The Great Ship’s Trials


The nominal trial trip of the Great Eastern has yet to take place, but a trip full of trials has already been accomplished by her. Her strength, her speed, her steadiness, her steering capability have all been more or less tested on her passage from Deptford to Portland; and although her baptism was not one of water only, but of blood and of fire, the good ship has doubtless a career of pride and glory before her. Let me here trace, with all care, what I have seen of her perils and her successes, and augur wherein her future hopes and dangers lie.

No one at all accustomed to life on board ship could have embarked on board the Great Eastern on Tuesday, the 6th ult., without observing that her condition was by no means what he might fairly have expected to find. The most careful scrutiny could detect but few signs of organisation, and therefore but few signs of security. The passage from the ladder by which the visitor entered, to the saloons in which he hoped to join his fellow-guests, lay through a portion of the ship in which combustible materials, such as shavings and planks, abounded, and in which lighted candles were freely pushed about.

This was not an assuring feature in a ship about to proceed to sea. Another circumstance calculated to impress a careful person unpleasantly was, that some, at least, of the “water-tight bulkheads” — upon the integrity of which the safety of the ship might even on her first journey be made to depend — had passages left through them for convenience in moving from one compartment of the ship to another.

But one conclusion could be drawn from this fact, viz., that if the bottom of the great ship should by any fatality become fairly breached in deep water, she would as infallibly go down as if she were hewn out of stone. In addition to these things, one looked in vain for a sailorly ship’s company. There was certainly a number of riggers on board, and with these there appeared to be mingled a slight admixture of grocers, bakers, and other unprofessional individuals, who had taken upon themselves for the moment, apparently, the functions of mariners.

But I must confess their presence inspired me with exceedingly little confidence. Fortunately, however — or, was it unfortunately? — there was but little need for sailors, seeing that the ship had not a single sail bent, even to serve a turn upon an emergency! She was furnished, it is true, with two sets of engines, and two propelling apparatuses, so that should any derangement occur to one she would still have another to rely upon. But both engines were new, and both might fail without any miracle; and I should have been better satisfied to have seen that her yards bore canvas.

In the captain of the ship I had full reliance; the pilot who was to navigate her was a man of long-tried ability; the immediate control of both the paddle-wheels and the screw was in the hands of the best man for the purpose — Mr. Scott Russell.* In these respects nothing more could be desired. But at the same time it appeared that these gentlemen themselves were in the hands of commercial men by whom their professional desires were over-ridden, or the journey to Portland would not have been undertaken until the ship had attained greater completeness. If this were not so, then Captain Harrison, though he may be a splendid navigator, is an indifferent disciplinarian.

In the passage of the ship to Purfleet on the first day and to the Nore on the next, there was but little that needs remark here. The abandonment by the great ship of her old moorings — the cheering of the multitudes who beheld her move seaward — the ease with which she turned at every angle of the river — the delay which a stubborn barque, the Kingfisher, occasioned her at Blackwall — the steadiness with which she afterwards continued her course to Purfleet — the anchoring of her huge bulk there for the night — the joyous resumption of the journey in the morning — the welcome salutes with which the troop-ships hailed her at Gravesend — the casting off of the tugs as Long Reach was entered, amid the strains of the national anthem and the cheers of the company — the splendid run to the Nore under her own steam power — and the casting of her anchor for the first time in the green sea water, have not all these things been recorded in those multitudinous journals whose unhappy fate it is to appear once a day?

There were, however, a few things which an intelligent eye-witness cannot have omitted to note. The first was the application of steampower to the rudder. This occurred, in the first instance, before the ship left Deptford. Mr. Lungley, whose steering-signal apparatus is fitted to the ship — and answers well — desired to have the rudder worked from side to side for a time. This there were not hands enough on the spot to effect.

Then it was that Mr. Prowse, the intelligent second officer of the ship, led a rope from the engine of the steam crane to the tiller, and by that means worked the rudder with the utmost ease and facility. This device, noted at the time, was again resorted to off Beachy Head with great advantage, as will hereafter be mentioned.

Another notable circumstance was the application of steampower to the weighing of the anchor. This was resorted to both at Purfleet and the Nore, and without it I see not how the anchor could have been weighed at all by the few seamen on board. A third thing noted was the excessive delivery of cable at the Nore. Twice after the ship was anchored to the satisfaction of the pilot was fathom after fathom of cable allowed to run out, contrary to his instructions, and much to his annoyance. This is mentioned merely as one example of the errors committed, not to say the risks run, from the want of discipline and efficiency of the men on board the ship.

After the weighing of the anchor at the Nore, at seven “o’clock on Friday morning, the Great Eastern started, under her own steam, and without the attendance of tugs, on her trip to Portland. From that time until six in the evening the company enjoyed one prolonged display of her great and noble qualities. We had a high wind and a heavily rolling sea for many hours in succession. All other vessels — and we passed hundreds — either tossed and pitched at anchor with the greatest violence, or ran before the gale under close-reefed sails.

But, despite the driving wind and yawing sea of the Channel, our “moving isle” went as steadily forward as if she had still been stealing her silent way down the unruffled waters of the Thames. It was only by the most careful watching that any eye could detect even the slightest motion in her. The ponderous paddle engines worked as smoothly as the machinery of a lady’s watch, and the screw-engines, although less perfect, require nothing but kindly mention here.

Her speed, moreover, was all that could be desired, and more than could have been expected, for, with her engines working at but half-speed, she advanced at more than twelve knots an hour against the beating head-wind. No wonder, then, that every man on board congratulated his fellow on that triumph of human genius over matter in which all were participating.

But at 6:10 P.M., in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, all congratulations (of that kind) were brought to an end. A report as of a huge but lightly-rammed piece of ordnance — a heavy throb of the deck beneath our feet — the upheaval of the massive foremost funnel — the bursting forth of a thick dense cloud of steam — the descent of a shower of shattered glass and saloon finery — all these, followed by cries and groans never to be forgotten, turned the joy of all into mourning.

But the mourning that thus fell in a moment upon the officers, men, and passengers of the Great Eastern at that terrible crisis brought no idle, whining, complaining spirit with it, but a spirit of active aid and beneficence. The rescue of the unfortunate men in the stoke-hole, upon whom a horrible deluge of steam and fire had descended, and the preservation of the ship from the fire that seemed to threaten her, were the first duties to which all applied themselves. Or, if not all, all but here and there a man whom the horror of the scene had overcome. There were a few such, and but a few.

With the “water-tight bulkheads” (so-called) in the state before described, had the bottom of the ship been blown out — or, which is much more probable, had masses of the shattered funnel been “fired ” through the bottom (after the fashion of shot from cannon) —nothing but the pumps could have saved the magnificent ship from foundering.

Whether the pumps would have been equal to the occasion or not it is impossible to say. The event unquestionably teaches that such a ship should never be sent to sea at all until all that it is proposed to do to make her safe has been done. The precautions against fire — at that portion of the ship, at least — appeared to be ample. On the alarm of fire coming up from below, Captain Harrison and Mr. Scott Russell promptly brought the hoses into play, and the supply of water forced through them by the engines was abundant.

I have already stated that the ship had not a sail bent, and have also remarked that in the event of an emergency Mr. Prowse knew how to steer the ship by steam. Both of these facts assumed importance soon after the explosion. About noon I had discovered that the steering wheel ropes — which were of hemp, and not of hide as they should have been — were being rapidly cut through by the iron sheaves round which they passed.

A preventer should have been at once got on, and new ropes rove. Whether these things were done or not, I cannot say. But as we were nearing Beachy Head in the evening, and as a vessel (not seen by me) is said to have been bearing down awkwardly upon us, our wheel-ropes gave way.

Strange to say, the paddle-wheel engine was just then either stopped or very greatly reduced in speed without the directions of Mr. Russell, who had charge of them; and, to complete the troubles of the moment, the screw engines, which had long been a little uneasy, began to groan very audibly.

When the ropes went, the ship fell off the wind, turning herself directly upon Beachy Head, and for the first time acquired a very sensible motion. By clapping a rope from the steam crane upon the tiller, command of the helm was speedily attained, and the momentary failures all came to nothing. But they, nevertheless, sufficed to show how very desirable it is that even the Great Eastern should not be taken to sea, as I have said, imperfectly equipped. Had both engines failed on this occasion, as they seemed disposed to fail, or had the inferior wheel-ropes not been supplemented by an extraordinary device, we must either have gone ashore on a lee coast, or trusted to Mr. Trotman’s anchors to keep us off it.

The remainder of the trip to Portland was all that could be desired. Nobly the great ship held on her course down Channel through the succeeding night, over the silver sea, and “under the silver moon.” Nobly she came to anchor next morning within Mr. Coode’s costly breakwater at Portland. How gladly would we have thronged her high sides, and echoed the cheers of the thousands of welcoming visitors who came to greet us, but for those who below were suffering, and those who had been released from suffering! — but for the destiny which had made our city of the sea a city of the dying and the dead!

The accident which has happened to the Great Eastern in no way interferes with the general question of her ultimate success. For the moment it may depress her interests, but the reaction will inevitably follow, and the ship will be estimated according to her own merits. The cause of the accident — the mere turning of a tap the wrong way, probably by some bungling workman — in no way tends to destroy ultimate confidence in the ship herself; not even by implying that she is too large to have her internal affairs administered properly —although there are people absurd enough to suppose that mere size can put a ship beyond the control of man’s genius and skill.

The fact is, it was just one of those accidents which occur every day, either here or there, and which spring from the smallest circumstances. The water vessel which exploded is generally pronounced a dangerous contrivance, and ought not to have been placed in the ship, perhaps; but it was not the vessel itself which was the prime cause of failure in the present instance, but a mere adjunct of it, and that alone. The turning of a tap the wrong way did all the mischief, apparently, and things of that kind may occur on land as well as on the sea — in any other ship as well as in the Great Eastern.

But will the Great Eastern succeed? The journey to Portland indicates very clearly that she will. What was she designed for? To carry a certain quantity of coal, to move at a certain speed, to maintain a certain degree of steadiness at sea, and to accommodate a certain quantity of cargo, and a certain number of passengers.

The carrying of coal, cargo, and passengers is so simple a matter of calculation, that we have a right to assume she is all that can be desired in this respect. As to speed and steadiness, the late trip was most promising. With engines at half-speed she attained, as I have said, from twelve to thirteen knots an hour; and there is but little doubt, therefore, that with engines at full speed she will much more than reach the speed of fifteen knots, which is all that her builder predicted or claimed for her.

If her screw-engines prove themselves capable of working up to the highest speeds required of them, eighteen or even twenty miles may possibly be “got out of her.” As to steadiness, I must correct a false impression which has gone abroad. It has been said that when the wheel-lines were carried away, off Beachy Head, she rolled and pitched very considerably: this is an exaggeration. She moved sensibly, no doubt; but the movement was very slow, and really slight — Altogether insufficient to argue anything against her general steadiness at sea. That she will be susceptible to motion in very long seas is certain; but that she will counteract all the worst evils of sea-voyaging, in so far as personal discomfort is concerned, seems to be equally unquestionable.

The late explosion on board the ship has put all considerations respecting her strength beyond question. No conceivable event could have thrown stronger light on this subject. An occurrence which would have rent an ordinary ship asunder, left her to proceed on her voyage absolutely unharmed, in so far as her hull is concerned. Such a circumstance must of necessity engender great confidence in her; for, after all, in committing ourselves to the seas, the prime element of security is strength in the structure in which we embark.

The Great Eastern must, however, be fairly dealt with. Let her not be trifled with. Let her water-tight bulkheads be made water-tight; let her yards have sails bent upon them; let her captain have a crew to handle her at his will; let her wheel-lines, and all other parts of her equipment, be of the right material; let her machinery be placed under the care of a sufficiently large and well-organised staff of engineers; let, in short, the ideas of her designers and builders be faithfully carried out in all respects, and then commercial success will be secured.

It will be easy enough for the directors to persuade themselves that many of these things may be deferred, and the ship taken from this place to that, and from that to another, in her present imperfect condition. But public confidence is the indispensable basis of commercial success, and public confidence cannot possibly be gained while the ship is in her present state.

It would not, perhaps, be requiring too much should we ask for the ship now to be delivered up to the captain, and for the directors and their friends to become his guests, and therefore subject to his wishes. The Great Eastern is no longer a mere commercial-man’s hobby, or a Londoners’ exhibition; she is a ship, and henceforth must be managed and commanded as a ship should be. Until this is done no good can come of her.

E. J. Reed.

* “The proceedings which have taken place at Weymouth, since this article was penned, render it necessary for me to remind the reader that this remark, like another of similar purport which occurs later in the article, implies that only Mr. Scott Russell had the working of the captain’s telegraphs to the engine-rooms committed to him, in order that no mistaken instructions might be transmitted to the engine-drivers below. This duty, which was voluntarily undertaken by Mr. Russell, necessarily absorbed the whole of his attention, and was performed to the perfect satisfaction of the pilot and the captain.

—E. J. R.



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Central Florida
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