Sunday, March 11, 2012

Wooden Ships, Then and Now

In the 1850's my great-great grandfather Richard built five wooden sailing ships in the small Nova Scotia town of Wallace, on the Northumberland Strait across from Prince Edward Island. It happens that he did not personally build them - he was a merchant - but he raised the capital, paid the bills, watched over the work and sold the finished ships, some sold to Newfoundland interests and some sailed to England and sold there. There were thousands and thousands of these small ships built all over Atlantic Canada in the years 1820 to 1880, and after that there were many thousands more ships built, usually larger ships, built in larger yards by larger firms right up until the Second World War.

The first of Richard's ships was the Willing Lass, a brigantine of 115 tons built in 1852. This was not a large ship - it was probably 75 feet long and 18 feet wide, and it probably had a draft of 9 feet. This is smaller than a three-bedroom bungalow. The Lass was two-masted, with a square rigged sail on the foremast and a fore-and-aft sail on the main mast. Square-rigged sails were at right angles to the vessel, and they worked very well when the ship was sailing downwind. A triangular fore-and-aft sail was attached to the mast on one side and attached to a long boom on the bottom, and with this rig a ship could sail much closer to the wind than with a square rig. The brigantine was a good combination of the schemes, meaning that she was suited to both coastal work and deepwater sailing, and with a small crew.

The Willing Lass was sailed to Greenock, Scotland where she was sold.

Consider the circumstances under which the Willing Lass was built. The industrial revolution was well underway but the fossil fuel revolution had not really reached rural Nova Scotia. There was coal around, but it was used mainly for heating and blacksmithing. Iron was widely available but steel was expensive, and good tool steel was very rare because it was so hard to make.

Richard's ships were built almost wholly without fossil fuels. In the winter the workmen would go into the woods and harvest logs, using a crosscut saw and axe. The timbers were hauled to the shipyard on sleds over winter roads by horse or oxen teams, and some may have been floated downriver with the spring breakup. Once in the yard the logs were squared with a broad axe, smoothed with an adze, and then they were sawn into timbers and planks over a pit saw. One man stood in the pit and another atop the log, and between them they sawed down the length of the cant to make a plank. If there had been a water wheel handy they might have used an up-and-down saw to saw the planks, but circular saws did not come into use until steam engines developed enough torque to turn them.

The ship was actually built on a large sloping wooden deck, formed by laying long poles into the beach perpendicular to the water, and then sheathing that with planks. The keel was laid on this platform, lifted about 4 feet above the deck so that the men could work around and under it. The bow and stern posts were attached to the keel, the frames of the hull were fitted to the keel (using iron bolts), the keelson was fitted on top of the these to form a solid keel assembly, and then the vessel was planked. The planks were sawn by hand, shaped and beveled by hand and by eye, steamed until they were flexible and then bent onto the frames with great braces and winches and ropes, and then bolted on before they cooled. All the holes were drilled by hand with great augers and the wooden treenails were carved by hand. The ends of the planks were usually fastened with iron bolts, often made by the yard's blacksmith. The ship was planked inside and out, the decks were fastened on and planked in, the masts were stepped and rigged, and the boat was ready for launching. She was held upright during building by great wooden rails called "ways" and when it was time to launch the ways were greased, the wedges under the ship were knocked away, and the ship slid into the water. Richard's ships floated easily, but some others turned turtle upon launching, and some had a permanent list to one side.

We are unaccustomed as modern North Americans to seeing truly skilled labour at work. Our much-prized Colonial-era antiques were made in America by hand, before the advent of power tools. Even the tools were made by hand, and the work was exceptionally fine.  Not all of the men building Richard's ships would have that level of skill, but certainly the master carpenters would have.

It has been estimated that about 10% of the value of the ship was in the ironwork, which was usually imported from England or America. These would be bolts, knees, braces, pulleys and fittings, capstans and winches. Some of this iron may have been smelted with coke from coal, but most would have been made with charcoal burned from wood. So I would guess that almost none of the materials or energy embodied in Richard's ships was derived from fossil fuels - it was all from solar sources.

Can we make wooden ships again, without much fossil fuel and with the master shipbuilders' knowledge lost? My guess is that we can, but not in quite the same way.

For one thing, the great stands of virgin timber are long gone. Richard's ships were built with red oak and ash and birch for keels and posts, tamarack for the knees and braces and clear red spruce for the planks. Some builders imported hardwoods from America for some important parts of the vessels, but I would guess that those stands are gone also. And the sheer size of the trees are unknown now. Where would one ever find a pine mast 100 feet long and squared to 14 inches? At one time they were commonplace, but no more. On the other hand, we know much more about the strength of various woods and how to use them, and we may be able to find enough clear wood than can be bonded together to make the important pieces. But it would be hard to find the clear red spruce to make the ship's planking and I don't know how that could be replaced. Some think that ferro-cement for hulls is part of the future, but from the little I know of such materials I would think that we would still need the sturdy wooden frames upon which the concrete hull would be formed.


Various authors and commentators have suggested that when easy availability of fossil fuels is lost we will enter a world of the salvage economy, where all of the materials of the now-modern world can be re-purposed to suit the needs of the post-fossil-fuel economy. So all of the iron knees and braces and bolts and fittings needed to outfit a modern sailing vessel can be cast from steel recovered from cars and structural beams. This is quite possible.

I expect that any new shipbuilding industry will arise organically, in much the same way that the first one did. The early boats built along our shores were coasting vessels sized for the owner-builder to conduct his business. That business may have been as a farmer moving his produce to market, a fisherman hauling his nets, or traders working the small communities along the shore. Coastal freighting really only stopped in Nova Scotia between the wars when paved roads and reliable trucks could bring goods to town. Before that most of the heavy and bulky stuff moved by boat, and as late as the 1930's men were moving goods, furniture, and freight between Wallace, Charlottetown and Pictou and up the New Brunswick coast. Some of these men built their own ships, or had them built locally. They were typically sloops or cutters with one main sail and one or two foresails, a boat small enough that a captain and one crewman could sail it. Those ships will come back easily. Small schooners will come back easily also. They are sleek and fast vessels that handle easily, can sail close to the wind, and need only a relatively small crew.

I doubt that we will see a market for deepwater ships returning any time soon. We still have a large fleet of steam-powered vessels that can be maintained for decades and they are not only a very energy-efficient way to move goods but they can also burn low-quality fuel. The only market for vessels that may open up is the market for bulk carriers moving very low value goods like potash, gypsum, brown coal, ore, etc, where the transport only makes economic sense if the energy is free, from the wind. There were bulk carriers sailing as late as the 1950's although I suspect that they were not built new but were fully depreciated vessels from earlier days. In days to come I am not sure if we will be able to assemble the capital to build new ships of that size for that use.

As transport fuels become expensive or rationed we will return to sailing ships for moving people and cargoes, but we will be using designs and materials suited to the conditions prevailing at that time. I wonder if it will be within my lifetime?

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