From sail to steam as a driving force of ships

During this period, the life of the seamen on board ships changed dramatically, from handling the sailing rig in all weather conditions to shovelling coal and keeping the steam up

The industrial revolution was the beginning of the end for sailing ships, and made the transition from sail to steam possible with the invention of the steam engine.

Steamships are the earliest form for mechanical propulsion of ships after oars and sails. The first steamship to cross the Atlantic was the Savannah in 1819.

Until the 1920s, coal was the most common source of energy for the production of steam to propel ships. Coal was then replaced by oil and the diesel engine made its entrance in 1910, when it was first used in ships. Since then, it has completely displaced the steam engine.

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution is the name of the great changes that began in England from the middle of the 18th century. It is one of the greatest upheavals in history and is about the transition from an agricultural society to industrial society, from crafts and muscle power to factories and machine power.

Muscle replaces

What we perhaps most of all associate with the industrial revolution is the transition from renewable energy such as our own and the livestock’s muscle power, hydropower, and wind power to the use of coal. It was by no means a new discovery.

In England there were many places where the coal was just below the surface and thus easily accessible.

As the country was deforested by a growing population that built more houses, railways and ships, the use of coal increased. Thus, they began to extract coal by making tunnels going further and further into the earth.

The steam engine

The first machine that made the transition from muscle power to industry possible was the steam engine. The machine patented by James Watt in 1769 is the most famous, and has remained as the first steam engine.

Steamboats and steam locomotives became important for transporting raw materials and finished goods to growing markets ever faster.

Large values were created at an increasing rate during this period.

The painting Iron and Coal from 1855–60 by William Bell Scott illustrates how the processing of metal using coal laid the foundation for technology during the Industrial Revolution.
Picture: From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

Development of the Clipper Route

Evolution rewarded the fastest ships and was the reason for the development of the Clipper ships and the formation of the Clipper Route which was a race against time, money, and other vessels.

Routes used by sailing ships were developed as a result of the sailing characteristics and wind conditions. The sailing ships had poor sailing properties in headwinds, but good properties in tailwinds.

Thus, the Clipper route became the most common sailing route, as there were favourable winds, so-called trade winds, which were suitable for the sailing ships. It was used by clipper ships between Europe and the Far East, Australia, and New Zealand.

An aura of romance and drama

However, this route posed the greatest risk, in that it passed south of the three great Capes and for a large part through the South Seas, with strong winds, large waves and icebergs. This combination of the fastest ships, with the fastest route, the highest risk, and the greatest economic benefits, gave the route a special aura of romance and drama.

The handling of a large sailing ship is a demanding process for the crew, both in terms of knowledge and experience and for setting sails and changing tack

Setting sail

A sailing ship crew must manage the running rigging of each square sail. In strong winds, the crew is directed to reduce the number of sails, by a process called reefing.

Changing tack

Sailing vessels cannot sail directly into the wind. Instead, square-riggers must sail a course that is between 60° and 70° away from the wind direction and fore-and aft vessels can typically sail no closer than 45°.

To reach a destination, sailing vessels may have to change course and allow the wind to come from the opposite side in a procedure, called tacking.

To manage the sailing rig, sailing ships had a large complement.

The crew consisted of a captain, 1st, 2nd, & 3rd mates, steward, cook, sailmaker, 38 to 42 able seamen and shipboys

Diagram contrasting course made good to windward by tacking a schooner versus a square-rigged ship.
Picture: From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

The clipper ship Flying Cloud

Record breaking sailing by Flying Cloud from New York to San Francisco during the California Gold Rush in 1854

Flying Cloud is often called an extreme Clipper, and was a sailing ship that set a world record with the fastest passage between New York and San Francisco in 89 days and 8 hours. The ship held this record for over 130 years, from 1854 to 1989.

With the skipper’s wife as a navigator on board
In the beginning of the California Gold Rush, it took more than 200 days for a ship to travel from New York to San Francisco. Flying Clouds halved this time to just 89 days.

Eleanor Creesy was not only the captain’s wife, but also the official navigator aboard one of America’s most famous and fastest sailing ships.
This was at a time when navigation was primitive, partly experimental, and dependent solely on sun, stars, currents, and a sextant.
Using the latest scientific data and the navigation techniques, which most others ignored,
she set a record that stood for 135 years and became historic.

The route from New York City to San Francisco flourished during the gold rush.

Cargo, passengers, and supplies were to be transported to the West as quickly as possible for Gold Mining.
The voyage was 16,000 nautical miles in some of the most dangerous sea areas, including the rounding of Cape Horn. Calling it a “journey” was a technical term, in reality it was a race against time, money and other vessels.

The Clipper Ship “Flying Cloud” off the Needles, Isle of Wight 1859–1860, by James E. Buttersworth.
From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

The clipper ship Cutty Sark

“Cutty Sark” was one of the most famous Clippers that sailed for the British East India Company. The ship was built in 1869 and until 1877 it sailed with tea between Great Britain and China.


Cutty Sark with all sails set in 1869
From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

The first «Tea Seasons»

Cutty Sark was designed for the tea trade, at the time an intense race that went from China to London.

A “prize” or bonus was paid to the ship that arrived with this year’s first tea to London. This bonus ended after the Great Tea Race in 1866.

The reason was that the fastest ships could usually achieve a higher price for transporting the cargo than others.

The Suez Canal served as a shortcut to the Far East for steamships when opened in 1870

After the opening of the Suez Canal, the sailing ships were outcompeted by steamships in that they could take a faster route through the canal, while the sailing ships had to go around the Cape of Good Hope. Leading to the fact that in 1900 the sailing ship era was indisputably over.

The American Dream

50 million Europeans dreamed the American dream seeking new opportunities in life. and thus, created a market for the transport of emigrants across the Atlantic.

In the period 1820-1930, around 50 million Europeans emigrated to North America. The great waves of emigration started in the 1860s.

White-Star Line was one of the major steamship companies that transported the emigrants across the Atlantic. The profitability of Atlantic traffic provided the White-Star line with a basis for building the world’s largest passenger ship, the S / S Titanic

Titanic the last great steamship and the end of an era

The Titanic was the largest ship built until then. It was built by Harland and the Wolff shipyard in Belfast, and was launched and put into service in 1912. It sank on its maiden voyage. Of the estimated 2,224 passengers and crew aboard, more than 1,500 died.
Her length was 269 m with a maximum width of 28m. Total height, measured from the base of the keel to the top of the bridge, was 32 m. At a draught of 10 m, she displaced 52,310 tons.

Titanic was equipped with three main engines. Two steam engines and one centrally placed low-pressure Parsons turbine, each driving a propeller. The two reciprocating engines had a combined output of 30,000 horsepower. The output of the steam turbine was 16,000 horsepower.
They were powered by steam produced in 29 boilers. Each weighing 91.5 tons and capable of holding 48.5 tons of water.

The steam was made in the boilers by burning coal of which totally 6,611 tonnes were transported in Titanic’s coal bunkers. The boilers required over 600 tonnes of coal a day, which meant that 176 men, firefighters, and coal trimmers had to work around the clock. 100 tons of ash a day were thrown into the sea.

Titanic Cruising speed was 21 knots, with a max speed 23 kn.

Titanic starboard view
From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

The opening of the Panama Canal revolutionized shipping worldwide

When the Panama Canal opened on August 15th, 1914, it was a technological marvel.
A complex series of locks made it possible for even the largest ships of the time to pass, and revolutionized shipping traffic worldwide. A new era began.

Modern use of the Clipper route

The first person to attempt to sail the Clipper Route with a modern sailboat was Francis Chichester in 1966 – 67. At that time, he was already a remarkable aviation pioneer, who had flown solo from London to Sydney. He was also a pioneer of single-handed yacht racing, and was one of the founders of the Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Race (OSTAR).

Today, there are several major races that follow the Clipper route and are held regularly. One of them is the Volvo Ocean Race, a race with crew and with stops, which follows this route every four years.

The Vendée Globe is a single-handed (solo) non-stop round the world yacht race.
The race was founded by Philippe Jeantot in 1989, and since 1992 it has taken place every fourth year. It is named after the Département of Vendée, in France, where the race starts and ends.
The Vendée Globe is considered an extreme quest of individual endurance and the ultimate test in ocean racing.

Dame Ellen Mac Arthur set a new world record in the trimaran B & Q / Castorama
In 2005.
Ellen Mac Arthur set a new world record with her single handed non-stop round the world sailing in the trimaran B & Q / Castorama. The time she spent on the route was 71 days, 14 hours, and 18 minutes.

It was the fastest solo voyage around the world until then. With this record, MacArthur is the fastest female around the earth sailor ever. She was awarded Dame for her efforts, and holds the name Dame Ellen Mac Arthur.

In 2008, however, Francis Joyon broke this record in a trimaran with a time of 57 days, 13 hours.

Vendee Globe Race Route
From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

The inspiration to the creation of Vindskip®

 In the next article in this series, we will look at fast sailing machines with a great ability to carry sails and which inspired to the creation of Vindskip®.