The Block Island Times

Writer's Block: Oars, Sail, Steam, Diesel and Jets

By J. V. Houlihan, Jr. | Sep 28, 2013

Ever since people travelled the world’s waterways, whether its ponds, lakes, streams, rivers and oceans, they had a primary motive: they wanted to get from point A to point B safely and efficiently. They wanted to discover places, too. Why human beings are driven to get to places quickly can be broken down in two ways. The Homeric position, “It’s the journey not the destination,” is one way. From a Bardic and Romantic point of view, that’s a great idea; you know, what’s the rush, enjoy the ride ― right? Now that’s a great idea in theory; however, it doesn’t pay the bills.

The second way to view this conundrum is to look at it from the position of supply and demand economics. People need stuff, and in most cases they want said stuff yesterday. Such is the human condition. (As a freight guy in Point Judith, I see this every day.)

Native Americans made dugout canoes out of various woods. Birch bark canoes were popular because of their durability and light weight; this translated into speed, and goods were traded in a timely manner. Not much has changed in the design of these early canoes. At the beginning of the 1800s, a couple of clever Quakers from New York figured they would try getting mail delivered across the Atlantic to Liverpool ― fast. So began the Black Ball Line and the guys who started this enterprise did something the competition (other merchant vessels) weren’t doing; they left port with the mail, bound in leather packets (hence the name Packet Ship), on a schedule! They started with four ships, and left port in all weathers ― slack wind or a gale. To think something as simple as a schedule would be so profound. (From what I know about Homer, he wasn’t a big schedule guy; you know the whole Calypso thing ― just sayin’.) The Black Ball Line’s captains and mates made it their business to make record breaking crossings of the Atlantic. Subsequently, reducing sail in heavy weather was not an option on the Black Ball Line’s Packet Ships. Time was money then as it is now. For some current perspective, one could say that UPS and FedEx are basically the U.S. Mail on steroids ― nothing has changed. The Black Ball Line guys were men of vision.

During the age of sail, regional coastal dwellers would see Schooners, Barkentines, Brigantines, and Frigates transiting Vineyard, Block Island and Long Island sounds. In 1787, an American named John Fitch built the first steam ship, and then came the gas and diesel turbines; now we have entered the age of jet-powered water craft. So I guess that the evolution of movement over water was driven by mankind’s innate desire to push nautical boundaries and to accelerate matters of supply and demand ― commerce. Regarding the building of boats, whether it was for hauling fish out of the water or moving armies across the world’s oceans, the design of the craft was primarily about three important words: time, speed and distance. So much for Homer’s romantic spin, “It’s the journey not the destination,” on oceanic travel.

Sometimes when I’m sailing my boat, I envision ocean-going ships leaving Narragansett Bay with hybrid designs. For example, picture a four hundred-foot jet-powered freighter heading east across the Atlantic. Let’s say in ideal conditions, the ship has an average speed of 45 knots. Now imagine 30 to 50 knots of wind off the stern, and five telescoping (reduces windage while in jet mode) with carbon fiber masts rising from the ship, with airplane wing foils, unfurling from the masts. (For better perspective, see the America’s Cup Team Oracle sail design). This design is about fuel savings as well as speed. Now if a guy like me can visualize a design like this, can you imagine what some hot shot young kid is dreaming up and designing at MIT at this very moment? Finally, the absolute here is speed and efficiency, as it always was and always will be in the maritime industry.

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