Life at Sea


Focus:   Comparison of shipboard life in the 1800’s and today


Grade Level:  5-8


Focus Question:  How do the living quarters, communications, food and health issues of a 19th century oceanographic expedition compare to that of a modern expedition?


Learning Objectives


Students will be able to understand some of the challenges faced by early ocean explorers.


Students will understand how technology has helped to make life at sea easier and more comfortable for today’s ocean-going scientists.


Students will compare and contrast different aspects of life at sea in the 1800’s and today.


Materials:        Computers with internet access

                            Handout titled “Lunch on the Atlantis

                            Handout titled “Food and Drink on the Challenger


Audio/Visual Materials:  None


Teaching Time:  One 45-minute class period


Seating Arrangement:  Individually or in groups of 2-3


Maximum Number of Students:  None



                            HMS Challenger



                            Alvin submersible





Note to Teachers: To give students a perspective on how life at sea may have changed over the last century, this lesson compares a recent expedition on the modern Research Vessel Atlantis  with life on board Her Majesty’s Ship Challenger.  Excerpts from the letters of Joseph Matkin, the Challenger’s Assistant Steward who was 18 years old when he embarked on the voyage, are presented throughout the lesson.  They are the most complete collection of personal accounts of the voyage that exists today, and have become one of the primary sources of information on day to day life aboard the Challenger.



Text Box:    HMS Challenger

Text Box:    Research Vessel Atlantis

The historic voyage of the British ship HMS Challenger, conducted between 1872-1876, is often considered to be the first expedition undertaken specifically to conduct oceanographic research.  The Challenger had an assignment from the British government to study the physical and biological conditions of the oceans.  Five scientists, one artist, 23 officers and 243 sailors comprised the Challenger’s crew. Their around-the-globe voyage covered almost 69,000 nautical miles and gathered data on temperature, currents, water chemistry, marine organisms, and bottom deposits at 362 oceanographic stations. The voyage took 3 ½ years.


The Research Vessel (R/V) Atlantis is a modern ship designed specifically for exploring the oceans, and it supports the deep diving submersible Alvin.  It is slightly larger than the Challenger, and carries up to 60 people, including 24 scientists.  Its missions range from several days to several weeks in length.  Life on board the Challenger and the Atlantis is similar in many ways, but some technological advances in our 21st century world have allowed today’s scientists a lifestyle at sea that the Challenger crew would probably find amazing.  Today, we can also be amazed at the shipboard lifestyle of the late 1800’s.


Living Space


Personal space on board almost any vessel is usually very limited.  Crew members share rooms, and often only the ship’s Captain and the Chief Scientists are afforded the luxury of having a cabin to themselves.  In the late 1800’s, it was a fairly new situation to have scientific personnel going to sea along with Navy personnel.  Since science was a priority on the Challenger voyage, the Chief Scientist was considered equal in rank to the Captain.  The Captain had a spacious cabin, and though it was unprecedented, the cabin was divided in half for the voyage so that the two men of equal prominence could room together. They also shared another space at the front of the ship that had skylights and a table, and used this as their sitting room.


Accommodations for the rest of the crew were not as comfortable.  A young man named Joseph Matkin, who was the ship’s Assistant Steward (assistant to the cook, or steward), lived below decks in a poorly ventilated room that was too small to accommodate even a chair.  He had to stand up in order to write letters to his friends and family, and relied on candlelight to do so.


Text Box:  A watercolor painting of a scientist’s cabin aboard the Challenger.  Note the bed over the drawers at the end of the room, and the washbasin in the foreground.  From H.N. Moseley’s Albums, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.













Today, on a research vessel such as the Atlantis, the Chief Scientist and Captain each have their own, private accommodations.  The Chief Scientist assigns berths to the rest of the science crew at the start of an expedition, and the assignments may or may not be given according to rank.  The ship’s crew lives aboard full-time and most of them usually have a roommate.  Life on board is much more comfortable than on the Challenger, since the vessel has air conditioning and heating systems, but the effects of bad weather can still make any mission challenging.  Seasickness is common, and movements of the ship can make sleeping difficult.  This remains as true today as it was in the 1800’s.


Text Box:    In this cabin on the Atlantis, bunk beds make good use of the room’s space.  Photo:  M. Ryan    Text Box:    This small but adequate bathroom, or “head,” also has a shower and is shared by four people. Photo:  M. Ryan









Keeping in Touch

When working at sea for extended periods of time like the Challenger crew did, communication with land-based friends and family was often on the minds of the sea-going explorers.  They had mail service when they docked in Text Box:    An example of cross writing, which was used to save paper.  Photo:  Birch Aquarium at Scripps    port, and could exchange outgoing for incoming mail.  Sometimes mail was passed from ship to ship in the vast oceans, and letters would arrive at their destinations weeks or months later.  If the mail was held up, or if the crew missed the mail call, it could be as long as several weeks before they had a chance to send or receive mail again, and this was a source of concern to the crew.  They were away from their loved ones for almost four years, so mail was an important aspect of their lives, and writing letters helped fill the long days at sea.  Since postage was calculated by how many sheets of paper were in an envelope, it was most economical to use as few sheets as possible.  A style of writing called “cross writing” was used in order to maximize the number of words on a single page. The reader would first read the letter from the top down, then turn the paper horizontally to read the additional lines. A larger image of this cross writing sample is available as a full page document at the end of this lesson.

Joseph Matkin, the assistant ship’s steward, wrote to his cousin during the first week of the Challenger voyage in December of 1872:


“Dear Tom,  We left Sheerness [England] last Saturday week, and had awful weather round, having to put back three times…The wind was dead against us, and it commenced to increase as soon as we had passed Dover on the Saturday night…At midnight the ship passed through a Cyclone, which caused the sea to come right over her and go down into the engine room, through the hatchways, nearly putting out the fires [coal]; the Life boat cutter was smashed to atoms, and the Jib boom carried away with all the Head Sails, so that the ship drifted along under a single storm staysail.  She rolled fearfully all night, I was pitched out of my hammock two or three times, and think it was the most fearful night I ever passed in my life. Several ships were wrecked close to us, and it was considered the roughest night on the Southern coast for the last eight years.”


E-mail at Sea!


Today, scientists at sea have an easier and more rapid way to keep in touch with people on land.  Thanks to the invention of global satellite networks, some of today’s research vessels have e-mail communications available.  However, since e-mail charges are calculated by the size of the e-mail, sending attachments such as pictures or other large files is discouraged.  Several times a day, e-mail is sent and received so that scientists and crew can maintain contact with family, friends and colleagues back on land, and keep up with current events.  This e-mail from a marine educator aboard the Atlantis to her colleagues reveals a glimpse of the difficulties in getting used to life on board a modern ship, especially in inclement weather:

“Hi!  It is Day 2 of our expedition, and we spent a fitful night rocking and rolling with the high seas as we make the 42-hour transit to the dive site.  Few people were alert this morning, and everyone has been napping at one point or another through the day (I fell asleep in the sun on the upper deck, which is the only deck we are allowed on because of the sea state). It is amazing how much we take for granted on land:  taking a shower at sea becomes an undignified waltz, and brushing your teeth while standing at the sink becomes treacherous if you do not pay attention to the movements of the ship. I am full of bruises already!  Life at sea is a lesson in presence and awareness…”

Conversations from the Deep


The Atlantis also has a satellite phone available, which resembles a normal telephone, but works via satellite.  A class of middle school students in Connecticut was able to speak with the pilot and scientist aboard the Alvin submersible, who were 4,000 feet (1300 meters) below the ocean surface, and 500 miles away from land!  The cost of the phone call was $2.47 per minute.


Fine Dining on the High Seas


Text Box:  Today, it is often the case that sea-going vessels are staffed with excellent stewards who are responsible for obtaining all the food for a voyage, planning menus, supervising the cooks, and sometimes preparing the meals.  Through their delicious creations, stewards help to keep morale up for seamen during the voyages. Because today’s research cruises are much shorter and the ships much faster than in the 1800’s, provisions are often only needed for 10-14 days, which allows for the storage of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Markets, not to  mention super grocery stores, are accessible in almost any port.  On a modern research vessel like the Atlantis, fresh baked rolls, ice cream, birthday cake, hot chocolate, corn on the cob and salads are part of the menu. 


A vessel’s meal offerings are also a function of the volume of storage room that exists on board and the number of people on the ship.  Many variations in menus are up to the Ship’s Steward, who is in charge of planning and preparing the meals for all aboard.  Vegetarian meals are sometimes offered and the steward does his best to see that special dietary needs are accommodated. 


When compared with dining on today’s research vessels, sitting down to a meal on the Challenger was a different experience.  Matkin describes the rations on board during one of the longer periods at sea:  “Some of the old (biscuit) is quite mouldy and contains maggots and weevils, but of course it has to be eaten, and I expect we shall get worse, before we get better.”  On another occasion, he writes:  “I should enjoy myself some fresh butter, as from one week’s end to another it is Biscuits, Salt Horse, Pork and Australian meat, which is very far from gay living.”

Notes: 1)  the maggots mentioned above were really a type of beetle grub (or larvae), not fly maggots.  2) Without the luxuries of freezers or ice to aid in preserving food, meat was often salted and dried in order to keep it for long periods of time.


A typical menu aboard Challenger consisted of a breakfast of cocoa and hard biscuits, a lunch of salt pork and pea soup, and a dinner that was mostly leftovers from lunch.  Sometimes special dinners were served to the Challenger crew, such as on Christmas Day, when the menu included ham, meat pie, plum pudding, and wine.  The officers, however, ate a more elaborate meal on this day than the crew, and feasted on turkey or roast goose, and fresh bread in addition to all the foods that the crew ate.


One of the reasons the Challenger crew looked forward to arriving in port was because fresh food was available, and local cuisine was a topic of some of Matkin’s letters home.  When the ship docked in Hong Kong, he wrote: “We often have geese for dinner in my mess and sometimes a Chinese dinner from the shore of curried cats, dogs, and sundries; cats and dogs are great delicacies in this country…”


Staying Healthy


Although the Challenger crew experienced its share of injuries and several fatalities, the overall health of the men during the four-year voyage was very good.  Even considering the many different climates they visited, the exhaustive nature of the seamen’s work, and the ports of call that sometimes did not have the best sanitary conditions, few were sick.  The crew’s good health is attributed to the fact that the ship made frequent port stops (every few days, on average), and the steward could, most of the time, maintain a suitable diet for the crew.  The crew also credited the daily supply of wine with keeping them in good health, and in good spirits.


Nonetheless, during the voyage, many crew members were afflicted with dysentery, which is a disease caused by bacteria that causes an inflammation of the lining of the large intestines, and can lead to diarrhea and dehydration. Matkin explains: 

“Nearly every one in the ship, including the officers, had a touch of it, some in a mild form-- others very severely; I was very bad indeed with it for 5 days but got rid of it soon after we cleared the islands.  I ate nothing the whole time and was on the Sick List diet -- beef tea and Arrowroot.  The Beef Tea is made from “Liebigs Extract of Beef” and is called by the sailors “Animal Fluid,” Pick me up, etc.  It is a very weakening sickness and has made me look quite thin, but I feel so much fresher and livelier since I recovered that on the whole I think I would rather have had it than missed it.”  Note:  Beef tea is actually a soup, and arrowroot is a type of cookie.

 Illness and disease are much less cause for concern to today’s ocean-going scientists due to the wide variety of medicines available, and the increased knowledge of human health and nutritional needs.  In case of emergencies, modern ships can get to port much faster than ships of the 1800’s, or they can radio for help if they need to.  According to the ship’s medical officer on the Atlantis, the most common injuries are fingers slammed in the heavy metal doors in the hallways, and toes stubbed on tables or equipment.  


While many aspects of the Challenger and Atlantis voyages have differed, the basic needs of people living and working at sea have not.  After all, science on board a ship cannot be done well unless scientists and support staff are as comfortable and healthy as possible.

Learning Procedure:


1. Hand out pages 2-7 (Introduction through Staying Healthy)as a homework reading assignment the night before.


2.  Also as homework, ask students to do an internet search and visit websites about HMS Challenger and also about the Research Vessel Atlantis so they are somewhat familiar with the two ships’ structure, crew, and their missions. 


3. In class and as a warm-up exercise, ask students if they have ever spent any time on a boat or a ship (a vacation cruise, a boat ride on a lake, etc.) Ask those who have experienced being on the water to describe the vessel and their accommodations, even if it was just for a day.


3.  Initiate a discussion about what students think life was like on the Challenger (e.g. What did the crew eat?  How did they get food if they were at sea for long periods of time? How did they communicate with friends and family?)  List their ideas in one column on the board.  Then ask for their ideas about life at sea today on a modern vessel.  List those ideas in a separate column. Keep both lists on the board to use during this lesson.


4.  Hand out the two worksheets titled “Lunch on the Atlantis” and “Food and Drink on the Challenger” (scroll down to the end of this webpage.)   Have students examine the lists.  If they are unfamiliar with any of the items, have them look on the internet to find out what they are.  They should keep in mind that some items have “decorative” titles which may be part of the name of the food.  Have students compare the types of foods and food groups available on both ships.  Why are they are so different?  Do they think these differences are functions of culture, size of the vessels, length of time at sea?


5.  Have students visit the website

to read Joseph Matkin’s journal entries. (Suggested reading:  pages 3, 15, and 20.)  Then ask them to visit, and under “Recent Voyages” read the entries of a marine educator aboard the Atlantis.  Have students write several paragraphs that offer a comparison of writing styles, topics discussed, differences in grammar, tone, etc.

Note:  Teachers could visit these websites ahead of time and print out and copy the journal entries desired.



Divide the class into small groups. Ask half of the groups to pretend they are Challenger crew members, while the other half are explorers from the Atlantis.  Have each group design a poster to present to the class that highlights what life is like on their respective ship.  Topics should include food, living arrangements, berthing areas, communications, and the purpose of the ship’s voyage.


The BRIDGE Connection:

Click on Navigation Bar, Ocean Science Topics, Human Activities, Heritage, Maritime Heritage


The “Me” Connection:  Have students write about how they think they would feel if they lived at sea for a year. Would they choose a career where they would spend a lot of time at sea? Why or why not? What advantages might there be to working at sea?


Connections to Other Subjects:  English/Language Arts, History, Social Studies


Extension:  Ask students to research what life may have been like on board earlier ocean-going expeditions such as the voyages of Columbus or Darwin.  Have them write about and illustrate one aspect of life at sea (e.g. communications, food) and compare it to a similar aspect of the Challenger voyage.




Ocean Explorer Website (History section)


College of Exploration’s Challenger Website


Virtual Challenger Exhibit (Birch Aquarium at Scripps)


More about maggots and weevils


Fame and Fortune:  The Pay of Scientists and Sailors on HMS Challenger


Research Vessel Atlantis homepage


Careers at Sea


National Science Education Standards:

Content Standard G:  History and Nature of Science




This lesson plan was produced by Melissa Ryan of the College of Exploration, Potomac Falls, VA.

Student Handouts

Lunch on the R/V Atlantis

Food And Drink on the Challenger

Enlarged view of the cross writing style of a letter from Joseph Matkin