The Brief, Swift Reign Of The Clippers
The captain of the Red Jacket , an American-built clipper ship sailing out of England, had both a sense of humor and a bit of flair. As the big three-master swept toward the equator, bound for Australia in 1854, he spotted the little bark Sea Bird , plodding from Boston to Cape Town, and decided to give his passengers a show.
Nautical etiquette called for an overtaking vessel to keep clear and pass downwind, but the Red Jacket came up, as the Sea Bird ’s helmsman, Joshua Taylor, recalled, “going very fast and sailing at least two feet to our one. Instead of passing us under our lea, as is the custom, she hove down her wheel and shot across our port quarter, taking the wind out of our sails, which almost becalmed us.”
This left the Sea Bird ’s captain “boiling mad,” and he cursed the Red Jacket’s skipper for “an unwashed son of a sea dog.” Then the insult was compounded. The clipper’s band struck up I ‘The Girl Left behind Me” as she sped toward the horizon. Captain Taylor grumbled about that “damned lime-juicer” until she was well out of sight.
Bad seagoing manners? Certainly, but it gave the clipper’s passengers a tale to tell when they reached Melbourne, adding another bit of spit and J polish to her already shining reputation, which included a record-breaking maiden voyage across the Atlantic to Liverpool: thirteen days, one hour, and twenty-five minutes, dock to dock— and, the story went, with “an indifferent crew.”
Such glamorous achievement was a big part of the clipper-ship phenomenon, for in their brief heyday, approximately from 1845 to 1855, the big ships pursued speed at almost any cost. They were an extreme technological adaptation to a particular need—a technical triumph, in fact—but they could only last through rich times. While they throve, they raced each other out from New York to San Francisco and back, and speculators bet thousands of dollars on the outcomes. (This was at a time when $1.50 was top wage for a dawn-to-dark workday.) Speed was the selling point. Would-be gold miners wanted to get to California fast, freight charges to San Francisco shot up from $10 to $60 a ton, and there was always the chance of a profitable run home by way of China to pick up precious tea or spices.
Along New York’s South Street, urchins passed out gaudy advertising cards that read, for instance:110, 110, 107, 105 DAYS’ PASSAGE TO SAN FRANCISCO SUTTON & CO’S DISPATCH UNE YOUNG AMERICA WITH EXTRAORDINARY DISPATCH
Seemingly every vessel loading at the East River piers was the “finest and sharpest clipper” or the “favorite A 1 first-class.” But what exactly was a “clipper"? How many were there, and why was their moment so brief? The answers are surprisingly difficult to extract from all the hoopla then and the nostalgia since. The 185Os were a time when everything from sailing vessels to patent medicines was promoted in enthusiastic language that might be frowned upon or legislated against today. As the marine historian William Hutchinson Rowe wrote, if even the most run-of-the-mill old merchantman had the luck to make an unusually fast run, her owners were quick to label her a “clipper.” The ship and the term, Rowe observed, just fell together “like droplets of quicksilver.”
Depending on how you define them, there were as few as a hundred clippers or as many as four hundred. Maritime historians argue over whether a vessel was an “extreme” clipper, a “medium” clipper, and so on. In truth the clipper was more a concept than a specific type: a sailing vessel built for speed, not economy, the mid-nineteenth-century version of the supersonic jetliner, and as much national pride was involved with the one as with the other.
But the ships known as clippers did generally share certain attributes. Unlike the boxy, bluff-bowed merchantmen that preceded them, they were sharp-bowed, with a concave or hollow hull form forward. They were long and lean, with a breadth-to-length ratio of about one to five. And unlike the older vessels, which had their greatest breadth well forward—”cod-headed and mackerel-tailed,” as the saying went—the clippers were widest well aft. The older hull form was reasonably efficient at slower speeds, say six or seven knots, but it simply was not capable of speeds of thirteen or fourteen knots, as the clipper was.
To drive this new type of hull, designers added greater sail area. Masts were made taller; extra sails were put in place. Writing of the Snow Squall before she set out on her maiden voyage from Portland, Maine, a reporter for the local newspaper predicted that with all her canvas set she would indeed “remind one of a snow cloud, if not a snow squall .” This additional press of sail required larger crews than before. The Snow Squall was the first ship from the region to carry skysails—another sail set above the usual sequence of course, topsail, topgallant, and royal—but the Snow Squall was small: 157 feet, 742 tons, and a crew of fourteen to twenty. Just two years after her 1851 launch, Donald McKay, of Boston, produced the biggest clipper of them all, the Great Republic . Had she not been gutted by fire before her maiden voyage and rebuilt to somewhat less gargantuan proportions, that 335-foot, 4,555-ton clipper would have required a crew of a hundred men and thirty boys to handle her 15,653 yards of sail.
The forces that brought on this American mania for speed were several. Chinese tea was a perishable commodity that had to reach market with dispatch. The California gold strike of 1848 and the Australian gold strike of 1851 created an urgent demand for goods at virtually any cost in previously unpopulated areas, as well as a rush of prospectors and entrepreneurs. The early fifties in particular were boom times. The drive for faster and faster passages says something about nineteenth-century America’s passion for bigger and better, but it might never have happened at all had there been no boom.
The simple truth was that only boom times made these expensive machines profitable. Not only were they very costly to operate, but American maritime law, unchanged since the eighteenth century, actively discouraged their design. Such things as taxes and harbor fees were based on how vessels were measured for tonnage—a calculation not of their weight but of their supposed cargo-carrying capacity. Beautiful and swift though the clippers were, they were taxed on cargo space they did not have.
The rule said, in effect, that to determine a ship’s tonnage, you took its length, subtracted three-fifths of its beam (its width at its widest point), and multiplied the result by the beam and the depth of the hold, which was assumed to be half the beam. The result divided by ninety-five was the register tonnage. To beat the rules, ship-owners used kettle-shaped hulls, narrow on deck and bulging out below, and ordered them unusually deep. The result was a saving both in port fees and in building costs, since builders were paid by the ton. Donald McKay’s brother Lauchlin protested loudly in his PracticalShip-Builder , of 1836: “Never did a more unreasonable law exist, even in the darker ages, than the law for calculating tonnage… . According to our present law … you can build a double-decked vessel a mile high, and she will not measure by the rule one inch more than though she was but twenty feet. … In consequence of it, vessels are decidedly ill-proportioned.” He added, “If the deep could tell a tale,” there would be a clamor for reform. Although the British reformed their tonnage rules in 1836 to get a more accurate measure of a vessel’s actual capacity, the United States law continued to favor the seagoing horrors McKay described until 1864. Yet the brothers McKay went on to build some of the greatest of the hollowbowed, fine-lined clipper ships. In other words, the American clipper came into being in spite of American merchant-marine policy, not because of it.
It is difficult to put an exact date to the first American clipper; the itch for ever-greater sailing speed had been around for quite a while before the big square-riggers became commonplace. Around the time of the War of 1812, and for some thirty-odd years after, there existed a type of vessel called the Baltimore clipper that was totally unlike the clipper in both rig and hull form. It was fore-and-aft-rigged, not square-rigged for the most part; the hull was fairly full forward and extremely deep aft; and the masts were therefore given an extreme rake for better balance to the sails. The ships were usually fairly small—under a hundred feet long, as a rule. They were designed for risk taking—privateering, smuggling, and slave running—and were something of a gamble. They often carried more sail than was wise, and a sudden squall could knock them down, as a modern replica was knocked down a few years ago with tragic loss of life.
The largest Baltimore clipper was the Ann McKim , 143 feet, 494 tons. She was just big enough that she could carry a ship rig —square sails on all three masts. In 1843 the McKim ’s owners, Howland and Aspinwall, sent her out to China, and she set a new record: ninety-six days from Canton to New York. But she had a weakness. The Baltimore clipper hull had what is termed a great deal of dead rise—that is, a V-shaped cross section, not exactly the optimum shape for carrying a lot of cargo and certainly not the best shape for handling cube-shaped chests of tea. Howland and Aspinwall decided they now wanted a bigger, faster carrier. They wanted speed and capacity.
The designer they chose was the abrasive, iconoclastic John Willis Griffiths, of New York. Griffiths was not a builder; he was a theoretician who had been lecturing on his theories and showing off a model of what, in his not very subtly stated opinion, a properly designed hull ought to look like. He had studied the published papers of Col. Mark Beaufoy, a Briton who was one of the first to tank-test possible hull forms (supposedly in his brewer father’s vats of beer), and like Beaufoy, he had come up with a design. This proto-clipper, the Rainbow , incorporated a few wrinkles of Griffiths’s own. Her widest point would be well aft, but the hull would be boxier and less V-shaped. Her bow would be concave, with a knifelike stem. And finally, though this gave Howland and Aspinwall second thoughts, he proposed a trio of incredibly tall masts that would carry quite a lot of canvas. Her largest sail, the main course, required five hundred yards of canvas.
Launched early in 1845, the Rainbow set off for China under Capt. John Land of Edgecomb, Maine, and after four days out seemed to confirm her owners’ misgivings about her lofty rig: she was dismasted in a howling gale. All three topmasts came down in a tangle of splintered wood, frozen sailcloth, and snarled rigging, but Land, a tough yet gentle man who read the Bible to his crews every Sunday, got repairs accomplished and took the Rainbow on her way. On arrival at Hong Kong in May, Land had her rig reduced by three feet and then came home without incident. Her 102 days out, 102 days back were no record, but they earned the owners a clear profit of forty-five thousand dollars, something more than the Rainbow had cost to build. Other shipowners took note.
The Rainbow may have proved that a large, fast cargo carrier could make a tidy profit, but designers, builders, and owners couldn’t simply copy her design. A successful designer like Griffiths, or Donald McKay, was not about to let out his trade secrets. As McKay’s son pointed out years later, if the owners of a successful clipper kept a handsome model of her on their office wall, the model was carefully crafted not to reveal any special touch. Let others guess and experiment.
Moreover, designers had to contend with the prejudices and whims of prospective owners. In 1851, grumbling all the way, the builder William Webb sketched out the lines for a new clipper at his shipyard on New York’s East River. He wrote later that the ship, the Gazelle , was “built having a great dead rise of floor, to meet the views of her owners, two retired sea Captains, who entertained old … erroneous ideas of modelling.” Webb designed and built the Gazelle as ordered, but some fifty years later he wrote smugly that “she did not prove as fast as other Clipper ships,” including some “modeled and built by same builder.”
Over the years there has grown up a myth that in the rush to turn out clippers the builders skimped, that clippers were “lightly built” and therefore had short lives. But contemporary newspaper accounts of clipper launchings describe the ships’ massive construction with some awe. For example, the keelson, or backbone, of the Witch of the Wave , built in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1856, was made up “of three depths of midship keelsons, from 16 to 15 inches each … and the sister keelsons are 14 by 15 inches.”
As for clipper longevity, at a time when shipowners calculated that ten years or so was the expected useful life for a wooden vessel, the average age at which clippers were lost from any cause was about fifteen, and the average at which they were finally condemned was about thirty. Even after a clipper became a coal barge, it hung on. The Red Jacket , for example, ended her seagoing career hauling lumber from Quebec to England and in 1882 was sent to Madeira as a coal hulk. On Christmas Day 1885, when she was thirty-two years old, she blew ashore. Her remains brought a hundred pounds.
No one knew it, of course, but the clippers’ doom was inevitable before the first one was built. Economics and changing social patterns did them in. One problem was with the big crews they required. Though life at sea was hard, the pay at the height of the clipper era was good—$35 a month for a seaman aboard the Snow Squall in 1853, when top skilled-labor wages ashore were around $1.50 a day. But beginning in the 184Os, a change came over the composition of the crews of American flag vessels. Fewer and fewer young Americans saw the sea as a career. Ambitious youngsters looked instead to the goldfields and prairies of the West as they gave thought to their future. By the middle of the decade, captains too often wound up with a ragtag bunch of ex-Liverpool “packet rats” or, worse still, as Capt. Arthur Clark recalled, a gang “who were not sailors at all nor the stuff of which sailors could be made, and who had no business to be before the mast on board of a ship.” Many “had served their time in the penitentiary and some should have remained there.”
In theory the law required that at least two-thirds of the crew of an American flag vessel be citizens. In practice a clipper captain took whatever the crimps and boarding-house runners sent him—usually drunk and often drugged. The saloonkeepers and operators of cheap waterfront hotels had things pretty well sewn up. Once New York shippers tried to defy the thugs by organizing a boycott; it collapsed after two weeks when no vessel had obtained a crew. Things went back to “normal,” with the crimps collecting a month’s wages for each supposed seaman they dumped aboard, the advance deducted from the hapless sailor’s wages. It was the mates’ job to whip this gang of ruffians into some kind of reasonable shape, and it is not at all surprising that officers of a clipper often went on watch armed with at least brass knuckles.
There were, of course, some captains and mates who carried things too far, fomenting mutiny by their own misdeeds. There were also what Clark called “a class of persons who did their utmost to degrade an honorable profession by calling themselves lawyers.” This band of waterfront sharks, Clark charged, specialized in getting seamen to spin a fabricated yarn of maltreatment and then bringing suit against a clipper and her captain.
But the biggest problem the clippers faced was economic. Although the boom of 1848 to 1853 gave the American merchant marine a temporary stimulus, the American share of cargoes from overseas had been declining, even though actual tonnage rose. In 1821, as much as 90 percent of foreign trade entering the United States was carried in American bottoms. By 1860 the figure was 71 percent. The key to the California bonanza was that by law trade between United States ports—even by way of Cape Horn- was reserved to American flag vessels. When freights to California hit sixty dollars a ton, a brand-new clipper could more than pay for herself on the first voyage out, even though she was a terribly expensive machine to operate. From New York to Maine, clipper after clipper took shape and was shoved overboard to cash in on the action. Forty-eight were built for the California run in 1853.
Donald McKay, of Boston, built three clippers in 1853: Empress of the Seas and Romance of the Seas , both aimed at the California trade, as well as the ill-fated “world’s largest ship,” the Great Republic , intended for the New York-to-Liverpool run. That same spring McKay’s Sovereign of the Seas , built the year before, came back from San Francisco with a new speed record: four hundred nautical miles in twenty-four hours.
Down in New York McKay’s competitor William Webb threw out a challenge. Next trip out to San Francisco, he suggested, why not race Sovereign against his new clipper Young America for a purse of ten thousand dollars? McKay declined, stating that “the present state of the California freight market” was such that he was going to run Sovereign on an “intermediate” voyage to England. Perhaps another time, when there was “better feeling for California.” The race never took place. The California market was getting back to normal, and freight rates were falling. Speed was no longer such a selling point. Money was to be made through economy of operation.
Webb seems to have foreseen this more clearly than McKay. The Young America was Webb’s last clipper; McKay pressed ahead. His Great Republic was too big to go into the Liverpool docks, so her cargo would have to be lightered ashore; this did not seem to bother him. Other builders were turning to a new type of vessel, something like a clipper but a good deal fuller. These came to be called Down Easters because so many of them were built in Maine. McKay built clippers until the bank panic of 1857 forced him to shut down the yard. After the Civil War he tried one last time with the Glory of the Seas , launched in 1869, but beautiful and well-built though she was, Glory was the wrong concept at the wrong time. With California freights at ten dollars a ton she couldn’t, and didn’t, pay. McKay’s creditors forced him to sell her at a distress-sale price. He finally lost his yard and died in near-poverty in 1880. Webb, who ran with, not against, the tide of commerce, endowed a school of naval architecture that still bears his name.
However, McKay’s Glory of the Seas outlasted all her sisters but one. When her sailing days were over, she became a barge for Alaska salmon packers and then sat idle for a spell. On May 13, 1923, she was burned for what scrap metal might be salvaged.
At the time just one American-built clipper still remained in existence: the little Snow Squall . After a twelve-year career that began in 1851, she had left New York for what was to be her fourth voyage around the Horn to San Francisco in January 1864. She had during her lifetime carried the kinds of cargo usually associated with clippers: tea from China to London, coffee from Rio to New Orleans and New York, and general cargo from New York to Australia (the Australians were particularly taken with American wagons). On her San Francisco passages she brought out unromantic, practical things—salted meats, grindstones, whiskey, shoes, stoves, cornmeal, and coal—before heading across the Pacific for Manila, Penang, or Shanghai. In 1863, under Capt. James Dillingham, of Brewster, Massachusetts, she ran away handily from a Confederate raider in the South Atlantic.
At the end of February 1864, the Snow Squal ’s career came to an inglorious end. She went ashore near Le Maire Strait at the tip of South America and limped into Port Stanley in the Falklands. The harbor master’s logbook tells the story tersely: “Been ashore … leaky, rudder damaged, ultimately condemned.” In the treeless Falklands the Snow Squall became a handy source of lumber, and around the turn of the century the Falkland Islands Company built a dock out over the Snow Squall and two other hulks.
The age of sail around Cape Horn was over. No longer did vessels like the Snow Squall run for Port Stanley for a chance at repairs. From time to time someone would note in a seafaring magazine that the clipper was there on the beach, but Stanley was a remote backwater. No one much cared until ten years ago. In January 1979 a party including the author of this article was in Stanley to measure a nonclipper hulk for an American museum when a local historian, John Smith, pointed out the Snow Squall . “She’s your clipper,” he said. “What are you going to do about her?”
The Snow Squall had been built in South Portland, Maine, and her discovery touched off a fair show of civic and historical pride. The idea of putting her in a local Maine museum arose. Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology helped with logistics. Volunteers offered their services. After six Snow Squall Project expeditions to Port Stanley, the last piece of the clipper’s bow rode into Portland Harbor aboard a freighter in March 1987, to a welcome of blaring whistles and a fountain of water from the harbor fireboat. Conservation work on the Snow Squall is now well under way at the new Spring Point Museum in South Portland, and fund raising is planned to finance a new wing to house the Snow Squall .
The Snow Squall ’s bow is proving to be an invaluable research tool. And while it is one thing to look at a painting of a clipper or even to examine the nineteenth-century wooden half-models of their hulls—the builders’ blueprints, in effect—nothing really prepares you for the first sight of that knife-edge bow, with its concave lines and upward flare, the copper alloy metal sheathing (the nineteenth century’s solution to marine worms and growth) still in place. The marks of her builders’ adzes are still visible on the Snow Squall ’s timbers. If some of the workmanship seems a bit crude, it did its job. The Snow Squall is a sturdy piece of carpentry.
There is a great deal yet to do. Treating the wood and metal of the Snow Squall is slow work. Much research (including locating a painting or photograph of her in her prime) needs to be done. Gradually, however, a picture of her operations is emerging: what runs she made; where and how often she went into dry dock for a refit: who her crews were, where they came from, and how much they were paid. Three members of her last crew wound up in jail in Stanley for attempted mutiny.
The Snow Squall is the one remaining piece of the whole clipper picture. When one reads the voluminous literature on the clippers, much of it concerned with record-breaking runs, it is all too easy to lose sight of what made the ships successful for a brief spell. Superb design and workmanship, harddriving captains, mates who made the best of what crews they could get, and, above all, the merchant in his countinghouse on New York’s waterfront- these things made possible the brief time of commercial sailing ships that pushed the technological limits at almost any cost. When too many of the books began to show red ink, in the late 185Os, the era ended.