Heat baths or sweat lodges such as the Russian banya and the temescal of the Mesoamericans are common around the world, especially where it gets cold. These insulated, purpose-built structures are built around a specific heat source to reach a high interior temperature. Some have water features and others are dry. Plenty of reasons explain why people like to use heat baths. The necessary technology is ancient.

While space and fuel are at a premium on almost any boat, a cold ocean voyage seems to call for trips to the sauna. They are now easy to find on large yachts and cruise ships. What was the first heat bath on a seagoing vessel?

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    There could well be a sizable time difference between the very first example (which could be on a vanity project for a rich (royal?) owner) and the point when they first became commonplace. For the latter, I'd guess after the age of sail, when vessels became larger and required comparatively smaller crews. Heat from the steam engines could also have been diverted to provide heat for the sauna.
    – Steve Bird
    Jul 18, 2017 at 6:43
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    Wouldn't the amount of fuel necessary to produce enough heat generally be more of an issue than the space needed for the sauna itself or any safety issue regarding fire?
    – Relaxed
    Jul 20, 2017 at 7:26

1 Answer 1


Technologically it became not only possible, but easy in the time of cannon ships - when they started to heat the cannon balls to lit the enemy ships. If they could keep hot cannon balls, they could keep the hot stones without litting up the own ship. or to use these balls. Relatively closed space and pouring the water on these stones make no problem by itself. In travels by foot a tent was used, on the ship a sail could be used. Not a problem.

So, Russian, Norwegian and Swedish (Danish?) war ships could make a sauna, they loved it, it was a natural part of life for them, and every time when they had enough wood, surely, they did it.

About when that possibility was realized. When I have read the description of the travel of Bellisgauzen and Lazarev in which they open Antarctida, banya ( = sauna with a bit vapour) was mentioned as a weekly (on Saturdays) washing for the command. And it was something absolutely natural, not special for that expedition. It was not thorougly described there, only something as "After banya, when the free shift was resting on the deck, checking and repairing their uniforms, ropes and spare sails...". It is 1819-1821 years. I don't have earlier references.

As for former times, when ships used cabotage courses, the sauna on board was simply useless and dangerous. Games with fire are dangerous on a wooden ship. Any ship owner could have such caprice, but if somebody had registered that?

As for Vikings, they could be the first in on board sauna use. Their travels in the open sea lasted for several days. They needed it and they could do it. But now mentions known to me.

Japanese and Chinese term in light variant was simply a large barrel of hot water. Absolutely no problems to use that on big enough boat, you should only have enough wood and an oven.

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    Technologically having fire / heated stones on a ship was possible a lot earlier. Incendiary weapons were believed to be used as early as Rhoses, 300 BC (Casson, Lionel, The Ancient Mariners: Seafarers and Sea Fighters of the Mediterranean in Ancient Times Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 1991. ISBN 0-691-06836-4, p. 139), and I don't see how any culture that had invented braziers couldn't use them on a ship. The question is, why should they...
    – DevSolar
    Jul 18, 2017 at 11:45
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    The expedition happened in 1819-1821.
    – user58697
    Jul 19, 2017 at 20:21
  • I can't find their book online, but the text suggests that the Vostok and/or the Mirny had a purpose-built banya on board? Jul 19, 2017 at 23:21
  • @AaronBrick A metal sheet for hot cannon balls or stones, and a tent of a sail over it. That is enough. You don't need to build it.
    – Gangnus
    Jul 19, 2017 at 23:55
  • But you do need to allocate space for it, have a container for the heat source, and seal or insulate to some degree, at least on an Antarctic voyage. Hard to believe the banya could be a jury-rigged afterthought on a voyage like that. Jul 20, 2017 at 0:34

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