Maintaining the Grand Old Tradition

Published on January 14th, 2016

A yacht club bar without Mount Gay Rum is like a regatta without wind. How did rum become so intrinsically connected to our sport? Author John Vigor explains it is tradition, and how it is our duty to maintain it…

I remember once sailing past Dead Man’s Chest Island in the British Virgin Islands, where 15 men are reputed to have been stranded with one bottle of rum. I remember it because I’ve often thought that one bottle of rum wouldn’t have gone far among 15 sailors in the old days. They were mighty topers in those days.

Sailors of the British Royal Navy were first officially supplied with a daily ration of rum in 1655, a privilege that lasted 325 years until the 1970s, and they drank prodigious quantities of it. In fact, a 20th-century British newspaper reporter revealed that Breathalyzer tests had shown that sailors could be legally drunk after drinking their rum rations.

Those rations amounted to 7 or 8 ounces of pure rum a day, the equivalent of about five cocktails for every man jack who claimed it, and I imagine there were very few who didn’t. I can’t imagine scrambling up the rigging, hanging upside down from the futtock shrouds, after five cocktails downed in one gulp. But it was quite normal procedure for them.

It didn’t necessarily make for more efficient ship handling, however, and this fact was not lost on the British Admiralty. But it took until 1740 for something to be done about it. That was when Admiral Edward Vernon ordered that the rum be diluted: one quart of water to every half-pint of rum.

Vernon’s nickname among the sailors was Old Grogram because he wore a coat of a material known as grogram, a sort of waterproof foul-weather outfit.

So the new diluted rum ration became known as grog, and Old Grogram wasn’t too popular among the troops, even though the amount of rum was not reduced. It just didn’t have the same sudden shock value as raw rum.

When naval ships began to be run by computers, and carried missiles with nuclear warheads, it was inevitable that landlubbers would start worrying about the alcohol content of the people with their fingers on the buttons. On July 31, 1970, British navy ships around the globe stopped serving rum to the sailors. The sailors wore black armbands and organized mock funerals.

So it’s up to us, folks, it’s up to us amateur sailors to resurrect the grand old tradition that will surely be forgotten and lost in the mists of time if we don’t do something about it. We don’t have futtock shrouds to worry about, so it shouldn’t be a problem. Grab your bottle of Pusser’s or Black Seal and do your duty. Cheers.

Editor’s note: Thanks to the Proper Course blog for pointing us to this post.

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