polluted water was a breeding ground for endemic disease like dysentery and more serious epidemic diseases such as cholera. If a ship was suspected of carrying infection, it was required to sit in quarantine at any new port until cleared, which put passengers at greater risk of sickness and considerably reduced profit for the ships’ masters and crew.

This meant that water re-provisioning was required at every port of call. The captain needed to ensure that he brought on board enough water to make it to the next port. When it rained, sheets of canvas, or extra sailcloth, would catch the water and funnel it into casks. As reported by Captain Robert Morgan of the Duke of York, a 40-gallon cask of collected rainwater provided passengers and crew with enough fresh water to last 24 hours. Captain Morgan also indicated that he allowed three quarts of water (about 1.5 litres) per person per day.

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