Victorian Racing Crew

The General Management of a Victorian Racing Yacht

From pp138, Manual of yacht and boat sailing by Dixon Kemp  1878– revised by John Leather 1988, Ashford Press, Southampton.

In Victorian days the yacht owner took a back seat on his racing yacht, leaving it to a professional master. The rigorous concern with class and discipline reflected the Victorian society, which seemed to live in dread of revolt by the masses!

The Crew


“Most yacht masters rise from “before the mast”  after they have served a season or two as mate or second mate, and generally they assume their position with an full appreciation of its consequences … take her about with a caution and patience that are unceasing, and assume an appropriate dignity in their discourse with the crew…


The master has sole control on board, subject of course to the wishes of the owner, who ought, however, never to have occasion to interfere with the discipline or working of the yacht.


In large yachts, the owner should always keep up a kind of formality in sending a message through the steward … to the sailing master,


and address him as Mr So-and So, not as Harry or Charley or Bill. …In small yachts,  less formality is observed, and the owner usually calls the master by this surname. The crew should always address the master as “Sir”, and not in an offhand way, such as “All right, skipper”.

The master always ships the crew, and generally should be allowed to ship the mate as well.”

The mate, addressed by all as “Mr”, is on the foredeck when the master is on deck, looking after sails. He is responsible for maintenance of all the spars, rigging and sails. He takes a deck watch when the master is below but does not make alterations of course on his own.

The boatswain looks after spares, ships chandlery and stowage. Sometimes a quartmaster is shipped  to look after signal flags, guns, watches. The carpenter checks the condition of spars and the hull and “sounds the pumps every morning or oftener if the condition of the hull requires it”. The coxswain looks after the dinghy or row boat.


Thw two mates tell off the crew to their watches. The Master takes the starboard  watch with the second mate and maybe the boatswain or steward, whilst the mate takes the port watch, with the cook if shorthanded.

Watches are set at 2000, with the master taking the first watch outbound. However the saying is that the “master takes the ship out,  but the mate brings her home”. The master just supervises the mate homeward bound, so training him to be a master in his own turn.

In a full 24 hours at sea, there are five watches of four hours each and then two two-hour dog watches between 1600 and 2000. The dog watches mean that crew do not have the same watch every day, and are often the time to relax a little – carve, sing, play cards.

It is extremely important even today that no one is late for their watch: “Any lagging is regarded as very bad form, and a man is looked on with contempt who does not run up on the first summons.” P142

Discipline and Rules

“Whenever any member of the crew shows the least slackness in executing orders, or in any way neglects the ship’s work, shows symptoms of subordination, indulges in mutinous talk, give insolent or even pert answers, he should be instantly warned by the master of the mistake he has made, and upon the second offence should be given his “discharge ticket”.

Crews in harbour with little to do are always a problem and were allowed ashore only every other day. Drink was strictly controlled but they were allowed grog – a glass on Saturday night to drink to wives and girlfriends, or after a hard sail. Smoking was only allowed on the fore deck for half an hour after breakfast and dinner only. All the crew had to wear the yacht uniform during daylight.

However they were not subject to the penalties which could be imposed on merchant seaman and discipline often came down to the moral force of the master, a seaman himself who learnt his trade before the mast.



A Master could be paid from £50 to £400 a year depending on the size of boat.

Typical weekly pay for the crew was:  Mate £2, Boatswain £1 8sh, Steward £1 15sh, Cook £1 15sh, Seaman  £1 5sh.

A shilling a week was kept back for conduct money, and forfeited for indiscipline. Unifoms were supplied and food on passage, otherwise they have to feed themselves.

The crew got a bonus for racing, and more if they won.