Much like cars, motorcycles and aircraft, modern ships are reliant on engines to power their oversized, sailless hulls through the water. The need for a propulsion system that wasn’t reliant on wind power was painfully obvious as sailing vessels struggled to keep up with the demands of globe-spanning trade. The beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the UK brought us the Steam Engine.
Most steam engines were reciprocating designs, which meant that it used pistons in a reciprocating setup to produce the pressure and heat needed to ignite the fuel. The earliest steam engines were huge, elegant-looking contraptions that provided a level of mechanised power unseen before. They were also inefficient and produced a great deal of smoke and pollution from their fuel source: wood and coal. Nevertheless, they were the engine of choice for many naval vessels that tentatively adopted them. Early steamships typically used traditional ship building processes and possessed sails, presumably as a back up if the engines failed or ran out of fuel.
The steam engine was continually improved over the 19th and early 20th centuries until new engine types were developed, particularly the diesel and petrol engines that consumed fuel internally. While petrol and diesel were less easy to find compared to wood or coal, they presented a clear advantage in efficiency, lighter weight and simplicity of use.
The development of turbochargers for these engines made them far more powerful than steam engines, and they soon became standard on warships and trade ships by the end of World War 1. The development of submarines also prompted a variation of the diesel engine, the electric-diesel transmission. Diesel engines could be used unsubmerged, where noise and access to air were not a concern, whereas the electric engine was quiet and could be used underwater with battery power. German submarines became a serious threat to convoys transporting food and material to the UK during the Second World War, and were only beaten with massive technological innovations and new tactics.
At the end of WW2, many new submarines and naval vessels were fit with nuclear turbines. This presented several advantages over diesel-electric submarines: the submarine wouldn’t have to refuel for a long time, the reactor is very quiet and efficient, and submarines could hit and stay at top speed for much longer, allowing them to reach an important destination quicker. There’s also obvious problems with using nuclear power: maintaining the reactors is a pain, and many early designs didn’t accommodate quick or easy maintenance. Other ships like the USS Enterprise use nuclear reactors for their superb range.
However, most motorised yachts use a diesel system, as the fuel is plentiful and the design is reliable as well as simple to maintain. It remains to be seen whether nuclear reactors will ever be feasible in civilian craft, or if new engine types are developed that dwarf the power of current engines. If you’re looking for a yacht charter based in the South of France with access to ports around the western Caribbean and the Mediterranean, You Charter Direct provides several cruising locations in the Mediterranean and Caribbean so you can see some of these regions for yourself.