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Life on a Tudor ship. Sails.

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The sails were made of strips of canvas and had rope attached to the edges to make the sails stronger. Different kinds of ships had sails of different shapes and sizes. Sailors would raise or lower the sails using ropes, depending on how strong the wind was, and the direction it was blowing from.

ship s cat
Ship's cat

Traditionally every ship carried at least one cat on board to kill rats. Sailors thought that black and white cats were the luckiest cats to have on board.

sickness on board
Sickness on board

Sailors were often sick during their voyages. The most common complaint was scurvy. Sailors developed scurvy because they were not getting enough vitamin C. Vitamin C is in fresh fruit and vegetables and these could not be taken on long voyages because they would go mouldy. Scurvy made black and blue spots appear on the sailor's skin and their gums would start to bleed. Finally, their teeth would fall out. Scurvy was painful and horrible and sailors would often die from the disease. Sometimes over half the crew would die of scurvy or other diseases on a long voyage.

2 minute challenge

What do you think the sailors ate and drank on their long voyages of discovery?

sailor s diet
Sailor's diet

The sailor's diet was quite boring and not very nutritious, so sailors would catch fish and seabirds to eat as well.


Tudor sailors didn't have fridges, like we do today. They brought dried salted meat that would last a long time before it went bad. They also kept animals which provide meat and eggs. Goats and hens had to be kept tied up or in coops to stop them eating the sailors' other supplies of food.

biscuits with weevils
Biscuits with weevils

Although sailors would sometimes eat meat and eggs, the main part of their diet was made up of biscuits called 'hard tack'. The name gives you an idea about how tough and tasteless these biscuits were. To make things worse, the biscuits would often be full of little bugs called weevils.


When the Tudor sailors did eat meat, it would have to be cooked. This was done on a brazier, a box of sand with a fire on it over which food could be cooked and water boiled. The sand box was crucial. The whole ship was made of wood, so starting a fire was always a risky thing to do. The sand protected the ship from the flames. Later ships would have had a bricked room called a galley.

barrels of water
Barrels of water

You can't survive long without liquid and you can't drink sea water, so Tudor explorers had to take barrels of water with them on board. However, water doesn't stay fresh for long and after a while, the water in these barrels would have gone bad and started to make the people who drank it sick. It was very important to find places to get fresh water on a long voyage.

barrels of beer
Barrels of beer

When the water went bad, the sailors turned to weak beer. Beer is alcoholic and alcohol helps to preserve things, so the beer in these barrels would have stayed fresh for longer than the water.

2 minute challenge12

What do you think the sailors did on the ships?

climbing the rigging
Climbing the rigging

To adjust the sails, sailors had to climb the rigging. This was a dangerous job and must have been scary. Imagine standing in your bare feet on a piece of rope with the stormy sea a long way beneath you and definitely no safety harness!

crow s nest
Crow's nest

The crow's nest was a platform near the top of the mast. Sailors would have to climb up to this dangerous perch to look out for other ships and land.


Most Tudor ships had cannons on board to allow the sailors to defend their ship and sometimes, to attack other ships. The cannons were very heavy so they had to be tied down with ropes to stop them sliding about the deck and causing damage.

sailor in irons
Sailor in irons

Here is a sailor who's been 'put in irons' as a punishment. His feet are attached to an iron bar and he can't go anywhere. Punishment on board was very harsh, particularly for sailors found asleep on duty or drunk on board.

partner challenge

Show off what you know about Life on a Tudor ship by drawing a mind map. Try to include as much information as you can remember.

Life on a Tudor ship

Tudor Exploration