Bridges, engines and boilers

14 September 2019

With the ship now turning for home it seemed like a good time to go and see the things we’d missed out of our earlier walk around. First on the list was the bridge. This is where all the exciting things like navigation happen and, normally, it’s somewhere passengers don’t get to go.

Commando may have been a little more excited than I was at this stage. Thanks to my days working for a cruise company, it was not my first visit to a ship’s bridge. This one was far smaller than I was used to and, even though we’d left it until we thought it wouldn’t be too busy, quite crowded. It was also a world away from the modern ship’s bridge I was used to.

Instead of banks of buttons and screens, we found an old fashioned engine room telegraph, encircled with polished brass and an equally polished brass binnacle with a wooden base. The telegraph is used to relay instructions to the engine room while the binnacle holds the navigational instruments, including the ship’s magnetic compass, mounted in gimbals to keep it level when the ship pitches and rolls. The bridge on Titanic would have been far larger but the equipment would have been much the same. Titanic’s bridge was the last place  Captain Smith was seen after he gave the order to abandon ship. He would probably have felt quite at home on Shieldhall. 

We stopped on our way towards the engine room to watch the Red Jet, speeding towards the Isle of Wight and the gigantic Sapphire Princess slowly heading out of port. Both were greeted by toots, whistles and puffs of steam from Shieldhall.

Mechanical things are really more Commando’s thing but getting a behind the scenes look at a steam ship is a rare treat. Before we entered the Engine Room we peered through a small window at the workings of the forced draft fan, used to blow air down to the boiler room furnaces and burn the fuel more efficiently. I couldn’t help thinking how much Commando Senior would have loved this. Before the advent of these fans, steamships had to have tall funnels to create strong droughts of air for the boilers.

Passing all the ducts and pipes of the fan we descended into the engine room. The place seemed a mass of bewildering pipes, machines, and heat, with barely room to swing a cat. As this phrase probably originated with the Royal Navy, referring to swinging a cat of nine tails, the thought seemed quite apt.

Commando understood far more of what we saw than I, of course. He’s spent time in the bowels of ships before and knows about engines and boilers. Triple expansion steam engines with cylinders of different sizes are not really my thing at all but I took pictures all the same and thought about the engineers on Titanic struggling to the last to keep the ship afloat. Her engine room and boilers were, obviously, much bigger but would have been similarly confined.

The two large boilers on Shieldhall run on oil, rather than coal so there is no stoking or shovelling to be done and no dirty coal dust everywhere. The heat is the same though and made me appreciate what a hard life the poor firemen on Titanic must have had.

While we were looking at all the gauges and pipes and trying not to expire from the heat there was another musical blast from the horns. In this cramped space it sounded very loud and the fireman joked, “they’re wasting all my steam.”

Climbing back up the ladders towards the cool outside air I felt I had a better understanding of the conditions the firemen and engineers on Titanic faced. Titanic’s engine room and boilers would have been far larger but with far more noise and dirt. The ladders would have been much longer and, once the ship began to list and the water was rising, getting out would have been almost impossible. We had only been below deck for a short time but it was a relief to get back outside with and the wind in my face.

We were heading for home now. The sun was getting lower in the sky and, after all the heat of the boiler room, it felt quite cool on the deck. Southampton is a busy port. More ships passed, more steam was wasted in greeting them. Soon we could see the silhouettes of cranes.

On the dock the shadows were getting longer and we watched with interest as the ship was tied up and the gangway put in place. Our steamship adventure was over. It had been a fabulous afternoon. Standing on the dock though, I couldn’t help thinking about all the passengers and crew of Titanic who didn’t make it back.

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4 thoughts on “Bridges, engines and boilers”

  1. It all looks fascinating though I probably wouldn’t like the heat of the boiler room. I had no idea these cruises existed, I will be sure to check for dates next year – on their website it says this year’s trips are finished.

    1. They do have several Harbour cruises but Shieldhall is the only steam ship. I’m not so keen on the giant cruise ships.

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