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Feeding sailors during the long voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World was a challenge. Since refrigerators were not available to preserve food for the voyage, the provisions had to last the length of the trip. The mariners would first eat those foods that spoiled the quickest. To preserve certain foods, such as meat and fish, they were dried, salted, smoked, or pickled. Sailors did not have cans so the meat/fish may have been packed in wood barrels or creates. Some ships carried live stock which was butchered and eaten during the voyage. Other foodstuffs would have been similarly stored for the trip. Food would often rot or became infested with weevils. Rats and mice were also a serious problem because they ate the rations and would leave their dropping in the food.

Most of the time, provisions had to be rationed during the voyage because it was difficult to have enough food for the entire voyage. One would never know if the trip would be quick or if it would take longer than expected to reach their destination.

According to some 16th century records, ships of the 1568 armada of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés had a daily ration schedule of foodstuffs:

Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays:
One and a half pounds of biscuit, one liter of water, one liter of wine, half a peck of a mixture of horse beans and chickpeas for each twelve persons, and one pound of salted fish for each three persons. (A peck is about 8 dry quarts – used for dry goods)

A pound and a half of biscuit, one liter of water, one liter of wine, one pound mixed rice and oil for each ten persons, and half a pound of salted pork.

Sundays and Thursdays:
A pound and a half of biscuit, one liter of water, one liter of wine, one pound of salted meat, and two ounces of cheese.

Each month:
One liter of oil and something more than a half a liter of vinegar per person.

(Above information from Spain’s Men of the Sea: Daily Life on the Indies Fleets in the Sixteenth Century by Pablo E. Perez-Mallaina, trans. Carla Rabn Phillips; Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1998.)

As can be seen, the biscuit or hardtack was a staple of the Spanish sailor in the 16th century. The biscuit was soaked in water or wine which made it easier to eat since it was hard.

Mariners ate a breakfast meal of biscuits, wine, and a little salted pork or some sardines. The noon meal or dinner was the largest meal of the day and supper was served before sunset and it consisted of a quantity of half of what was eaten at noon.  The salted meat was normally fixed in a stew. During storms or when the enemy was near sailors only ate chesse, biscuits, and wine. No cooking fires were allowed in these instances.

Cooking also presented a problem on a wood ship in the middle of the ocean. Most ships of the period did not have a kitchen or galley for food preparation. Cooking and eating were done on the open deck. Cooking fires may have been lit one once a day and then put out because of fear of the ship catching fire.

Fresh water presented its own challenge. The crew had to carry all of their drinking water with them in barrels. When possible, the ship would stop during its voyage and crew members would go ashore to collect fresh water. However, water had to be rationed which was unfortunate for a sailor because the meat and fish they ate were preserved in salt.

Sailors were always susceptible to malnutrition because they may not have received enough rations. One affect of malnutrition was scurvy which could be devastating to a crew. This was a vitamin C deficiency from not eating enough fresh foods. Symptoms of scurvy included loose teeth or teeth falling out, gum disease, general weakness, anemia, and skin problems. Scurvy can be prevented and treated by easting fresh fruits such as oranges and lemons and vegetables.

To learn more about "What did sailors eat," click on the links below:

Life at Sea in the Time of Magellan


Christopher Columbus’ Santa María, The Age of Exploration
The Mariners Museum


Food and Drink: Rations for men in the Spanish Armada 1588


What is Scurvy? What causes Scurvy?

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