Sunday, July 18, 2010

Remembering a nautical milestone

On July 19th, 1843, 167 years ago, the SS Great Britain was launched in Bristol, England.

She was a remarkable vessel for her time: the first commercial steamship to be both built entirely of iron and equipped with a screw for propulsion instead of paddle-wheels. Each of these advances had been used in other ships, but they'd never before been combined. Great Britain was also the largest vessel ever launched. At 3,675 tons designed displacement at full load, she was almost a thousand tons larger than anything built before. She was 322 feet long, just over 50 feet in the beam, and drew about 16 feet at full load. She had six masts, most of them schooner-rigged to make sail-handling easier and require less crew, thus saving on running costs.

She was intended for the North Atlantic route between Liverpool and New York. Her first crossing in 1845 took almost 15 days at an average speed of less than 10 knots. Subsequent voyages showed the need for modifications; her original six-bladed propeller was replaced by a four-blade unit, one mast was removed, and her iron-cable rigging was replaced with conventional ropes. She's shown below after these modifications.

Unfortunately, SS Great Britain ran aground in Dundrum Bay, Ireland, in 1846.

It took almost a year to salvage Great Britain. The cost of doing so was too much for her owners, who went bankrupt. Sold at auction for a fraction of her original cost, she was refitted for the trans-Atlantic service, with new engines and propulsion system, reduced mast and sail area (losing one mast for a total of four, two square-rigged and two schooner-rigged), and a greatly increased cargo capacity.

However, after only one more run to New York, she was sold again, this time for service on the UK-Australia route. Another refit followed, doubling her passenger capacity, and she lost one more mast, converting to a three-masted square-rigged configuration for the rest of her ocean-going career. Her fixed screw for propulsion was replaced with one that could be lifted out of the water, reducing drag for operation under sail alone. (On the long voyage to and from Australia, the latter was frequently used for reasons of economy, the engines only being employed when winds were unfavorable or additional speed was required.)

SS Great Britain served on the Australian run from 1852 to 1882, carrying thousands of migrants, businessmen and visitors. By 1882 she was considered too old and slow by the standards of the day to handle passenger traffic. Her engines were deactivated, and she was converted into a sail-powered bulk coal-carrier. She served in this capacity for only four years before a fire in 1886 caused severe damage. She put into Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, where she was found to be too badly damaged for economic repair. She was therefore converted into a permanently-moored coal storage hulk to serve the Falklands.

She remained at Port Stanley until 1937. A brief moment of 'glory' came in December 1914, when she refueled the Royal Navy squadron that defeated Admiral von Spee at the Battle of the Falkland Islands that month. In 1937, her usefulness finally deemed at an end, she was towed to nearby Sparrow Cove, scuttled, and abandoned.

However, even abandoned, she would prove useful once more, in a rather ironic way. In 1939 the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, named to honor the leader of the German squadron at the Battle of the Falkland Islands, was brought to bay by the Royal Navy in the Battle of the River Plate. One of the British warships, the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, badly damaged by Graf Spee's 11-inch guns, took refuge at Port Stanley to make temporary repairs before returning home to England. She was able to use plates from the hull of SS Great Britain to repair some of her battle damage; so the latter ship first refueled the ships who defeated (and killed) the Admiral, and then, 25 years later, supplied materials to repair one of the ships that sank his namesake.

SS Great Britain rotted away unnoticed for several decades . . . until maritime history enthusiasts in England suddenly realized she was still in existence, albeit very dilapidated, and remembered her importance in the development of the art and science of shipbuilding. A major campaign was mounted to raise funds to save her. In 1970, her hulk was loaded onto a barge and towed all the way up the South Atlantic and North Atlantic Oceans, returning to the dockyard where she was built in Bristol. Thousands gathered to welcome her home.

Many years of conservation and restoration followed. Today, the SS Great Britain is one of the UK's most successful and award-winning museums, fully restored and open to the public. 150,000 people visit her each year. She's a national nautical treasure. The BBC has just published an article celebrating the 40th anniversary of her return to Bristol, with video of the voyage and comments from those involved in her restoration. It's worth reading.

I'm very pleased that so historic a ship has been saved for posterity. If you ever find yourself in Bristol, England, pay her a visit. You'll enjoy it.



Anonymous said...

Just a minor, but important correction (it does matter to us sailors) The ship is not "schooner-rigged", rather, it's "gaff-rigged".

a schooner-rigged sail is a full triangle shape with the top point at the mast. A gaff-rigged sail is topped by a "gaff boom" or "top boom".

Other than the above point, this is an excellent article and I look forward to more!

Peter said...

Anonymous, I respectfully disagree. Early schooners (and many later ones) used the gaff rig. Some schooners used the Bermuda rig, which I think is what you're referring to as a 'full triangle shape'; but that in no way defines a schooner as such. If you look at the Wikipedia article on schooners ( ), you'll see gaff-rigged vessels of that classification illustrated.

Anonymous said...

Peter, This will teach me not to post before I've had my coffee (or several.) I was thinking of the Marconi rig (same thing as the Bermuda rig) but the right term apparently escaped me. My apologies.

What I meant (but clearly didn't say) was there really is no such thing as a "schooner-rig" unless you are referring to the mast arrangement. I meant to clarify that sail plans are never called "schooner-rigged", but rather to the actual sails in use, such as "Gaff-rig" or "Bermuda-rig" or "square sails", etc., whatever sail plan is in use.

Going by the illustrations in the post, it appears the owners couldn't make up their minds what sail plans to use as it appears to have changed frequently over time.

Next time, I'll wait until the caffeine had a chance to kick in before posting something embarrassing!

Anonymous said...

This ship was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a classic example of an engineer.

This is amazing, to me: "In 2002, Brunel was placed second in a BBC public poll to determine the "100 Greatest Britons"."

I wonder where the highest engineer in the USA would fall on a similar list?