The Clipper Ship1845-1865
Greyhounds of the SeaIn the great days of sailing ships, no vessel was faster or more beautiful than the clipper. Her name may have come from the phrase "to move at a fast clip," and the clipper really did that. Under a cloud of canvas supported by three towering masts, the clipper logged speeds of more than 20 knots (23 mph) and set records that were not broken by steamships for many years. Clippers had names like Neptune's Car, Flying Cloud, Rainbow, and Stag Hound. The great days of the clippers coincided with the discovery of gold in California in 1849. Gold seekers and merchants with goods to sell to miners were willing to pay premium rates for a fast passage from Boston or New York to California. The China trade was another reason for the need for faster ships. Tea began spoiling the moment it was stored below decks. Moreover, the first ship to reach any port had its pick of cargoes and could sell the contents of its hold at the highest prices. So every day that a ship spent at sea cost its owners thousands of dollars in profits. Among the great designers of clippers was Donald McKay, of Massachusetts. Of the 12 recorded sailing speeds of 18 knots (about 20 mph) or more, nine were made by ships designed by McKay. And of the 13 instances of sailing ships recording more than 400 miles (650 km.) in 24 hours or less, 10 of these were McKay clippers. The secret of the clipper's speed was in her longer, narrower hull, sharper bow and relatively flat floor or bottom, a design that permitted her to carry larger sails than any other ship. The mainmast reached close to 200 feet (60 m.) above the water, and the canvas sails extended 40 feet (12.5 m.) or more beyond the hull on each side. Important, too, was the skill of the captain, who often had started his career as a 12- year-old cabin boy. He had to sense how long his sails and spars would hold up in a stiff wind, especially those howling gales that prevailed around South America's Cape Horn. Since speed was the clipper's reason for being particularly when she was carrying a cargo of perishable tea from the Far East the captain ,must possess the nerve to test his ship to the limit, keeping her at maximum speed day and night, in fair weather and foul.
Shortly after the Civil War ended, production of the clippers came to a halt. The sailing ship had fallen victim to the steamship, which could carry more cargo at lower rates than the narrow-hulled clipper and which., moreover, did not have to rely on unpredictable winds.
Illustration: "Lightning", built by D. McKay, holds record for sailing around the world
© 1979, Panarizon Publishing Corp, USA
Illust: Seven Seas Fine Arts, London
Printed in Italy 03.012.01.09