Sailors on Ice

A sailor must be competent to handle the wheel of a huge ship, to know how read the tell-tale signs of changing wind guide the vessel through the caprice of unseen current. He must be skilled in many trades—rigging and lashing, cobbling, carpentery—and adaptable enough to learn on the spot any others that might be required of him.  None of this is new to modern-day sailors, but it might be to landsmen or officers who had come into their rank through education or family connection.

Naval and merchant sailors have always had a professional disdain, each for the others’ service.  The Navy seemed always to have on hand far more seamen for the job than were actually required, while the merchant service had far too few.  “What is drill for the Navy is a job of work for a merchant sailor, goes the saying, and there is some truth to it.   But the Navy offers more consistent training and advancement, and by 1900 far better treatment to its sailors, and better protection of their rights at sea and ashore.

So, when Robert Scott was assembling the crew for his 1901-1904 Discovery, advancing the aims of the crown in the British Antarctic Expedition, he was most interested in recruiting bluejackets.  To him they were a known quantity in skill level, devotion to duty, and amenable to the demands of naval discipline that would be needed in the close quarters of the ship during the long dark polar winters of the far south.  The career seamen of the Navy would be well adapted to the novel routines that must be imposed in this strange and dangerous new land.

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