I am thinking of a cargo ship in the vein of a carrack, but despite quite a bit of research I was unable to find out typical sleep arrangements.

I know that captains tend to have a bigger, better equipped cabin, and I know that hammocks and berths are typical on ships, but how did these evolve over time and which considerations are relevant there?

These are some of the links that gave me a little insight into ships, but I found no hints of how the sleeping arrangements on board changed over time:

  • 1
    This isn't really a worldbuilding question, and its possible you'd get a better answer on history.se anyway. I have just learnt that hammocks were an amerind invention, and weren't standard on european ships til the late 15th century.
    – Starfish Prime
    Feb 3, 2022 at 10:21
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    Sleeping at sea might be helpful. When you say "evolve over time", what time frame are you contemplating? Carrack's were primarily 14th/15th century; is that your intent? Also, my impression is that you've got four arrangements - captains, officers, crew and others. I don't think those arrangements evolved much over the era of the carrack.
    – MCW
    Feb 3, 2022 at 12:22
  • @MCW that link is nice, thank you. The carrack is an illustration for the type of ship I was thinking of, the question is intended more broadly. I just honestly have no idea how sleeping at sea differed between Romans, Knights, Kings, ... As for preliminary research, I have searched for various related terms, but the results were really sparse. Wikipedia gave me a glimpse, but no details.
    – xeruf
    Feb 3, 2022 at 19:16
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    According to Wikipedia, hammocks were known to the English long before, just not called hammocks*. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hammock
    – TheHonRose
    Mar 26, 2022 at 13:39
  • 1
    the correct answer would be: mostly uncomfortably. But that's too short to count as an answer :)
    – jwenting
    Apr 1, 2022 at 15:48

2 Answers 2


In the summer of 1609 the Sea Venture, in company with six smaller relief vessels, sailed from Plymouth, bound for the Jamestown colony. Encountering a hurricane, the flotilla was dispersed and, eventually, in a sinking state, Sea Venture fetched up on the island of Bermuda . . . a story in itself, thus the book cited below which I just happen to be reading.

Sea Venture was fairly new, five years old. The ship was 100 feet in length and in addition to its crew carried 150 passengers including the new governor for the colony. From Lorri Glover & Daniel B Smith’s “The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown” (2008) comes some description of accommodations, starting on page 81:

. . . With 150 people crammed into the Sea Venture, there was precious little room for large items like furniture and livestock. The fleet as a whole transported only a few animals – such as Somers’ horses [Sir George Somers, commander of the convoy] – mainly for breeding. The Sea Venture carried some pigs, perhaps a few sheep, and a dog.

As they settled into the ship’s cramped quarters early in the voyage, passengers instantly surrendered any hope of privacy. Comfort on board such an overcrowded vessel was nearly impossible to find, particularly for the poorest travelers and the crew. Sailors and lesser hands stayed in the bottom deck, just above the hold, where the ceiling was perhaps four feet high in the middle – a congested mix of men and belongings. The upper and poop decks, controlled by the commanders, provided the only spaces with any sort of solitude. Cabins represented the one privileged piece of privacy for the master and one or two other officers – everyone else had to lie where they could, sleeping in any space they could find for a mat or in a small hammock hung on a nail. The ‘great cabin’ on the upper deck offered the largest room on the ship and the best lighting and breezes from its windows. Here Newport [Captain Christopher Newport, master of the Sea Venture], Somers, and Gates [Sir Thomas Gates, to be the new governor of the Virginia colony] along with their senior officers, ate and plotted their course. . . .

And from page 83:

. . . Within a week or so at sea, most passengers and crew became hard-pressed to practice basic cleanliness. Fresh water for washing was unavailable, and with gunports and hatches battened down in bad weather, fresh air rarely filtered into the lower decks. The atmosphere stank of filthy travelers, livestock, and garlic, which voyagers chewed to mask the fetid stench of waste and decaying supplies.

Sounds like a really fun way to travel, even without a run in with a hurricane.


16th century

During the time of Christopher Columbus sailors slept just wherever they could find a place, though some copied american natives and slept on hammocks. Cabins and bunks were reserved for officers.

New World Exploration

During the sixteenth century sailors slept wherever they could find a vacant place on decks or cargo. Columbus saw natives in the Caribbean area sleeping in hammocks and some of his sailors adopted the idea, but hammocks were not widely used on ships until almost 100 years later. Cabins and bunks were provided for officers, but sailors often slept on the deck in the bow, or below in bad weather.

19th century

By the 19th century a rather primitive form of berths for passengers had derived, though the living headquarters were extremely cramped, and apparently the berths were so cold the passengers had to sleep with their clothes on.


The berths are in two tiers, with an interval of 2 feet and 6 inches of space above each. They consist of an iron framework containing a mattress, a pillow, or more often a life-preserver as a substitute, and a blanket. The mattress and the pillow, if there is one, are filled with straw or seaweed.

The berth, 6 feet long and 2 feet wide and with 2 and a half feet of space above it, is all the space to which the steerage passenger can assert a definite right. To this 30 cubic feet of space he must, in a large measure, confine himself. No space is designated for hand baggage. As practically every traveler has some bag or bundle, this must be kept in the berth. It may not even remain on the floor beneath.


Despite the fact that it was typical around the 16th century for sailors to slum it in the fashion described above, it was not unheard of for sea travel to be a little more extravagant, to a certain degree. A good example is the Syracusia which was an ancient Greek shipping vessel dating back to 3rd century BCE, which contained 142 cabins for first class passengers, and 200 cabins for crew.

World History Encyclopedia

142 cabins for first-class passengers were also located on the second deck.

The crew and around 200 (according to others 400) soldiers were accommodated in the lower deck.


The Syracusia only sailed once, therefore the Syracusia was still at the earliest evolutionary stage of luxury shipping.

World History Encyclopedia

Unfortunately, the Syracusia sailed just once – on that trip from Sicily to the North Africa.

  • I'm not sure that the Syracusia is a "good example". The dimensions and numbers associated with the vessel seem far more fable than fact. There's only mention of it sailing once (and there's no mention of whether it was fully loaded when it did). In reality, I suspect it was a floating palace of sorts rather than an viable sea-going ship. Mar 26, 2022 at 12:17
  • @KillingTime Thank you, I have edited my answer to include the fact that the Syracusia was at the earliest stage of luxury shipping vessel evolution Mar 26, 2022 at 12:29

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