William Sutherland was a ship’s master carpenter in the late 1600s. Returning to shore, he became a foreman in the Portsmouth dockyard, then was promoted to be a senior manager at the Deptford yard. Sutherland wrote two books about naval architecture and ship construction. His 1717 book Britain’s Glory: or Ship-Building Unvail’d documented lifecycle maintenance in the Royal Navy.
In his introduction, Sutherland noted that naval asset lifetimes were shorter than expected:
“Having observed a vast Difference in the Wear of Shipping, and that the generality of the Publick Ships are tore to pieces, and Rebuilt, in less than Fourteen Years; which in former Times used to continue Thirty Years, with but very slender Repairs: So that the Duration is more than Two to One. I have therefore made it my Business to inquire what material Reasons can be given for the same, and the ill Consequence which may accrew from such a Vulgar Practice.”
Sutherland noted that ships at sea suffered from accelerated wear, but benefitted from early intervention and resolution of minor defects. The crew was essentially performing Operator Basic Care.
“Indeed I cannot deny but that if Ships were as well look’d after in a Harbour, as they are at Sea, there would be some difference in Wear and Duration…here is a great Advantage in the preservation at sea more than there is in Harbour, since Ships are duly clean’d, scrub’d, air’d, wash’d with Salt Water, which is a sovereign Remedy for preserving Timber, also they have a number of Carpenters and Calkers on board, which are for ever inspecting the Defects, and amending every thing which they find out of its place, or amiss; so that it cannot be a little tumbling in the Sea, that can alter the duration of a Ship so very much, provided she is well wrought and connex’d at the first Building.
I shall proceed to shew some other material Reasons for such a great Decay in Shiping, and the only cause which hastens Rebuildings….”
Sutherland claimed that construction with unseasoned timber was the major factor that determined the rate of decay, useful lifetime, and maintenance requirement of ships. He observed that if a ship was properly built, little maintenance was required in the first 7 years of use. Sutherland listed annual costs of normal maintenance:
Annual caulking and graving – £90 per year
Annual painting – £15 per year
Docking three times a year – £60 per year
Preserving the masts, yards, and rigging – £20 per year
Repairing the sails and blocks – £10 per year
Total £195 per year in the first 7 years.
In the second 7 year-cycle, Sutherland repeated this sequence, but also added replacement of iron fasteners, the rudder, and decking. In the third and fourth 7-year cycles, he expected more docking events, replacement of hull sheathing, timbers, and bolts. He estimated total repair spending for a ship of 50 guns with cargo capacity of 677 tuns to be £3,746 and 8 shillings over 28 years. The scrap value of the ship at the end of its life was £1,196 and 12 shillings.
Sutherland recorded that Royal Navy ships of this era had a cyclic maintenance program that could be used for long-term budgeting and for optimization. Sutherland’s lifetime maintenance estimate was not a plea for more maintenance funding. He argued that too much money was spent on maintenance. Most of the maintenance cost could be avoided by changing the navy’s approach to the beginning and end of the asset’s life.
Sutherland observed that ships increased their weight over their lifetime as repair material was attached to the original structure. This phenomenon is called “weight growth” in modern naval architecture. Weight growth reduced a ship’s top speed and limited the types of missions a ship could be assigned to. He proposed that in the last 7 years of planned life, ships could have their hull sheathing removed to lighten them. They could be assigned to less demanding duty in home waters.
This policy would have consciously traded the asset’s protection against decay for increased performance in the last quarter of the asset life-cycle. Such a policy required the organization to know the service life of a major asset and to commit to an asset strategy over a seven-year time horizon.
Sutherland used his cost estimate of maintenance and repair lifecycle in a net present value calculation. He used the life-cycle cost to argue for better practices in timber harvesting. Better construction quality meant significant maintenance savings and would reduce replacement costs.
Sutherland compared his estimate of maintenance costs with navy budgets that had been published in other sources. He concluded that the Navy was spending at least 400% more than was needed on repair due to bad management:
“… having observed, nay proved, a prodigious waste of the materials, especially Timber, in some of His Majesty’s Yards, do believe the management in His Majesty’s Navy has not been so nice as it ought to have been…”
He softened his criticism in closing:
“… but where the fault lies, I shall refer to be examined, and Remain in All Dutiful Obedience to Superiority, and in a loving respect to Equals and Inferiors.”
Sutherland’s calculation of lifetime maintenance costs was limited to his book’s fifteen-page introduction. The main body of 134 pages were dedicated to naval architecture and contained design thumb rules, calculational methods, illustrations, and tables. One chapter discussed contract management and insurance claims. The last chapter contained illustrations showing how to select parts from curved and forked pieces of trees.
The year the book was published, Sutherland was commissioned as a shipyard officer, the Master Caulker, at the Sheerness Dockyard. This came as the result of patronage, but he was no longer involved in shipbuilding. He served there until his death in 1740.
A repair cycle of 6-7 years had been referred to by the naval commission of 1608, then used by Sutherland in 1717. In 1773, the Earl of Sandwich, serving as First Sea Lord, would write that the “enormous expense” of major repairs every 6-7 years could be avoided by using seasoned timber. The Earl of Sandwich would be in a position to try to solve this problem. Sutherland’s method of lifecycle costing using a 7-year cycle was repeated in 1821 by Captain Layman in The Pioneer, or Strictures on Maritime Strength and Economy. Layman also proposed reductions in lifecycle maintenance costs by investing in better construction quality.
Sutherland’s background master carpenter: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00253359.2014.866372?journalCode=rmir20
Sutherland on threedecks.org only listing is master caulker at Sheerness
PhD review of Sutherland and other shipbuilding manuscripts focused on building & naval architecture, University of Southampton (author/candidate Juan-Pablo Olaberria)
Mallagh, Cris, “Some Aspects of the Life and Career of William Sutherland” The Mariner’s Mirror, Volume 100, 2014 – Issue 1
Layman, William. The Pioneer, Or Strictures on Maritime Strength and Economy …: To which is Added an Exposé of a Discovery for Preparing Forest Trees for Immediate Service …. United Kingdom, E. Bridgewater, 1821. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Pioneer_Or_Strictures_on_Maritime_St/FDBFAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0
Rodger, N. A. M. The Insatiable Earl: A Life of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich 1718-1792, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993
A modern treatment of weight growth can be found here: