British yard exports to China

20 Apr 2017

‘Coals to Newcastle’ is a well-known English expression reflecting the fact that Newcastle, on the River Tyne, was once a major coal exporting port, so sending coal there was a fruitless exercise. We were reminded of this – or to turn it around a bit – by 'Ships from Sunderland' (Newcastle's nearby rival port) by a report in the May 1967 issue of The Motor Ship.

The report concerned a 15,000 dwt dry cargo liner built by the Doxford yard in the UK for the China Ocean Shipping Company – an idea that seems preposterous in today’s shipbuilding world. The article admitted that while China’s own shipyards and engine works were reported to be most active, their capacity was relatively small so a number of orders were being placed with Western European yards. This ship, the Dunhuang, was the first of two ordered at the yard, and the first British delivery to China. She was a development of one of the yard’s standard designs, with an improved hull form resulting from extensive model and propeller tests. The main engine was not one of Doxford’s own units, but a Clark-Sulzer 7RD76 of 10,500 bhp at 119 rpm.

Another article that showed the contrasting pattern of shipbuilding 50 years ago focused on the Finnish industry, which said that Finnish yards were, rightly, perceived as builders of ferries, and vessels for the Russian timber trades. However, the Finnish-built ferries were some of the region’s largest and most sophisticated, and the many standard timber carriers were joined by cargo liners, bulkers, tankers, icebreakers, refrigerated ships, cable layers and numerous other ship types, making Finland one of the more versatile among shipbuilding nations. Unsurprisingly, a major name was Wärtsilä – then best known for building and repairing ships at its Turku yard, but emerging as a force to be reckoned with as an engine builder. The main focus for the company then was building Sulzer engines under licence. Despite having signed the licence only 12 years previously, Wärtsilä had built 100 Sulzer engines at Turku, making it the fifth most productive of Sulzer’s 40-plus licensees. The company had started with Krupp-designed medium speed engines, but discontinued these in favour of Nohab, and later added Sulzer and Pielstick to its medium speed portfolio. Who would have thought that Wärtsilä would cease as a shipbuilder, and both Sulzer and Nohab would come under its ownership? It was left to the last sentence of the article to note that Wärtsilä built its own engines at its Vasa works.

Although much of the focus at the time was on Liberty ship replacements – the May 1967 issue included a 36-page supplement, with fold-out plans, on the Austin & Pickersgill SD14 design – our predecessors allowed themselves a quick break from the mainstream diesel-driven cargo vessels with a preview of an unnamed 53,000 grt passenger liner to be powered by 110,000hp geared steam turbines, and built at the John Brown yard on the Clyde. This was, of course, the ship that was to become the legendary QE2.

The leading opinion article once again put the case for geared multiple-engine medium speed installations rather than the standard single large direct-coupled low speed plant. However, it admitted that there appeared to be no swing away from the status quo in terms of orders, and that trends in selecting ships’ machinery were notoriously fickle. We cannot help thinking that opinion might have been coloured by the following article, which reported that the prototype Doxford J-type engine – a 20,000bhp 9-cylinder opposed piston unit – had exploded, caused by overheating in No8 centre top end as a result of a white metal failure.