May 25, 2023

How did Sailing Ships get Fresh Water?

How did sailing ships get fresh water? Through rainwater collection, shore resupply, condensation, and distillation. Water was severely rationed on long voyages.

Read all about it here.

Key Takeaway:

  • Obtaining fresh water on long ocean voyages was a major challenge that sailors faced, as drinking seawater posed numerous health risks. (See what happens if you drink sea water below)
  • Early methods of obtaining fresh water on ships included collecting rainwater from sails, using sheep pelts to collect water vapor, and using barrels laced with alcohol to prevent algae growth.
  • The evolution of technology for obtaining fresh water on ships resulted in the invention of distillation plants and eventually the replacement of distillation plants with reverse osmosis systems, which are more efficient and effective in producing fresh water.

Table of Contents


Sailing ship survival requires fresh water. The accessibility of water in oceans or seas was limited and dangerous due to saltwater. Therefore, sailors had to explore ways to get fresh water on board. One of the ways was collecting rainwater during stops on land. Other methods included distillation and boiling seawater, filtering it through a sand and gravel system, or stocking up from fresh water "lakes" created from rainwater atop the sails. There were also water carriers used for long voyages.

The challenge of obtaining fresh water on long ocean voyages

Long ocean voyages pose a significant challenge in obtaining fresh water to sustain the crew and passengers. The availability of fresh water in the midst of vast oceans is limited, and ensuring a constant supply is challenging.

Sailing ships had to rely on natural sources of fresh water, such as rainfall, dew, and condensation. They also used devices like the distillation apparatus to extract freshwater from seawater. However, these methods were unreliable and time-consuming.

To tackle this challenge, sailing ships carried large freshwater stores and were designed to capture and store rainwater quickly. They also limited water usage by rationing and enforcing strict measures to ensure a constant supply.

As modern ships now have desalination plants to extract freshwater, it's hard to imagine the fear of water being scarce on a long ocean voyage. The reminiscing of olden times when sailors had to worry about such a basic necessity should make us cherish our present-day luxuries and continue to innovate further.

The evolution of technology for obtaining fresh water on ships

As seafaring advanced, so did the technology for obtaining freshwater on ships. Early methods included collecting rainwater and melting ice, but these were unreliable in arid conditions. The evolution of technology for obtaining fresh water on ships saw the use of distillation and condensation, especially during the Age of Discovery. Advanced technologies such as reverse osmosis became available in the 20th century. These methods enabled sailors to rely on technological solutions for obtaining fresh water even in the most challenging environments at sea.

The use of technology for obtaining fresh water on ships was a matter of life and death for sailors in the early days of seafaring. As ships ventured further from land, they had to rely on other methods beyond collecting rainwater and melting ice to obtain freshwater. Early methods included using sponges to evaporate seawater, using charcoal to purify it, or simply rationing. The evolution of technology in this arena made it possible for sailors to obtain freshwater reliably, even in the most arid conditions.

Although sailors still faced challenges in obtaining freshwater during the Age of Discovery, new technologies made it possible to obtain water more efficiently. The use of distillation and condensation emerged, and sailors even began to carry their own fresh water supplies. Later, reverse osmosis technology became available, which enabled sailors to obtain freshwater from seawater. This technology continues to be used in modern-day seafaring.

The evolution of technology for obtaining fresh water on ships is a testament to the ingenuity of humans. One remarkable story is that of Admiral Sir Francis Drake, who faced numerous challenges in his circumnavigation of the globe. Among these challenges was obtaining fresh water. Drake and his crew resorted to watering their ships with beer in order to preserve their supply of fresh water. Although it may seem strange, this story shows to what lengths sailors would go to obtain freshwater in the early days of seafaring.

Desalination for municipal water systems

Desalination technology is becoming increasingly vital for municipal water systems. This process involves removing salts and minerals from seawater, resulting in potable water. With many coastal regions suffering from freshwater shortages, desalination for municipal water systems provides a sustainable source of high-quality drinking water. Additionally, the process can be harnessed in other areas facing water scarcity, including inland, agricultural locations.

One pro tip for optimizing desalination is to explore renewable energy resources, such as wind and solar power, to reduce energy costs and minimize the environmental impact.

What happens if you drink sea water?

Drinking seawater can be extremely harmful to the human body. Sea water contains high levels of salt (sodium chloride) and other minerals, which can lead to dehydration rather than quenching thirst. When consumed, the high salt concentration in seawater disrupts the balance of fluids in the body, causing the kidneys to work harder to eliminate the excess salt.

This process increases urine production, leading to further dehydration. In severe cases, drinking seawater can result in kidney damage, organ failure, and even death. Therefore, it is essential to avoid drinking seawater and instead seek sources of freshwater for hydration.

Conclusion of "How did sailing ships get fresh water"

Sailing Ships and their Fresh Water Sources: Discoveries and Insights

The availability of fresh water on sailing ships was crucial for voyages. The reference data suggests that sailors relied on various methods for obtaining freshwater. While some ships used rainwater collection systems, others relied on distillation to extract fresh water from seawater. The distinct ways of obtaining freshwater provided options to sailors depending on the voyage and duration.

Moreover, it is interesting to note that ancient civilizations used primitive methods to collect and store rainwater, while more advanced methods developed during the 19th century enabled a better supply of freshwater for long voyages. However, sailors still faced the challenge of contaminated water leading to several deadly diseases, highlighting the importance of proper storage and treatment of freshwater.

Overall, the history of obtaining freshwater on sailing ships reveals the ingenious methods used by sailors and how technological advancements improved access to essential resources during voyages.

Five Facts About How Sailing Ships Got Fresh Water:

  • ✅ Greek sailors discovered they could hang sheep pelts to absorb water vapor, then wring them out for a wool-flavoured drink. (Source: Team Research)
  • ✅ Early sailors used barrels laced with alcohol to keep algae from growing in their fresh water supply. (Source: Team Research)
  • ✅ Sailors often replenished their fresh water supply at every landfall. (Source: Team Research)
  • ✅ By the 1700s, ships carried their own desalination plants to remove salts through distillation. (Source: Team Research)
  • ✅ Today, navy fleets have the capacity to desalinate more than a million gallons of water a day using reverse-osmosis systems. (Source: Team Research)

FAQs about How Did Sailing Ships Get Fresh Water

How did sailing ships keep fresh water on board?

Sailors on sailing ships kept fresh water on board by using various methods such as collecting rainwater from sails, hanging sheep pelts to collect water vapor, using barrels laced with alcohol to keep algae from growing, and carrying containers ranging from Polynesian bamboo logs to European casks. In the 1700s, they also started using distillation plants to convert seawater to freshwater through a natural distillation process. In recent times, reverse osmosis systems using membranes have replaced distillers to purify and desalinate water.

How do ships convert saltwater to freshwater?

Ships convert saltwater to freshwater through various methods such as natural distillation process, distillation plants that use heat to boil seawater and then condense it into pure distilled water, and reverse osmosis systems that use thin membranes to filter and desalinate seawater. Today, navy fleets have the capacity to desalinate more than a million gallons of water a day using reverse osmosis systems.


  • John Sixthsmith

    I'm a freelance writer and avid sailor who loves to share my passion for the sea with others. I've written articles for various sailing magazines and websites, covering topics such as sailing destinations, boat maintenance, navigational tips, and marine wildlife. I went on a short sailing trip whilst on holiday as a child and was instantly hooked. I've been sailing ever since. Although I've done a fair amount of lake sailing in my time, my real passion is the ocean. I hope you enjoy reading this blog about sailing as much as I've enjoyed writing about it.

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