Monday, May 18, 2009

Tai-Pan: Sailing Ships versus Steam Ships

Struan's shipping operation is totally based on fast, wooden sailing ships. The faster the ship is, the sooner the trade goods arrive at market, and the higher the profit. The first shipment gets sold for the highest price.
Brock had beaten up through the monsoon with a huge cargo of opium - - Dirk Struan a few days astern, also carrying opium. Brock had reached Chushan first, sold his cargo and turned around, knowing happily that now Struan would have to go farther north and try a new coast with fresh risks.... Then a great storm had suddenly swooped out of the China seas.... ...(Brock) recalled how he had limped into port long after he had been given up for lost, his fine three-masted clipper ship no more than a hulk.... Struan had run into the same typhoon in a small lorcha.... Joss be letting Dirk build that one stinking lorcha into a fleet of clippers and hundreds of lorchas, into warhouses and bullion to spare. Page 10-11
The traders vie among themselves to have the fastest ships:
(Cooper-Tillman's new ship) might be unfair competition. If she sails like Dirk thinks she'll sail, perhaps we'll buy her out from under you. Or build four more like her. page 57
About half way through the book, a steamship sails in to Hong Kong harbor, inciting Dirk's wrath:
"Look at her wake! And her heading! Into the wind.... She's overhauling our ship as though the Blue Cloud's a pig-rotten brig in the hands of godrotting apes - - instead of one of the best crews on earth.... That rusty, iron-hulked, machine powered, Stephenson-invented pus-ridden harlot has sailed from England to here, against all the sea's disgust and the wind's contempt." page 314
Culum points out that steam-powered ships could make sense, and be faster, if they're not dependent on the wind.
"Na faster, na with the wind abaft the beam and na as seaworthy. And na in a storm. Those smellpots'll turn turtle and sink like a stone. And na as economic. They have to have wood for the boilers, or coal.... Thank God I won't live to see the death of sail. But that whore heralds the death of the China clipper. The most beautiful ships that ever sailed the seas." page 314-315
Those words will be prophetic...

The steam ship did not immediately mean the end of the sailing ship. There's a great article in the New York Times from 1882 that compares steam ships to wood sailing ship and iron sailing ships. They suggest that while steam ships are more effective for short voyages, sailing ships are more economical for longer trips. Even though a steamship is almost twice as fast as a sailing ship:
...that is to say, the round voyage of a freight steamer from England to India via the Suez Canal is put at five months, while the average time occupied by a sailing vessel in going to or from the same places via the Cape of Good Hope is stated to be nine months.
The article theorizes the reason sailing ships are a better investment in 1882 (40 years after the events in Tai-pan) because of "the mania which has of late prevailed in Great Britain for steam-ship building." There were so many steam-ships available, that the cost of shipping on them had dropped because of too much competition. Steam ship investments were returning 5-6 percent. Sailing ships were returning about 20 percent.

Plus, the cost of running a sailing ship was negligible compared to the cost of running a steamer. Steamers needed larger crews, and a lot more maintenance and repair, in addition to fuel costs. And, if you had a metal sailing ship, ..."the subsequent outlays in the form of repairs are much smaller when themasts and hull are of iron than masts and hull are of wood."

So, thru the end of the 19th century, there was still a lot of debate about which manner of ship to build. How many wind-powered freight ships have you seen recently?

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