Reader Questions

Reader Question: Rudders

Reader le-mec writes:

My question involves “fenestrated rudders”, a Chinese invention that
involved cutting diamond-shaped holes in the rudders of ancient Chinese
sailing ships (known as Junks). According to several articles (on the
internet, ha ha), it reduces the amount of effort required to steer the
ship at higher speeds with “no loss of function”. All I can find is
anecdotal evidence and I’d like to know if these claims hold water or if
they’re just steering us in the wrong direction.

First off:


Now, I’m no expert on ships or sailing, but let’s talk rudders. Ships use rudders for steering. The rudder is completely submerged and turning it deflects water and creates a side force that helps steer a boat. In essence, it’s an underwater wing that generates lift in the side-to-side direction. Modern rudders even have the same shape as airfoils. That’s clearly not the case with the rudders of Chinese junks, but flat plates are a lot easier to make.

There’s another key feature of the junk’s rudder, and that’s the way it’s mounted. The junk’s rudder attaches to the ship such that it rotates about its leading edge. This makes it an unbalanced rudder. More modern rudders are typically mounted so that they rotate around an axis that’s partway back on the rudder. This is called a balanced rudder; I’ve illustrated both below.


The advantage of the balanced rudder is that it’s easier to turn. You can see this for yourself without adding water into the equation. Imagine holding a big rectangular sheet. If you hold it by one edge and try to rotate it, you can do it, but it’s kind of difficult. If you instead hold it about a third of the way across, you’ll find rotating it easier. Once you have a fluid moving past, it will only magnify how hard it is to turn the rudder.

So the Chinese junks had rudders that were harder to handle (by later ship-building standards) to begin with. By putting holes in the rudder, they equalized the pressure on either face of the rudder. That does make it easier to steer, since the helmsman is no longer fighting pressure differences across the rudder, but it would also reduce steering efficiency. It’s likely, however, given the slow speed of the junks, large rudder area, and their low hydrodynamic efficiency to begin with, that any drop in efficiency was negligible compared to the reduction in force necessary to steer.

Since modern designs rely on foil shapes to generate pressure differences (and therefore side force) across the rudder, adding holes to them would be a bad idea. But back in the Song dynasty, the fenestrated rudder was major advance in nautical engineering!

(Image credits: Chinese junk ship model – Premier Ship Models; Joffrey applauding – HBO; Rudder diagram – N. Sharp)

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