Steel Ships

Sunderland had some of the best designers and makers of iron and steel ships in the world.  Here is some information on just three of the type of steel ships Sunderland used to produce.


  • SD14's

  • OBO (Oil/Bulk/Ore) Carriers

  • Doxford Turret Ships


The video on the right celebrates the ‘Nicola’, the first in a long line of standard ships designed by the Sunderland shipyard of Austin & Pickersgill Ltd. The images document her construction from October 1967 through to her completion in February 1968. The shipbuilders commissioned the Newcastle-based firm Turners (Photography) Ltd to take weekly progress shots of the ‘Nicola’ and these images have given us a unique view of her development.

She was the first SD14 to be completed (the name stands for ‘Shelter Deck 14,000 tons deadweight’) and was designed as a replacement for the surviving ‘Liberty ships’, built by American yards during the Second World War. Those Liberty ships had played a vital role in the Allied victory but by the 1960s they were fast approaching the end of their working lives.


Sometimes known as the replacement for the famous "Liberty" ship, the 14,000 ton SD14 general cargo ships are found under many different names and flags in most of the world's ports and all of the high seas. The designation "SD14" denotes "Shelter Deck 14,000 tons". The shelter deck is the second or tween deck in the cargo spaces and, when the ship is loaded down to her plimsoll line, she displaces 14,000 tons.

The shelter deck is the second or tween deck in the cargo spaces and, when the ship is loaded down to her plimsoll line, she displaces 14,000 tons.

By the mid 1960s, there remained some 700 Liberty and other war-built cargo ships still trading. Even the youngest were 20 years old and the question of a replacement was exercising the minds of ship owners and builders around the world. the emergence of bulk carriers and container ships pointed to the end of the "shelter Deck" design which had been used with little alteration since the turn of the century. Many felt that this design was no obsolete and that the future lay with containerisation.


It was, therefore, something of a surprise when ship builders all over the world unveiled their plans for the "liberty Ship Replacement", almost all of which offered a two-deck vessel of 14,000/15,000 tons deadweight. Doubtless this choice was influenced by the requirements of potential customers. Most of the war-built vessels were, by this time, being operated by Greek ship owners of limited resources to whom these new designs, for a type of vessel with which they were fully experienced and priced at about £1 million with cheap credit facilities, were very attractive.


A total of 30 designs were put forward as the "Liberty Ship Replacement" in the early months of 1966. Of these, the most successful was the SD14, developed by the Sunderland shipbuilders, Austin and Pickersgill. The first SD14 keel was laid on 8th. June 1967. Unusually, this was not at Austin and Pickersgill's own yard, but nearby at that of another Sunderland shipbuilder, Bartram's, who were building the ship under licence. The first ship, named Mimis N. Papalios, was launched on 1st. December 1967. She was also very nearly the first SD14 to be completed. However, Austin and Pickersgill managed to make up the leeway in their own building programme to hand over the first completed SD14, the Nicola, on 14th. February 1968, the Mimis N. Papaliosfollowing the next day.


Between 1968 and 1988, a total of 211 SD14s were completed and it is interesting to note that, by 1990, only 10 had been scrapped for commercial reasons, a further three going to the breaker's yard after marine accidents. Of the dozen vessels reported as sunk, at least two fell victim to missile attack during the Iran/Iraq conflict.

Like the original Liberty ships, which many thought would be scrapped as soon as the war was over, the SD14 was not ascribed a very long life by some early critics. Nevertheless, these ships are still in demand in the charter market, with average daily rates of $5,200 for a one-year time contract, and in the second hand market with prices ranging from $2.5m for an early seventies ship to $5.75m. for a newer example.


One guide to the success of the SD14 is to look at the movement of the 211 ships through the second-hand market. Most of the ships now sailing are with only their second owner, a few remaining with their original purchaser. The oldest SD14 in service is the Wave Crest, the vessel which, as the Mimis N. Papalios, missed by one day the distinction of being the first completed ship of her type

OBO (Oil/Bulk/Ore) Ships

The largest ship built on the Wear was an OBO ship, the Naess Crusader.  She was launched on the 21st December 1972.  It is the length of this ship that the length of the keel line in Keel Square, Sunderland is based on.  Her dimensions were as follows:


  • Length 291.74m

  • Breadth 42.73m

  • Depth 24.68m

  • Draught 18.22m

  • Deadweight 161,798 tonnes


She was made by Sunderland Shipbuilders Ltd at the North Sands yards at Monkwearmouth.  Her massive growing bulk on the slipway there was an impressive sight indeed.  Her engines were B&W diesel units made by Harland & Wolf Ltd of Belfast.  These engines produced 30,400hp to propel her at 15.5 knots via a single screw, which is fast enough to water ski behind, not that I would want to!


Her cargo capacity was 172,880 cubic metres which is the equivalent of having nearly 70 Olympic sized swimming pools onboard.


The idea of the OBO was that it would function as a tanker when the tanker markets were good and a bulk / ore carrier when these markets were good.  It would also be able to take "wet" cargo (oil) one way and "dry" cargo (bulk cargoes / ore) the other way, thus reducing the time it had to sail in ballast (i.e. empty).  The OBO carrier quickly became popular among shipowners around the world and as of today several hundreds of this type of vessel have been built.

Doxford Turret Ships

Turret ships were designed to lessen tonnage dues under the Suez Canal system of tonnage measurement. The first turret steamer was built in 1892, by William Doxford & Sons Ltd, at Pallion Shipyard in Sunderland. The last was completed in 1911. In total 177 turret ships were built, the majority by Doxford, but 6 others were built under license by other yards in Great Britain, and one more built in Spain. The turret design was a development from the whaleback steamer, the first of which to visit Britain was the Charles W Wetmore.  The turret steamers had one long turret, which was half the width of the ship. They usually measured 300 - 400 feet in length and their cellular double bottom gave the turret design strength.  The net tonnage of the vessel was low in relation to its deadweight.  It was claimed that the turrets were economical to build and combined strength with lightness, using less steel than conventional vessels. The later turrets were “beamless”, meaning that through the substitution of deep ordinary frames, all internal supports, beams and girders, were dispensed with, leaving a clear hold.  Full cargoes of grain could be loaded in bulk saving costs and loss of time using bags.  Discharging of grain and other cargoes was much quicker. In 1911 the construction of turret steamers came to an end due to amended regulations that rectified Suez Canal dues.  The first Lloyd’s Register classed turret steamer was the Bencliff, built by William Doxford & Sons Ltd. in 1894 for G. Horslay & Son, West Hartlepool. 

© Sunderland Maritime Heritage, registered charity in England and Wales (1089465)