The George Blog – Steam ships & Comments

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Steam ships

Way back, when I was young, in the swinging 60's ands early 70's, I was (in my spare time) an engineer on a steam ship. She was the SS Yarmouth, built in 1895 to serve as the Yarmouth to Gorleston ferry. She was double-ended, with a rudder and propeller at both ends, so she could go back and forth across the river without turning around.

At 96' (about 29m) LOA, she was quite a substantial vessel. Her main propulsion unit was a typical double acting compound marine steam engine of the time - so the steam acted on both sides of the piston and passed from a high pressure cylinder to a low pressure cylinder and thence to a condenser, where the steam was condensed back to water, utilizing the partial vacuum so produced to add to the power of the engine and then, via a double acting pump, the condensate was pumped back into the boiler to be heated again to steam.

The engine was solidly coupled to the shaft, which ran the full length of the vessel, carried in lignum vitae bearings; thus both propellers turned all the time - only the rudders were engaged and disengaged according to the direction the boat was headed in. While great for back-and-forth ferry operations, the presence of a propeller at both ends was a bit of a nightmare when it came to actually turning the ship. Do what you will, helm hard over at the (current) aft end, the bow propeller tended to negate the rudders' turning effort. This certainly resulted in some interesting manoeuvres in the narrow tidal River Deben!

Our greatest and last journey was from the Deben to St. Katherine's Dock on the Thames in London. 12 hours of continuous steaming brought us to the Mucking Flats at the mouth of the Thames, where we anchored overnight. We engineers had to stay up all night keeping the great boiler raked and stoked with coal, so that the ship was ready to steam next morning - not too much so that we wasted precious water by blowing off and not too little so that the fire went black.

Getting the anchor up was always a bit of a dicey affair on the Yarmouth because, steaming ahead gently to take the load off the cable could so easily end up with the cable wrapped around the bow propeller. Our skipper had had to make several diving operations as a result of this and he wasn't too enthusiastic about the prospect - the propellers were about 48" in diameter and one was always acutely aware that they were in fact coupled to a live steam engine back there in the engine room!

However, next day we avoided this disaster and, accompanied by the Thames River Police (who were fussed about things like spark arrestors - we were after all steaming past the refineries at the mouth of the Thames) we steamed in glory up the Thames at a spanking pace - we engineers, Keith and I, sensing perhaps a last chance - gave the boiler all we'd got and developed the best head of steam we'd ever managed. I would guess that not since she had acted as a liberty ship for the battleship The Iron Duke at Scapa Flow in the First World War, had the old engine worked so hard! Too soon, gushing steam and hissing at every joint, we arrived at St Katherine's Dock and locked into the basin where the Cutty Sark used to lay, and where the vessel was destined to become a live exhibit in the new docklands developments. Sadly though, this didn't happen and this trip turned out to be the last voyage of the SS Yarmouth. I don't know where she is now - boiler cold and long since scrapped I suspect. She was a grand old ship and I spent many a happy (and dirty) hour stoking her boiler and running her engine room. I guess I was priveleged to operate a real live steam engine and boiler room - rather than just read about it or see videos of it. Nothing can beat hands on experience like this.

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