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Preussen represented the apex of commercial sail

Jan 1, 2003

The interesting article by A.M. Neyer about the switch from hemp to steel rigging ("How wire replaced fiber rope for rigging," Issue No. 84) mentions the steel sailing ship Preussen as an ultimate example of the use of steel rigging aboard a sailing ship. The example is appropriate, and much more could be said about the use of steel in this great ship.

I believe the description of the loss of Preussen given in the article is not exactly accurate, however. Preussen was indeed lost following a collision with a steamer in the English Channel, but she did not sink after the collision. Her bowsprit and foremast were heavily damaged, and her anchors were made useless. The damage to her rig made her unmanageable so that she ran aground near Dover. Attempts to re-float her failed. According to one account, it was the steamer that caused the collision that sank.

The noted mariner and author Alan Villiers sailed in steel ships and wrote extensively about them. Some of the books in which he discusses Preussen and others are The Way of a Ship, The War with Cape Horn, The Set of the Sails, and Men, Ships and the Sea.

Preussen was one of the largest steel sailing ships operated by the firm of Ferdinand Laeisz of Hamburg for commerce between the west coast of South America and Europe by way of Cape Horn early in the 20th century. They carried nitrate from Chile and Peru to Europe for fertilizer and for the German chemical industry, and carried general cargo outbound. The ships of this line all had names beginning with "P" and were familiarly called "P-ships." Several of the P-ships were steel, four-masted barques. Laeisz also owned one five-masted barque, Potosi, about the same size as the five-masted, ship-rigged Preussen.

Some of the other P-ships were Pamir, Passat, Pitlochry, Peking, and Parma. These ships successfully competed with steam ships on long voyages until Allied naval supremacy in World War I cut off German ocean commerce. The firm of Laeisz tried to revive commercial sail around Cape Horn after World War I. By World War II, however, the struggling sail trade was dead. A few of the P-ships continued in use after the war as training ships.

These great vessels incorporated several improvements in addition to steel hulls, steel masts and yards, and steel standing and running rigging. They were equipped with brace winches invented by the Scottish shipmaster J.C.B. Jarvis. Jarvis brace winches greatly reduced one of the most laborious tasks in sailing a square-rigged ship: the work of bracing yards around when tacking and wearing ship.

In ships without brace winches, tacking and wearing would be an all-hands task, with gangs of men hauling on numerous tackles to swing the yards around. Aboard ships with brace winches, each mast had its own brace winch. Each winch had multiple drums, one for each yard leading to opposite ends of the same drum. The drums were suitably geared together, sized, and tapered so that a few sailors turning cranks could swing all the yards of that mast at one time, with the yards ending up in correct relationship with each other. This was an enormous savings in manpower, as well as a considerable safety improvement. As a result, the large P-ships could operate with rather small crews. According to Villiers, Potosi had a crew of 44, and the crew size of Preussen was probably similar. Furthermore, the on-duty watch could handle the work of bracing the yards, allowing the off-duty watch to remain asleep.

The use of steel spars, running rigging, and standing rigging helped the performance of brace winches. The low-stretch properties of steel compared to hemp meant there was much less flexing of the rig, so that the brace winches could more accurately set the trim of the yards.

These vessels were remarkably powerful and efficient. They were built to stand up and sail to windward in the strongest Cape Horn gales. Potosi could sustain speeds of more than 17 knots in strong winds. Capt. Robert Hilgendorf had command of Potosi for 10 years, during which time his average speed made good was more than seven knots on his many round-trip voyages between the English Channel and the west coast of South America. These trips included passing through the doldrums and around Cape Horn.

These were pure sailing ships and were not equipped with engines for either propulsion or sail handling. Laeisz believed an engine and its fuel would compromise sailing performance, would take up space that could otherwise be used for cargo, would be costly to operate and maintain, and would not be of use on the long voyages around Cape Horn. Some other firms operated large sailing ships with auxiliary engines on voyages around the Horn, but their economic performance was poor.

Alan Villiers stated, justifiably, that the great steel P-ships represented the highest development of commercial sail. They were much larger than the famous clipper ships of the 19th century, had longer useful lives, and, of course, could carry much more cargo. The clippers were the ultimate development of wooden ships with hemp rigging; the use of steel for hull, spars, rigging, and deck machinery made possible the much greater size and power of the P-ships.

William Collins is a Coast Guard-licensed captain, retired Naval officer, and engineer.