What do sailors call their beds?

Sailors have a unique culture and vocabulary that has developed over centuries of seafaring. This includes special terms for everyday objects and activities aboard ships. One such example is the term sailors use for their beds or sleeping quarters. Sailors have a distinct name for their beds that reflects the nature of sleeping on a ship.

What is the specific term sailors use for their beds?

The traditional term sailors use for their bed or sleeping quarters is a “rack.” The racks on ships are generally small, compact beds or bunks that fit into tight spaces below deck. The confined nature of ships means space is limited, so racks are often stacked on top of each other with just enough room to fit a mattress and bedding. This is where sailors sleep when they are not on duty.

The origin of the term rack dates back centuries. One theory suggests it comes from the Spanish word “arracadas” meaning a framework. Early ship’s racks resembled a simple wooden framework used to hold a hammock or mattress. Other theories suggest it comes from old nautical slang “wrack” meaning wreck or ruin, perhaps referring to the uncomfortable nature of the cramped racks. Whatever the exact origin, the use of “rack” endured over the years as the established term for a sailor’s bed or bunk.

Why do sailors use the term “rack”?

There are several reasons why “rack” became the standard naval term for a sailor’s bed:

  • Space Saving – Racks had to be compact and stackable to fit in the confined spaces below deck on ships.
  • Portability – Racks were often made to be broken down or transported to make space for cargo.
  • Temporary – Sailors did not see their racks as permanent beds or bedrooms like people on land.
  • Function Over Form – Racks valued practicality and function over comfort or form.
  • Nautical Tradition – Using unique terms like rack reflected the distinct culture and language of seafaring sailors.

So racks were optimized for compactness and practicality at sea over the comforts of a land-based bed. The term rack reflects these attributes. For sailors, a rack serves a simple purpose – a place to sleep when off duty. This utilitarian nature made “rack” the standard term used among naval crews for centuries.

What are the typical features of a sailor’s rack?

Racks come in a few standard designs and usually have the following key features:

  • Compact size – Usually around 6 feet long and 2-3 feet wide to conserve space.
  • Sturdy frame – Made of steel or aluminum to withstand conditions at sea.
  • Stackable – Racks are often arranged in tall stacks of 3 or more levels.
  • Fixed position – Racks are typically bolted in place for safety in rough seas.
  • Mattress – A simple mattress fits into the rack frame.
  • Storage – Some racks have built-in storage beneath the mattress.
  • Curtain – A curtain can provide privacy in shared bunk rooms.

On modern warships, racks are often stacked three high and arranged in rows with aisles between them. This allows for compact sleeping quarters to accommodate the full crew. On older ships, racks were smaller and crammed into any available space below deck. Racks always prioritized space and function over comfort. Most sailors learned to sleep soundly in the tight confines of a rack at sea.

What are some other sleeping arrangements on ships?

In addition to standard racks, there are a few other types of sleeping quarters that may be found on ships:

  • Hammocks – These were common historically, especially on sailing ships. Hammocks could be slung up out of the way during the day.
  • Cabins – On passenger ships and some modern vessels, officers may have private cabins with permanent beds.
  • Cots – Foldable cots can provide extra sleeping spaces for passengers or specialty crews.
  • Pillow racks – These are temporary sleeping spots that may use just a pillow and blanket.
  • Bed rolls – Allows sleeping on deck or finding a spare spot to rest.

However, racks remain the standard sleeping solution for most sailor crews. The use of the term reflects the unique culture and history of seafaring over the centuries.

How do sailors keep their racks and bedding clean at sea?

Maintaining cleanliness and hygiene could be a challenge on extended voyages. Sailors adopted some clever solutions for keeping their rack and bedding clean:

  • Using old sail canvas as mattress covers to protect from dirt and moisture.
  • Airing out bedding regularly when weather permitted.
  • Scrubbing racks with vinegar to disinfect.
  • Stowing bedding neatly in the rack during the day.
  • Monthly “Captain’s Inspection” to check for tidy racks.
  • Swabbing the deck and bilge areas near racks daily.
  • Following a routine of personal hygiene and cleanliness.
  • Having multiple sets of bedding to rotate usage and washing.
  • Taking advantage of shore leave to wash bedding.

It took an all-hands effort and ingenuity keep racks, bedding and crew quarters clean. Personal discipline among the crew was important as well in the tight shared living quarters. Seasoned sailors took pride in keeping a tidy rack and “ship-shape” sleeping area despite the challenges of being at sea for long periods.

How much personal space and storage do sailors have in their racks?

Space is limited in racks so personal storage and room to move is very minimal:

  • Typical rack size is just 6 x 2-3 feet of sleeping space.
  • Stacked racks means sailors sleep very close together.
  • Personal storage is often under 1 cubic foot in a built-in compartment.
  • Most sailors will have 1-2 cubic feet of shared wardrobe space.
  • Private racks are rare and usually reserved for senior officers.
  • Gyms and workshops provide additional shared storage on board.
  • There is no room for large personal items or furniture.
  • Off duty time is often spent in communal ship areas.

This lack of personal space and sparse amenities is part of the sailor’s rugged life at sea. They must adapt to communal living with sacrifice and discipline. But the bonds forged among crews who live and work together in close quarters are also strong. Sailors take pride in maintaining their small slice of personal space in a crowded ship.

What are the different watch schedules that sailors have to adapt to when sleeping in racks?

Ships operate 24 hours a day at sea, so sailor’s racks are on call for watch duties or emergencies at any time. Sailors rotate through different watch schedules that disrupt normal sleep patterns:

  • 4 On, 8 Off – The traditional system with 4 hour watches and 8 hours off duty.
  • 6 On, 6 Off – More exhausting with only 6 hours for sleeping and personal time.
  • Dog Watches – A set of shorter “dog” watches to rotate the schedule.
  • Port and Starboard – Alternating port or starboard watches.
  • Day Workers – Support crews who work during the day.
  • Night Workers – Those supporting overnight operations and maintenance.

Being able to sleep soundly in a rack despite disruptions is an essential skill for sailors. They learn to take advantage of whatever minimal off-duty time they have. The ability to sleep anywhere, anytime is known as “racking out” – a valuable survival skill at sea.

What are some colloquial expressions using the term “rack”?

Over centuries, sailors have developed their own culture and jargon. This includes some colorful expressions that use the term “rack”:

  • “Hit the rack” – Going to bed.
  • “Rack time” – Sleep or rest time.
  • “Rack out” – Fall asleep quickly in any situation.
  • “Rack monster” – Mythical creature that prevents you from leaving your rack.
  • “Rack rash” – Bruising or abrasion from a small, hard rack.
  • “Rack city” – Slang for berthing compartment.
  • “Womb to the tomb” – Describes enlisting from a young age until retirement.
  • “Flaked out in the rack” – Deep asleep in bed.

These informal phrases reflect the unique culture of sailors and help provide humor during long months at sea away from home. The rack remains central to a sailor’s life so it’s no surprise a lively lexicon has emerged around it over the centuries sailors have been going “down to the sea in ships”.

What are some tips for sleeping well in a rack?

Getting quality rest in the tight confines of a sailor’s rack is an acquired skill. Here are some tips passed down over generations for sleeping well in your rack:

  • Secure loose items so they don’t move around in rough seas.
  • Use a lee cloth to keep you in the rack if the ship rolls.
  • Wear earplugs to block noise from the ship and crew.
  • Use an eye mask to block light during odd hours.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol or heavy meals before rest hours.
  • Take advantage of quiet moments to nap during the day.
  • Read or relax in your rack to make it a sanctuary for rest.
  • Personalize your rack with favorite pictures or familiar items from home.

With practice, sailors gain the ability to sleep soundly under almost any conditions – a skill honed over centuries of seafaring lives centered around the humble but essential “rack”.


For centuries of sailors, life at sea has revolved around the utilitarian rack. While it may seem like a hard and uncomfortable bed to landlubbers, the rack holds a place of honor in the traditions and culture of seafarers. The compact, no-frills rack allows large crews to live at close quarters while saving precious space aboard ship. Sailors have adopted the term “rack” into a rich lexicon of nautical jargon and colloquialisms. For old salts and new recruits alike, mastering the art of sleeping soundly in a swaying, rolling rack remains a rite of passage and a critical skill for all sailors. Though racks come in different forms across various seagoing vessels, the sailor’s intimate relationship with their rack persists as an unchanging feature of maritime life.

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