What Was Life Like On the Sea for Pirates? 

February 13, 2024

When you envision the life of a pirate on the high seas, do you see a vessel sailing on calm waters into the sunset while sailors count their loot and enjoy a pint or two of liquor? Are the pirates happy, well fed and dressed and, of course, reveling in their latest plundering? 

If this is the vision you conjure when thinking of pirates, you may want to rethink your assumptions about the Golden Age of Piracy and what life was really like for pirates across the globe. 

Here are a few facts that historians have unraveled about these “people of the sea.” 

Where & When Did Pirates Sail? 

Pirates have long been figures of fascination and fantasy that fall both into the famous and infamous categories of historical people. From Blackbeard to Captain Black Sam Bellamy, pirates were often known for sailing the waters of lands far and wide across the globe. 

Historians believe that pirates existed since the early 1400s and have stolen, plundered and looted nearly every continent since that time. Two areas in particular were ripe for the pickings for pirates – the coastline of the land that would become America and the warm waters of the Caribbean. These two regions had ships coming and going with materials for building and maintaining new lands that were perfect for looting…if you were a pirate.

The time we often associate with pirates is the 1600s and 1700s, also known as “The Golden Age of Piracy.”  While this was the main timeframe of most activity for pirates, there are pirates still known to attack ships even to this day along the African coast and in the South China Sea. 

Sail Ship

What Was Daily Life Like on a Pirate Ship? 

Pirates are mostly known for attacking other ships, pillaging villages along coastlines and amassing materials and treasure through stealing. Their daily lives, however, were not nearly as exciting as these activities would have us believe. 

The reality is that daily life aboard a pirate ship was harsh. There were life-threatening storms, rival pirate crews to worry about, and mutiny to be concerned with. Survival was often the main goal of these sailors as they moved from port to port along the seaboard in search of their next treasure to plunder. 

Food & Diet 

During the days and weeks aboard a ship, pirates would run out of food or would be forced to eat moldy or rotten food, as they had no way to keep their food fresh as we do today. Fresh drinking water was in scarce supply and was often saved for cooking. 

Pirates are often depicted as drunken sailors for the basic reason that liquor was easier to come by than clean drinking water and was often looted during pirate raids. 

As a result of the lack of food and water, treasure for pirates wasn’t always gold coins or jewels but alcohol like rum and food such as meats that could be preserved for long stretches on the water. 

Personal Hygiene

In terms of hygiene, there was no working shower on a typical ship and cleanliness was not always a top concern of the crew. Washing would happen during rainstorms or by taking a dip in the ocean. Bathrooms were also fairly rudimentary as only captains had access to a chamber pot in which to relieve themselves. Once the pot was filled it would be disposed of by dumping it overboard. Crew members commonly used platforms with holes in them right on deck. Privacy was not possible when on a pirate ship. 

Pirates didn’t have the best hygiene and are depicted in many books and movies as missing teeth since brushing and oral care were not part of daily life on the ship.

Sleeping Quarters 

Sleeping also had its challenges on board a pirate ship as only captains would have a private room with sleeping quarters. Crew members could be found usually in one room sleeping on the floors or in hammocks suspended from the rafters. 

Find out more about what life was like on board a typical pirate ship when you visit Real Pirates Salem. Plan your visit today!