Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ships: The Clipper's Ancestor

In 1800 Captain Robert Hall Gower, a marine in the service of the East India Company of Britain, had retired and was prepared to launch a new career. He hoped to become a shipping magnet but what he really accomplished was a surprisingly successful invention that never really caught on.
 Gower’s brainchild was a ship he named Transit, which he envisioned as the future of speed in both travel and shipping. The special features of Transit are what made it truly revolutionary. Some of them, however, require a lot of “sailor speak” to describe; I will do my best not to go to far away from shore on this one.

First and foremost, Transit had a long, narrow hull that allowed for ease of loading without loss of sailing ability. The way she was worked in the building process also meant that ordinary carpenters, as apposed to more specialized and therefore expensive shipwrights, could do the framing. A ship built on Gower’s plans – he would complete three of them – could be put together by any woodworker, a shipwright being required only for the fitting of the deck.

Out of that deck sprang the most curious of Transit’s features. The original ship carried five masts (later versions would carry four) with an unusual form of fore-and-aft rigging on all but her foremast. The story goes that Gower ran out of money towards the end of the building process, and had to plunk a borrowed, square-rigged foremast onto his creation.

Regardless of the sails, each mast was self-supporting and independent from the masts next to it. This was a highly unusual design that meant the masts had to be stayed with cables attached at four points to the deck in a fashion known as “flag pole” rigging. Gower’s thought was to give each mast its own movement, allowing for more sail and faster running. The sails then became perhaps the most remarkable innovation found aboard Transit.

While the foremast held standard rigging including jib sails, the four other masts were decked out with sails of Gower’s own design. These were rectangular in shape with the addition of canvas strap pockets on either side of each sail. Sprits, similar to wooden dowels, would be housed in the pockets to keep the sails extended and flat. This innovation would improve both control and speed of running by exposing as much canvas as possible to the available wind. At least in part because of the free standing nature of each mast, the topmast portion of any one mast could be struck without disturbing the sails below.

Gower introduced his design to both the East India Company and the Royal Navy but neither would bite. Even after Transit got into the water and was proven a superior sailor to the naval sloop she was tested against, neither of these old guard organizations cared to back the new technology. Gower’s Transit was taken into the merchant service with her inventor as an independent owner. She routinely sailed faster than any ship in her convoys. The need for a larger crew due to her unusual rigging, however, kept other merchants from commissioning more like her.

R.H. Gower was a visionary ahead of his time. Though his ship was superior to anything else available in the early 19th century, Transit did not catch on as a new technology. It would not be until the 1840s, seven years after Gower’s death, that the great clipper ships such as Neptune’s Car and Cutty Sark would rival the speed and efficiency of their direct ancestor, Transit.

Header: Four Masted Clipper Ships by Donald Anderson


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I guess some ideas are just too far ahead of their time to catch on right away.

Glad to see that your blog appears to be "back to normal" today.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! To some degree, that is what happened here. But those funky fore-and-aft sails of Gowers never did catch on.

So far, so good although there are still some glitches as you can see.