“PITLOCHRY” of the Laeisz Flying ‘P’ Line A Century of Ship Design

A Century of Ship Design

Captain Robert K. Miethe concluded after a life-time at sea, that if some glorious combination of the Potosi’s strength and power, with the Pitlochry’s grace and wonderful sea sensitivity had existed, then there would have been a truly effective Cape Horn warrior! So what was it that made the Pitlochry such a great sailing ship? The answer lies in ship design.

Pitlochry received little attention among the many ships of the Laeisz Flying ‘P’ Line, overshadowed perhaps by her big sisters Potosi and Preussen. However, Pitlochry was one of the fastest and best performers of the fleet. It had evolved in its design based on knowledge that spanned a century which went from the Privateer, the East Indiaman, Packet Ships to Clipper and the Deep-water Merchantman.

Clippers Dominate Design in Mid-1800s
Before the 4 masted vessel was developed, the 3 masted Clippers dominated design. There is no doubt that their design influenced the ships yet to come. In 1910 Captain Arthur H. Clark said: ‘Vessels were now designed on scientific principles, and it may be doubted whether the qualities then desirable in a merchant sailing ship – speed, strength, carrying capacity, and economy – have ever been so successfully united as in these famous China tea clippers.’ In the clipper we saw the end result of years of conceptual thinking: the bow was sharpened at the cutwater with slimmer sheer lines to the hull. The hull itself saw a major change from the broad East Indiaman to a much narrower beam. This altered the balance of ships by changing the placement at the widest part of the ship. The ratio of a ship’s length to its width, which had been 4:1 before the giant clippers, went to 5:1 and even 6:1. Also in 1850-5 we saw a significant change in the management of sails; the ‘Forbes Rig’ was widely introduced. He doubled the topsail and topgallant yards which led to greater sail efficiency and a general reduction in manpower effort. Captain Robert B. Forbes (1804-1889) as a boy of 13 years shipped on the Canton Packet to make his first voyage to China and throughout his lifetime had owned or was involved in building over 70 sailing vessels! He made his fortune in the China opium trade, picture below of Opium Ships of 1824.

The famous race that saw Ariel and Taeping arrive on the same tide at the London Docks almost together, after sailing 16,000 miles in 99 days on 6th September 1866, was proof to all of good design. It will be recalled that Ariel passed Deal, in the Channel, at 2000hrs followed by Taeping 8 minutes later. As Taeping had sailed from the Pagoda Anchorage, China, 20 minutes after the Ariel, Taeping had won the race by 12 minutes!

Then, the Clippers were of composite construction, of timber planking over iron frames with fixed iron ballast moulded into the timber. Both Ariel and Taeping were built by the same builder, Robert Steele of Scotland; they were almost perfectly matched:

                Taeping      Ariel
Built:        1863        1865 
Tons:         767           853
Length:    183.7ft     197.4ft
Width:        31.1ft         33.9ft
Depth:       19.9ft         21ft

Iron & Steel In Preference to Wood
The New York Times, 23rd October 1869, explained to its readers that: “The price asked at Glasgow [Scotland] for an iron ship built on Lloyds specification, guaranteed to rate double A1 for 21 years and completely fitted for sea, with the extra sails, spars etc, required for a voyage to India and back is £14 Sterling per ton, and I believe contracts can be made for something less.” Although wooden ships would always remain popular by the close of the century, it was reported in the year 1898, that steel and iron ships were superior. The UK led in this change:

Numbers of Sailing Ships known in:

UK The Colonies America
Wooden:    863 1093 2287
Composite:  17 17 -
Iron:      878 58 24
Steel:     503 12 59

In Scotland, although there was always a healthy competition among designers and builders they did share their knowledge of design, construction and techniques. It was a fact that from totally separate ship-building yards of different companies, similar vessels would emerge from the stocks at the same time!

The East Indiaman
The commercial cargo-carrying merchantman of the late 1800s, like Pitlochry, had to combine in design terms the qualities of the Clipper for speed and the bulk of the East Indiaman. The earliest of the East Indiaman was designed solely on its ability to carry as much cargo as possible; speed was not a consideration. The picture below of the East Indiaman, Repulse, of 1820 illustrates the bulk of the load-carrying hull with full width and high sides and bulwarks above the waterline.

County of Peebles
Following the Clippers came this urgent need to increase carrying capacity but with little to no loss in speed. To reduce the risk of fire on board, ships also had to be built of iron or steel. Historically in four-masted sailing ship design the break-through came, in Scotland with the design of the County of Peebles.

Although the earliest four-masted vessel was a wooden Privateer, the French L’Invention, designed by Thibault, Bordeaux: length 147 ft, width 27 ft of 486 tons of 1801, it was not until much later, in 1875, that we saw a significant development.

This beautiful ship, the County of Peebles, below, was the first British four-masted fully-rigged ship and the first to have a lasting impact upon the design of the iron and steel-hulled deep-water merchantman. With economical superiority of iron over composite and wood design, it was again a natural, evolutionary change that iron or steel hulls were preferred. The County of Peebles was built by Barclay, Curle & Co, Glasgow, Scotland in 1875. Length 266.6ft, width 38.7ft and depth 23.4ft; 1614 tons.

Pitlochry’s Shipbuilder
Alexander Stephen (1833-1899), below, built up a major ship-building industry with several yards developed in both east and west Scotland. The skills of his designers and workers in the yards were second to none in Scotland. It was he who contributed so much that his Clippers established supremacy of the British flag in the early 1800s. He would have been deeply aware of the success of the County of Peebles and the many ships that followed her. Competition was ever present in the Scottish ship-building industry and even more so in the late 1800s. It was not until 1875, however, that Alexander handed over his yard in Dundee, Scotland, to a descendant, William.

William Stephen had a passion for sail albeit commercial pressure was always demanding to produce the ‘new’ steam ships. William followed the family tradition in studying the errors of the past in ship design and took a direct and personal interest in the progression of his sailing ships. No one man designed his ships – it was a collective achievement in which he gave his own ‘hands on’ experience. A pedigree of fast ships within the family had been built.

William joined Captain John.B.Jarvis, a Scot from Fife, on a passage from San Francisco toward Hull, England in his first four-masted ship, the Earl of Dalhousie, below. A passage of 103 days; it was fast for the late 1800s.

Also his little Woodlark had made a swift passage from New Castle, NSW to Valparaiso in 35 days. ‘Brace-winch Jarvis’ as he was affectionately known was an innovator who strived to improve deck and ship handling systems. William was a passionate sailing ship builder. It was clearly the bringing together of both their unique abilities, that the magnificent design of the Pitlochry was ultimately achieved.

The Order Book below, second entry from the bottom of the page, shows against Yard 96, the Barque (Steel) Pitlochry being completed at Dundee in 1894 for Alexander Stephen & Sons (Afterwards sold to Laeisz, Hamburg). Sadly, the clamour and glory of the Potosi (1895-1920) and the Preussen (1901-1910), her big sisters of the Flying ‘P’ Line, tended to dilute the achievements of the Pitlochry.

Alexander Stephen – A Builder of Fast Ships
Alexander Stephen and his company were well familiar with the desire for speed in their vessels long before Pitlochry was built. When Taeping was built by Robert Steele, in the same year of 1863 Alexander Stephen & Sons built the Eliza Shaw. It too would have been a worthy competitor to Taeping as it was also a fast ship of the day. More importantly, however, Alexander Stephen went on to build even better and faster vessels. With the booming transportation of emigrants to Australia, Alexander built, in Dundee, Scotland six ships the last five of which really may regarded as ‘sister’ ships for their design altered little. They were: Lochee (August 1874); Airlie (March 1875); Camperdown (April 1875); Duntrune (May 1875); Panmure (June 1875); and Maulesden (September 1875). All of them performed exceptionally well but the last, the Maulesden proved exceptionally fast particularly over long distances to Australia. The Maulesden, 1500 tons, measured in length 245.2ft, width 38.3ft and depth 23.1ft, seen below.

Maulesden’s epic record was a passage from leaving Greenock, Scotland, 3rd March and arriving at the Port of Maryborough, Queensland, Australia on 12th May 1883; 70 days out from the Clyde in Scotland. This record was never beaten. It was carrying up to 500 emigrants between decks at the time; what a fantastic journey! Sadly, after a sale to Italian owners who finally renamed her Nostra Signora Della Guardia, she was sunk by Korvettenkapitan Max Valentiner, by gunfire from his U-Boat 38, an ocean-going diesel-powered Type U31 torpedo attack boat, on 30th August 1916. The ship was on a passage from Philadelphia to Savona; last position known being 30 miles off Cape San Antonio. Valentiner, in 1916 was awarded Prussia’s highest military award, the Orden Pour le Merite (Blue Max). He died, aged 66 years in Denmark.

Design Comparison with Eudora
Captain Robert Miethe believed that the William Stephen designers of Pitlochry improved upon their own company’s 4 masted barque, the Eudora. This sailed for Alexander Stephen & Co and was well-known as a fast ship. Such a comparison is well-founded although the Eudora was a smaller vessel than Pitlochry, but not significantly so:

Built :
Width :
Depth :

Although it is difficult to make a direct comparison, an examination of Eudora’s best passage times does show that she was certainly one of the fast vessels:

1894 Swansea to San Francisco 99 days
1895 San Francisco to Lizard 105 ”
1897 Liverpool to Callao 73 ”
Barry to Callao 71 ”
1900 Lizard to San Francisco 109 ”
1903-4 Shields to Coquimbo 64 ”
1904 Iquique to Lizard 58 ”
1906 Tacoma to Queenstown 105 ”
1912 Mexillones to Honolulu 48 ”

Eudora was sunk by U-Boat 33, gunfire by Lt Martin Schelle, a minelayer class sub, on 14th February 1917 at 50 deg 55 min N and 09 deg 54 min W, approximately 30 miles SSW of Fastnet. All crew were saved.

Launch of Pitlochry
Clearly then, the Pitlochry has descended with an historical pedigree of skilled Scottish designers. The launch of Pitlochry on 14th September 1894 was perhaps both a joyous and a sombre event. Joyous because the very finest of the Yard’s four-masted sailing ships had been born; sombre because this was the very last ship that William had created. He died before it was launched after a long career and endless passion devoted to ship construction. Furthermore, his business died with him; at the close of 1894 the Trustees wound up William’s division of the family company and sold it to the Dundee Shipbuilders Company.

Technical Specification of Pitlochry

Keel Laid Down                     
March 1894
Registered Tons                   
GRT : 3111

NRT : 2972


Length Overall (LOA) 115.37m
Body length          104.7 m
Deck length          97.34m
Width        13.78m
Depth 8.07m
Draft 7.14m

Sail Area 4,300 square metres
34 sails          18 square

3 mizzen
13 staysail
Mast Height 58m. 4 Masts

Pitlochry was NOT designed to Laeisz specification; it was purchased ‘as-built’. She was rigged as a ‘bald-header’, with nothing above double topsails and topgallants; this was a routine development from 1890. As could be expected Captain Jarvis’ winches, patented in 1891, were fitted:

Also Pitlochry had a “three-island” deck structure with a ‘dry’ amidships house known to many as a “Liverpool House”. Control of the ship was retained at the stern at the poop where the wheel, the charthouse and officers’ accommodation was situated. She was noted to steer with a turn of a few spokes of the wheel in the worst of weather. The standard compass stood on a built-up platform between the poop and the amidships house, reached by a fore-and-aft catwalk. Only the crew lived in the amidships house. Speed was estimated 17 + knots in most favourable wind conditions but would naturally increase upon a following tide.

Pitlochry’s Captains
Capt. P. Opitz; delivery 14th September 1894
Capt. Robert Hilgendorf 1894-1895
Capt. Georg Schluter 1896-1902
Capt. Hinrich Nissen 1902-1903
Capt. Carl V. Jessen 1903-1907
Capt. H.Reimer 1907-1908
Capt. Robert K.Miethe 1908-1912
Capt. Henry Horn 1912-1913

Crew: Normally Captain + 3 Officers + 29 Sailors.


Three generations of the Laeisz family ran the company in its early years: Ferdinand Laeisz (Founder 1801-1887); his son Carl Heinrich Laeisz (1828-1901) and Carl’s son, Carl Ferdinand Laeisz (1853-1900).

The founder gave very clear instruction to his masters: ‘My ships can and shall make fast voyages.’ Pitlochry admirably fell within this mould. Pitlochry would never have disappointed Ferdinand but it was to his son and grandson who took over the reins of his father’s work, that ownership would take place. By the time of Pitlochry’s arrival the Flying ‘P’ Line was well established.

Pitlochry was an excellent performer. Consistently Pitlochry achieved good passage times and was used extensively in the nitrate trade between Europe and Chile.

Specifically between passing The Lizard [above], the rugged peninsula off the Cornish coast, and around Cape Horn towards Valparaiso, Pitlochry’s average passage was of 68 days’ duration. Across the Flying ‘P’ Liner fleet at this time, ships took between 57 and 79 days to complete this passage with Potasi and Preussen quite often not recording the best times!

Pitlochry remained competitive throughout its voyages reporting above average results. This consistency of achievement was indicative of Pitlochry’s good ship handling characteristics welcomed by all who sailed in her; not a bad word is recorded of this ship which speaks volumes for its sound design and seamanship.

Cape Horn Storms & Winter of 1905
The severe weather off Cape Horn in the wintry months of 1905 was one of the worst recorded. It was a bleak period for all those in sail from captains, crews, families, insurers, underwriters to owners.

Lloyd’s Weekly Shipping Index for the 7th September 1905 lists well over 3,500 large-medium sized sailing ships operating worldwide. Of these at any one time it was estimated that up to 400 would be attempting the Cape Horn passage. In this bad winter the Garsdale, a 1,755 ton ship of Liverpool was abandoned, about a dozen completely disappeared and up to 50 had to turn away and run for the protection of the Falkland Islands, Montevideo or Rio. At least a dozen had also opted to circumnavigate the globe to reach their Chilean destinations! With British concern and preoccupation of the weather, almost a national pastime, it was not surprising that by the end of that year, 1905, that ship-building of commercial square-rigged ships had also ceased!

Thoughts of the decline in sailing ship construction would have been coincidental to the actual events at the Horn. For Pitlochry, like so many others, she was hammered severely in the savage seas of that winter. Under Captain Carl V. Jessen, on 24-25th September 1905, Pitlochry lost her main topmast and mizzen topgallant mast in hurricane force gales. The artist shows above that the fore and main masts are down? With no loss of life and jury-rig she made toward Montevideo where she was finally towed into safety by the British SS Jumna arriving on the 5th October 1905. Replacement masts were ultimately shipped out, repairs undertaken and the Pitlochry much later successfully passed the Horn.

Laid Up In Hamburg
From late 1908 to early 1909 Pitlochry was laid up in Hamburg as freights were poor. During this period of about five months the ever resourceful commander, Captain Robert Miethe, gained proficiency in surgical dressing. He certainly would have been a familiar figure at the Laeiszhof in Hamburg, below. It was a sign of the times and it had become increasingly difficult for ship-owners to secure good consignments; the Flying ‘P’ Line suffered equally.

Impromptu Display off Brighton Pier
Brighton Pier off the south coast of England, mid-way in the Channel, was completed in 1900. It remains today a popular beachside resort with activities on the pier itself. Attractions within arcades were supplemented with a wide selection of restaurants. The photograph above was taken in 1910 at about the time Captain Robert Miethe just happened to be passing by in Pitlochry!

Captain Miethe told Alan Villiers of this occasion when he beat the Pitlochry up the length of the English Channel and lower North Sea during a week of glorious summer. Once he stood in towards the English side until he was a ship’s length off the end of Brighton Pier, in perfect conditions. The long pier was full of summer visitors. Bands played. Happy throngs were ready for a spectacle. Miethe gave them a memorable one, for he spun the great four-masted bark in her own length right before their eyes, giving them such a demonstration of Cape Horn ship-handling as none had seen before and few would ever see again. The magnificent spectacle stirred them all. To Alan Villiers, Miethe said: ‘A man may know an occasion like this only once in a lifetime.’

Supreme Seamanship: Entry to the Elbe
One tale of pure supreme seamanship both on the part of Captain and Crew was related in an interview with Alan Villiers by the retired and elderly Captain Robert Miethe of his entry into the Elbe in late 1909. The photograph below was taken of the Hamburg Moorings at that time. Abbreviated but in Robert’s words:

“We expected to be safely in by the following morning. We’d need some wind for this. We were ready to use it fast, ready to come into the Elbe, pick up our pilot. But there was no sign even of an inshore fishing boat. The North Sea was empty. There were no special signs I could read in the sky – only threat.

“It was winter. The day was short. The glass stayed very low, without movement. We slipped into the night with a breath of southerly air – just a breath that only the Pitlochry could find over that dull, dead sea. Then a calm spell again, then a little breath of wind out of the north. Aha, I thought, stand from under, Miethe! This can be it.

“I shortened her down to fighting canvas – the six tops’ls, the fores’l, the lower, very strong fore-and-afters. The wind freshened from the northwest…………… No sooner were we braced round than a hard squall of hail hit her like a smack with sledge-hammers out of hell…………the wind leapt to gale force screaming! “There was no sign of any pilot boat…………I burned blue flares, our signal for the pilot………but there was no answer. It was dark. Within an hour or less……….it was blowing full gale – force ten, gusting to eleven……… There wasn’t room to beat a big ship like the Pitlochry in a storm like that right in the Heligoland Bight. There wasn’t sea room to turn her at the end of each tack.

“There was a line-up of five Elbe lightships then – Elbe 1-5………. I was already off Elbe 1. I signalled again for a pilot. None came.

“I had hope only of finding one spot in the river that night where we could anchor at all. This was in the immediate neighbourhood of the Mittelrug, a low bank of sand near the fifth lightship, Elbe 5. We ran with squared yards – and the hail was not smashing into my face. I saw ahead when I could: what was astern no longer mattered. I thanked God, too, that in my early youth I’d learned something of this river.

“We flew past Elbe 1 and headed up river at fantastic speed………..Light vessels Elbe 2, Elbe 3, flashed by. With the strong flood tide also helping, she must have been making something like 18 knots over the ground. …………Elbe 4 came up, very close. I took in the fore lower tops’l. My splendid sailors were right on the mark……………Elbe 5 was in sight………..I saw the black river come alive with anchor lights. The ship rushed on…..Elbe 5 was abeam. “Let go anchors!

“Now the wind brought me the mate’s acknowledging hail loud and clear – both black beauties were down together. Out roared the cable. Now head to wind, I braced sharp up, yards abox to ease the windage. Seas driven by the near-hurricane broke at the bow: heavy sprays washed right along the decks bringing more of the river sand with them. The cables stood out like twisted violin strings, taut………….at the bitter end they stood……….! Thank God, they stood ….the great Bower anchors held and the ship did not drag, though she threw her whole cutwater almost under……..the wind screamed and all hands stood through the rest of the night to their sea watches, tending her.”

Soundings showed at low water to give a fathom or so under Pitlochry’s keel!

Unthinkable today, but navigation in the early 1900s, particularly in the English Channel, was poor and passages extremely hazardous. Many a good ship, sail and steam, had either been lost by collision or run aground. The English Channel sea-bed was littered with wrecks. It should have been inexcusable that any steam vessel should hit the Pitlochry as both were in the open sea some miles distant from the southern exit of the English Channel.

Under the command of Captain Henry Horn, on the 28th November 1913, south-west of the Scilly Islands in the Atlantic, some 300 miles west of Nantes on the French coast, the Elder Dempster Co Line SS Boulama(2613GRT) hit and sank the Pitlochry. The 33 member crew were all rescued. She went down at 47 degrees 20 min N 8 degrees 06 min W.

Perhaps Pitlochry’s abrupt burial at sea was both fitting and appropriate an end. After 19 years of service, a circumnavigation of the world and 23 round trips to Chile it would have been sad to learn if she had ended up as some stripped down hulk rotting at a wharf somewhere. It was 1913: by the time the underwriters and insurers had probably just closed their books on Pitlochry, the ship-owners faced immense difficulties for the future of their Cape Horn sailing ships as on 14th August 1914, the Panama Ship Canal was opened. This event changed strategic planning for sailing ships for ever.

Roland R Parsons
Wing Commander Roland R PARSONS (RNZAF & RAFO)Rtd,FRGS,psc,
19 Clyde Road,
Christchurch 8041,