Christen Smith – The Pioneer and the Greatest of the Heavy Lifters

The 7,203grt Belpareil was built in 1926 by Armstrong, Whitworth & Co. at High Walker. In 1965 she was sold to New Zealnd Carriers Inc. and renamed New Zealand Venture and in 1970 she became Buga of Losinjska Plovidba. She was broken up by Brodospas at Split in December 1984. (John B. Hill collection)

The volatility of freight rates in shipping is sometimes almost beyond belief. This was the case after Capt. Christen Smith (1883-1940) had set up his own company in 1918 as A/S Christen Smiths Rederi and ordered two ordinary engines ‘midships cargo ships of 3,400 dwt to be delivered in 1920/21 by the Moss Vaerft yard in Norway. The boom and slump in freight rates in 1920/21 saw rates plummet by 40% in a few weeks. The first of the pair of ships obtained a one year charter and was then laid up, while the second went straight from the shipyard to the lay up buoys. Capt. Christen Smith then had to think ‘outside the box’, and he and his brothers designed a conversion of his two new ships as pioneer heavy lift ships, with eight heavy lift derricks able to lift locomotives, carriages, barges, tugs, lightships etc using spreader beams in a single lift onto the clear foredeck and aft deck of the two ships. Previously, transporting locomotives to far distant parts of the world involved ‘knocking down’ the items into many smaller components for ease of transport and then reassembling them at their destination.

The two new pioneer heavy lifters were named Belgot and Belfri and registered under single ship companies, with Capt. Basberg in command of Belgot. Capt. Christen Smith may have commanded Belfri, as he had in 1910 been in command of the largest ship in the Norwegian Merchant Navy at the young age of 27 years. His ship was the steamer Henrik Ibsen of 4,671 grt built in 1906 by Sir Raylton Dixon & Company at Middles-brough. She had dimensions of overall length 383.9 feet, moulded beam of 52.8 feet, and moulded depth of 17.7 feet, and was a ‘three islander’ with a long bridge deck of 114 feet, short fo’c’stle and poop of 36 feet and 33 feet, with a triple expansion steam engine by the North Eastern Marine Engineering Co. Ltd. on Tyneside. Capt. Christen Smith also saw service with the Royal Norwegian Navy during World War I.


Belgot and Belfri could carry eight locomotives on the foredeck and eight locomotives on the aft deck, all arranged athwart-ships. The two sisters had dimensions of overall length of 275.7 feet, moulded beam of 43.7 feet, moulded depth of 18.9 feet, with a bridge deck of length 82 feet, and short fo’c’stle and poop of 32 feet and 27 feet. A service speed of ten knots was obtained from a triple expansion steam engine by the builders. Three slightly larger purpose built engines aft heavy lift ships were completed by Armstrong, Whitworth & Co. Ltd. on the Tyne during 1924 to 1926 as Beldis, Belnor and Belray. The latter ship was launched on 15th February 1926 at Low Walker by Mrs. B. Irvin, wife of the manager of the Armstrong, Whitworth locomotive department. She had dimensions of overall length of 328.9 feet, moulded beam of 46.0 feet, moulded depth of 23.3 feet, and of 2,888 grt and 4,280 dwt. She had a bridge deck of length 82.0 feet, fo’c’stle and poop of 26.0 and 23.0 feet. The trio were all powered by Armstrong-Sulzer diesel engines of 1,350 bhp at 110 rpm to give a service speed of ten knots. They had two holds, and their nine heavy lift derricks and eight winches could lift up to 120 tons on one derrick and 50 tons on the other derricks. The derricks could swivel to ease the loading and discharging of awkward heavy lifts, and the blocks and pulleys were made of high tensile steel, with large spreader beams to spread out the huge weights.

The 2,888grt Belray was built in 1926 by Armstrong, Whitworth & Co. at High Walker. In 1961 she was sold to Cia Naviera Soraya SA of the Lebanon and renamed Artigas. On 25th March 1970 she arrived at Hamburg to be broken up by Eisen u. Metall. (John B. Hill collection)

A further quartet of engines aft heavy lifters came from the same yard on Tyneside during 1926/28, as the sisters Belmoira and Belpamela of 3,214 grt, and the much larger twin screw sisters Belpareil and Beljeanne of 7,203 grt, and all powered by four cylinder or eight cylinder Sulzer diesel engines. The latter pair were the finest heavy lift ships that Capt. Christen Smith had yet designed, with special ballasting arrangements, great stability, strong decks, hatch coamings and covers, and long pillar free holds. The pair had dimensions of overall length 414.6 feet, moulded beam of 67.1 feet, moulded depth of 31.0 feet, with a narrow bridge deck ‘midships of 32.0 feet and fo’c’stle and poop of length 40.0 feet and 96.0 feet. The pumping systems for controlling the heavy lifts over one side of their hulls, moved a total of 2,184 tons of water ballast to tanks on the other side of their hulls to give stability when lifting. The absolute minimum number of bulkheads were erected that would comply with Class Society rules. The holds were wide and clear on their long decks, the hatches were especially strengthened to take really heavy loads on top, and strong stump heavy lift derricks of 125 ton capacity with heavy duty winches were fitted.


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