A graphic account of the romantic clipper ships whose mighty deeds have added such an immortal chapter to the story of the Seven Seas
THE age of the racing clippers was one of the most romantic in the history of the sea. It was an age that still attracts much attention and interest, although the era of high speed for commercial sailing ships covers a remarkably short period of time in that history. Yet so mighty were their deeds, and so romantic was their story, that the clipper ships have become an integral part of the sea.
When the Bremen, Rex and Normandie created new Atlantic records, each day’s progress was sent in by wireless, and mathematically worked out to three places of decimals. It was efficiently done, and it was thrilling, but in human interest not to be compared with the days of the clippers. Then keen-
DECKS AWASH. Because of her low freeboard a sailing ship takes solid water over her rail in a manner unknown to most modern steamers. Decks are sometimes awash for days at a time, and without the life-
On board the racing clippers the captains, having bet the traditional new hat with their rival captains on the result, and carefully turned a blind eye to the bets made in the forecastle, would exchange signals with the ships they met for any suggestion that their competitors were ahead, and then quietly and with proper dignity make sure that the news found its way forward. Tug captains in waterside taverns, on the look-
The Americans used, for commercial purposes, the big privateers built for the war of 1812-
It should be remembered that the term “clipper” is a popular and not a technical one. The generally accepted definition of a clipper -
Yet speed alone did not make a clipper. The opium trade to China, handling a compact cargo of tremendous value, put a premium on high speed, which was essential for evading its numerous enemies; but this trade resembled that of the Americans in the West Indies and the privateers of various other nations. It cannot strictly be included in the practical achievements of clipper ships.
The earlier ships built for the regular transatlantic “packet” service, which began in 1816. were stocky in their build, and had no pretensions to speed. The pioneer Black Ball liners -
After the first few years the rivalry of the various owning companies brought about many improvements, and when the trans-
McKay was only thirty-
Unlike some other trades, however, the Atlantic trade for many years would permit speed to be taken only to a certain point; even in its best days the keen competition demanded earning ability. When that was sacrificed for speed the ship was a financial failure.
The discovery of gold in California gave the first real impetus to the creation of the clipper ship, as that term is generally under-
Even before the days of the true clipper the American ships had a high reputation for speed in Eastern waters, but for many years their opportunities were limited. Then the repeal of the Cromwellian Navigation Acts, which limited British trade to British ships or to those of the producing country, permitted the American clippers to enter the China tea trade to London. It was an infinitely bigger business than that to all the American ports. Moreover, the shippers, who were anxious to get the “new season’s market” at as early a date as possible, were delighted with the facilities for fast transport.
Soon the British shipyards took up the challenge. The famous “Dicky” Green of Blackwall, who had made his name with the frigate -
But every step of this progress had to be fought for, and the laurels were not won immediately. Just when the best business of the American intercoastal clipper to California was ruined by the construction of a railway across the Isthmus of Panama, connecting with steamers at either end, the Australian gold boom reproduced its earlier conditions under the British flag. British shipbuilding facilities could not cope with the demand. So Donald McKay built for the Black Ball Line the famous big clippers Lightning, Champion of the Seas, James Baines and Donald McKay, and rival builders supplied the White Star Line with the Blue Jacket, Red Jacket, White Star and Shahmar.
Meanwhile the discovery of gold in Australia exercised the same influence on the fast sailing ship as it had in California. In those days steam machinery was an extravagance and the long run to Australia was expensive, because of the constant re-
Her great cargo on the homeward run was always wool, which shared with tea the reputation of having been the ideal sailing-
No matter what her trade might be, a racing clipper’s success always depended on four factors -
The clipper ship obtained her speed with the finest possible lines ; fine lines, in fact, were her principal characteristic. It was this reduction in her carrying capacity that made clipper freights necessary for her existence. It was not until later that designers fully appreciated that fine lines forward were not so necessary as they were aft, and that they might, indeed, be of serious disadvantage.
SAILS OF A SHIP-
1. Flying jib. 2. Outer jib. 3. Inner jib. 4. Fore topmast stay-
The fine bow lines generally given to the clippers were apt to smother them and pull down their speed in bad weather, but they were generally necessary for “ghosting” -
In rig there was a steady tendency towards height as against breadth, a tendency that had been seen for centuries. Long bow-
The great majority of the racing clippers were ship-
For it was not until after the end of the racing era that the careful experiments made in T. B. Walker’s ships proved that the value of this canvas was practically nil. Only a few hours were saved between England and Australia -
Despite all the care and money expended on rigging the clippers, an enormous number of spars and sails were lost on the trans-
CIRCE, A FULL-
While the standard of all the officers, even of the second mate, who was a certificated officer but seldom allowed much responsibility, contributed largely to the success of a ship, an enormous amount depended upon the captain. Some of them were rough diamonds but thorough seamen, others men of culture. A fine judgment was necessary in arranging the cargo to trim the ship on her best level, in setting the course and forecasting the weather likely to be encountered. Above all this, a clipper ship captain had to have nerve.
The trim, or balance, of a fine-
With all their faults the forecastle hands had the true seaman’s invariably affectionate admiration for a captain who knew his job. Yet such a captain seldom made a comfortable ship; when Holmes had the Leucada he was thrashing her so hard through the night that, when the watch on deck was relieved, hardened and experienced sailors as they were, they dared not go forward to the forecastle, but waited for dawn, shivering on the top of the deck-
“Bully” Forbes used to brag that he would get his ship to hell or Melbourne in record time, and contrived to prevent his men from deserting to the gold-
UP ALOFT in the Abraham Rydberg, a four-
In their prime the clippers were helped in making passages, as compared with the sailing ships of to-
But the biggest factor of all was luck; for the finest sailing ship was useless without wind, and practically all those with the greatest reputation for speed have some long passages on their list. Many ships received no credit at all for really praiseworthy runs -
The clippers made some wonderful passages in the circumstances, but it was at a big price. Their holds were small, and, considering that their power cost them nothing, their running expenses were high; their big sail area, which was kept set until the last moment of safety, demanded a large crew. Although they were paid little and fed extremely cheaply, the total cost was considerable. The clippers were exceptionally uncomfortable; their knife-
But clippers’ passages, remarkable as they were for sailing-
On the Australian trade it was the remarkable economy permitted by the triple expansion engine and higher steam pressure that killed the fast sailing-
Apart from the length of the route, the average speed of all but the slowest steamers was higher than that of the crack clippers. There are many authentic instances of their thrashing up to sixteen knots and over -
The strain of racing racked the clippers to pieces, so that, with a few conspicuous exceptions, they generally had short lives, and heavy depreciation had to be allowed. Many of them disappeared, either sailing right under water with a press of canvas or being overwhelmed by a big sea coming over their sterns as they ran before it, or when they lay helpless with their beautiful rig a raffle of wreckage. A few of them dragged out a degraded existence on the minor trades, scarcely recognizable as dethroned Queens of the Sea, for many years after their racing days were done.
A BARQUE. The essential feature of this type was the stepping of three or more masts, which all carried yards except the aftermost one. When the competition of steamers forced the sailing vessels to economize by reducing their crews, many ships were cut down to barque rig; in most instances this change made little difference, if any, to their speed. The barque shown is the Norwegian Ba, formerly Glenafton.
[From part 1, published 30 January 1936]
You can read more on clippers in the series “Speed Under Sail”.