Calling all naval experts: how long will it take for a 1906 battleship traveling at 21 knots to go from London to Angola, Africa?
December 5, 2010 1:10 AM   Subscribe

Calling all naval experts: how long will it take for a 1906 battleship traveling at 21 knots to go from London to Angola, Africa?

I'm doing some research for a short story. The ship is the HMS Dreadnought (1906).

Feel free to regale me with your interesting battleship factoids.

posted by New England Cultist to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total)
I'm no expert, but a back of the envelope calculation says 14 days.

(6660.33km as the crow flies, on a map the sea route looks marginally less than double that, 21kt = 38.892km/h, and the result is 14.27 days. round down to 14 to offset the overestimation in distance.)

or do you need an answer accurate to the hour, taking into account currents, wind, actual sea routes, and all the other wonkery that could make a difference?
posted by russm at 1:21 AM on December 5, 2010

or measuring a viable shortest-sea-path in google earth gives a result of 10.5 days... but again, that's ignoring all the real-world messiness...
posted by russm at 1:40 AM on December 5, 2010

Details on Atlantic surface currents can be found here. Click on name/location to get to a more detailed set of maps and names (hover). Then click on a current name (ie Canary, Guinea, Angola) for details of flow rates etc.
posted by Ahab at 1:47 AM on December 5, 2010

I'm no naval expert, but it seems highly unlikely that the ship would travel at its maximum speed over that full distance. The fuel consumption would be ridiculous. Wikipedia actually calls this out for your specific ship:
Dreadnought carried 2,868 long tons (2,914 t) of coal, and an additional 1,120 long tons (1,140 t) of fuel oil that was to be sprayed on the coal to increase its burn rate. At full fuel capacity, she could steam for 6,620 nautical miles (12,260 km; 7,620 mi) at a speed of 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph).
Doubling the speed requires eight times the power, so it looks like to travel at full steam it'd take 14 days plus quite a few stops (and potential detours) for coaling. Here we see that the "ordinary" rate of coaling was 16 tons per hour, even at ten times that rate you're still using a full day just to coal up. And that itself is assuming stations with adequate supplies for the Dreadnought even existed along that route.
posted by lantius at 1:47 AM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

1902 steamer journey details from Gravesend to Capetown down near the bottom of this page:

Evening Post, 8 December 1902, Page 4


She left Gravesend on 23rd. October, made a fine passage down channel, and arrived at Plymouth on the 24th. Embarkedl the remainder of passengers and mails and proceeded to sea on the 25th. Experienced fine weather, with light fresh to variable winds, to Teneriffe— reached on 30th October. After coaling the steamer left again the same day, mid to Capetown had a very flue passage, with light trade winds and smooth to moderate sea until arrival in Table Bay on 14th November.

If you can find out the speed of a turn of the century steamer, and knock off some time for your battleship being faster, and some time for the distance from Luanda to the Cape, you should then be able to calculate your battleship time.
posted by Ahab at 1:58 AM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's another thought for research possibilities. The British navy sent a fleet to South Africa during the second Anglo-Boer war. Travel times for some of those ships might get you pretty close to what you need.
posted by Ahab at 2:09 AM on December 5, 2010

I make it a touch over 5000 nautical miles from London to Luanda, so based on lantius's quote she should have been able to do it at a touch over 10kt without stopping to take on fuel. so perhaps 20 days all up?
posted by russm at 2:10 AM on December 5, 2010

It would be far more likely for the Royal Navy to dispatch a vessel from the Cape of Good Hope station to deal with issues arising in Angola. Should there be some need to send a Royal Navy vessel from the UK to Africa it would be likely that a cruiser be sent and it would almost certainly not depart from London but rather from Portsmouth.
posted by Authorized User at 5:14 AM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

They could rendezvous with colliers along the way, the way the Russians sent their Baltic fleet to the East during the Russo-Japanese war, but it would have to be set up well ahead of time, as maritime radio was so new as to not be widely deployed.

If your battleship was part of a battle group, a collier or two would be included, but top speed would be determined by the slowest ship.

Actually, looking at the wiki page, they'd need an oilier, too... the Dreadnought burned a coal-fuel oil mix.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:36 AM on December 5, 2010

I spent nine years in the US Navy as a Quartermaster-- navigation specialist for surface ships. There are some great answers here-- very good points especially by Slap*Happy and Authorized User, so I won't repeat what they've written.

One other point to mention is that even today it would be an exceptional situation for a warship to cruise at 21 knots for any length of time. It would be like driving your station wagon on the highway at 110 miles per hour for five days straight. It is theoretically possible, but normally not done. 15 knots is an accepted cruising speed for most warships today-- sometimes 20. If I recall correctly, during my time in the Navy in the US Pacific Fleet, we had to have permission from higher command to exceed 20 knots for any length of time, and it had to be documented in an official message. So I would suggest a cruising speed of around 15 knots for your ship. It is more than a sailing (wind powered) vessel could reliably make, but still within the capability of the ships of the time.

Finally, people have already mentioned requirements for coaling and bunkering (fuel oil onload), but remember that even in an emergency, most ships are going to want to stop once or twice on that journey for fresh food and water. I was more of a west coast sailor, so unfortunately I can't suggest where those ports might have been. Your dreadnought probably could distill fresh water from seawater intake, but that is a process that takes a lot of fuel.

Extra period detail: Back then it was so difficult to make fresh water that most people at sea were forced to wash with salt water. In Ghandi's autobiography he writes that on a voyage around 1900 he made the mistake of washing with seawater and soap, instead of just plain seawater. The steward on the ocean liner explicitly told him not to do it, saying he would get sick. But he ignored the advice, and did indeed get sick.

Good luck with your story!
posted by seasparrow at 7:26 AM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think that the above answers have covered most of the basics, but I feel the need to chip in for eponisterical reasons.

Responders are quite correct in saying that Dreadnought wouldn't have made such a trip at full speed, unless some major emergency precipitated the mission. Dreadnought generally cruised at around 10 knts, which gave her a nomnial radius of 6600 nautical miles. 20 to 21 days is about right, then, at cruising speed, and she would be able to make it without refueling, although she'd have to refuel again afterward, probably in Nigeria. Incidentally, while the above calculations are correct, she wouldn't be sailing from London, but from the Home Fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow.

My quibble, however, is this: why would they be sending HMS Dreadnought? Dreadnought was part of the Home Fleet, and thus very unlikely to be sent to some distant part of Africa. Realistically, a cruiser would be more likely to go or, if they needed some big ship to kick ass and take names, a battlecruiser. Do you think you might be better sending Invincible?

Perhaps you could tell us the nature of the mission, and we could make sensible suggestions.

- Your Friendly Neighbourhood Naval Historian
posted by Dreadnought at 7:27 AM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seasparrow is correct in saying that traveling at full speed was impossible for most ships of the era. Dreadnought was unusually capable, in this regard, as she was the first large ship to use a turbine (as opposed to reciprocating) powerplant. However, while turbines were less prone to breakdown, they weren't infallable, especially as the technology was in its infancy. If you want a convenient breakdown, the weak point of the system was in the reduction gear which allowed the propellers (called 'screws') to spin round more slowly than the turbine. These were humongous gears, and were much more likely to go than anything else.
posted by Dreadnought at 7:31 AM on December 5, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your awesome feedback. I have so many new things to think of.

The specific nature of Dreadnought's journey is not particularly important to the story. (Though that might change). What is important is that my little group of five aboard is on an archaeology trek, and that their passage has been arranged secretly by a friend of the protagonist's dead father who had contacts in high places.

I was wondering about refueling and having the ship go at a slower speed, thus much appreciate all the detail.

They're hitching a lift to Angola because they need to get into the jungles of the Congo (or the Belgian Congo, circa 1912). Perhaps a stopover for the Dreadnought on her way to Cape Town?

Dreadnought (awesome): I will have a look at Invincible, thanks!

For extra info – the story is for a Historical Lovecraft anthology HERE
posted by New England Cultist at 8:39 AM on December 5, 2010

you can get actual logs from old Royal Navy ships at, where people are using the logs to extract climate data(Yay citizen science!).

for example, here is the info on the Invincible

unfortunately, it doesn't appear that there is a log for the Dreadnought...
posted by rockindata at 9:47 AM on December 5, 2010

HMS Astraea, HMS Fox and HMS Swiftsure. Would all be travelling towards either the East Indies Station or the Cape of Good Hope station around 1913 and I'm sure there are plenty of others around the same time period.
posted by Authorized User at 10:02 AM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

On the other hand, a mis-use of the Dreadnought might make for an interesting story point and add a bit of tension to the background - the career Navy officers aboard thought it was damnfool nonsense to send the flagship on a solo transport mission for five people, but the Admiralty had a tremendous fire lit under its ass, and an immediate departure without time for debate or discussion was ordered in the dead of night... what On Earth could possibly be so important, and cause such panic so high up?
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:47 AM on December 5, 2010

Response by poster: Well, to be fair, my five are not the only ones on the ship :) They are little more than stowaways along with the regular crew.
posted by New England Cultist at 10:58 AM on December 5, 2010

Best answer: I think Authorised User's suggestion of HMS Astraea is superb.

A bit of background about Edwardian warships:

I've often written that people think of warships as being like thw Swiss Army Knives of military force; any job you have, you send a gunboat, and the problem is taken care of. But actually, most warships have very specialised tasks, and are really only suited to operate in a narrow range of circumstances.

Dreadnought, for example, was what is sometimes called a 'sea superiority' warship. Her job was to scare away smaller ships, so that the Royal Navy could monopolise a particilar oceanic area (which in the case of Dreadnought, mostly means the North Sea). Indeed, she was one of the most extreme of the sea superiority warships, being highly specialised to fight at long range and only against big ships. This, as has been pointed out from time to time, was a pretty dumb specialisation for a ship of her type, as the North Sea is often foggy, and ships have to get close to one another in order to hit.

Sea superiority warships, by their very nature, like to travel in big groups, and don't like to travel far from home. Fast battleships like the Dreadnought are the high-performance jet fighters of their day. They're sleek, they're glamerous, and they spend most of their time sitting in base, waiting for bad guys to show up.

Now the light cruiser Astraea, on the other hand, is sort of like an army helecopter squadron. She was designed to be used, in wartime, as a fast, independent scout: patrolling for enemy warships and letting the big girls like Dreadnought know where to find them and pound them to bits. As it happens, though, she's getting a bit long in the tooth for that kind of job. Battleships are getting faster every year, in the Edwardian period, and Astraea is going to be too slow to shadow bigger ships and draw in the good guys to fight them. So even as 1906 dawns, her crew knows that she will mostly be relegated to her secondary, and arguably more important role, which is 'cruising'.

Cruisers are the workhorses of Edwardian navies, and have the biggest peacetime role of any warship. As the name would suggest, they spend most of their time cruisng around the world doing odd jobs where naval forces are needed. She carries a compliment of Marines, for example, which can be landed wherever unrest is taking place. Maybe she's delivering important government officials, or 'showing the flag', to let the unruly natives know that the White Man is still boss in this, the Age of Empire. As she served in the Far East, and then West Africa stations, Astraea probably spent much of her time patrolling for pirates and shipping diplomats around the place. As she's headed out to the Eastern Fleet in 1906, it doesn't change history much to have her complete a few joe jobs in Africa on the way, especially as she would later serve in the Cape of Good Hope Station, making West Africa her home territory (normally, of course, she'd go through the Medeterranian via the Suez Canal). So it totally fits with her known history for her to be delivering a group of archeologists to a West African port along the way.

The archeologists are something of a curiosity aboard, but nothing to be alarmed about. They are billeted two to a cabin in the officers' quarters near the back of the ship; just enough space to stand next to their bunks and move around, but quite spacious compared to the hammochs that the 300-odd seamen sleep in. Only the Captain will have a larger cabin, which will include a large dining table at which the archeologists will eat every day. They, of course, being Edwardians, will know all the propper terms for shipboard things and use them assiduously or risk looking foolish. They sleep 'abaft' the main mast (Astraea has two, tall masts and two narrow funnels) and dine at the Captain's table. The ships officers are generally polite but indifferent. Some of them are very young; the youngest is Midshipmen of perhaps fifteen, but the Captain is a middle aged Commander; an experienced but rather dull old hand whose career is probably headed nowhere.

The ship has, of course, been outfitted for the Far East. She's already been repainted in the famous 'Victorian Livery', with a black hull, white superstructure, and buff coloured funnels. This tends to disguise her rather slab-sided profile, and makes her look rather more like an ocean liner than a warship. Perhaps adding to the holliday feel, the crew have already been issued with white, cotton tropical uniforms, and the civilians are allowed to sit out on deck where they are served as much gin as they can handle under a canvass cannopy which is rigged up for shade when the ship gets into the tropics.

The cruise takes twenty-one days at Astraea's cruisng speed of ten knots. She has no need to refuel in that time (she'll be taking on coal at Capetown), but she might make some other stops along the African coast as she completes her various duties of the cruise. Perhaps some minor official is being delivered to Accra in the Gold Coast. All in all, aside from some unpleasent weather in the Bay of Biscay, the voyage will be rather dull. One moment of interest, which might enliven things a little, would take place about three days before they put in to Loanda (now 'Luanda', of course). When the ship crosses the equator, most of the sailors aboard will be doing so for the first time. This 'crossing of the line' is celebrated by the performance of a grotesque ceremony which usually involves ritualised shaving, cross dressing, and the appearance of the god Neptune (in the person of some senior Chief) who will hold court and make the first-time line crossers do unspeakable things. I'm sure you can invent nicely forshaddowing details, as needed, to fit the climax. Other than that it's mostly sitting around, planning for their expedition and, of course, Church Parade on Sundays.

Oh, some other details... according to Wikipedia, Astraea is associated with a cool ghost story later in her career. Naturally, this hasn't happened yet but it might be cool to forshadow it. Next, the mythological figure Astraea is supposed to be waiting to come down to Earth for a new golden age, sort of the opposite of Lovecraft's monsters. Finally, they don't sail from London directly. Instead, they take a train to Plymouth where they join the ship before she sets off.

There is a diagram of the ship here, and some potentially useful photos here.

Any questions and other details you need?
posted by Dreadnought at 3:56 PM on December 5, 2010 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Dreadnought

Inspired glee from your answer. Great stuff. Thanks heaps.

The Astraea sure is a good-looking ship. I think you may have convinced me, especially since you brought Howard AND mythology into it. Thanks also for the details about the ship's interior and the few choice jargon terms.

21 Days is a good time for what I need to do in the story, character-wise. And foreshadowing is so much fun to play with, so thank you for that little detail.

Though I've been living in New Zealand for the past six and a half years, I will always be a Capetonian at heart. I lived half an hour outside the Mother City for 25 years of my life. I'd considered writing something that saw a ship set sail from Bluff (south of the South Island of NZ) to Antarctica, but decided the theme was too overplayed in the Lovecraft milieu. Ergo, a slice of Liebekraft in Afrika.
posted by New England Cultist at 7:58 PM on December 5, 2010

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