Cutty Sark [photo: Krzysztof Belczyński]

A Little Less Conservation, a Little More Action…

In Greenwich, London, the Cutty Sark is a popular tourist attraction. A British merchant ship, she’s a rare survivor from a vanished, glamorous age of commerce by sail.

Exceptionally sleek and skilfully constructed, it’s a shame to have to report that this beautiful ship was just about obsolete from the outset: she was launched in November 1869… the same month that the Suez Canal was completed, changing the geography of global trade forever.

As a clipper, Cutty Sark was designed for the tea trade, then a highly competitive annual race (with cargo) from China to London. The journey involved sailing around the southern tip of Africa and steering a route that would make the most of the prevailing winds. Cutty Sark employed composite construction (wooden planking over an iron frame, all sheathed in Muntz metal) to produce an elegant, streamlined hull that made her one of the fastest ships of her time. It’s worth noting that she isn’t just a vehicle that used to be a part of the global supply network, but also a product of it: British wrought iron frames and metal sheeting, American rock elm, East India teak… all assembled on the Clyde.

Fast sailing over long distances (up to 363 nautical miles or 672 km in a day) was no longer confined to clippers, sadly. The SS Agamemnon had already been in use for three years, demonstrating the advantages of a high-pressure boiler and a compound steam engine – and when the Suez Canal opened it offered a 6,100 km shortcut that was largely unsuited to sailing vessels. The days of the tea clipper were numbered.

Richard, and some faux tea chests in the hold of the Cutty Sark

Long before the standard intermodal freight container, there were tea chests. A team of Chinese stevedores could load a ship with up to 10,000 of them in 2–3 days, and on her first return voyage, Cutty Sark brought 1,305,812 pounds (592 tonnes) of tea from Shanghai. Since there was no way to return them once empty, tea chests found all kinds of secondary uses in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, becoming storage boxes, furniture and even musical instruments.

Eight times Cutty Sark sailed in the tea season, one of a dwindling number of tea clippers. In December 1877 nobody in Shanghai was prepared to entrust their cargo of tea to a mere sailing ship (insurance premiums for steamships were a lot lower) and this marked the end of sail in the tea trade. Cutty Sark and the other clippers had to change with the times: they were modified to carry a simpler, smaller arrangement of sails that reduced crewing requirements and maintenance costs, and they carried new cargoes on new routes.

Reducing manning levels in an effort to cut costs… a reaction to hard times that shipping lines still employ today. Another tactic that we see employed almost universally today is slow steaming: reducing speed in order to save fuel. It’s a good response to industry overcapacity and the high price of fuel because reducing speed by about a third can save thousands of tonnes of fuel oil… but it’s amusing to note that this has reduced modern commerce to a speed that Cutty Sark could have bettered on a good day – without spending a penny on fuel, and without producing any emissions!

When the tea trade changed to exclude clippers, Cutty Sark began to carry wool from Australia. In the 1883–1884 season, she made a journey from Australia to London in 83 days, 25 days ahead of any other vessel. In 1885 Captain Richard Woodget managed to get the time down to 73 days. Cutty Sark dominated the wool trade for a decade… until the steamships moved in on that commodity as well. In 1895 she was sold to the Portuguese firm Joaquim Antunes Ferreira, and renamed Ferreira as a result. She traded general cargoes here and there, and by 1922 she was the last clipper still operating. A spell as a cadet training ship followed, and when she was no longer needed in that role she was installed in a purpose-built dry dock in Greenwich, becoming a museum ship in the 1950s.

After decades of sitting on her keel – an unnatural position that caused a certain amount of sagging – came an extensive conservation project, beginning in 2006. It was a textbook case of poor project management, featuring cost over-runs, poor record-keeping and questionable security arrangements… punctuated by a terrible fire in May 2007 that might have destroyed the whole ship.

Cutty Sark fire of 2007

Cutty Sark is part of the National Historic Fleet, making her equivalent to a Grade 1 Listed Building: destruction by fire is not an option. Fortunately, much of the fabric of the ship had already been taken away for conservation   [photo: ITV.com]

In April 2012, Cutty Sark reopened after years of hard work. The most noticeable change is to the dry dock. In my childhood it was a simple pit where wind-blown crisp packets would tend to gather, but now it’s a glazed space, the roof appearing to be an ocean swell that the ship is riding. In the new scheme, Cutty Sark ‘sails’ some three metres above, allowing visitors a good look at her most important feature: that beautiful, streamlined hull.

Copper/zinc sheeting on the restored Cutty Sark

Visitors can now walk beneath Cutty Sark’s hull, clad in a gleaming copper/zinc alloy that’s a close match to the original Muntz metal.

The end result of Cutty Sark’s renovation is controversial. The Victorian Society described it as a misguided attempt to fit the corporate hospitality market, and Building Design magazine named it the worst new building in 2012. (The ‘anti’ camp were hoping for a restoration that would have left Cutty Sark seaworthy.) Yachting World were more appreciative, though, describing the end result as sensational.

Cutty Sark will never again be able to return to the sea, but she still formed a focus for the ceremonies that preceded the Tall Ships race of 2017. At the Sailors’ Ball on Good Friday, dancers were dressed in their best vintage sailor chic, and after champagne and fireworks on deck, I enjoyed the opportunity to explore Cutty Sark without crowds, before we went below to dance. As the band played ‘Somewhere Beyond the Sea’, I felt as if I’d become one of the denizens of Rapture, the doomed city beneath the waves in the BioShock games: even so, count me among the people who approve of the Cutty Sark in her new role. For a ship that never quite worked out as planned, she has a surprising amount to teach us.

A dance lesson, given in the space beneath Cutty Sark's Hull

Dancing the night away at the Sailors’ Ball

Infrastructure of a Former Empire

There’s an interesting piece on the BBC News website today about the MV Ilala, a ship that’s been plying the waters of Lake Malawi for 65 years. She’s described as a ‘rusting lifeline’, and the only way of reaching some settlements. This isn’t merely a passenger service, as the ship can carry up to 90 tonnes of cargo as well.

MV Ilala was constructed by Yarrow Shipbuilders, back when describing something as Clydebuilt was a guarantee of quality. No sooner had she been completed than she was broken down into pieces and brought in overland: if the idea of a ship reaching a large African lake in this way makes you think of Humphrey Bogart’s adversary in ‘The African Queen’, you’re not far wrong… although that story is set on a different lake. (There was a brief naval action on Lake Malawi: the first of the First World War… but a single shot decided it.)

The BBC described the Ilala as facing an uncertain future back in 2008. She is a single-bottom type, and therefore not compliant with the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention. (As far as SOLAS is concerned, Lake Malawi is ‘at sea’…) More than seven years on the Ilala is still in service, but showing further signs of long usage.

MV Ilala

On a freshwater lake, time has taken its toll all the same [BBC News]

MV Ilala

MV Ilala, docked and unloading [Photo: http://www.traveladventures.org]

When maintenance is required some of the Ilala’s duties can be performed by the MV Chilembwe (launched in 2014) although that is a considerably smaller vessel. The MV Mtendere (in service from 1980) used to stand in, but is currently in storage, with plans to break her up. The other grand old lady of Lake Malawi, launched in 1901 and generally acknowledged as the oldest ship still afloat in Africa, is the MV Chauncy Maples, undergoing conversion to a floating medical clinic. The small Tanzanian ferries MV Songea and MV Iringa (each launched 1974) also operate on the lake, but have their own itineraries. Thus, maritime transport on Lake Malawi appears to offer a very fragile lifeline indeed.

In this decaying infrastructure I see parallels with the end of an earlier empire: when the Romans left Britain around 410 AD, they left behind a road network that continued to define the landscape. For well over a thousand years, no better roads were built. We lacked the skills, the political will or perhaps just the money to significantly improve our infrastructure. Instead, people just had to make do, while the roads crumbled.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of the Malawian government, nor any of the nations that border the lake… but it poses real challenges for those who depend upon such services. Although I go to Malawi once or twice a year, I’ve never seen the MV Ilala. Perhaps I never will, now.

If the ‘rusting lifeline’ can’t be sustained, she’ll still be in good company. I come from a country that used to offer supersonic passenger flights, but stopped – and the only country ever to have abandoned a successful space launch capability*. The Americans don’t fly the Space Shuttle anymore, either. Is this the ‘new normal’? Must we concede that our forefathers could do things that we can’t? I think that in some cases this might be so. Opportunities are fewer, now, with materials more scarce and constraints more abundant. One of the greatest challenges must surely be providing for a nation with a growing population: there were 2.75 million Malawians when the MV Ilala was first launched, and 3.79 million by the time Malawi obtained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964. The 2015 population figure was 16.79 million, and projections suggest 30 million by 2035.

Already there is news of food shortages, and I doubt one old steamer more or less is going to resolve matters.

 

[*] In 1971, the British Black Arrow launcher put a single satellite into low Earth orbit: the last hurrah of a programme that had already been cancelled. The satellite was called Prospero, after the sorcerer in Shakespeare’s Tempest who chooses to give up his powers.

The Broadest Railway Gauge… Ever. Ever.

In an earlier article, I wrote about the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge, which I found to be wonderfully quirky, with elements of boat, railway and gantry crane about it. This time, though, we look at what you’d get if you could crossbreed a seaside pier, a pleasure steamer, and a tram.

Magnus Volk had already had a success with his Electric Railway in Brighton. It opened in 1883, the third such railway or tramway in the world, the first in the UK and the oldest surviving one. In the summertime you can still go for a ride along the same seafront track, in a funny little yellow carriage.

With a successful passenger transport business in place, Volk wanted to extend the line eastwards, but found that he would need to ascend to clifftop level – a costly and difficult proposition.

So what do you do?

You build your railway in the sea, of course! (In this, Volk may have been inspired by the Pont Roulant, a ‘rolling bridge’ that ran on submerged rails, across the harbour entrance at St Malo in France. That wasn’t self-propelled, though.)

Volk had two 825 mm gauge tracks laid down on land that was exposed at low tide, running all the way to the village of Rottingdean, some 4½km away. These were no ordinary narrow gauge lines, though: they ran parallel, the whole way, and the vehicle that was designed to ride on the rails straddled both – giving it a gauge of 5.5m.

The tram itself was called ‘Pioneer’, but most people called it Daddy Long Legs – and at 7m, they certainly were long. Pioneer’s main deck was 13.7m by 6.7m, and featured a glazed cabin with leather-upholstered seating, and a second promenade deck on its roof. Because it was technically a seagoing vessel, it had to have a qualified captain at the helm, and was equipped with life preservers and a small boat on davits. (In this pre-Titanic era, it seems you weren’t obliged to have enough lifeboat space for everyone…)

Poster advertising Pioneer

A Sea Voyage, on Wheels. Six pence.

At 46 tonnes, it may have been the biggest thing that the Gloucester Railway Carriage & Wagon Company ever made. A single trolleybus-style cable stretched along the whole of Pioneer’s route, providing power at 500V (DC). Current was returned via the rails, and via the sea itself when the tide was high. (This was long before anybody ever muttered those killjoy words, “Health and Safety.”)

Equipped with a pair of 25hp (18.65kW) motors from General Electric, Pioneer was horribly underpowered, and struggled to push its way through a high tide. It wasn’t very well streamlined, but it was tremendously popular.

Volk’s sea tram, underway

They certainly don’t make ’em like they used to…

The railway opened on November 28th 1896, but there was a terrible storm a week later that caused Pioneer to slip her moorings and roll away down the track. Pioneer ended up lying on her side, badly damaged. Repairs began straight away, but it wasn’t until the following July that the line reopened. Nonetheless, 44,282 passengers were carried that year.

Presently, shifting of the stones beneath the track’s sleepers forced a closure for repairs in the middle of the tourist season. Then in 1901 the council announced construction of a beach protection barrier that would have forced Volk to divert his line in order to avoid the new obstacle. He chose to close up shop instead: the world’s only seagoing tram was moored at Ovingdean Gap until 1910, when the whole lot was cut up for scrap. Today, all that remains of the railway is some of the concrete sleepers, visible at low tide.

This 3D modelled reproduction gives some idea of the scale of the Pioneer. [Animation by Delaney Digital]

Clearly, the Brighton to Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway never worked very well, and it didn’t bring in enough money to justify costly track alterations… but if it had somehow avoided the scrap man’s oxyacetylene torch, what a wonderful tourist attraction it would make today!

Inadvertently, in the process, those Victorian engineers built the widest railway ever. The tongue-twisting Lärchwandschrägaufzug in Austria has a broader gauge, at 8.2m, but that’s a funicular railway, and basically a repurposed goods lift that now carries tourists. If you feel that a funicular qualifies, then there’s the ship-lift at the Krasnoyarsk Dam, with a track width of 9m… but is either a ‘railway’? Hardly. Disappointingly, I can’t cite the Montech water slope either. It’s a mind-boggling contraption that uses a pair of permanently connected diesel locos on either side of a canal, working to to raise 1,500 m³ of water (and boats)… but the whole thing runs on pneumatic tyres, not rails.

So… for my money, Volk built the widest railway the world has ever seen. His 5.5m dwarfs even the Nazis’ daydream of connecting all their conquered territory with the 3m gauge Breitspurbahn – itself monstrous when compared to the 1.435 m (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) of our standard gauge.

The idea of using water where the land doesn’t offer suitable geography has recently popped up again, with the Thames Deckway project. The proposal is for a 12km, floating toll path running from Battersea to Canary Wharf, for cyclist commuters during rush-hour and tourists at other times. Although expensive, it appears to be reasonably benign in environmental terms: one of those ideas to file under “so crazy it might just work”.

Thames Deckway concept

Thames Deckway concept [image: River Cycleway Consortium]

I’d much rather relax with a Pimm’s on the foredeck of the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway, though.

As Idle as a Painted Ship

Over at ’The Disorder of Things’, guest blogger Charmaine Chua presented a fascinating piece of ethnographic research, detailing her travels as a passenger on a container ship. The researcher’s journey was from Los Angeles, USA to Taipei, Taiwan. At €100 per night, given that it takes around a month to make a one-way trip, this is never going to challenge business class air transport… but I have to admit that I’m envious. Just imagine how much writing you could get done in all those days of sea and sky! Above all, though, it’s a window on the fascinating and seldom-seen world of the merchant marine. Few jobs have changed as much as this one, where sailors once talked of shore leave in exotic destinations and now grind their way endlessly around the globe, on bigger ships with smaller crews…

Chua anonymised the vessel that transported her, and its crew, which is a good thing for a researcher to do when describing how the people she studied earn their livelihood. For the ship, she chose the fictional name ‘Ever Cthulhu’, which I have to admit grew on me as I read my way through the five-part series. There should be more ships named after Lovecraftian monsters.

The life of a modern-day seaman, as described, doesn’t appear to be an attractive choice. As Samuel Johnson once said, “Being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” It seems the largely Filipino crew concur as they liken a typical cycle of six months at sea to being incarcerated. I already knew that a shipboard life could be grim (I spent some time studying the lot of workers in the cruise industry last year…) but I think that life on a cargo vessel is possibly worse, because there’s less of a requirement to keep up appearances.

Of greatest interest to me was the description of the “traffic jams” and delays experienced at the west coast ports of Tacoma, Oakland and Los Angeles, with many ships waiting days to dock and then suffering through a lengthy process of unloading and loading. It appears that while bigger and bigger ships make sense from a purely economic viewpoint, what works on paper doesn’t always work in the real world. Even with a gargantuan effort to modernise ports in order to accommodate the new generation of megaships (because no port wants to find itself sidelined) the efforts to dredge channels deeper and raise cranes higher doesn’t guarantee success. The whole logistic system needs to keep pace, including the road and rail services… and something isn’t working.

Cargo ships at anchor

Cargo ships at anchor near Los Angeles [photo: Los Angeles Times]

“Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean.”

This little bit of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (as you might expect, it’s from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner) gave me the title for today’s blog post. Anyway, back to Chua and her observations:

“Imagine the ripple effects of all this congestion: if a single ship takes six days longer than the usual 2½ to be unloaded at berth, and ships that have been waiting experience those same delays when their turn at berth arrives, those backlogs reverberate outward in unfathomable ways, affecting ships’ travel times to other ports around the world, trucking rates inland, air freight pricing, rail service delays across the U.S., and the availability of empty containers in China.”

As a person who likes to use simulation to investigate logistics problems, this is fascinating. I’m itching to construct some models, and investigate the bottlenecks in a system that is worsening as a result of ever-larger ships introducing increasingly lumpy arrival patterns. It’s a problem that might get still worse with the completion of a third set of locks on the Panama canal; present-day vessels taking that route are constrained to specifications that have remained unchanged since the canal opened a century ago, but the new construction will permit an increase from the present Panamax constraint of around 5,000 TEU to a new limit of perhaps 13,000 TEU. There is also work underway to construct another canal, cutting through Nicaragua… and there are plans afoot to expand the Suez canal as well.

Panamax ship

Panamax

In Tacoma, when no dockworkers arrive to unload the Ever Cthulhu, Chua opines that “a quiet port is logistics’ nightmare”. More accurately perhaps, it’s the simultaneous arrival of 8,100 twenty-foot equivalent units at a single berth that is the nightmare. If everything was to be loaded onto trucks, you’d have a queue almost sixty-five kilometres long… but that isn’t to say that trucks are always the bottleneck. If anybody that’s reading wants to offer some data (or assistance, or funding!) for a piece of research by simulation, consider me interested.

Chua claims that a failure to shift cargo at the rate that port employers would like to achieve is down to problems of infrastructure, and that dockworkers are scapegoated. This is borne out by observers such as Bloomberg Business, who report:

“While most of the attention around the port crisis has focused on labor, the cargo bottlenecks predate the labor stalemate and will outlast a settlement … Backups began in August, about two months before the Pacific Maritime Association accused unionized dockworkers of deliberately slowing down cargo movement.”

It seems that nobody is terribly happy in the 21st century box-shifting industry, and that’s important. Along with a failure to handle all the goods now arriving, and the facts and figures detailing environmental concerns such as the toxicity of heavy fuel oil, the toxic nature of “sludge” and the disposal of grey water and food waste by offshore dumping, there’s a human cost being paid by those who perform lonely, often menial and sometimes dangerous jobs, with little or no job security. In the industry we depend upon for the transportation of 90% of the world’s freight, that’s something that needs to be understood.