Capt. Arthur David LINKLATER

Sailing Versus Steam Shipping in the 1890s (i)

This section on Sail contains uncorrected notes and jottings. It was intended for the most lubberly of landlubbers, principally myself. Nothing much has happened between then [Oct 2009] and now [Oct 2018], so this is probably as good as it is going to get. Apologies etc.

Comparing passage times of steamers with those of sailers should [but usually doesn't] take into account the overall distances covered. A Steamer's route from the U.K. to say Sydney, via Suez, would be about 11,500 miles. A sailer, obliged to go either via ‘the Cape’ [of S.Africa] and cover maybe 15,000 miles or go via Cape Horn, a shorter distance, but have to gamble on being held up by contrary wind i.e. head winds when tackling the Horn. It is not unheard of for ships to attempt Cape Horn only to be held up for weeks on end and finally turn tail and sail eastwards or, on the ‘home’ trip, ships intending to sail eastwards around Cape Horn before turning north up the Atlantic and finding head winds there would again turn tail and head back across the Pacific or Southern Ocean and sail westwards around S Africa. There are even more extreme examples of ships prevented by head winds in gaining their passage. The Inverneill was renamed Garthneill in Melbourne before sailing for Bunbury [about 100 miles south of Perth] to load railway sleepers for Cape Town in S. Africa. This should have been a simple coasting trip of about 2000 miles westwards along the southern coast of Australia but was made impossible by prevailing westerly winds. The ship was forced to turn about and, being unable to get back into Melbourne, headed for Sydney for repairs. The intention then was to go anticlockwise around Australia via the Torres Straights - never an easy option but on this occasion made impossible by the continuing westerlies which finally compelled the master to adopt a if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them policy and run before the wind. He turned about and went right around the world via Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, his intended destination, in order to approach his departure point from the West! which he finally did 76 days after leaving Sydney having been posted, unsurprisingly, as ‘missing’ in the meantime.

Ships sailing from the U.K. were generally referred to as “outward bounders” whereas those heading back were making the “home” trip. This seems to have been common useage even among second and third generation colonial setllers. Frank Worsley being such a one in New zealand wrote as his first ship, the Wairoa entered the English Channel; I was approaching ‘Home.’ The England that I had never set foot on was ‘Home. ’We English of New Zealand have a keen patriotism, more aware of itself than the equally deep but self-concealed love of country that pervades the home-born Englishman - or Briton as it behoves one to say these days. Imbibed from our parents was the pathetic love of the exile for the kith, home and country that, in most cases, he was fated never to see again.

The abilty of square rigged ships to sail to windward was very limited, especially considering a steamship's ability to progress more-or-less unimpeeded. Consider; a square rigged ship needs to go due north. However, the wind is from due north. What progress could be made? The answer was about 30-35 miles in any one day north of the ship's starting point. An average ship could steer no closer than about 65° to the wind. However, leeway, the effective sideways thrust of the wind exerted on the ships hull and rigging, would have pushed her at least a further 5° off her intended course. An average modern yacht should be able to sail about 40° off the wind. While 30-35 miles beating to windward was not much, it was forward progress, but required sea-room to get the tacks in. Constricted space, such as a lee shore [nearby coast with wind blowing onto it] with a headland or other outlying obstructions often resulted in another little cross being placed on a chart signifying ‘wreck’.

The speed of all ships, including modern supertankers, is proportional to the length of hull. In sailing ships, given two ships identical in every respect save for hull length, the longer hull would sail faster than the shorter. However, brute force gets you nowhere as any hull has a maximum speed of travel beyond which it will become unstable and, in extreme conditions - such as being towed too fast - will capsize. There is a complex relationship between a hull and its wake and wave pattern such that the closer a ship approaches its maximum hull speed, the greater the drag exerted by the water limiting its speed. The two principal sources of hull friction are the wave-making resistance caused by waves made by the hull and the frictional resistance caused by the water passing over the hull, rudder, shaft [if any] etc. Frictional resistance increases steadily and proportionally with speed, but wave-making resistance increases exponentially with speed. At low speeds, frictional resistance is proportionally greater than wave-making resistance; as speed increases wave-making resistance becomes very much the greater force. In a square rigged sailing ship of say 2000 tons running before the wind in the Southern Ocean, where 60 ft high waves are common, gravity would propel 2000 tons of steel ship down-hill at speeds greater than her hull speed making steering tricky becsue of the inherent instability caused by the speed. One real danger then was a broach, i.e. where the ship's direction sheers suddenly across the wind which could lead to capsize, dismasting or being sunk outright by the following wave, generally foundering stern first.

“We worked twenty-two hours of the twenty-four, but were hot with hard and exciting work - work for which the average wage was nineteen pennies a day! The officers averaged three shillings a day. Our Croeusus - Captain Bungard - got fourteen shillings a day.” [Worsley 1st voyage p 243]

All ships had their own perdsonal identifier or ‘signal number’. At night this could be communicated over quite a long distance by morse, but by day many lamps were ineffective as, being merely oil lamps, insufficiently bright. Semaphore was a possibility but viable over only comparatively short distances. The commonest practice was to hoist the signal number using flags of the International Code. Some nationalities were chattier than others. British ships were apparently great gossips, whereas Americans often disdained an acknowledgement.

The apprentices occupied the ‘half-deck’ and were discouraged from associating too much with fo'c'sle hands. Writing of his time as an apprentice in the 1890s Capt. Fred Ellis (according to whom “all pigs are called ‘Dennis’ on board ship”) wrote; “Morse signalling was not practised in the merchant service in those days.” Ellis also used a farming metaphore employed by Dum; “I was a farmer last night” explaining “I had neither a wheel nor a lookout trick.”

The main difference between sailing in Dum's day and Elizabethan were fewer leeks, scurvy and more disease due to overcrowding [consumption, typhus, cholera, yellow-jack], ignorance of hygiene, and tainted food and wtaer. Within Dum's lifetime sailing changed beyond anything recognisable to an Elizabethan sailor with the advent of steam, wireless and, latterly, radar. Tarpaulins had allowance of 1 gallon of beer a day whereas shellbacks had 'grog', watered down rum. B.O.T. regs stipulated each man had daily allowance of limejuice which gave rise to Brit sailors being referred to as limejuicers and subsequently all Brits as limeys. Lime juice based on ignorant misconception that they had anti-scorbutic properties whereas Cook had shown that it was lemons.

Tudor ships were well manned compared to late 19th early 20th as, apart from the sailors they usually carried a fighting force aboard who could be called upon to heave on ropes etc. Nor were wooden ships driven so hard as later iron and steel as they could not withstand the strains.

Ships could not be sailed empty. As cargos not always obtainable at port of unloading ballast had to be loaded. Ships were often sailed thus from London to Australia. This must have represented a tremendous cost, if not outright loss, to the ship. The ballast - sand or gravel or whatever - had to be purchased and the labour of loading and unloading it had to be paid for. Sailing half way round the globe with a cargo to be chucked overboard sounds like an enterprise worthy of the British government or any of its miriad accomplices supposed to be running the health service, defense, civil service, banking etc.

The salted meat or ‘junk’ as it was known, was often so hard and inedible that sailors carved ‘mahogany curios’ from it which they subsequently sold for the price of a pint.

British shipyards at their peak 1870-90. Windjammer boom 1888-93 It mattered little that wheat took a long time to transport from the West coast of America and Australia to Britain as it was cheaper to have it aboard ship than stored in a warehouse. It was for theis reason that grain was traded so much in transit and only offloaded to its final buyer

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© 2018 Duncan Linklater