Whaleback steamship – photo courtesy of Retronaut
Imagine a steam ship designed with minimum superstructure to allow seas to slip over it… and there you have the whaleback, a type originally developed by a Scottish-born Great Lakes seaman and ship’s master Captain Alexander McDougall (1845–1923).
Some 44 of these striking half-submarine-half-ship vessels are said to have been built between 1887 and 1898. Some 42 were built for use carrying freight on the North American Great Lakes, some for towing but many were steamships with their own propulsive power.
In use, it’s said they were both handy and quick, and they certainly an example of shipbuilding’s quickly forgotten mistakes.
One example, was built at Sunderland, in England, apparently without the designer’s permission, though this seems to be an area of doubt. I wonder what her story might have been? I’d guess that a vessel designed for the short sharp waves of the Great Lakes might also make sense in the similar waves of the relatively 0shallow North Sea.
Another, the SS Christopher Columbus was built to carry passengers on the Great Lakes instead of freight. This had a considerable amount of superstructure and seems quite at odds with the whaleback principle – though it was designed by MacDougall himself.
The whaleback SS Meteor built in 1896 remained in service until 1969 and is now a museum ship – she’s the only surviving example of this strange and remarkable series of vessels.
Read more about the whalebacks at the Wikipedia pages Whaleback, SS Christopher Columbus and SS Meteor. There are also outstanding photographs at the Retronaut website and at the Sunderland Site pages here and here.
My thanks to Malcolm Woods for tipping me off about there striking vessels.