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The Drive for Speed At Sea
The clippers were beautiful, fast, too expensive to endure long—and a perfect expression of a great American urge
October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
There never were more lovely sailing ships than the wondrous clipper ships. They stormed about the seaways of the world, perfections of sailing grace and beauty, exemplifying man’s ability, when he wished, to develop grace in his service—even the strictly utilitarian service of carrying his goods at sea. Under their clouds of gloriously symmetrical sails, they looked the creations of some master artist and their hulls perfection of the sculptor’s art. In fact they were produced by men anxious only to provide the fastest, safest transport under sail, and they were hewn largely with the adze from New England trees. Their speed and their power astonished the maritime world: but they were gone—doomed—in a brief ten years.
The story of Speed in American ships precedes the clippers. Looking back now, it would almost seem that Speed was God. But speed is the costliest of all qualities to build safely into a ship and (except in time of war) the most easily done without, the first discarded. The extra cost of an extra knot is prodigious and inescapable. Why, then, has the desire to build faster, faster ships forever been nagging at our designers?
It seems to me there are historical reasons enough. With plenty of good shipbuilding material to hand from his forests, and with river mouths and pretty coves aplenty to work in, and untrammeled by the curb which monopolistic habits set on Europe’s builders, the New Englander—and not only the New Englander—early produced fast and able little ships.
He had the tradition of seafaring or his ancestors (or maybe he himself) would never have crossed the North Atlantic at all. He had to produce good ships, to survive in that wild ocean and, as well as good ships, he wanted fast ships, too—fast because he knew that ships could be made that way and he was not content with slovenly old sea wagons; and fast, too, because speed paid. Those were the days of pirates and buccaneers—nasty, primitive fellows who were not at all the picturesque villains the film industry loves to portray. Pirates meant murder and restraint of trade, and they had to be avoided if they could not, for the moment, be outfought.
In the pre-Revolutionary period, smuggling cargoes ashore became not only fashionable but patriotic. Smugglers had to have fast ships. In the Revolutionary War itself the very existence of American ships depended on their speed. If they were not fast they could not hope to deliver their cargoes or their passengers. Many ships turned to privateering—another phase of seafaring where speed was paramount. Early American ships did well against the British then because they were faster and at the same time able and seaworthy.
No less than 733 British ships were captured, and 174 otherwise idle American ships were commissioned as privateers. The state of Massachusetts alone sent out 53; New Hampshire, with only one port, sent 8; Connecticut sent 22 and New York 7; Pennsylvania sent 13 and Maryland 21. The American ships had above all superior speed.
But wars pass and ships afterwards are apt to be neglected and forgotten. Smuggling had become so well organized and profitable while the states were colonies, however, that it was hard to give the habit up. Independence found hundreds of competent and fearless seamen used to handling small ships at speed and thoroughly well acquainted with the well-organized business of smuggling. Before long the secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was forming a revenue cutter service to cope with the evil. He called for “ten boats” and he got ten lovely fast little clipper-schooners, which became the ancestors of the present Coast Guard.
These fast schooners were particularly an early American development. This type of vessel was developed par excellence in American waters by American shipwrights, both for trading and for fishing, and the development paved the way for the bigger clipper ships.
The War of 1812 gave another fillip to the privateer. Not only one side used privateers. Both sides did so, with the consequence that all merchantmen had to be fast or stay in port. Ships in port earned nothing and contributed nothing to victory either.