Today, the largest wooden ship. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Here on the grounds of the Maine Maritime Museum, in Bath, is a strange sculpture -- or rather two vast sculptures separated by more than a football field. A huge ship's bow is outlined on one end. A second structure outlines its stern on the other. This is a memorial to the Wyoming, largest known wooden ship ever made.
It was launched in 1909, here in this old Bath shipyard, now a Museum. Sailing ships were already dinosaurs of the sea in the first decade of the 20th century. Yet nine wooden six-masted ships were built in that period, seven of them here in Bath.
Largest of the lot was the Wyoming -- 450 feet long and capable of carrying 6600 tons (6000 long tons) of coal. By the way, the Book of Genesis says that Noah's Ark was 300 cubits long. That comes to the same length as the Wyoming (make of it what you may.)
Museum's drawing of the Wyoming sail-raising.
The Wyoming actually carried a steam engine, but not to drive the ship. Rather, it was used for auxiliary tasks -- hauling lines, reefing sails, and pumping out water. That meant that, large as she was, the Wyoming could function with a crew of as few as eleven hands. By the way, she was named Wyoming because Wyoming's governor had invested heavily in her.
She served for fifteen years. Then, in March, 1924, she headed from Norfolk to New Brunswick. A terrible storm arose, just as she reached Pollock Rip, a channel through the ten-mile stretch of water separating Nantucket from Cape Cod. The Wyoming stopped there to ride out the storm. Then her size caught up with her the same way it'd caught up with large wooden ships a century earlier.
The so-called ship-of-the-line had been the largest 18th-century warship. It carried maybe a hundred guns on three decks. It was massive and it bent with the waves, distorting its design shape. Slow and sluggish, those old sailing ships had been only half as long as the Wyoming.
America developed a new frigate design during the War of 1812 -- somewhat smaller than ships-of-the-line and braced internally to prevent bending. Those frigates finally gave us an edge against the vaunted British navy. They also heralded the innate weakness of large wooden ships -- their inability to hold one shape.
Wyoming's designers had likewise stiffened her with internal steel bracing, but she was too big. She still bent and twisted at sea. Gaps opened in her planking and let water in. Normally her pumps could handle the leakage, but the Pollock Rip storm was too much. She sank, taking thirteen sailors down with her.
So we walk the Maritime museum yard and gape at those huge white structures. They suggest a ship whose six-masted enormity we can see only in our imaginations. Like the last cattle drive, the last dirigible -- or, perhaps, the Spruce Goose -- the Wyoming was also a last breath of a technology not quite ready to leave us -- a form too grand to be simply dropped, replaced, and forgotten.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
(A seven-masted ship and a longer six-masted ship were also built during this period, but they were not wooden.)
My gratitude to Nathan Lipfert, Senior Curator of the Maine Maritime Museum, for his most helpful counsel. Photos by J. Lienhard
Note Added, Nov. 19. 2014: Naval architect Stephen Kinnaman writes to point out that the length of 450 ft runs from the tip of a very long bowsprit to the end of the rear spanker boom. A more representative length would be the length of the ship's body, 330 ft. -- still a huge dimension for a wooden ship.