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The Racing Machines

March 2023
3min read

The climactic years of sail were spectacular all along the line. In addition to devising transatlantic vessels which for a time held their own with steam, American designers and traders brought out the Cape Horn clippers, the inexpressibly beautiful ships that set unimaginable speed records and captured men’s imaginations as no other form of transportation has ever done. The clippers were highly uneconomic, as cargo carriers, and they flowered only during a brief time when special conditions prevailed in two or three long-distance trade routes, but while they lasted they were something special.

Many people have written about them, in the century since they disappeared forever, but the classic is still Mr. Cutler’s Greyhounds of the Sea , originally issued in 1930 and brought out now as a companion volume to Queens of the Western Ocean . It covers some of the same ground that is covered in the more recent book, but it centers most of its attention on the flyers which briefly crowded the British out of the China tea trade, cut a month or more off the ordinary time between New York and San Francisco, and raised the general prestige of the American merchant ship to the highest point it ever reached.

Mr. Cutler emphasizes a point worth remembering. The greatest of the clippers were only in part a matter of successful design. The design was there, to be sure, and the business of shaping a hull so that the wind could take it through the water with great speed was understood perfectly by such men as John W. Griffiths, Donald McKay, and William H. Webb. But the skipper was equally important, if not a little more so. The clippers had to be driven to the very limit of their capacity by men who understood seamanship down to its last obscure footnote. They needed expert handling precisely as a racing automobile needs it; and they got it from sea captains who had been trained in the packets, in the down-Easters, in the cotton carriers, and the China traders. As Mr. Cutler remarks, such sailors as Robert Waterman and Nathaniel B. Palmer would have made a fair clipper-ship era all by themselves regardless of the vessels they commanded. They and a few more like them were men who knew, by instinct and by hard experience, precisely how to drive a ship to the outer margin of safety without ever going beyond it. It is probable that no men ever lived who understood sailing better than they did.

Greyhounds of the Sea , by Carl C. Cutler, with a foreword by Charles Francis Adams. United States Naval Institute. 592 pp. $12.50.

It was the gold-rush era in California that really brought the clipper ship to its peak. Just when the old mania for making fast passages had produced incomparable ships and men who knew how to handle them, boom times on the west coast created a temporarily insatiable desire for vessels that could take passengers and freight out to San Francisco in the shortest possible time. The clippers responded in a dazzling manner. Average sailing-ship time from New York to the Golden Gate had run between 175 and 200 days. The clippers cut this down to 120, then to no. A few made the trip in less than one hundred days, and two—the famous Flying Cloud , and the Andrew Jackson — did it in eighty-nine. The Sea Witch , which already had set the all-time speed record for the trip from China to New York, got out to San Francisco in ninety-seven days; the Flying Fish did it in ninety-two, after losing three mortal days in calms within one hundred miles of the Golden Gate.

To go from New York to San Francisco in three months does not sound very exciting now, when a jet plane can make the trip between lunch time and dinner time and a transcontinental train can get its passengers across the continent in surpassing comfort over a weekend; but in the 1850’s it was nothing less than fabulous. For a few brief years it looked—to sailingship enthusiasts, at least—as if the windjammer had provided its own answer to the challenge of the steamship. Not for a generation would a steamer equal the clipper Lightning ’s run of 436 nautical miles in twenty-four hours. (The mark was beaten by two other clippers, however—the Marco Polo and the Champion of the Seas .)

The golden age was short, but while it lasted it put an indelible streak of color in the record of the American merchant marine. What men thought of the clippers is evident from the names they gave them— Herald of the Morning, Surprise, Sovereign of the Seas, Twilight, Flying Cloud, Young America, Shooting Star, Northern Light ; the list is a long one, the names coming off like poetry. The wholly prosaic business of carrying cargo from one port to another briefly entered a new dimension and became a reaching out for perfection itself.

It ended almost as quickly as it had begun. By 1855 the boom was over, and some of the world’s fastest ships lay idle at the wharves, waiting for freight. They were racing machines, after all, costly to build and costly to operate, and they gave way before long to bulkier vessels which carried larger cargoes more cheaply and more slowly. One great difficulty was that the hard driving which the clippers were given racked them to pieces. Their lives were short; the ones which survived had their sail plans drastically cut down and thereafter sailed more humbly and sedately. Mr. Cutler points out that no one who did not see the clippers before 1860 ever saw them in all their glory. They were like Samson after his haircut. Many of them were still in service, but the old magic was gone. The unusual economic conditions which made the clippers pay did not last very long. When those conditions vanished, so did the flyers. The national intensity of purpose which had created them found different objectives—the internal development of the country, and then the terrible quarrel that led to the Civil War. America was turning away from the sea.

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