How did massive ships embark from the pier?
August 26, 2006 8:09 PM   Subscribe

Before there were motors, how did Tall Ships leave port?

Friday night I was at South Street Seaport marveling at the Peking, a massive barque 377 ft long and weighing 3100 gross tons. I couldn't help but wonder how that thing got moving when it needed to embark. Do tall ships just drop their sails and back out? Some of these ships are massive, and often in illustrations we see them docked in tight spaces; I can't imagine it's same procedure as your weekend sailing at the Vineyard. Maybe I'm wrong.
posted by yeti to Science & Nature (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Normally a tall ship would not pull in to a dock... it would anchor at mooring in the harbor, and goods and people would be shuttled back and forth via smaller sail-powered or rowing boats. When it was ready to leave, the outgoing tide, coupled with wind, would pull it out to sea.

When it did need to take on larger supplies, such as new guns, masts, things of that nature, it could pull in to a pier using a process called warping. Basically this just involved tying off a stout line to the pier and then winding it around the capstan, which was a cylindrical pully of sorts, with bars that stuck out of it horizontally. Lots of men would push the capstan bars around in a circle, winding the rope tighter and simply pulling the ship in to the pier. I know that the same process was used to bring it back out into the deeper water of the harbor, but I'm not sure offhand what the line would be tied to then.
posted by autojack at 8:38 PM on August 26, 2006 [2 favorites]

Fascinating info, autojack. Here's how the BBC explains warping out: "... kedging anchor, is carried as far from the ship as possible by the longboat and then dropped to the seabed. The remaining crew warp the ship out to it, and then it is hauled up and the process repeated as many times as necessary."

posted by nakedcodemonkey at 8:59 PM on August 26, 2006

How Peking left is easy: they probably placed a phone call to the harbormaster or towing company and had a steam or diesel tug tow them out -- it was built just before the Great War.

In addition to what others have said, powered tugs were in service in the early/mid 19th century if the History Channel can be believed. So the pictures you might be thinking of, of stuff like forests of masts docked at NYC, might well have been put there by tugs or other towboats.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:24 PM on August 26, 2006

ut I'm not sure offhand what the line would be tied to then.

To leave the dock there were two options. Sailing off the dock was much preferred, and easy enough to do, but only if the wind was usable. Square-riggers (like the Peking) can only sail about 80 degrees off the wind in either direction, and that limited the opportunities for sailing off the dock somewhat, particularly when fast passages became important during the latter days of the age of sail. However, it can be done, and gracefully -- I saw the Christian Radich do it a few years ago. It requires a full and well trained crew complement, because in bays and rivers a series of quick tacks is necessary to make the exit from the channel.

When the wind was not favorable, square-riggers used a process called kedging. In kedging, you affix a light anchor (not the two anchors you most often see at the head of the ship) to a long line, and wind the other end of the line around the capstan. You then place the light anchor into a small ship's boat (most square-riggers carry several small boats) with a boat-crew. The crew takes the light anchor, still on its line, several hundred yards away under oar power. They then drop the anchor. The crew aboard the vessel then goes to work winding the line in using the capstan. They basically pull the ship up to the light anchor, and when the hawser is vertical a topsail is backed (to avoid losing way), the anchor is raised, and then the boat-crew takes it out again.

This is repeated as many times as is necessary to get out of the channel.

What autojack says is mostly correct, except that in cargo shipping mooring was not effective. The cost in time, personnel, and money to ferry cargo back and forth was prohibitive. Cargo vessels simply had to tie up at wharves to expedite the loading and unloading process with local stevedores, which could take days even right at the dock. Loading and unloading using small boats was costly and impractical. Naval vessels did transport provisions and crew using such tenders, but merchant vessels most often had little choice but to head upriver and tie up at a wharf.

Lastly, a really good and well-trained crew can sail a square-rigger onto the dock (when the wind is right). It is rarely done nowadays because the skill is rare, and the risk to life and limb and property is greater than during the Age of Sail. But I have heard a few firsthand accounts of it being done on working tall ships. It's damn flash, though.
posted by Miko at 9:44 PM on August 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Last weekend I toured the Lady Washington, a reproduction of the fur trading brig that helped open up the Pacific Northwest (the modern replica played the part of "The Interceptor" in the first Pirates of the Carribean movie). One of the crew told me earlier in the week the wind was just right to push the ship out of the dock using sails only, not using the ship's auxilliary diesel at all. The crewman who told me this is a veteran and says he doesn't remember another instance of the Lady Washington doing so.
posted by lhauser at 9:56 PM on August 26, 2006

Not quite on the same scale, but the principle remains the same. Many moons ago, I helmed a schooner, the Sir Winston Churchill (now completely refitted - it was a training ship when I was aboard) under sail without engines (under strict instruction from the skipper and harbour pilot) into Douglas harbour on the Isle of Man. Obviously, the wind has to be blowing in the right direction. I recall that we also left completly under sail too.
posted by hmca at 7:22 AM on August 27, 2006

« Older Why is the bad lady screaming?   |   Er, I've never heard Eruption played like that... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.