The rapid decline of sail freight in the early 20th century was not entirely due to technological advantages of steam and motor propulsion, or to economics, but another outside force: Submarine Warfare.
The First World War raged from 1914 to 1918, and was the first truly mechanized war. The submarine made its debut as a weapon in this conflict, and the German U-Boats became notorious for their damage to allied shipping. Since submarines were new, there were few developed techniques for countering them. By the end of the war the Office Of Naval Intelligence had created a small handbook on the subject: The main recommendations were to use a vessel's superior speed first, to reduce time in the war zone, and to maneuver unpredictably if a speed over 16 knots could not be maintained
For windjammers, 16 knots is a very high speed in most conditions, and changing course by 20-40 degrees every 10-20 minutes is difficult or impracticable, depending on the winds available. Their relatively small size made arming them with sufficiently powerful naval guns difficult, and there weren't enough small guns to go around even if they could be mounted around the ship's rigging.
According to Lloyd's of London Casualty Lists, some 2,000 windjammers of over 100 tons were sunk during the War, over a third more than in the 5 years before the war., and this does not count ships damaged but not sunk. Dozens of others under this threshold were also sunk or damaged by submarines. As a result, the already slowly declining sail fleets suffered a catastrophic loss of vessels and trained crew.
Further, due the importance of speed in avoiding or evading U-Boat attacks, steamers and motor vessels became the primary means of replacing ships lost during the war. The larger, faster vessels were more survivable, and could take up the shipping capacity lost faster than building another large fleet of relatively small wind-powered vessels. Those windjammers which survived the First World War carried on, especially in coastal trade, until the 1930s and some areas continue to do so today. However, losses in the First World War reduced the world's transoceanic windjammer fleet to a very low number, while economics favored the new, very large steamers on all but the longest routes.
For more reading about the use of U-Boats off the US Coast in the First World War, try out the Navy's publication on the subject from 1920 for many detailed accounts and information. This Memorial Day, keep the windjammer sailors of a century ago in mind.
Steven Woods is the Solaris and Education coordinator at HRMM. He earned his Master's degree in Resilient and Sustainable Communities at Prescott College, and wrote his thesis on the revival of Sail Freight for supplying the New York Metro Area's food needs. Steven has worked in Museums for over 20 years.
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