The main job of the SS Great Britain’s sailors, or seamen, was to operate and maintain the rigging and sails.
In order to operate the large square-sails on the ship’s mainmast, sailors had to work aloft in all weathers, often for hours at a time.
Working aloft was dangerous work. Victorian sailors had no safety equipment, and had to climb up the ‘ratlines’ (the ladders on either side of the mainmast) and out along the yards (the horizontal beams attached to the mast) without a harness when hauling in or setting the sails. Imagine doing this work at sea, in a gale or storm with the ship rolling, pitching and bucking in the waves, and the cold wind trying to pluck you from your high perch!
Passenger diaries and the ship’s log record accidents that happened to sailors working aloft. In 1852, when John (later Captain) Gray was First Mate, his cousin Ramsay fell off one of the yards and into the sea. Captain Matthews decided that the ship was moving too fast, and that sea conditions were too dangerous to risk other sailors lives trying to rescue Ramsay, so sadly decided not to send a boat to save him.
Today however, you can climb the mast with a full harness and safety equipment.