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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
After 1812 came the slave runners—again an illicit trade was putting a vast premium on speed. The slave trade had been outlawed by both Britain and the United States; both navies were able to take an active interest in its suppression. But it was still very profitable to run slave labor across the Atlantic. A fast slave runner like the Baltimore clipper Henriquetta made $400,000 in three years by running 3,040 slaves across to Brazil, and it took only six successful voyages. Such ships had to work from small harbors, collecting slaves in small lots. Speed was not only necessary to avoid interception. It was the very crux of getting the slaves across alive . A dead slave brought no return, and they were packed aboard like sardines in a can. Unlike sardines, they were supposed to stay alive.
There were, then, plenty of fast American ships before the extreme clippers came. There is a deal of confusion in the public mind about these clippers and the term is somewhat lightly used. To a sailor a “clipper” was a very fast-model hull—rig was immaterial but the sails had to be piled high—in which speed was the first consideration, and it was often speed regardless of most other considerations. The end of the monopolistic control of much overseas trade in Europe, the foundation of Australia and growth of the early colony there (founded to take the compulsory “colonists” who could no longer be sent to America), and the opening up of the Indian Ocean, the Eastern seas, and the whole Pacific, gave American ships the seven seas to trade in, and they were ready and willing for the opportunity.
Yankee ships stormed out to China carrying a graceful cloud of well-cut sails and sailed by youngsters who were not afraid to get the best out of them, day and night, and they flung themselves across the sea again bound for Europe’s markets with tea and other Chinese produce in a way that never had been seen before. Industrial expansion in Europe—above all in Britain—at the same time offered ever extending markets for such things as tea, and there was a premium on catching the first auctions with new seasons’ cargoes. There was money in speed—good money, though the slave-running and the smuggling and the privateering had then all been suppressed.
The first real clipper ship—and I use the term “ship” here as it should be used, to indicate the rig, a three-masted vessel properly square-rigged on all masts—was the Rainbow, of 1845. She had a concave bow and ultra-fine ends, and she registered 750 tons. She was a success from the start. If the China trade showed signs of passing to the Europeans who soon began to build fast clippers for themselves—once begun, they built some magnificent vessels, but they were still buying Yankee clippers when the Australian gold rush was at its height about a decade later—there was soon a greater trade for Yankee ships, a stirring and romantic trade which being inter-coastal was theirs alone. This was the Cape Horn passage from New York or Boston out to California, where there was gold.
Clipper followed clipper in a long succession of lovely, seemingly unconquerable ships—Helena, Houquah, Sea Witch—the very names are music. Opportunities for trade were for the moment endless. The discovery of gold in 1849 gave a further impetus. Steamers of a sort ran to the Atlantic coast of Panama whence an expensive overland journey (soon made by rail) connected with another line of steamers on the Pacific side. But the steamers couldn’t cope with a fraction of the freight and passengers offering. Transshipment across the isthmus of Panama made such transport expensive, and there were thousands who preferred the sea route round the Horn. That way a hardy group of prospectors could carry their own equipment and some provisions with them, at minimum expense.
Stories drifting back of the astronomical costs of everything in California led many a canny New Englander to take clipper ships around the Horn. Clipper-building boomed. Speed stepped up and up. The glorious Sovereign of the Seas, though she was dismasted and re-rigged on the passage, was only 103 days from New York to San Francisco and sailed back in 82 days. She made 5,200 miles, once, in three weeks and she clipped along 360 miles in a day when she had the wind.
This was sailing! The Flying Cloud did 374 miles a day. The Flying Fish averaged 100 days to San Francisco (until that time 120 days had been thought a splendid run).
Nor were other trades neglected. Between 1851 and 1853 the little Ino made New York only 86 days out from Singapore, the Pilot made Salem in 96 days from Manila, the Shooting Star was at New York 86 days out from Canton. If the gold rush flagged, the Crimean War gave American clippers business, for they were the fastest and best transports available.
A new gold rush, this time to Australia, gave more business. Some of the very greatest of the big American clippers were built to British order for the Australian trade—the mighty James Baines, the Lightning, the Champion of the Seas. Yankee ships were best and the world provided the buyers, and the users.