Technological Turkeys

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But some ships—privateers in the War of 1812 and the recently outlawed slavers among them—needed speed more than they needed cargo space. American naval architects, just beginning to convert their profession from an art to a science, began to produce them.

Vessels called Baltimore clippers first appeared about this time and were famous for both their beauty and their speed. But Baltimore clippers were not true clipper ships, being small and usually rigged as topsail schooners. And it was not the rigging but the hull—with its sharp, overhanging bow and deep draft at the stern —that made the Baltimore clipper so speedy. It was only a matter of time before someone adapted its hull to a full-rigged, three-masted ship.

Exactly which ship was the first true clipper is much disputed among maritime historians. Carl C. Cutler, whose Greyhounds of the Sea , published nearly sixty years ago, is still the definitive work on clippers, awards the title to the Rainbow , built in New York for the China trade in 1845.

Because of the great distance to the Orient and the need to coordinate sailing schedules with the monsoon, speed was important on this route. In addition, there was much competition every year among New York and London merchants to deliver the first tea of the new crop. The early clippers were ideally suited to moving this high-value cargo.

Indeed, clippers could not economically transport any freight that was not high in value, for the price of their great speed was greatly restricted cargo space. As the race for speed among the clippers heightened, their hulls grew more and more extreme, their bows and sterns narrower. A true clipper had only about 55 percent of the cargo space available to an ordinary ship of the same length.

Except in special circumstances the magnificent full-rigged clippers couldn’t make money.

With their deep drafts, clippers were “stiff” and so could carry much more canvas than other ships their size. The Lightning —appropriately named, for she was one of the fastest of them all —could carry fully 117,000 square feet of sail, more than two and two-thirds acres. All this sail area, of course, required a relatively large crew, and this further narrowed the possible profits.

The clippers, though, were only as fast as their captains were willing to drive them. And the clipper captains were as famous in their day as sports stars are now, competing just as fiercely to wring the last ounce of speed from the magnificent ships beneath their feet. Even in the laconic language of ships’ logs one can sense the passion. On March 1, 1854, the master of the Lightning wrote: “wind South, strong gales … 18 to 18½ knots per hour, lee rail under … distance run in 24 hours 436 miles.” No sailing ship had ever traveled farther in a single day; it would be another thirty years before a steamship could make such sustained speeds.

Had the China trade remained the clippers’ only purpose, they would be only a minor part of the history of sail. But the California gold rush changed everything. Suddenly thousands of people wanted to get to the gold fields as soon as possible and at any cost, while merchants were desperate to get merchandise to a market where eggs cost a dollar each and whiskey was forty dollars a quart. Larger and still faster clippers were built to meet this sudden demand. Flying Cloud made the New York-San Francisco run around the Horn in only eighty-nine days, a record never equaled under sail, except once by herself.

It could not last. As the gold rush waned and steam technology improved relentlessly, the clippers made less and less economic sense. In 1853, 120 clippers were launched in American yards. Two years later only 42 slid down the ways, while 1859 saw the launching of the last 3 ever built in this country.

When pushed to its limits, Edison’s sound-recording technology produced a soon-forgotten commercial turkey called Selectavision. The full-rigged sailing ship, when pushed to its limits, produced a flotilla of uneconomic swans. Except in special circumstances the clippers couldn’t make money and therefore they lasted hardly longer in the marketplace than Selectavision. But they live on still in the American folk memory, for they were and remain the most beautiful and romantic creations of humankind ever to cleave the waves of the ocean sea.