In addition to the opening up of the South and East Asian market to competition, there were other incentives to American overseas commerce. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 stimulated trade from New York to San Francisco, around the Horn. This long journey was very profitable, and fast clippers could pay for their construction costs in just one trip. Gold discoveries in Australia in 1851 led to a similar ''demand for supplies.'' Concurrent with free trade incentives with the British Empire —the Navigation Laws were repealed, permitting U.S. ships to deliver, for example, tea from China to London—these economic developments over a 20-year period provided powerful motivation for American shipbuilders to design and construct sailing vessels built for speed, not comfort, that could travel the oceans of the world with valuable cargo. The clippers would be much more economical to run than the old East India-men because of their speed and because they were not designed to carry
passengers or heavy guns—they would be far too fast to be inconvenienced by pirates. Another benefit of speed: perishable cargo such as tea would command a higher price if delivered fresh to the traders in London, as well as for being the first delivery of the current harvest of tea leaves.
The United States had something of a head start in the speed stakes. In the years around 1800, shipbuilders along the eastern seaboard had produced a small vessel that was designed for speed. The Baltimore clipper (fig. 3.13) was produced in numbers and was a favorite of American privateers during the War of 1812. Called "clippers" because they clipped off the miles at a great rate, these ships were square-topsail schooners with tall raked masts carrying acres of sail and with the narrow hulls that are the hallmark of ships built for speed. Baltimore clippers ran British blockades and later ran guns and other war munitions to South America, where Spanish colonies were struggling for independence. In more peaceful pursuits, Baltimore clippers were commonly seen trading coffee, sugar, cotton, and flour between the United States and many of the European colonies in the Caribbean.*
The clippers grew larger and then much larger, with hull shapes increasingly slender. In 1815 a clipper might have a hull length-to-beam ratio of 4:1 and displace 500 tons; by 1840 her successor would be 51/2:1 and displace 1,200 tons. The first American clipper to muscle in on the Asian run to London shocked British merchants by racing from Hong Kong in only 97 days—three times quicker than the East Indiamen—and gained a foothold for U.S. vessels in the formerly closed East Asian trade.
And not just in the East Asian trade. Journey times across the Atlantic fell dramatically. In 1620 the Mayflower took 66 days to cross; by 1820 this passage required only 23 days, and fifteen years later was further reduced to 14 days. In their heyday in the 1850s clippers became the fastest commercial sailing vessels ever built.t With average speeds of up to 20 knots for some voyages, they could sustain 35 knots over a 12-hour period. Over long distances the speeds were lower, but still much quicker than anything that went before. The 1,700-ton Flying Cloud, a famous American clipper, broke the speed record for the 18,000-mile trip from New York to San Francisco by completing this journey in 89 days. A latecomer, the 920-ton British clipper Cutty Sark (famous for being the only surviving clipper ship, albeit in dry dock), sailed from London to Sydney, Australia, in 73 days and from Shanghai to London in 110 days.
The long, sleek clipper ships had sharp bows and rounded (rather than square) overhanging sterns. (In chapter 6 we will see why these characteristics led to high hull speed.) Towards the end of the clipper era— which lasted only a generation—the hulls were built with iron frames, covered with wooden planks. Typically clippers had three masts, each adorned with up to five yards—plus staysails, plus stunsails (stuns'ls), etc. Clippers ranged from about 500 to 4,555 tons, with the largest being the Great Republic, launched before a cheering crowd of 30,000 in East Boston in 1853. Boston and the eastern seaboard boatyards produced these revered American ships (hence their name, ''Yankee clippers'').
* Less creditable cargo of fast clipper ships included opium and slaves. Smaller clippers were popular with smugglers and West Indian pirates. t Lightning set the all-time record for distance sailed in 24 hours: 436 nautical miles. The radically streamlined hulls of such extreme ships sacrificed cargo size for speed: the prows were sharply pointed.
The British recovered from their initial shock over the speed and competition from the American clippers and, keen to regain market share, got in on the clipper business. Eventually they built roughly the same number as the Americans. British-built "tea clippers'' were smaller on average (between about 450 and 950 tons) and were narrower in the beam.* They were faster than their American competitors in light weather but were not so good when the going got rough. Direct competition for the Chinese and Indian tea trade often took the form of races, with bets being placed in London on which ship would be the first to make it to the docks. U.S. merchants lost interest in the tea trade after 1855, but competition between them and the British—and between compatriot clippers—continued for another decade or so.
The most famous clipper race occurred in 1866. This event was not an officially sanctioned, formal race, with a starting line and a starting pistol; but, as often happened with the tea-clipper voyages, it quickly turned into a race across the world. It happened like this. The Chinese port city of Fouchow opened for trade with the West. Fouchow was closer to the tea-producing regions of China, and so the tea was loaded onboard the eagerly waiting fleet of clippers while fresh.t The first ship that docked in London could anticipate premium prices for her cargo. The ''tea season,'' when clippers left Chinese ports bound for London, was late May to early June. Sometimes the ships were in such a hurry that paperwork was left incomplete. The clippers would race through the South China Sea, across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape, up the South Atlantic, past the Azores and up the North Atlantic, and then eastward along the English Channel, and northward again to enter the river Thames. Crews (typically 40 strong) were proud of the ships they worked and of their accomplishments in racing them. They were paid top rates, with bonuses for getting home first.
On 28 May 1866 no fewer than ten clippers left Fouchow, loaded with tea. The race was on, and eager crowds followed the news at it progressed. Taeping, Fiery Cross, and Serica were the fastest out of the
*The British clipper Thermopylae, great competitor of the Cutty Sark, was 212 feet long and 36 feet across the beam, so that her length-to-beam ratio was 5.9:1. The U.S. giant Great Republic was exceptionally narrow: at 325 feet long with a 53 feet beam, her ratio exceeded 6.1:1.
tCargo was tightly packed, not only to increase the amount transported but also to prevent shifting during transit.
blocks, with Ariel closing. Telegrams were sent around the world to interested punters as the ships passed by ports en route. Crowds massed at the docks to wave them on; the masts and bulwarks of each ship were painted differently, so each was readily identifiable. Across the Indian Ocean the leading four were often within sight of one another. On 29 August they were dead level at the Azores, piling on sail and heading for home. Ariel and Taeping pulled away under full sail in the English Channel. Betting continued in London—and onboard as well: the crews of Fiery Cross and Serica had bet each other a month's pay on the outcome of their race. In the Thames estuary the two front-runners were neck and neck. Agonizingly for the Ariel crew, Taeping was picked up by a faster tug and so arrived in dock 20 minutes ahead—after a 99-day voyage. Serica came home later, on the same tide, and Fiery Cross within another two days. After some deliberation, the "race" for first place was declared to be a dead heat.
Sadly, the days of clipper races were numbered. Within a decade, most of these magnificent ships would be scrap. Such is the march of progress and the economics of long-distance trade. The Great Republic sprang a leak off Bermuda in 1872 and was abandoned. Flying Cloud was condemned and sold in 1874. Fastest of them all, the Yankee clipper Lightning shone brightly but all too briefly: launched in 1854 she burned while loading wool in Australia, in 1869. Ariel probably foundered in the Southern Ocean in 1872: only an empty lifeboat was found. Taepings life was even shorter: launched in Greenock, Scotland, in 1863, she was wrecked on a reef in the China Sea in 1871, on her way to New York.
The real cause for the clippers' demise was not rough seas, but rough economics and technological progress. In some ways they were victims of their own success. So good were they that too many were built, and even as early as 1855, the freight rates they charged were dropping. The Civil War in the United States obliged many owners to sell off their vessels to foreigners, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 was fatal. Sailing ships had difficulty negotiating the narrow confines of the canal in a contrary wind and were obliged to sail around the Cape. The newfangled steamships had no such difficulties, and their passage through the Suez cut off an enormous distance from the trip between Europe and China.
Only the Cutty Sark remains (figs. 3.14-3.15), her continued existence a testament to the enduring popularity of these great sailing ves-
sels.* In her dry dock at Greenwich in the port of London, she has received over 15 million visitors. She may not have beaten her great rival Thermopylae on the high seas, but she has outlasted her by a century.
Was this article helpful?
Lets start by identifying what exactly certain boats are. Sometimes the terminology can get lost on beginners, so well look at some of the most common boats and what theyre called. These boats are exactly what the name implies. They are meant to be used for fishing. Most fishing boats are powered by outboard motors, and many also have a trolling motor mounted on the bow. Bass boats can be made of aluminium or fibreglass.