Steam propulsion from Parsons

The ROTTERDAM is a steamship. To many, this may conjure up images of long lines of boilers being fed with endless shovels ful of coal. However, like most steamships built since the 1920’s, her boilers were fired with oil. Since those days, countless steamships have sailed the seven seas, up to and including the supertankers of today. The result was that shipping companies developed complete faith in the ability of steam engines to deliver the goods.

A breakthrough in steam propulsion technology occurred in 1894 when the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Co. of Wallsend-on-Tyne near Newcastle, England demonstrated an experimental steam turbine installation in their little ship, the ss TURBINIA. This installation completely outclassed the traditional steam piston engine. After making some improvements to his engine, Parsons was able to reach a speed of 34.5 knots in the ss TURBINIA, a spectacular feat for that time. Steam from the ship’s boilers is fed to the turbines, where the steam is directed against vanes on the circumference of a large wheel, thus causing it to turn, much as a pinwheel or a windmill is turned by the wind. The turbine is coupled to the ship’s screws either directly or via a gearbox, or to generators to make electricity. The biggest advantage of a turbine over a piston engine is that the up-and-down motion of pistons does not need to be converted to the turning motion needed for the screw.



With this breakthrough, Parsons heralded a new era as far as passenger shipping was concerned, one that would not end until 1964 with the construction of the steamship SHALOM (25,320 GRT). Between 1950 and 1964 some thirty large passenger ships were built which were driven by Parsons turbines, including such famous ships as the ANDREA DORIA, LEONARDO DA VINCI, ORSOVA, NORTHERN STAR, STATENDAM IV, ROTTERDAM V, WINDSOR CASTLE, TRANSVAAL CASTLE, ORIANA, and the FRANCE. The turbines were usually built under license by the shipyard or by an engineering firm nearby. The ROTTERDAM was one of the largest examples of the generation of passenger ships designed to make line voyages. In the 1960’s, the ship ranked among the world’s top ten liners. At this time, there are only about eight, mostly smaller, ships with Parsons turbines still sailing. The NORWAY, formerly the FRANCE, was the largest, measuring some 70,000 GRT. Unfortunately it has been scrapped.


The ROTTERDAM V (38,645 GRT) is the largest passenger ship ever built in the Netherlands to be equipped with Parsons turbines. The other Dutch-built steamship with Parsons turbines, the STATENDAM IV of 1957, has been rebuilt as a motorship an was scrapped in 2004. The ROTTERDAM’s turbines were built under license by the shipbuilders “De Schelde” in Vlissingen (Flushing).

Low pressure turbine picture Klaas Krijnen

The installation consists of two main turbine groups which each produce 17,500 shp at 131.5 rpm in continuous service. Each of the two main turbine groups contains three turbines: one each of high- intermediate- and low-pressure. A diabolo-shaped turbine wheel carrier has been built into the low-pressure turbine to allow for efficiently varying the final output speed.

The manoeuvering panel picture Klaas Krijnen

The designers of the propulsion installation had to take into account the two differing uses for which the ship was designed – transatlantic line voyages and cruising. In line service, the ship is expected to sail at full speed for five or six days, while during service as a cruise vessel, the ship may sail slowly or quickly, and may spend a day or more not moving at all. The four boilers (also built by De Schelde) were designed to work efficiently even when there was little demand for steam. Other large steam-powered passenger ships were often designed purely for speed, and could not be adapted efficiently and economically for cruising. In many cases, rebuilding as a motorship was required, as was done to the QUEEN ELIZABETH 2.