CFB Esquimalt Naval & Military Museum
CFB Esquimalt
Naval & Military Museum

A Sailor's Life

A Canadian sailor dressed in the uniform of the day, circa 1938-1945, illustration by Commander Latham B. Jenson, RCN
A Canadian sailor dressed in the uniform of the day, circa 1938-1945.
Illustration by Commander Latham B. Jenson, RCN.

Naval customs and traditions are very similar, and they often overlap. But if tradition is like an individual's character, then customs are like his or her everyday habits.

Royal Canadian Navy Manual of Rank Requirements for leading seamen and Petty Officers

Canada's Navy is rich in traditions and customs. Some of these traditions and customs are borrowed (primarily from the Royal Navy), some have their origins in truly ancient practices, and some are the result of a unique blend of the old, the new and the emerging aspirations and interests of new generations of sailors.

Sailors' lifestyle changes over the centuries, for example, are reflected in what they wear to work, rest and play. Certainly, sailors have always dressed to impress, and in "Getting Tiddley" a retired salt looks at some of the ways people of his generation set out to make their mark.

Another area where old and new customs can converge is at naval parties known as Banyans. Banyan days began with England's Navy during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, but their format has continued to evolve over time.

The custom of marking a sailor's first passage across important geographical parallels with a special ceremony is so old that its origins are hard to trace. Yet it lives on in modern times through a ceremony called Crossing the Line, and remains an important rite of passage even for 21st century sailors.

Although it's far from being customary or the norm, Canadian ships and sailors have occasionally featured in Hollywood films, and these brushes with the bright lights are examined in We're Going to Put You in the Movies: Hollywood and Canada's Navy.

For centuries,the ship's bell has had a significant role in the traditions and customs of a sailor. It's been used to guide the daily rhythm on a ship as its tolling marked the passing of time and indicated the changing of the watches. The ship's bell is associated with many other traditions but probably none more memorable for families than the shipboard christening of a child.

In Chapter and Verse, we look at how quotations from the Bible were incorporated into naval messages and signals as a shorthand for communication purposes. And in Station Cards in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), the use of identification papers called station cards to track sailors' careers and personal information is examined.

Creature Comforts looks at the long-standing tradition of keeping pets aboard ship, the significance of ship's mascots and their antics, and the many animal companions who accompanied Canadian sailors on their voyages.

Such customs and traditions are the stuff of which a sailor's life is made.

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