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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
These losses were fatal blows, but politics sank more American ships than ice and collisions ever did. By 1861, the American flag had disappeared from the steamer routes. But it returned to fight back, to fight in the face of the fiercest international competition in a trade which lent itself (on the European side particularly) to the organization of monopolistic cartels and conferences. It returned to fight but it could not fight back with faster and more powerful steamers against subsidized foreigners. Fast sailing ships were a matter of skill and good seamanship which the virile Yankees could well supply. But speed under power was a different thing. Its source and its strength were money—money which Washington’s politicians consistently refused to supply.
The day of the clippers, the great day of American excellence in speed at sea, was gone.
American eyes were turned inland. The glorious era of the clipper ships was not only past; for the time being, at any rate, it was quickly being forgotten. Where such great opportunities existed for expansion inland, few landsmen cared what ships were doing or who sailed them. After the Collins Line, the U.S. dropped out of the effective steam picture in the fast transatlantic service for years and years.
But not for good. The ideal of speed—speed with seaworthiness—was never given up. Now the long lethargy which was never the industry’s own fault has been shaken off, and shaken off splendidly, with the all-conquering return of the liner United States, a long lean monster of shapely, safe, and efficient speed. Speed costs money still, of course, and the United States costs a great deal of money. But speed in ships is still their greatest safeguard in time of war and speed will bring the traffic in time of peace, too.
Not only the United States herself has re-established American merchant shipping supremacy in the field of speed. The U.S. has built, too, the fastest merchantmen both for dry cargo and oil—big fellows that do better than twenty knots and have proved themselves wonders of the naval architect’s art.
There is also the air. Now the air over oceans is at least as important as the surface water. In the era of Sail versus Power, U.S. merchantmen may have gone down, for a while, but they are back now, and in the air, too, American ships of another kind lead the world.