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What Is Consuta?

Sandi Johnson
Sandi Johnson

Consuta is both a shipbuilding technique and a famous steam powered boat built late in the 19th century. Sam Saunders, owner of Springfield Works, the British boatyard responsible for developing the consuta technique, built the umpire steam launch Consuta for the Henley Royal Regatta in 1898. H.S. Clutton commissioned the boat, in part to showcase Saunder's new method for watertight hulls. Saunders obtained a patent for his building technique in 1898, known commercially as Consuta Plywood. In shipbuilding, Saunder's technique uses interleaved mahogany and waterproof calico, with copper wire used to stitch together components.

Specifically, the consuta shipbuilding technique requires four layers of mahogany veneer and calico to produce a lightweight plywood with a monocoque structure. Monocoque simply means that the outer skin of a structure absorbs the majority of support stress, rather than relying on inner wooden framing such as trusses. Using this technique, the outer layer of mahogany veneer is 3/16 of an inch (5 mm), compared to inner layers of 1/8 of an inch (3 mm) in thickness. The copper used to stitch together veneers is 16 gauge wire, set into the outer layer of mahogany.

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In its time, Saunder's plywood was considered revolutionary, producing exceptionally watertight boats and making marine aircraft a plausible idea through lightweight materials. The lack of inner wooden framing meant less weight on take-off for airships and flying planes. Exceptional strength offered by monocoque structures meant pontoons and gondolas on seaplanes could withstand increased pressure during landing. From 1898 until the development of waterproof glue in the 1950s, this technique for building watertight hulls appeared in numerous British flying boat designs and seaplanes, such as the Sopwith Bat Boat. Techniques further developed by Saunders and Springfield Works were also used in the construction of engine gondolas for Britain’s first official airship, the Mayfly.

The umpire steam launch Consuta was the first boat to feature the revolutionary plywood, although the Springfield Works produced several similar boats after the launch of the Consuta. Built in 1898 for use by umpires during the Henley Royal Regatta, Consuta produced less wash than other similar boats, due to its lighter hull. The boat features no ribs and only the small amount of framing needed to displace the weight of the steam engine. In 1975, the Consuta Trust purchased what remained of the original Consuta and restored it to its original function in 2001. It is the only surviving umpire steam launch, participating not only in the Henley Royal Regatta every year, but also numerous other regattas along the river Thames.

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