Thursday, September 3, 2015

A Case For Steam

So, one of the things I discovered on vacation is that Switzerland has most of the surviving Belle Epoque open water paddle steamers.

These are sizeable sidewheelers designed for use on the country's big lakes. Obviously, the chance to go aboard wasn't something I could turn down.

And now I'm going to make a case for paddle steamers (both parts are important as some of the paddle wheelers have been converted to diesel electric, which I find unfortunate) as something we should not just be preserving - but building new. I've come to the conclusion they're superior to "modern" motor vessels for certain specific uses - namely moving people in large inland waters and coastal areas. Oh, but we stopped using them for a reason, right?

We stopped using them because a paddle wheeler uses more fuel. You're using fuel to move the entire wheel, not just the part in the water. I'm now going to explain just why their advantages overcome that. (If you think they're slow, think again. Mississippi riverboats are slow because of the conditions they're designed for - they're powered rafts. Open water paddle steamers are fast enough - the one we were on had a top cruise speed of 16 knots, which is quite respectable for a ferry).

There's two main areas in which a paddle steamer has the advantage:

1. Passenger comfort. First of all, a steam engine doesn't produce the vibrations generated by an internal combustion engine. These vibrations pass through the hull and can annoy some people and even contribute to motion sickness in those susceptible. A steam engine produces, instead, a regular thwup thwup thwup that isn't nearly as irritating. Second of all: Stabilizers on a cruise ship work by sticking fins out from the hull. On modern ships these are computer controlled and can be adjusted to conditions. A sidewheeler has a great big wheel on either side. This has the same effect, resulting in significantly less roll than on a screw propelled ship of similar size in similar conditions. Having the power amidships also seems to reduce pitch. In other words, while paddle steamers might rock...a little...they definitely don't roll.

2. The environment. Wait. I just said they use more fuel. Well, yes, they do. But, a steam engine produces 90 percent less air pollution than an internal combustion engine. And these days most of them don't run on coal. They've been converted (as has the steam locomotive that runs tours to the Grand Canyon) to oil power. Here's the thing about a steam engine: It's not that picky about fuel. Internal combustion engines are very picky about what you put in their tank. Steam engines not that much. In fact, that steam loco I mentioned? It runs entirely off of waste cooking oil from the restaurants on the Grand Canyon rim. There's no reason that I know of why they couldn't run all of the paddle steamers in Switzerland off of waste cooking oil from local restaurants.


And then there's the cool factor, which can't really be dismissed. But really - the companies that run excursions on larger lakes should be looking at going back to steam. It just makes so much sense.