The ideal efficiency of any size propeller (free-tip) is that of an actuator disc in an ideal fluid. An actual marine propeller is made up of sections of helicoidal surfaces which act together ‘screwing’ through the water (hence the common reference to marine propellers as “screws”). Three, four, or five blades are most common in marine propellers, although designs which are intended to operate at reduced noise will have more blades. The blades are attached to a boss (hub), which should be as small as the needs of strength allow – with fixed pitch propellers the blades and boss are usually a single casting.
An alternative design is the controllable pitch propeller (CPP, or CRP for controllable-reversible pitch), where the blades are rotated normal to the drive shaft by additional machinery – usually hydraulics – at the hub and control linkages running down the shaft. This allows the drive machinery to operate at a constant speed while the propeller loading is changed to match operating conditions. It also eliminates the need for a reversing gear and allows for more rapid change to thrust, as the revolutions are constant. This type of propeller is most common on ships such as tugs where there can be enormous differences in propeller loading when towing compared to running free, a change which could cause conventional propellers to lock up as insufficient torque is generated. The downsides of a CPP/CRP include: the large hub which decreases the torque required to cause cavitation, the mechanical complexity which limits transmission power and the extra blade shaping requirements forced upon the propeller designer.
For smaller motors there are self-pitching propellers. The blades freely move through an entire circle on an axis at right angles to the shaft. This allows hydrodynamic and centrifugal forces to ‘set’ the angle the blades reach and so the pitch of the propeller.
A propeller that turns clockwise to produce forward thrust, when viewed from aft, is called right-handed. One that turns anticlockwise is said to be left-handed. Larger vessels often have twin screws to reduce heeling torque, counter-rotating propellers, the starboard screw is usually right-handed and the port left-handed, this is called outward turning. The opposite case is called inward turning. Another possibility is contra-rotating propellers, where two propellers rotate in opposing directions on a single shaft, or on separate shafts on nearly the same axis. One example of the latter is the CRP Azipod by the ABB Group. Contra-rotating propellers offer increased efficiency by capturing the energy lost in the tangential velocities imparted to the fluid by the forward propeller (known as “propeller swirl”). The flow field behind the aft propeller of a contra-rotating set has very little “swirl”, and this reduction in energy loss is seen as an increased efficiency of the aft propeller.