Thursday, 14 April 2016

The beating heart of the modern sailing ship: the engine room

A tall ship, a star to steer her by, perhaps … but never without the engine these days
If you have the inclination to re-live the great age of sail, you can sign on as paying crew on board a tall ship. By this I mean a sailing vessel, with several masts, and square sails, like this one. 
You participate sailing the ship, steer it, and take your turn on watch. You also get to climb up the mast to handle the sails (optional, I hasten to add). No experience is required, as you will be taught the skills necessary. I’ve been on three trips in three different vessels, and they were very different, but all were run by people of great skill and dedication, who clearly loved what they were doing.
While at the wheel, pulling on a rope, or up aloft furling the sails, you might almost imagine that you were on the Cutty Sark, racing to carry tea back to England from China. However there is one important difference. Until the 20th century, these ships were engineless. Today, every tall ship has an engine, and could not function without it. The engine might be something that some sailing enthusiasts try to ignore, but it’s absolutely indispensable. 
Engine room of the Pelican
It’s not just required to get in and out of crowded modern moorings, or to get out of calm spells in order to keep to the advertised schedule. Today’s sailing vessels all require electricity for a host of functions, and this has to be generated by the engine. There’s all the navigational equipment required by law in passenger-carrying vessels: satnav to fix the position of the ship at sea, echo sounders to measure the depth of water below, and equipment to receive weather forecasts. I don't think anyone these days uses a sextant for navigation, or uses a lead line to determine the depth of the water, except as a training exercise or for fun.
Even a basic task like steering the ship is often done with mechanical assistance these days. Many of today's tall ships have hydraulically assisted steering wheels. In the old vessels, a lot of force was required to turn the wheel of a large ship, and in strong winds, when the forces on the rudder were greater, more than one crew member would be required. On larger ships, there was a double wheel.
In the old engineless sailing ships, raising the anchor was a labour-intensive task, that could take several hours, with the crew at the capstan bars. 
In the ships I sailed in this was always done by machine. There are some ships where they weigh anchor in the old fashioned way, but I’m guessing that they all have a machine to do it when they are short-handed, or need to make a quick getaway. 
In the past, the washing up could be done in sea water, and the waste thrown over the side. These days, standards of hygiene are more stringent. Environmental concerns mean that all waste is stored on board, for disposal at a suitable facility. That includes waste from the toilets. Nothing is thrown into the sea, not even an orange peel. In my experience, the only time that anything could be chucked over the side was when someone was seasick. Water is also used much more lavishly than in the past. A daily shower is the norm, even though the responsible crew member will try to keep water consumption to a minimum. Many ships have equipment to generate fresh water from sea water. All this of course requires electricity.
I've had a fantastic time on all the tall ship voyages I've undertaken. I'd thought about it for ages, and then, a few years ago, I broke my shoulder during a fall. After I recovered I decided that it was time to give it a go. I suspect that most of us who do it do feel that in a small way we are experiencing something of what it was like to go to sea in a sailing ship in the olden days. However the constant hum of the engine in the background, even when under sail should remind us that we are very much in our own time.
So far I have sailed on the following tall ships, and I'd recommend all of them:
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