Wednesday 31 July 2013

Drunken Sailors

There are plenty of old salts alive today who remember Black Tot Day 31 July 1970, when the rum ration was last served to Royal Naval ratings.  The rum ration was brought in after the capture of Jamaica in 1655 as a weigh-saving measure to replace a daily allowance of 8 pints of beer a day, which amounted to 1.6 tonnes per person per year at sea.  William Cobbett would have thought this level of alcohol consumption was normal, desirable even.  The amount of rum was steadily reduced until it was 1/8th pint or 70ml per sailor over the age of 20 per day.  The rum had to be consumed immediately upon issue (lest it be hoarded or traded) and was diluted 1:4 with water.  The ration was abolished for officers in 1881 and warrant officers in 1918.  The officers were, in any case, knocking back pink gins in the wardroom, so probably didn't miss their tot.  If you signed the ship's articles as Temperance you were given 3d a day in lieu.

A standard drink - half a pint of beer etc. -  contains 10g of alcohol = 12ml.  Rum, before dilution, is "proof" if gunpowder will still ignite if soaked in it.  That threshold is 57% ABV (alcohol by volume).  Accordingly, the ration contained close to 40ml of ethanol, equivalent to 3 standard drinks, and was well over the current limits for drunk driving (0.05% ABV in a blood sample for Ireland and most of the EU countries that don't impose a zero tolerance policy - UK is still up at 0.08%) which is even less than a standard drink.  It seems scarcely credible that the whole crew of a ship at sea was under the influence from "up-spirits" just before lunch until the effects wore off about tea-time.  No wonder they were Jolly Tars.

The arguments made in 1969 for the abolition of the ration was that, while it was all very well in the days when stokers shovelled coal into the furnaces all day, it was not safe or sensible when ratings were radar operators, gun-trackers and other skilled artisans.  The Kiwis kept the tradition going for a further 20 years until 1990.  The USN, on the other hand, had been dry since 1862 and I remember my father saying you had to like Coke (he didn't) if you went visiting American ships.

The Beloved and I made a designated-driver pact more than 20 years ago, at least partly because it was so undignified, and so uncertain, to be calculating if half a glass of home-brew would put you over the limit if we were breathalysed.  But it was a long time before we saw a similar change in attitude amongst our friends.  I guess part of the problem is that while it is demonstrable that alcohol increases the risk of accidents, mayhem and death, these events are comparatively rare and certainly rare in our direct experience.   The risk of you dying in a car accident in any one year is about 1:7000, so the risk of it happening during the 10km drive home from the party (average annual driving distance at 10,000km) is about 1:7million.  Even if we double that risk by driving after a couple of pints o' heavy it's still more likely that we'll win the Jackpot on the Lotto (not this Saturday, but if we played for a year). I'm ignoring, because everyone else does, the probability of finishing your collision quadriplegic, or with a punctured lung or whiplashed to buggery - never knew there were worse things than dyin'.

I've often thought that, rather than having a prim Gaye Byrne (Chairman of the Road Safety Authority) hectoring us about drunk driving, it would be more effective if it was reported on the news whether alcohol was involved in the latest road fatality. RTE News do, after all report every road fatality as if we're all tricoteuses. But that's not going to happen because of a squeamish sense of de mortuis nil nisi bonum.

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