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A windjammer is a type of large sailing ship, with an iron or, for the most part, steel hull, built to carry cargo in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Windjammers were the grandest of merchant sailing ships, with between three and five large masts and square sails, giving them a characteristic profile.
A common incorrect explanation of the origin of the term consists of an introduction into English of a folk etymology of the term common in German and Dutch. Both these languages have a word similar to "jam" meaning "to wail" and since speakers of these languages were not aware that the term "windjammer" originally came from English, the folk etymology claims "windjammer" refers to the typical sound of strong winds blowing through the rigging. In fact, the word comes from the English word "to jam" because the sails are so large that they seem to "jam" the wind.
The windjammers were cargo ships designed for long voyages. They usually carried bulk cargo, such as lumber, guano, grain or ore from one continent to another, usually following the prevailing winds and circumnavigating the globe during their voyages. Several of these ships are still in existence, variously operating as school ships, museum ships, restaurant ships, and cruise ships.
Windjammers were the last breed of large commercial sailing vessel, designed well after the Industrial Revolution using scientific methods and modern materials such as iron and steel in their construction. In general, the ships displaced several thousand tonnes and were cheaper than their wooden hulled counterparts for three main reasons: (1) steel was stronger and thus could enable larger ship size and considerable economies of scale, (2) iron and steel hulls took up less space and allowed for more cargo to be carried, and (3) they were cheaper to maintain than a wooden hull. The usual cargo capacity was 2,000 to 5,000 tons.
The four-masted iron-hulled ship, introduced in 1875 by the full-rigged County of Peebles, represented an especially efficient configuration that prolonged the competitiveness of sail against steam in the later part of the 19th century. The four-masted barque was the ultimate refinement of aerodynamic study and thousands of years of seafaring experience. The barque rig can outperform the schooner rig, can sail upwind better than full-riggers, and is easier to handle than full square rig.
The largest windjammer ever built was the five-masted full-rigged ship Preußen, which had a load capacity of 7,800 tons. She was also one of the fastest, regularly logging 16 knots (30 km/h) average speed on transatlantic voyages. Unfortunately speed was her undoing, as she collided with a steamer that underestimated the speed of the Preußen when crossing before her.
Windjammers are sometimes confused with clippers, but there are significant differences between them. Whereas clippers are optimized for speed; windjammers are optimized for cargo capacity and ease of handling. Most clippers were of composite construction, full rigged and had a cargo capacity of less than 1,000 tonnes; windjammers are of steel construction, usually barques by their rig, and have far greater cargo capacities. The clippers had already begun to disappear when windjammers emerged.
Windjammers were mainly built from the 1870s to 1900, when steamships began to outpace them economically, due to their ability to keep a schedule regardless of the wind. Steel hulls also replaced iron hulls at around the same time. Sailing ships could hold their own on ultra-long voyages such as Australia to Europe. Since they were faster than steamers, did not require bunkerage for coal nor freshwater for steam, they were able to compete with steam ships, which usually could barely do 8 kn. Many of the famous windjammers sailed under the Finnish flag during at least some part of their careers. Ship-owner Gustaf Erikson of Mariehamn, Åland Islands, Finland, was famous for his windjammer fleet during the inter-war years. Other renowned sailing ship companies running their affairs despite the encroachment of the machine age were F. Laeisz of Hamburg and A.D. Bordes of Dunkirk.
Typically, windjammers are equipped with semi-mechanized rigging, steel profile masts and yards and steel cables as running rigging where possible. Often also the running rigging was handled by motor winches instead of manpower. Since the windjammer hull is optimized for good hydrodynamics because of sail handling, they were (and still are) capable of sustained high cruising speeds; most four-masted barques were able to cruise at 15 knots (28 km/h) on plausible winds, some logged 18 knots (33 km/h) regularly and Herzogin Cecilie is known to have logged 21 knots (39 km/h).
The crew of a windjammer was surprisingly small. They could be operated with as few as 14 crewmen, with a typical crew being master, mate, boatswain (bosun), 15 seamen and 5 apprentices. Herzogin Cecilie in 1926 sailed around Cape Horn with "only 19 men aboard, although not from choice." The crew roster of Pamir on her last commercial voyage around Cape Horn in 1949 under the Finnish flag listed a total compliment of 33:
Owners ran their sailing ships with close attention to costs. Officers and essential skilled crew, such as sailmakers, were still paid poorly: the captain of Moshulu in 1938 received about $100/month and the average sailmaker about $20/month. "The wages of other crew members were minuscule. A skilled able seaman (rated as an A.B.) received not more than, and often much less than, sixteen dollars per month." Crews were readily available in spite of abysmal pay because Germany and Scandinavian countries still required sail experience for mariner’s licences.
Discipline, at the end of the nineteenth century, "especially on American sailing ships, could be brutal, often unnecessarily so." As the end of the windjammer era drew near by the 1930s, "such tactics had pretty much disappeared in the Finnish ships [and] in the ... German ships." However, even the Finnish mates occasionally enforced discipline with their fists while sailing with minimal crews of largely inexperienced youths when "... instant obedience to orders was essential."
Windjammers were used commercially (though recognized as a fast disappearing breed) until the 1950s. They occupied a niche in the transport of low-value bulk cargoes of little interest to steamship companies, e.g., lumber, coal, guano or grain (60,000 sacks on Pamir). Cargoes were carried from remote ports, with fuel and water unavailable, such as Australia (carrying wool or grain), remote Pacific islands (guano) and South America (nitrates). The windjammers usually followed the clipper route around the world, ideally carrying different cargoes on each leg of their route, but most frequently sailing in ballast. The last leg from Australia to Europe, where the cargo was wheat or barley, became the source of The Great Grain Races as the ships' masters attempted to sail the leg as fast as possible, essentially only for prestige and pride — usually from the grain ports of South Australia’s Spencer Gulf to Lizard Point at the Cornwall coast and on to the harbour of destination in Britain or continental Europe.
In the 1930s 'good money' could be made in the grain trade from Australia to Europe, "the carrying rates could vary from perhaps four dollars to eight dollars per ton." The owners of the Parma bought their vessel in 1932 for about ten thousand dollars and then loaded over 5,200 tons or 62,650 sacks of grain, for a gross income of $40,000. "The ship paid for herself and all her expenses for the year from the income of that one voyage even though she had sailed in ballast halfway around the world." In most of those years, the windjammers in the grain trade could clear about $5,000 each.
The Germans in particular maintained profitable commerce through the 1930s to the west coast of South America, shipping general cargo out and nitrates home. They had built powerful vessels, such as the Peking, Padua and Priwall especially for the difficult west-bound voyage around Cape Horn and their captains were expected to make three round trips around the Horn over a two-year period.
Due to environmental concerns and rising fuel costs, there has recently been consideration of constructing windjammer-derived ships for commercial service.
Many of these may not be "true" windjammers, as they will likely have multiple propulsion systems for non-ideal wind conditions. They may also include kites to catch even more wind. One proposal by B9 Energy was to have modern cargo ships with sails plying European waters by 2012.
The second largest windjammer was France II. The largest remaining original windjammer is the four-masted barque Moshulu, today a restaurant ship moored in Philadelphia, PA, USA. The largest windjammer in sailing service is a Russian school ship, the four-masted barque STS Sedov. The last windjammer in original layout is the Pommern, today a museum ship at Mariehamn.
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