By David R. Leverton, Executive Director, Maritime Museum of British Columbia
The shipping industry along our coastline has evolved over the centuries thanks to ingenious inventions such as the paddle, that enabled ancient mariners from no longer needing to pole their way along shallow inland waterways with rafts, to eventually being able to travel in deeper waters offshore through the invention of the dugout canoe. With the invention of the sail, human paddlers were replaced with the power of the wind, allowing for the transport of heavier loads over ever-greater distances and resulting in the eventual arrival of European explorers and settlers to our shores.
The underlying theme throughout the last thousand years has been the constant innovation and redesign of ships that have allowed for greater amounts of trade and commerce around the world. By the early 11th century, ancient mariners had introduced a straight sternpost that enabled the invention of the ship’s rudder, greatly enhancing the maneuverability of the vessel. To reduce the risk of water damage from ocean waves, early ships stored their cargo in large gallon barrels called tuns and the crew slept on large leather bags on the decks; and the passenger space was referred to as “steerage” — a term still used today to describe limited accommodations onboard a ship. By the 13th century, larger loads were shipped on cogs that could carry up to 140 tuns (the equivalent of 140 wine barrels). They had a shallow draft of approximately three metres and could carry a crew of up to 28 sailors.
The caravel and carrack were the next major shipping innovations that occurred in the 14th and 15th centuries, bringing three and four-mast ocean-going sailing ships that were the first to use a full skeletal ship design based on planking framed on ribs the entire way to the keel. The caravel was much smaller in size, had a much shallower draft for exploring uncharted waters and was capable of carrying supplies for up to a year. The carrack eventually became the ‘bulk carrier’ of that time period, capable of carrying both large quantities of cargo and troops to distant shores. The Italian explorer Christopher Columbus used two caravels, the Nina and Pinta, with a larger carrack, the Santa Maria, as his flagship for his maiden voyage to North America in 1492.
The larger carrack design was eventually replaced by the galleon design in the early 16th century. It was composed mainly of square-rigged sails and the vessels were up to three decks high. The galleons were elongated for greater stability and the forecastle was lowered which created less wind resistance and helped increase the overall speed of the ship. Many European countries used the galleons as merchant and supply ships and when necessary, quickly converted them to warships in times of trouble.
By the early 19th century commercial and military sailing ships were designed to be longer with a smaller beam-to-length ratio with more efficient sail configurations. By the mid-19th century, smaller, sleeker, clipper ships, with a square sail and up to three masts, were developed for trade routes where speed was an important competitive advantage when carrying passengers and valuable cargoes. The clipper could reach speeds of up to 20 knots compared to the typical galleon speeds of five to six knots from earlier times.
The real breakthrough in the evolution of bulk shipping occurred in the mid-19th century with the development of the first specialized bulk carrier as well as the invention of the propeller in 1839. It was a revolutionary breakthrough and not long before the use of propellers transformed bulk carriers and package freighters.
By the end of the 19th century, steam had replaced sail. By the early 20th century, bulk carriers began transporting oil, petroleum and other liquid products. By the latter half of the 20th century, package freighters were replaced by container ships when transport and international trade were revolutionized by the development of containerization.
Today, bulk carriers can be categorized into six major sizes; there are dozens of categories for merchant ships designed to carry every different type of cargo, each with its own unique carriage requirements.
As shipping evolved, so too did the regulatory regime — the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), passed in 1914 following the sinking of the RMS Titanic; the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), created in 1973.
As it stands today, maritime shipping is estimated to be responsible for 90 per cent of today’s global trade.
Shipping challenges of a growing global population
In the 11th century, the entire world population was estimated to be 325 million people. By the end of the 13th century, when the cog ships were invented, the world population had risen to over 432 million people. By the time the caravels and carracks were plying the water in the late 14th and 15th century, it was an estimated 452 million people and by the time the galleon was invented in the 16th century, approximately 546 million people. When the clipper was invented by the mid-19th century, the world population had increased to an estimated 939 million people.
By the start of the 20th century, the world population had grown significantly to 1.65 billion people, and at the start of this century, there were 6.04 billion people in the world. By 2050, the world population is estimated to be a staggering 9.64 billion people.
What types of innovation will be required to continue to meet the shipping demands of an ever-increasing world population? How large can a ship get? How many will be enough? By 2018, there were already over 53,000 ships in the world’s merchant fleet.
Through the centuries, naval architects have been able to meet the challenge of designing larger and more sophisticated ships to meet the changing consumption patterns and environmental challenges of an ever-increasing world population. Will the shipping industry be able to continue to balance the increasing demands for more ships, while ensuring that, through SOLAS and MARPOL, the coastal environment remains protected from the threat of oil spills and potential marine environmental mishaps? Will human innovation be enough to keep the steady flow of resources moving over our oceans while at the same time safeguarding our coastline against the challenges of increased congestion with our coastal shipping lanes?
It is hard to imagine that it was only 250 years ago when Captain Juan José Pérez Hernandez, Captain Cook and Captain Vancouver arrived on our distant shores. What would they think if they arrived today and what would their shipping advice be to us about our future?
David R. Leverton is the Executive Director of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia which is currently featuring the Great Pacific Garbage Patch exhibition about the impacts of plastic in our oceans and recently co-authored Those Who Perished: The Unknown Story of the Largest Shipwreck Disaster along the Pacific Northwest Coast. David can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.