From Sails to Steam

From Sails to Steam

While we were building the Panama Canal, steamships were replacing sails.

The transition began earlier than our work on the canal, and was not complete when the canal opened.  I can only guess at the relationship between advances in steam technology and the development of American steam shovels in the early 1900s which dwarfed the French shovels of the 1880s.

Steam engines ran railroads for half a century before the American era of the Canal.

I looked up steam ship history, which explains why the transition from sails to steam took place over a century and a half:

“The first successful steam-powered vessels were built for use on canals and rivers in the early 1800s. On early steamships, the steam engine turned paddle-wheels that moved the ship along, but by the 1850s most ships were using propellers (first fitted to a steamship in 1839), instead. The first ocean-going steamships kept sails, too, because they could not carry enough coal or water for long-distance voyages, and their engines were not very reliable”.

Trains, of course, could stop every few hours for more water and coal, or bring along enough coal cars for the journey.

When Americans first began work on the canal, some supplies (I don’t know what proportion) still arrived by sailing ship.  It would be interesting to find out when the last sailing supply ship unleaded at Colon, but certainly, by 1907, passengers traveled along both Atlantic and Pacific coasts by steam.

The Shearwater, station in British Columbia, sailed through the Panama Canal when WWI began, for use in the Atlantic.
The Shearwater–no sails–transiting the Panama Canal in 1914.

Will Hobby wrote in his journal, as the steamer San Juan approached San Francisco, ““Sailing vessels are more rare than steamers.”  He doesn’t say whether he saw large ocean-going vessels with sails.

One of the ships he noted on that voyage demonstrated the change, although I doubt he knew its history and he certainly didn’t know it would transit the Panama Canal for WWI duty in the Atlantic some weeks later.  He wrote from Acapulco, Mexico: “Here we saw at anchor, looking out for British interests, His Majesty’s gunboat Shearwater, a fine-looking ship mounting about a dozen high-powered guns.”

The Shearwater had been launched in 1900 with sails plus a steam engine driving twin screws.  It’s sister ship, the Condor, was launched in 1898 and lost on her first commission, off Washington State, during a storm in December 1901.

The Condor was travelling from Esquimalt in Canada, to Honolulu.  Its loss was attributed to the weight of its sails.  Other ships of that class, including the Shearwater, had sails removed and were outfitted for steam only, within a few years.

The loss of the Condor, blamed on the weight of its sails, was one factor in transitioning British Navy ships from sail to steam.
The Shearwater, before 1908, with sails.

Shearwater, during WWI, became a submarine tender and transited the Panama Canal to escort two submarines to Halifax in 1917. For the remainder of the war, she served limited duty as an Royal Canadian Navy support vessel on the Atlantic coast. She was sold to the Western Shipping Company in May 1922 and renamed Vedas.

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