Rough ride for warship design

March 31, 1995

British naval sailors of the early 19th century endured "living hell" because the design of their warships meant they were buffeted by the smallest wave, Plymouth University researchers have discovered.

The three-dimensional computer modelling used by today's shipbuilders has helped marine technology and maritime history students unlock the design secrets of 200 years ago.

William Bertram fed into a computer at Plymouth's marine systems laboratory the vital statistics of a 74-gun warship built in 1800. The statistics were contained in a recognised treatise on ship design of the period. He found that the ship was prone to rolling and pitching, taking on water and steering off course.

In a report to the third New Researchers in Maritime History Conference at the Royal Naval Museum, he said the design features must have resulted in "a living hell for those on board - wet, buffeted by the smallest wave, quickly rolled back by the ship trying to right itself, while all the time the ship was pitching into every trough".

Despite the awful conditions for sailors, researchers have concluded that naval architects were remarkably successful at producing a seaworthy vessel without the benefit of the technology available to modern ship designers.

Mike Munson, who supervised the study, said: "The use of modern technology enables us to explore the limits of older designs - limits that mariners centuries ago had to find by experience. Now we can compress years of development into an hour or so on the computer."

Stability was at a premium in the design of ships-of-the-line, because the gun ports had to be kept out of the water. But sailors paid the price.

"The high stability would have made the ship uncomfortable, and imposed high loads on the masts and rigging," Mr Munson said.

The university is now considering examining famous ships like the Cutty Sark and HMS Victory.

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