Ships in Tudor times were powered by the wind. The ship’s crew was split into two teams called 'watches', and each of these groups took it in turns to watch over the ship whilst the other rested. These shifts usually lasted four hours at a time before the groups swapped roles. The pilot was in charge of navigation and the crew member who helped him out with keeping records of speed and direction, was called the helmsman. Most of the crew were unable to read or write and so they came up with another way to record key points and this was called a traverse board.
The main reason seaman and merchants were attracted to a life at sea was the possibility of great wealth. Asia was a particularly popular destination for traders, although the Spaniards and Portuguese had the monopoly of this territory so Englishmen ventured north to find new routes into Asia. As well as the discovery of new lands and trading of goods, sailors also ventured out to sea for fishing and whaling.
Men who went on sailing whaling missions did so to obtain whale oil, blubber and whale bones. Sailors usually had to travel from Hull to Norway to go whaling and the conditions here were very harsh as it was extremely cold. Due to the weather conditions many sailors suffered from diseases and infections. However, the possibility of earning a lot of money meant they took the risk. Whilst searching for places suitable for whaling and fishing, new territory was often discovered. Exploration became another reason why men decided on a life at sea as this meant more trade, better knowledge of the world and colonisation of new lands. Exploration was also very risky as there was a constant threat of being attacked by pirates.
Ships were vital in warfare during Tudor times and Henry VIII spent a large amount of money building large fleets of ships that were then used to defend the kingdom. These ships were called galleons and they were four times as long as they were wide and very slow.
Ships did not carry guns until Henry VIII began his reign and it was at this point that cannons were introduced to ships. Cannons were very heavy and therefore slowed the ships down even more. Galleons were also used for exploration.
To discover more about Tudor ships, visit the National Maritime Museum website (see Related Links below).