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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
What ships they were! Man had never before and has never since been hurtled along by the elemental force of the wind at sea at such a speed, to achieve which the vessels had to be well-nigh perfect. And that they were! Grace of line, sea-kindliness of hull, true streamlining, maximum efficiency from their vast area of wind-blown sail and strength enough in their standing rigging to accept the stress of the thousands of horsepower generated aloft—for free, by the untaxable, indefatigable ocean wind—all these qualities they combined in their wondrous forms which, even a century later, remain an inspiration.
So much for the ships. What about the men? Without able and fearless men in unending supply, the clippers would not have been worth much. But read what the greatest rival had to say on this subject. Lindsay, the historian of the British Merchant Service, says:
“During the first half of the 19th century, the masters of American vessels were as a rule greatly superior to those who held similar positions in English ships. American shipowners required of their masters not merely a knowledge of navigation and seamanship but of commercial pursuits, the nature of exchange, the art of correspondence, and a sufficient knowledge of business to qualify them to represent the interests of their employers to advantage with merchants abroad. On all such matters the commanders of English ships, with the exception of the East India Company, were at this period greatly inferior to the commanders of the United States vessels.”
That is plain enough. As for crewmen, a learned committee of that august body, the British House of Commons, referred in a special report to the “vast superiority in officers, crews and equipment and the consequent superior success and growth of American shipping.”
The North Atlantic packet-ship trade was more or less an American monopoly, under sail, too. The clipper Dreadnought was champion in that trade, and her redoubtable master—the famous Captain Samuels—drove her across in rapid time, over and again. Samuels was a picturesque character who had run away to sea at eleven, had been in a Coast Guard brig and had been shanghaied into a Baltimore clipper bound for Liverpool. He had been chased by pirates, had served in the Texas navy, fought with cannibals and, at 21, was commander of a Yankee sailing ship. Under him, the Dreadnought guaranteed to deliver her freight in a certain time or give back the freight money, and she didn’t give back much.
Nor was this driving era an age of recklessness—far from it! These seamen knew what they were at. Any fool could drive a ship under but they drove them skillfully, scientifically, and to survive. And they did survive.
But already then steamships (of a sort) were crossing the North Atlantic, more or less regularly. American packets fought back hard at steam as late as the 1870’s. But it was a losing fight. The customers, then as now, went in the fastest and best ships no matter how much they might applaud the spirit of other and perhaps older vessels. Before 1850, Cunard steamers were crossing from New York to Liverpool in less than eleven days and coming back westbound—the harder way—in less than a fortnight.
Not to be driven off the seas by what they regarded as an “arrogant monopoly,” the American Collins Line of transatlantic steamships was formed and began business in April, 1850. The Collins Line ships were good and they were fast—faster than the Cunarders. Soon they had a good share of the passenger trade—for a while, the best of it. Crossing in a little less time than the Cunarders averaged, Collins ships carried 4,306 Atlantic passengers between January and November, 1852. In the same time Cunarders carried 2,969.
But speed cost money—a lot of money. Powerful engines burned a great deal of fuel. The faster the ship, the less economic was her operation. Directors of the Collins Line were soon telling a Congress which paid scant attention that it cost a million dollars a year to effect a saving of a day and a half on the transatlantic run. There were four Collins steamers then, seven Cunarders. The Cunarders had an assured mail subsidy and they plugged steadily on. It was the Collins ships which went out of business.
The Collins Line had the worst of bad luck. It had good ships, great masters, fine men. It was well run and it deserved to prosper and to keep the Blue Riband of the North Atlantic for American steampships, as American clippers had held it for sail. But Collins’ fine steamer Arctic sank as the result of a collision with a French liner off the foggy Banks, with loss of life. Then the Collins liner Pacific sailed from Liverpool for New York with 45 passengers and a crew of 141 and never arrived. From that day to this, nothing has been heard of the Pacific.