James Holmes

An Evolution at Sea

While marine technology has come a long way, new advances can create new limitations.

James R. Holmes

A multinational fleet of tall ships wended its way from the Gulf Coast to New England this summer. Majestic sailing vessels stood into Narragansett Bay on July 6, tarrying over a long weekend to greet visitors. The following Monday they formed a column for a “parade of sail,” proceeding northward under the Newport Bridge and past the Naval War College before reversing course and disappearing slowly into Rhode Island Sound. Their masts and sails remained in sight long after their hulls vanished over the southern horizon. Talk about a long goodbye.

Certain impressions strike me anew every time I’m around historic sailing craft, probably because I seldom am around them. Once in awhile we spy the Providence, a replica of John Paul Jones’s sloop-of-war, making its way up or down the bay. That’s about it. The overriding impression is the, er, unhurried pace at which life unfolded at sea during the age of sail. Relative motion is a matter of vector mechanics—and the vectors’ magnitude was small in yesteryear.

With a top speed of only a few knots (nautical miles per hour), it took literally hours for fleets to close to gun or boarding range. And that’s if both sides wanted to fight. One antagonist could flee if it found itself outnumbered or outgunned. It could escape the encounter if it had a speed advantage, or it could wait for nightfall or bad weather to intervene—furnishing cover for evasive maneuvers. Either way, the chase could last hours or even days between evenly matched foes. Think about Russell Crowe’s Captain Jack Aubrey holding navigation classes for midshipmen in HMS Surprise while occasionally training his sight glass on the French frigate that was in hot pursuit, bent on meting out grim death. Top Gun this wasn’t, with fighters flashing past one another.

Furthermore, seafarers were utterly dependent on weather. Tall ships could remain at sea virtually forever, or at least until their crews ran out of provisions. Their fuel supply—wind—was inexhaustible. But it was also fickle. Sailing vessels thus had little control over their speed, or whether they moved at all. With steam propulsion came the ability to defy the elements, more or less, but steam-driven vessels had to refuel frequently. That limited their range while tethering them to shore facilities. Without overseas fuel and repair facilities, wrote Captain Mahan, steamships were like “land birds” unable to venture far from home. Hence sea powers’ scramble for coaling stations in Mahan’s day.

It seems there are tradeoffs to everything—even welcome advances in marine technology.