Pride Of The Seas

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Recalling the James Monroe’s twenty-eight-day initial crossing and the entire Black Ball Line’s first-year average of a little under twenty-five days, the Savannah’s running time over a course almost a thousand miles longer should have convinced America of the advantages of steam at sea. Her design and accomplishments were extravagantly praised in England, a nation not much given to praising anything American. She was visited and commended by the President of the United States, the king of Sweden, and the czar of Russia.

But she made no money, whereas the new sailing packets were making quite a bit, even during a minor financial panic. Americans in general scarcely noticed her, her owners could no longer afford her, and the Savannah became a coastwise sailing packet until her loss on Fire Island in November, 1821. Europe, however, and England especially, saw the possibilities. Of about twenty-five steamers that crossed the Atlantic in the next quarter century, virtually all were British-owned or built. And American ocean shipping headed swiftly and prosperously toward a dead end.

The speed and prosperity never seemed greater than in the fifteen years before the Civil War. American ships, both sail and (belatedly) steam, were sweeping all before them. Profits still mounted from the North Atlantic packet and immigrant services and the China trade. New prospects of premium freights and passage money had been opened by the California and Australia gold strikes and by the 1849 repeal of the Navigation Acts, which admitted our ships to London’s hitherto closed trades with India and the Far East. All that seemed to be needed to reap these rich prospects was fast ships, large ships, and more of them.

During this decade and a half, maritime America embarked on two flamboyant and largely unrelated projects, the creation of the clipper ships and the building of a fleet to challenge Britain’s North Atlantic steamship monopoly. Both got under way in the late forties, both succeeded hugely, and both lacked utterly any linkage with the future: the one because it had no future to link to, the other for want of vision and determination on the part of an already divided nation. By 1856 both undertakings—and our merchant marine itself—had collapsed in fact, if not in the consciousness of a frustrated people who would find it more comfortable to blame that collapse on a war still five years in the future.

But for the moment there was glory. The clipper ship was a miracle. She has been rightly called the greatest aesthetic achievement of the American genius, yet her beauty was created for essentially shortsighted purposes, and at its loveliest—in action—was founded on some of the most savagely inhuman hardships man kind has known. Paradoxically, even the men she maimed and killed seem to have shared the nation’s fierce pride in her.

She was not created at any one time or place, or by any one man or group—though the names of great designers like John W. Griffiths and Samuel H. Pook or of great builders like Donald McKay and William H. Webb are inseparable from her legend. The word clipper defined no single rig or hull form. She was simply an end-product of America’s historic quest for speed under sail, combining and refining the fleetest features evolved in two centuries of building and rigging smugglers, slavers, privateers, packets, and “Baltimore clippers.”

The ultimate clipper was larger than any of these. Starting about 1845 with the Houqua, the Rainbow, and the Sea Witch, the tonnage of these sharp-built, lofty-sparred vessels increased from about 600 to the 1,500-2,500 range by the early fifties, with one breathtaking leap to 4,555 in McKay’s monstrous Great Republic. Some 425 such ships were built between 1846 and 1855—120 in 1853 alone. Because of this, plus the construction of numerous large steamships, America’s oceangoing tonnage, after hovering for forty years between 600,000 and 900,000, soared in this nine-year period to 2,348,000.

Clipper ship records, achieved by flawless design and the pitiless “driving” of masters like Josiah Cressy and Philip Dumaresq, still astound those acquainted with the best speeds that even twentieth-century man has attained on the sea. As early as 1849, the Sea Witch made New York from Hong Kong in seventy-four days and fourteen hours. The Flying Cloud and the Andrew Jackson shared honors for the eighty-nine-day record around the Horn to San Francisco. The Witch of the Wave flew from Calcutta to Boston in 1853 and the Sweepstakes from Bombay to New York in 1856 in eighty-one days each. And in 1854, an annus mirabilis of sailing records, the Champion of the Seas travelled 465 miles between noon and noon—more water than all but a small minority of commercial ships afloat in 1967 could traverse in the same time.