The Commercial Cable Company's Maintenance Cableship
by Stewart Ash
This article first appeared in SubTel Forum Issue 72, September 2013
Over the last two additions I have written about some of the significant contributions of the Commercial Cable Company (CCC) to trans-Atlantic telegraphy. However, this was not the first time that the CCC has featured in Back Reflection. Some readers may remember that the role played by the CCC cableship Mackay-Bennett in the Titanic disaster in 1912, was described in Issue 61.
While researching the story of the Atlantic Price War, I came across a detailed description of the CS Mackay-Bennett in a book called 'Submarine Cable Laying and Repairing' written by H. D. Wilkinson and published as a second edition in 1908. It struck me that the description in Wilkinson's book would be very close to the arrangements of the vessel when she sailed on that fateful voyage, and that readers may be interested in the layout of a maintenance cable ship that was operating at the beginning of the 20th century, over 100 years ago. So here it is!
"The Cable Ship 'Mackay-Bennett.'- This steamer, owned by the Commercial Cable Company of New York, is employed in the maintenance of the Company's systems in the Atlantic and European waters. The three Atlantic cables of this Company from Ireland to Nova Scotia represent together 6,894 nautical miles (nm), the two from Nova Scotia to the States 1,352nm, and the two European cables connecting Ireland with England and France 839nm, or a total of 9,085nm. Other Atlantic maintenance vessels are the 'Minia', of the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, and the 'Pouver- Ouertier', of the Compagnie Francatse. The 'Mackay-Bennett', launched in September, 1884, was built at Govan, on the Clyde, in the yard of Messrs. John Elder and Co, and measures 270ft. by 40ft., by 24ft 6ins by depth moulded. Her tonnage is 1,012.92 net registered and 1,700 gross registered.
Mr. G. H. Bambridge, to whose courtesy the writer is indebted for the accompanying details. In the design of this steamer special pains have been taken to give her good steering and manoeuvring qualities. In addition to the usual stern rudder, a second rudder is fixed at the bow inside the line of the stem, which can be worked by a hand-wheel. This very useful addition enables a course to be kept when going astern (frequently required in repair work), in easing strain on cable or in fetching or getting clear of a buoy or splice. Steam steering gear of Messrs. Muir and Caldwell's system is fitted in the wheel-house aft, and can be operated from either of two wheels, one amidships and one on the poop. A hand-wheel is also fitted aft as a stand-by, giving a third means of steering independent of steam. Her manoeuvring qualities are still further increased by the use of Brown's patent hydraulic reversing gear, previously referred to. As the Mackay-Bennett is a twin-screw steamer and Brown's reversing gear is fitted to each engine, there is not much time lost in turning her round either way. Bilge keels are also fitted which minimise the rolling in heavy weather. The engines are compound surface-condensing, with cylinders 2Sin. and SOin. diameter. On her trial trip a speed of 12.3 knots was attained, the engines developing 2,190 I.H.pl. The coalbunker capacity is 750 tons. Three cable tanks are fitted, having a total capacity to loading lines of 385nm or 710 tons of deep-sea cable, lin. in diameter. The fore tank, No. 1, is 20ft, No. 230ft and No. 328ft in diameter, and the mean diameters of the cones are respectively 6ft 2in, 7ft 2in and 6ft 2in The fore and aft tanks can be loaded to a height of 10ft., and the tank amidships to 14ft. At these heights the fore tank holds 60nm, the mid-ships 195nm, and the aft tank 130nm of the above type of cable. The tanks are all in connection with pumps in the engine-room, by means of which they can be flooded with water or discharged, as required. Steam cable gear capable of dealing with repairing work in the deepest waters of the Atlantic is fixed both forward and aft. That in the fore part of the ship, used chiefly for grappling and picking-up, has a single drum driven by a double- cylinder engine with inclined cylinders, fitted with clutch for single or double purchase, and a brake for paying-out with the engine thrown out of gear. The brake is controlled by a hand-wheel and screw. The aft gear is driven by a similar engine with clutch for throwing out of gear when paying- out with the brake. The bow and stern sheaves are fitted underneath the working deck or platform, as in the 'Faraday'. The testing room is situated underneath the forward part of the bridge. Lord Kelvin's sounding air-tube navigational machine and James's submarine sentry for indicating depths while in motion are carried, and the ship is also supplied with Messrs. Johnson and Philips' sounding machine for deep-sea work. For trimming purposes the Mackay-Bennett is built with a special cellular double bottom running the whole length of the vessel, which can be utilised for water ballast to the extent of 300 tons. The equipment of this handsome vessel is completed with an electric lighting plant consisting of two Siemens dynamos, each with a normal output of 90 amperes at 110 volts. These are driven by a pair of Tangye engines, the light being distributed throughout the ship, and night operations are facilitated by deck-light reflectors fitted with six and eight incandescent lamps."
I think readers can see that many things have changed in the design of cableships in the ensuing 129 years since the Mackay Bennett was launched; however, the basic layout remains very much the same and should be recognisable to those readers who are familiar with today's vessels. For any readers that are interested in finding out more about the history of cableships, I would recommend to you, the bible of this subject; 'Cableships and Submarine Cables' by K R Haigh; Second Edition published in 1978. It is a great pity that there has been no new reference book, on cableships, published over the last 35 years, since during that period many unique vessels have come and gone, and stern working only vessels have become the norm.
1 I.H.P = Indicated Horse Power
© Stewart Ash 2016