Long Splice, Manila Rope
Rum has long been associated in the popular imagination with the sea: bearded pirates gleefully plundering foreign shores and foreign maids, clutching a heavy green bottle of kill-devil; grizzled, antique sailors in blue duffel coats, overcome by spirits, staggering and brawling about the streets of chilly old Boston; vacation revelers reclining in the shade of stooped palms, dark and stormy in hand, gazing past painted toenails and dime store flip-flops to the tropical teal of the tropical seas. Legend holds that Admiral Nelson’s earthly remains were preserved in a barrel of of rum following his death at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Rum has a rich history and an entire spectrum of categories and characteristics based on production methods, aging, and sometimes even the colonial history of the locality distilling it. Today, just for fun, let’s talk about one of these quirky subdivisions: naval rum.
Time was — and not all that long ago — many of the world’s navies offered a daily rum ration to sailors on ships at sea. This is the proverbial “tot” of rum, and it originated when the British fleet captured Jamaica in 1655 — the rum bit anyway, not the drinking on warships. Jamaica grew sugarcane — lots of it — and produced large quantities of molasses and rum. As always, it was a simple economic decision: Control of this production meant that the admiralty no longer needed to purchase French brandy for the daily ration. The practice continued on British ships until 1970.
Keeping barrels of rum in dry storage presents some unique challenges on a warship, and this is where “naval rum” really has its origins. One concern is volume; there is only so much space on a ship, so carrying denser cargo is more efficient. For rum, that means a higher alcohol content, easily diluted with water when preparing it for drinking. The second unique concern is storing liquid next to gun powder. Barrels will inevitably leak or become damaged in battle or rough seas. “Navy-strength” actually indicates that if you soak your powder with the spirit, you can still pack it all into a cannon and “fight the ship.” I know — bad ass, right? This works out to be about 50% alcohol by weight or around 57% by volume, depending.
So why the illustration at the top of this article? In battle, when chain-linked shot was fired at the enemy (we all remember "Pirates of the Caribbean"), the gunners were not aiming for the mast; they were aiming for the rigging, in particular a thick rope called the mainbrace, which controls the angle of the yards — essentially the rope that angles the mainsail to the wind — in order to render the ship un-maneuverable. Should the damaged ship survive the battle, the task of repairing the brace — a piece of rope not uncommonly over 4 to 5 inches thick — was given to the best “able seaman.” (He would have enlisted some additional hands for the job.) Upon completion of this incredibly laborious and difficult task, a double tot of rum was served to the crew in celebration of the ship’s return to readiness.
The Royal Canadian Navy is possibly the last navy that still celebrates special occasions with a tot of rum for the crew. When the RCN celebrated its 100th anniversary on June 29, 2010, the long-traditional order to take spirits was signaled to the fleet from Queen Elizabeth herself. That order? “Splice the mainbrace!” And down the hatch she goes, boys.