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Was It All Cricket?

Chapter 25 — The World's Shipping

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Chapter 25
The World's Shipping

Recalling these years of service as a marine engineer brings back a clear picture of my impressions; I think of the many places visited, of the peoples of these lands, and of their status in the community of nations; I remember the calm and the heat of the tropics, the snow and the ice of a Canadian winter, the mountainous seas of the Atlantic, and the terrifying monsoon of the Indian Ocean.

Travelling along and crossing so many trade routes enabled me to see the ships of many countries. My experience in the drawing office in Melbourne, when I placed on paper designs of modern passenger and cargo ships, gave me the key to this fascinating picture of old and new liners engaged in the world's sea-borne commerce. I could thus make comparisons and assess the development that had taken place and the further advances that were being made.

The Claverhill was what they called an old tub, although the flattering picture of her, reproduced from a painting by a Chinaman at Hong Kong, makes her look like a modern ship. Her gross tonnage was barely 3,000 and her engines of the old triple expansion type. Except for feed and bilge pumps, she had little auxiliary machinery. The Savan was more up-to-date and had electric lighting, which took the place of the unhygienic oil-lamps in cabins and fo'c'sle, and gave a better light in the engine-room. The Dominion and the Cymbeline were still more up-to-date, but it was the ships I saw at sea and in port that gave me a clearer perspective of the world's shipping; the voyage on the Lucania sharpened my already keen interest in ship-building development.

The design of ships on the various trade routes improved and advanced with the needs of the countries they served, and with the progress made in engineering. It was in the Atlantic trade that, spurred on by intense international rivalry, there developed a stern contest for supremacy, and the building of ships that were often ahead of the times. The competition was not merely a question of great and speedy ships, for the quality of page 335 service aboard also played an important part. The Germans trained their stewards to be polite—they were over-polite—in the hope of beating the English in attention given to the passengers. Then there was a Menu Contest, like that between rival hotels ashore. Cocktail bars were added to those ships that already served refreshments in the lounges and smoke-rooms. Ballrooms, gymnasiums, cardrooms and bathing-pools were added or improved to satisfy the ever-increasing demands of the traveller. All these services were but contributory to the main contest for first place in the race for size, power, and speed. These were the factors that counted most in establishing a ship's reputation, and in the winning of popularity and patronage.

A brief sketch or bird's-eye view of this struggle for supremacy, including great feats of engineering skill, may prove of interest to the layman, although it may be necessary to use some technical terms.

It is worthy of note that, over many years, the Cunard Company has always arranged for its crack liners to be built in pairs. Fifty years ago they built the Lucania and the Campania; fourteen years later the Mauretania and the Lusitania; and lastly, the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth. It seems ludicrous to compare the first steamer to cross the Atlantic with these modern giants. But what of the first ships to sail this famous ocean? Of the three that comprised the original expedition of Columbus's, in search of the New World, the largest was about 100 tons! The Great Eastern was before her time; not so much from being so big as from being ahead of the engineering progress needed to provide engines with sufficient power to propel such a great ship. How rapid development has been is to be seen in the increase in the size of ships and the enormous power of their engines. The Lucania the first of the modern champions, was built in 1893, and had a gross tonnage of 13,000 —about the same size as the Union Company's Niagara in New Zealand. Four years later the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse jumped into the lead; her solitary successful attack on the record was not without incident, for, when nearing New York, she suffered a serious breakdown in her engine-room, but managed to steam slowly into port without the passengers becoming aware of what had happened. The world acclaimed the new winner of the Blue Riband, but few people ever learned page 336 that the Kaiser Wilhelm limped back to Germany on one engine! In 1900 the Deutschlandy, 16,500 gross tons, with a speed of 24 knots, appeared on the scene. Then came the Mauretania of 32,000 tons, with still greater and more powerful engines capable of driving her nearly 27 knots. Other ships of greater tonnage, such as the Aquitania, Majestic (ex-German Bismark), and the Vaterland, to mention but three, entered the Atlantic trade, but they made no attempt at speed records. They were comfortable ships to travel in, but much too big to be driven at the speed of the Mauretania, unless the owners were prepared to face enormous costs.

After this, a period of sensible planning reigned. More big ships were built, but the designing was always carried out with an eye to keeping running costs within bounds. International contests do not end when one nation establishes a lead, even though the maximum results may appear to have been attained. Money is no object when it comes from the public purse, and Germany set about to plan ships that would wrest from the great Cunard liners the proud position they held. Speeds were now so great, and comfort and attention so satisfying, that it was not an easy matter to improve upon them.

Years had passed by with the red-funnelled liners still mistresses of the seas. Then Germany struck again; this time she followed the Cunard policy of having ships built in couples. The Bremen and Europa made their appearance, and the Atlantic contest reached a new pitch of intensity. It was the old story of bigger and faster. They were splendid vessels, designed to exceed the speed of the pride of the Clyde and of the Tyneside, while their accommodation was more palatial than that of any previous ship. In addition, the service was made more like that of the great hotels ashore. The discipline of the crews was comparable with that of the German Navy—in fact some of the key positions were held by officers who had gone through a naval training, and this was to raise suspicions as to the use to which these ships might be put in the event of war. How justified these fears were was to be proved at the beginning of the first World War when, immediately after the outbreak of hostilities, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, armed as a merchant cruiser, and getting astride of trade routes, began sinking allied ships. She was quickly cornered off the coast of North-West Africa and sent to the bottom by the guns of the British cruiser Highflyer.

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The Bremen proved formidable opposition for the Cunarder, and won back the Blue Riband for Germany. The night life on board also scored over their more staid opponents. Lights out at 10.30 p.m. is the rule on all British ships. The Germans transplanted Continental life on to these floating palaces. The bars and lounges were open until 2 a.m., even longer. Stewards were always in attendance and the scene resembled the night clubs ashore. Men and women have been likened to moths in the dazzling light. Is it any wonder that to some people these bright nights were an added attraction and won many patrons?

It was during this period that the fight reached its highest pitch, for the challengers were not allowed to go unchallenged. It is a very human story that tells of the manner in which the firemen and engineers of the Mauretania coaxed their beloved ship into greater effort. It was as though the proud Cunarder knew of the challenge and that the Blue Riband was at stake. One would need to see the Mauretania in dry-dock and look upon her four, great three-bladed propellers to realize the tremendous power that could be transmitted through these screws to learn the secret of her speed. Although now a veteran, she was to attain even greater speed than in her youth and to astonish the shipping world with performances that held the newcomers to an even contest. If ever a merchant ship was to win the applause and gratitude of a nation, it was the Mauretania. Her record of holding the Blue Riband of the Atlantic for twenty years may never be equalled. Had it been possible to assemble the people of England along the headlands of Cornwall and Devon, to watch their favourite pass up-Channel in the final dash for Southampton, they would have cheered her in the manner Australians cheered old Carbine, as he galloped to victory in that memorable Melbourne Cup of more than fifty years ago. To the workmen of the Tyneside, in particular, the Mauretania remained the reigning toast for many a day.

The Italians made one great effort with the Rex—51,000 tons—and notched a win in 1933. Then came the Normandie a magnificent and beautiful stream-lined ship. France had not, for many a year, been rated as a great maritime nation. In Australia I had often seen her ships of the Messageries Maritime Line, and was later to meet them out East, for this Marseilles company had important services trading to the Orient, These French ships, however, could not be compared page 338 with the British, German or Dutch, in the matter of catering for the passenger traffic. There was an old saying at sea that you could smell a French ship before she could be seen. From this it will be seen that the ships of France had little chance of competing successfully with the spotlessly clean vessels of other nations. They must have mended their ways and enforced better discipline to be able to enter, and hold their own, in the great Atlantic competition of luxury liners. The French had good reason to be proud of the Normandie; with a gross tonnage of 83,000, and a speed of 29 knots, she was to sweep the seas in triumphal runs, beating all records of the past.

How came it that the French who, up till then, had more or less been spectators in watching British and German ships carry on the struggle, should now burst in and astonish the shipping world. It was long suspected that the German government was subsidizing her shipping companies. It began with excessive mail subsidies, then developed into unadulterated government backing of private enterprise. The early success of this subtle move tempted the Germans to extend the system to other great industries, and the world was to witness the destruction of the old adage, “fair play is bonnie play.” Who can say how much this system of trading engendered the ill-feeling that crept into and disturbed international trade and relations? Although Germany at first got away with it, she was to learn that two can play at this game. Italy followed suit and the copyist nation of Japan was soon to be met on the oceans and markets of the world with services and goods backed by a forceful and ever-grasping government. Then America took a hand, but the help she gave her ship-owners was for the purpose of winning trade in overseas markets, rather than for breaking records in the Atlantic contest. Now it was France's turn, and she appeared to put all her eggs into one basket. The Normandie commanded the admiration of the world.

A special tribute is due to the Gunard and White Star companies for their valiant effort and performance in continuing for so long, by their own enterprise and exertion, this competition against such odds. John Bull moves slowly—but he does move—and in the end national pride and prestige, as well as necessity, compelled him to come to the assistance of these great shipping companies. There was no secrecy about page 339 it. Other countries had their warning that Britain, too, would back the brains, the skill, and the workmanship of her men in what is perhaps her greatest industry. A very low rate of interest on money advanced was the method adopted for giving assistance. The keels of the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were laid. A gross tonnage of 82,000 and an estimated speed of over 30 knots made the re-winning of the Blue Riband of the Atlantic a mathematical certainty. Britishers the world over cheered the performances of the Queen Mary during the short period prior to the outbreak of the second World War.

It will be remembered that the great races between the Cutty Sark and the Thermopilae were, in their time, just as thrilling as those between modern liners, but they ended when sailing-ships lost pride of place on the sea. At one time there seemed to be no likelihood of an end to this Atlantic fight for more knots, without an international truce. Speed costs money, and the huge ocean liners reached the stage where such vessels could not be profitably run without government assistance. International rivalry became the main factor in these contests. It seems clear that in the future air liners will leave to ships the slow-moving passenger traffic only, and this, in itself, may put an end to the present suicidal competition, although, at the moment, unless wiser counsels prevail, it looks as if the scene of contest may be transferred from the sea to the air.

Behind all the advancement made in search of comfort, size and speed, there lies a romantic story of engineering and science. Long before the days of motor-cars and aeroplanes, sea-going steamers were passing through distinctive evolutionary periods. The first ships driven by steam were paddle steamers, and it is hard for us to realize that the engines of the first Atlantic liners—if they could be called that—transmitted their power through great paddle wheels. Then came the single-screw steamers, driven by compound engines, followed, many years later, by the triple expansion engine. Quadruple expansion engines were tried, but in the main did not prove such well-balanced jobs as the three-cylinder engines. It is remarkable that the compound engine should go unchallenged so long, for it was not until 1881 that the Matabele, the first ship fitted with triple expansion engines to make an” ocean voyage, set out from London on her maiden trip to page 340 South Africa. This was in the days when break-downs at sea were still frequent and she left with a full set of spare parts. The trial proved such a success that she returned to have it acclaimed to the engineering world that greater use could be made of the expansion of steam, and the three-cylinder job became the standard engine for sea-going steamers.

Engine designers were soon to be faced with the problem of overcoming the difficulties created by the excessive weight of the propelling machinery, resulting from the larger and larger engines required for the bigger and bigger ships. The diameters of the cylinders of the Savan were 25″, 40″ and 65″; on the Deutschland, the low-pressure cylinders went up to 106″, that is, nearly nine feet in diameter. It will thus be seen that the limit was now being reached, for this made a very heavy piston casting to be driven up and down from eighty to a hundred times a minute. For many years the increased power required to drive bigger ships was provided by increasing the size of these triple expansion engines. Then came the twin-screw steamers. Two smaller engines would now develop more power than one set of big engines. Ships soon became so large—particularly the Atlantic liners—that the engines of twin-screw steamers created the same difficulties that had previously to be faced by the use of big engines in single-screw ships. The ingenuity of the engineers of that time staved off the day of the maximum-sized reciprocating engines by the introduction of multiple cylinder jobs. The Deutschland, following the Lucania, was the last liner to have this type of engine.

The turbine engine then came to the rescue of the designing engineer; its rotary drive enabled great power to be developed without great weight, and the thud of the reciprocating engine was replaced by the hum of the turbine. First there was the direct-driven turbine. In practice it was found that this proved more efficient and more economical if driven at its maximum high speed, which, however, meant too many revolutions per minute to obtain the fullest efficiency from the propellers. This difficulty was later overcome by the introduction of the geared-turbine. The decisive factor in obtaining maximum efficiency was the finding of a correct balance between the speed of the engines and the speed best suited to the design of the propellers; increased revolutions had already forced a page 341 break-away from the old-established four-bladed propeller, and the screws were now smaller, sometimes with three blades only.

Then came the Diesel engine, and great hopes were entertained for this new type. Wonderful success was obtained on small craft, but when bigger models were built they did not fulfil original expectations.

The oil engine was given a further chance when the Diesel-electric was developed, but by this time it was clear that the future lay with steam, and the turbo-electric then made a bid for supremacy. Turbine engines, driving a generator that transmitted electric power through motors to the shafting, enabled the speed of the propeller to be regulated with greater efficiency. This manner of controlling the revolutions of the propeller shaft went a long way to effecting a solution of the problem, but the British engineer's faith in steam alone never wavered, and his belief that a partnership with electricity was unnecessary found expression when he turned his attention to perfecting the geared-turbine. With little or no loss in transmission, this mode of propulsion was to prove the most efficient yet known, for the turbine could now be run at its maximum and most efficient speed, while the ship's main shaft could be geared down to a speed that obtained the best results from the propeller. And so the turbine remained the monarch of the engine-room, and continued to drive warships and ocean liners at speeds undreamed of in earlier years.

It should be recorded that present-day speeds of large ships could not have been attained but for the researches of Michell, the Australian, into the use of forced lubrication, which enabled even the biggest and heaviest bearings literally to float in oil, eliminating practically all danger of a hot bearing. But Michell's crowning achievement was his ingenious method of lubricating the thrust-block with oil circulated under pressures that automatically varied with the amount of power transmitted from the main engine to the propeller.

Other factors emerged in this development of power and search for speed. There was a difference in the nature of the call made upon boilers and engines for a maximum effort. The Atlantic liners, once under way, maintained the highest possible speed throughout the voyage. On the other hand, commanders of ships of the Navy made such sudden calls for page 342 a spurt at full speed, with varying speeds interposed, that the quickness of developing and regulating the production of steam, a thing impossible with the large volume of water in the old-fashioned boiler, became of urgent necessity. It was at this time that the name of Yarrow became associated with that of Parsons. Increased development of steam would mean increased efficiency of the Parsons turbine. So far in the history of marine engineering, the famous Scotch boiler had been universally used. Its maximum power of development seemed to have been reached when oil fuel displaced coal in all high-speed ships. Water-tube boilers, the best two of which were the Yarrow and the Babcock, had long since proved their worth in stationary jobs ashore, but had always been considered unsuitable for ships that toss and roll in the roughness of the high seas. Alfred Yarrow's study of the possibility of making the water-tube boiler adaptable to steamers coincided with the needs of the moment, and when he produced the Yarrow marine boiler, the development of power was lifted to its present height. This great partnership of turbine engines and water-tube boilers was to revolutionize marine engineering, and the results achieved should make the people of the Empire remember the names of Parsons and Yarrow, who, in the time about which I write, were as famous in the engineering world as Armstrong and Stephenson had been some fifty years earlier.

All the problems I have discussed were engineering ones, but what was the man of science doing while the engineer was moving from goal to goal? He was at work on the materials with which engines and ships are built. The manufacture of steel was responsible for many changes. Iron frames and plates first began to displace wood as far back as the eighteen-forties, but steel made for stronger and lighter ships, and later was used exclusively in all ship-building work. It also made possible higher pressure boilers. In the earliest years of ocean-going steamers, less than 100 lbs. per square inch was the limit of saftey, then it became 120, then 150, now it is several hundred pounds to the square inch. It will at once be appreciated how this affected engine designing and enabled the development of power far beyond anything ever anticipated.

The use of steel in ship-building was to have far-reaching effects on Britain's position in the shipping world. Although page 343 the Old Country has always been a great maritime nation, there was a time in the first half of last century, when wooden sailing-ships carried the cargoes of the world, that the American clippers and schooners became formidable rivals to Britain's full-rigged ships and barques. The Americans had shown great ingenuity in the use of sail, while the first pick of timber from their own forests gave experienced shipwrights their opportunity of making good their country's claim to rank equal with Britain as a ship-building nation.” Steel hulls and the steam engine at once altered the competitive positions of the two countries, and the Britisher's genius for marine engineering enabled him to forge ahead again to win pride of place on all the oceans of the world.

It should be said that America's high tariff protectionist policy, often harshly administered, restricted imports and was a factor in halting her progress as a mercantile power, whereas free-trading with all countries assisted in making Britain not only the greatest importer of raw materials, but also the biggest exporter of manufactured goods.

While all this planning of engines and ships was proceeding apace, scientists were wrestling with the problems of navigation. Lord Kelvin's name is the one best remembered: his improvements to the magnetic compass were to aid enormously the work of navigators. Next came the invention of the gyrocompass, which eliminated magnetic disturbances and indicated the true direction of the ship's head; to this was fitted a mechanical device known as the Iron Mike, which automatically steered the vessel. Startling as these ingenious inventions proved, they were to be followed shortly by the echo-sounder and the direction-finder. One night, on the turbo-electric driven Rangatira, going to Wellington, Captain Cameron gave me a demonstration of the working of the echo-sounder. It was amazing to see depths recorded when the ship was at full speed; how different from the old days of heaving the lead, of which I saw so much when the Claverhill ran ashore at Sumatra! This brings me to the limit of my knowledge of the scientific instruments used on the bridge.

The picture I have drawn is not intended to portray the full story of the more than century-old fight for supremacy in this great Atlantic contest, or to give more than a brief description of the work and inventive genius of the engineers page 344 and scientists whose planning and discoveries made possible the building of great battleships and huge passenger lifters, and made navigation so safe; on the other hand, it may enable the reader to visualize the growth and development of marine engineering, the rivalry that exists in ship-building, and the keenness of the contests that take place between the ships of all the nations of the world.