In the Age of Sail, ships that traveled the world’s oceans kept their captains and crews away from their families for long periods of time. Whaling ships, in particular, might be away from home for years at a time.

This was in an era when the only way of communicating from far-flung places was by sending letters via other ships they met up with that were headed in the direction of their home port. But this was no guarantee, and at home their wives (in this era, it was rare for a woman to sail as crew) had no way of knowing if their husbands were alive and well and had no way of telling them news from home. Loneliness for loved ones proved difficult for both those at sea and those holding down the homefront ashore. Sea captains, who were afforded a few more privileges than the rest of the crew, would sometimes bring their wives and children to sea with them. This was facilitated by the fact that the captain often had use of a private cabin and sitting area back aft.

One thing mariners who sail on long-distance voyages know well is that everything in their lives has to be taken care of onboard with whatever supplies and personnel they have with them. This includes healthcare. For women, this could also include childbirth. If a woman was pregnant when she embarked on a voyage, some captains would bring a midwife onboard to assist when it came time to give birth, but plenty of women whose due dates arrived out at sea delivered babies on their own or only with the help of their captain-husbands.

Two-year-old Joanna Colcord on deck with the ship’s sailmaker

Two-year-old Joanna Colcord on deck with the ship’s sailmaker. Joanna was born in 1882 onboard the barque Charlotte A. Littlefield while they were in the South Seas. She spent most of her childhood sailing on voyages between Maine and China. Her brother Lincoln was born 17 months later, delivered by their father who was simultaneously navigating his 548-ton ship around the Cape Horn during a major storm.

Couples who brought their children to sea with them tended to send them ashore once they became teenagers for more formal education. As young children aboard ships at sea, their lives were as varied as the kinds of ships they sailed in and the places they sailed to. While this environment in and of itself provided an education in geography, meteorology, and marine science, most kids were taught by their parents with varying degrees of formality, not unlike homeschoolers today. Mothers typically took on the role of teacher; as kids got a little older, some took correspondence classes from schools and educators ashore, but this was relatively hard to achieve considering how infrequently they could send and receive mail. Zoom meetings were still centuries away.

Kids today still go to sea on long-distance voyages with their parents, but these are usually cruising families who are sailing on their own, not running a commercial ship.

How about you? Is that a childhood you would have liked? What would you miss?

Did You Know?

US Coast Guard Photo By Petty Officer 3rd Class Tom Atkeson

Today, nearly 42,000 men and women serve on active duty in the US Coast Guard.

The United States Coast Guard is the nation’s oldest maritime service and is really a combination of five different agencies that were brought together to make them run more efficiently—the Revenue Cutter Service, the Lighthouse Service, the Life-Saving Service, the Bureau of Navigation, and the Steamboat Inspection Service.

What do members of the Coast Guard do every day?

Learn more at United States Coast Guard