La Frigata Presidente Sarmiento | Argentina | Living in Mexico

La Frigata Presidente Sarmiento

You're looking at the screw frigate Presidente Sarmiento, an exquisite naval ship carefully preserved as a museum, moored here on the Buenos Aires waterfront. It is a prime example of something Argentineans do extremely well: restoring and maintaining old technology, and making it extremely accessible.


The Sarmiento is perfectly suited for making a retired engineer happy. Visitors are allowed everywhere (except up in the rigging). The ship uses both wind and steam power (look for the stacks between the foremast and mainmast) so it offers a look at two types of propulsion technology. Does it get any better than this?

A group of smiling boys takes the helm. It has three ship's wheels. Why? Does it require several men to control the rudder in heavy seas? Down in the guts of the stern, there's a rudder servomotor, but maybe it can break down. Then you'd have to steer with sheer muscle power.

A gorgeous binnacle houses a gimbaled compass and a handsome brass ship's telegraph completes the helmsman's complement of controls and indicators.


Wouldn't it be nice if this kind of design went into computers? I'd love to have a Mac made of brass and teak. With ivory keys.

Standing rigging is made from steel cable as would be expected in a late 19th-Century ship. Running rigging is of manila rope. Shown here at the mizzenmast, a bewildering array of sheaves and pinrails provides means for managing and securing halyards and downhauls.


I spent an hour tracing the lines to see how the sails were controlled.

The Sarmiento is a warship, although it was used exclusively for training naval cadets and for goodwill expeditions and never saw any action. Nevertheless, it's armed with a couple of cannon and it can fire torpedoes.


Steam power complements the sails, provided by a three-cylinder triple-expansion engine. (Writing that last sentence made me shiver with delight.)

Just look at those big cylinder heads. The brass thingys are pressure relief valves. They keep the ship from blowing up. An overhead crane visible at the upper right is used for removing the cylinder heads.

(I removed the cylinder heads on every car I owned from age 13 to age 23. I love removing cylinder heads. So of course I made a point of seeing how they did it on the Sarmiento. I wonder what the head bolt tightening pattern was?)

(Sorry about that. I sort of drifted off.)

I don't know what the red thing is. Part of the condenser?


What triple-expansion means is that a small, high-pressure cylinder extracts as much energy from the steam as it can. Then, instead of wasting the exhaust steam, it is routed to a medium sized cylinder and then on to a huge, low pressure cylinder to wring every erg out of it.

Sounds efficient, doesn't it? But I doubt this engine achieved even 25% efficiency; one reason why piston engines were ultimately replaced by turbines.

The engine turns the drive shaft which runs through a long tunnel in the bottom of the ship.


Note the absence of a handrail between the catwalk and the shaft. You wouldn't want to walk down here when the ship was pitching.

The drive shaft turns the propeller, or screw, which has been dismounted and placed onshore for viewing. This is a sophisticated design, with graceful hydrodynamic curves. Vernier markings where the blades attach to the hub assist in precise setting of pitch.


The screw is eight feet from blade tip to blade tip. The blades themselves are pitted from gravel stirred up on shallow bottoms.

Even though it was built back in 1897, this vessel has electrical power. Here we see the dynamo room...


... and the electrical control panel. The old knife switches are dangerous, but I love the completely exposed mechanisms. Their form and function exactly match.


One of the most riveting scenes from that greatest of the Titanic movies, A night to Remember, is of circuit breakers blowing as seawater shorts out the electrical system. The control panel looks just like this one, and when the breakers start arcing, you know the end is not far off.

If I were a member of the Sarmiento's company, this would be my desk. The chief engineer's post is in the engine room, eyeballing his gages, shouting up a speaking tube: "Captain, I'm givin' her all she's got. She canna take much more o' this."


As a senior officer, I would have my own cabin...


... and for special occasions, I would wear my dress uniform, complete with sword. Of course, if I actually had to use my sword, I'd be completely lost. Unless I used it to cut out a spare gasket or something.


I'd dress up on special occasions; like the time President Taft came on board the Sarmiento during a visit to Boston. I'd be one of those guys way in the back.


Technologists have always been under-appreciated. One of these days, somebody's going to call me with a frozen computer, and I'm gonna say, "Why don't you call an English major? Oh! That's right! You are one."

"Say, can you give me some fries with that?"

The Presidente Sarmiento was one of the last of the beautiful ships. Within ten years, masts and sails were gone, and forms of ships descended into today's boxy cruise palaces. We are fortunate that the porteños preserved this one, so we can appreciate the elegant work of our great-grandfathers.