A Sailors Diet – 1800’s Style

8th April 2015


Travel on board any Star Clippers cruise ship on any itinerary in 2015 and you will be guaranteed friendly service and wonderfully fresh food. In fact you are spoilt for choice across all meals with a vast number of seasonal and fresh selections.

Start off the day with a continental breakfast selection consisting either of English muffins, Danish pastries and French croissants; or a hot breakfast consisting of bacon, sausage, salmon and omelettes. Lunch is a buffet affair with a vast number of selections which may include seafood, salads, or even a beach-side barbecue selection. Dinner offers a marvellous selection of dishes over a range of courses which look great and more than satisfy the palate. Additionally, chefs on board Star Clippers cruise ships will adhere to any dietary requirements you may have.

Cruise travellers are lucky in the 21st century, as the food selection available on board during the 19th century was dire in comparison. The sailing experience of the 19th century may have been revived but with a complete makeover fit for the 21st century. We take a closer look at how sailors may have eaten throughout the historical days of wind sailing.


Step back in time over 150 years and things were very different. Sailing was the only way to export cargo and travel the world and the facilities used to maintain fresh food were non-existent. Obviously, communication was not as advanced as it is today meaning that crews could not organise fresh food deliveries at ports of call. Another important factor is speed as wind sailing ships would once travel the seas three to four months without entering a single port.

Taking all of this into account, it’s possible to imagine the conditions on board for sailors and difficult it may have been to maintain a nutritious diet. In the book Through Mighty Seas, Henry Hughes describes an encounter with maggots: “Breaking the biscuit into convenient portions for eating, these brown-headed little devils met one’s gaze. To the first voyager it was a revolting sight. They were not a bit shy; they would just remain there and squirm. The old salt would take little heed – he would dislodge the tenants by gently tapping the biscuit on the table, and then go on with the meal.”

Biscuits played a large part in a sailor’s weekly diet and a menu from the 1890’s would look something like this:

  Monday Tuesday Wednesday & Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
Breakfast Coffee, biscuits, butter or marmalade. As on Monday. As on Monday. As on Monday. As on Monday. As on Monday.
Dinner Pea soup, boiled salt pork, biscuits. Dinner: Boiled salt beef, dough-boys*, plum-duff^, biscuits. As on Monday. As on Monday but with stock fish instead of pork. As on Monday. As on Monday but with tinned boiled mutton, rice and biscuits.
Tea Milkless tea and biscuits. As on Monday. As on Monday. As on Monday. As on Monday. As on Monday.

* fried flour dumplings which were the precursor for doughnuts

^ a rich, boiled or steamed suet pudding made with raisins, currants and spices

The food quite often consisted of heavily salted meat of very low quality, which had been stored in barrels. Biscuits were not sweet as they are regarded today, but instead consisted mostly of wholemeal flour, salt and water.


Many sailors decided to smoke tobacco on board and a percentage of these also decided to chew the tobacco, in addition to their diets. Sailors would quite often store the tobacco in their sailor hats and, over time, the linings of the hat would become entirely saturated with sweat and tobacco juice. Once sailors were out of tobacco, they would tear out the linings of their hats and chew on that instead – which is where saying: “I’ll eat my hat” originates.

It is remarkable to appreciate the many transitions that have been made to wind sailing over time. Today, Star Clippers travellers can embark on a journey that will delve into the history of wind sailing, whilst also providing contemporary food and service. Whether you want to travel to the Caribbean; Eastern or Western Mediterranean; Cuba; or the Panama Canal - Star Clippers can provide a wonderful experience for you.

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