Capt. Arthur David LINKLATER


Notes and jottings.

In nautical parlance a ship is a square rigged vessel with three masts. A barque* also has three masts but only the two foremost square rigged; the aftermost mast, the mizzen, being rigged fore and aft. Square rigged vessels are those whose sails are set across the boat suspended from a yard attached by its centre to a mast; fore and aft rigged sails are set in line with the ship and supported by gaffs and booms attached at one end only to the mast. The combination of fore-and-aft with square rigged sails, as in a barque, was to balance the spread of sail with the helm, making the vessel easier to steer. This was also true of staysails, sails rigged between masts without spars and found on both square and fore-and-aft rigged vessels. Such sails lifted the bow and prevented it ‘ploughing’ and thus increased forward drive. In contradistinction to a barque are four- and five-masted barques. Other configurations of masts and sails abound, all with different names, but all we need to know is that ‘boats’ don't come in to any of it and that the British Princess in which my grandfather Arthur David Linklater [a.k.a. 'Dum' - see here for reasons why] served his apprenticeship in the 1890s was a barque as defined above. However, she did not start out thus. British Princess was built originally as an iron hulled ship, as opposed to a barque, in 1864 when she weighed a sprightly 1230 tons with a length of some 212 feet. In 1875, in what was by then a common surgical procedure, she was lengthened by about 34 feet, increasing her tonnage to 1480 tons and converted to a barque at the same time.

* I regret to say that the American spelling of ‘bark’ appears more correct than the usual British spelling of ‘barque’. The latter seems to have been a piece of 19th century romantic affectation prior to which we spelt it as the Americans do. New habits dying hard I shall stick to ‘barque’.

An exception to prove the above was the famous ‘barque’ Endeavour, a three masted, square-rigged vessel commanded by James Cook. In naval terminology ships could only be commanded by captains; as Cook, when he first took command, was only a lieutenant the ship could not possibly be a ship and was thus H.M. Barque Endeavour. Once he got his captaincy the barque was miraculously restored to being a ship.

The barque was developed originally in the 18th century and for most of the 19th was the preferred rig for vessels from 200 to 2000 tons. Shortly before Dum signed his indentures the development of the barque was at its apogee and large examples continued to be built in Britain up till around 1900. The last one built in Europe was the Padua built in Germany in 1926. Even though construction ceased pretty much after 1900, their continued use into the 1920s was widespread. Their decline after the Great War was rapid and their use thereafter was only maintained by a few stalwart, mainly Finnish, owners for shipping wheat from Australia to Europe. Another late, local use was in the Alaska salmon fisheries where all that was required were large, cheap vessels capable of taking men and their equipment north in the spring and return with them and the canned fish in the autumn. For the greater part of the year they remained inactive. Large barques and other bulk sailers could be bought very cheap in the 1920s and once their gear was worn out they were scrapped. The supply of such old cheap vessels gradually petered out in the early 1930s.

The tendency over the years has always been for ships to get bigger. So while 1500 tons was considered big for a vessel in 1870 ten years later 1800 tons was about normal. By 1900 few ships were being built under 2000 tons. The size of crews went counter to the size of the ships. There was always economic pressure to reduce manpower but advances in deck machinery meant fewer men were needed. Ships had more deck capstans [four on a big ship] plus windlasses and brace winches along the rails. Donkey engines were used from the 1860s although their unreliability meant they were not common till the 20th century. Improvements to rigging and sail plans which made ships easier to work with reduced canvas without diminishing the vessels performance through the water. Essentially there were fewer but wider sails and stunsails, flying kites, and very high sails such as moonsails were dropped. Apart from large ships, there were of course a great number of smaller sailing vessels carrying cargos of less than 1000 tons. These smaller vessels, usually of wood or composite and of 500-600 tons were by no means mere coastal traders; many were Cape horners, such as the Welsh copper ships which took coal from Wales to Chile and returned with coopper ore, much of which ended up sheathing the bottoms of British wooden hulls which were sheathed in copper from the late 18th C.

The ousting of sail had no clearly defined start and finish; but the development of efficient compound engines by the 1860s together with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, with bunkers at Gibraltar, Port Said and Aden were a combination that militated greatly against the continuing supremacy of sail. The Suez Canal was of major advantage to steamers but none to sailing vessels which could not manoeuvre unassisted in such restricted waters and towing was prohibitively expensive. The First World War gave many sailing ships a second lease of life far beyond what might have been reasonably expected in peace time. The Adriana for example, built Southampton 1886, was salvaged after being aground for 20 years at Policarpo off Tierra del Fuego. All the timber and anything removable had been stripped off her by the locals. The hull was refitted, renamed Alejandrina and sailed with a valuable cargo of wool from Punta Arenas to New York. She shipped grain to London as late as 1921. Many of these sailing vessels were sunk in WW1 by German u-boats. They were either torpedoed or boarded, their crews ordered off into boats or taken prisoner [or shot in the water] and the vessels scuttled. They were occasionally put to German naval use of which more anon. But the slump in world trade in the 1920s following the war effectively made an end of sail as a viable means of propulsion for merchant shipping.

Before the First World War there were some cargoes that it was simply not worth steamers handling and which were thus a mainstay for sailers in hard times. These included carrying Baltic timber to Australia, and wheat home, or coal from the Bristol Channel to the west coast of America and nitrates or guano [widely regarded by crews as “the worst cargo”] home. The purpose of a merchant ship was to make a profit. Profits could be increased by carrying more cargo and fewer crew. Since at least the 18th century the weight of cargo per man carried in ships has steadily increased with improvements in technology and ship management. Steamers could not spare the time required to load and unload low value, bulk cargoes when times were good. But as early as about 1890 getting a cargo in Calcutta became increasingly difficult for sailing vessels as steamers were increasingly able to take jute. After WW1 when times were definitely not good, steamers took anything they could get which included low value, bulk cargo which further eroded the need for sail and the higher ratio of manpower required to sail them.

Steam occupies about 1600 times the space of an equal weight of water. Therein lies the marvel that is the motive force of steam and is essentially the same technology that propels a nuclear submarine. Apart from the application of this physical fact, the development of steam ships had two principle themes; the development of the actual engines and the development of the vessels in which they were installed. These two played leapfrog; at first the new engines were put in existing, wooden craft; then the craft were modified to suit the engines; further development of the engines, producing more speed and power, required bigger and stronger hulls which led to the introduction of iron construction in place of timber. Sail benefited from these advances to the extent that bigger sailing ships and stronger masts, spars and rigging were all made possible with iron and later steel construction. In addition, the use of steam donkey engines on sailing ships reduced the manpower required for operating capstans and hauling the newer, heavier gear aloft.

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© 2018 Duncan Linklater