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The Drive for Speed At Sea

June 2024
10min read

The clippers were beautiful, fast, too expensive to endure long—and a perfect expression of a great American urge

There never were more lovely sailing ships than the wondrous clipper ships. They stormed about the seaways of the world, perfections of sailing grace and beauty, exemplifying man’s ability, when he wished, to develop grace in his service—even the strictly utilitarian service of carrying his goods at sea. Under their clouds of gloriously symmetrical sails, they looked the creations of some master artist and their hulls perfection of the sculptor’s art. In fact they were produced by men anxious only to provide the fastest, safest transport under sail, and they were hewn largely with the adze from New England trees. Their speed and their power astonished the maritime world: but they were gone—doomed—in a brief ten years.

The story of Speed in American ships precedes the clippers. Looking back now, it would almost seem that Speed was God. But speed is the costliest of all qualities to build safely into a ship and (except in time of war) the most easily done without, the first discarded. The extra cost of an extra knot is prodigious and inescapable. Why, then, has the desire to build faster, faster ships forever been nagging at our designers?

It seems to me there are historical reasons enough. With plenty of good shipbuilding material to hand from his forests, and with river mouths and pretty coves aplenty to work in, and untrammeled by the curb which monopolistic habits set on Europe’s builders, the New Englander—and not only the New Englander—early produced fast and able little ships.

He had the tradition of seafaring or his ancestors (or maybe he himself) would never have crossed the North Atlantic at all. He had to produce good ships, to survive in that wild ocean and, as well as good ships, he wanted fast ships, too—fast because he knew that ships could be made that way and he was not content with slovenly old sea wagons; and fast, too, because speed paid. Those were the days of pirates and buccaneers—nasty, primitive fellows who were not at all the picturesque villains the film industry loves to portray. Pirates meant murder and restraint of trade, and they had to be avoided if they could not, for the moment, be outfought.

In the pre-Revolutionary period, smuggling cargoes ashore became not only fashionable but patriotic. Smugglers had to have fast ships. In the Revolutionary War itself the very existence of American ships depended on their speed. If they were not fast they could not hope to deliver their cargoes or their passengers. Many ships turned to privateering—another phase of seafaring where speed was paramount. Early American ships did well against the British then because they were faster and at the same time able and seaworthy.


No less than 733 British ships were captured, and 174 otherwise idle American ships were commissioned as privateers. The state of Massachusetts alone sent out 53; New Hampshire, with only one port, sent 8; Connecticut sent 22 and New York 7; Pennsylvania sent 13 and Maryland 21. The American ships had above all superior speed.

But wars pass and ships afterwards are apt to be neglected and forgotten. Smuggling had become so well organized and profitable while the states were colonies, however, that it was hard to give the habit up. Independence found hundreds of competent and fearless seamen used to handling small ships at speed and thoroughly well acquainted with the well-organized business of smuggling. Before long the secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was forming a revenue cutter service to cope with the evil. He called for “ten boats” and he got ten lovely fast little clipper-schooners, which became the ancestors of the present Coast Guard.

These fast schooners were particularly an early American development. This type of vessel was developed par excellence in American waters by American shipwrights, both for trading and for fishing, and the development paved the way for the bigger clipper ships.

The War of 1812 gave another fillip to the privateer. Not only one side used privateers. Both sides did so, with the consequence that all merchantmen had to be fast or stay in port. Ships in port earned nothing and contributed nothing to victory either.

After 1812 came the slave runners—again an illicit trade was putting a vast premium on speed. The slave trade had been outlawed by both Britain and the United States; both navies were able to take an active interest in its suppression. But it was still very profitable to run slave labor across the Atlantic. A fast slave runner like the Baltimore clipper Henriquetta made $400,000 in three years by running 3,040 slaves across to Brazil, and it took only six successful voyages. Such ships had to work from small harbors, collecting slaves in small lots. Speed was not only necessary to avoid interception. It was the very crux of getting the slaves across alive . A dead slave brought no return, and they were packed aboard like sardines in a can. Unlike sardines, they were supposed to stay alive.

There were, then, plenty of fast American ships before the extreme clippers came. There is a deal of confusion in the public mind about these clippers and the term is somewhat lightly used. To a sailor a “clipper” was a very fast-model hull—rig was immaterial but the sails had to be piled high—in which speed was the first consideration, and it was often speed regardless of most other considerations. The end of the monopolistic control of much overseas trade in Europe, the foundation of Australia and growth of the early colony there (founded to take the compulsory “colonists” who could no longer be sent to America), and the opening up of the Indian Ocean, the Eastern seas, and the whole Pacific, gave American ships the seven seas to trade in, and they were ready and willing for the opportunity.

Yankee ships stormed out to China carrying a graceful cloud of well-cut sails and sailed by youngsters who were not afraid to get the best out of them, day and night, and they flung themselves across the sea again bound for Europe’s markets with tea and other Chinese produce in a way that never had been seen before. Industrial expansion in Europe—above all in Britain—at the same time offered ever extending markets for such things as tea, and there was a premium on catching the first auctions with new seasons’ cargoes. There was money in speed—good money, though the slave-running and the smuggling and the privateering had then all been suppressed.

The first real clipper ship—and I use the term “ship” here as it should be used, to indicate the rig, a three-masted vessel properly square-rigged on all masts—was the Rainbow, of 1845. She had a concave bow and ultra-fine ends, and she registered 750 tons. She was a success from the start. If the China trade showed signs of passing to the Europeans who soon began to build fast clippers for themselves—once begun, they built some magnificent vessels, but they were still buying Yankee clippers when the Australian gold rush was at its height about a decade later—there was soon a greater trade for Yankee ships, a stirring and romantic trade which being inter-coastal was theirs alone. This was the Cape Horn passage from New York or Boston out to California, where there was gold.

Clipper followed clipper in a long succession of lovely, seemingly unconquerable ships—Helena, Houquah, Sea Witch—the very names are music. Opportunities for trade were for the moment endless. The discovery of gold in 1849 gave a further impetus. Steamers of a sort ran to the Atlantic coast of Panama whence an expensive overland journey (soon made by rail) connected with another line of steamers on the Pacific side. But the steamers couldn’t cope with a fraction of the freight and passengers offering. Transshipment across the isthmus of Panama made such transport expensive, and there were thousands who preferred the sea route round the Horn. That way a hardy group of prospectors could carry their own equipment and some provisions with them, at minimum expense.

Stories drifting back of the astronomical costs of everything in California led many a canny New Englander to take clipper ships around the Horn. Clipper-building boomed. Speed stepped up and up. The glorious Sovereign of the Seas, though she was dismasted and re-rigged on the passage, was only 103 days from New York to San Francisco and sailed back in 82 days. She made 5,200 miles, once, in three weeks and she clipped along 360 miles in a day when she had the wind.

This was sailing! The Flying Cloud did 374 miles a day. The Flying Fish averaged 100 days to San Francisco (until that time 120 days had been thought a splendid run).

Nor were other trades neglected. Between 1851 and 1853 the little Ino made New York only 86 days out from Singapore, the Pilot made Salem in 96 days from Manila, the Shooting Star was at New York 86 days out from Canton. If the gold rush flagged, the Crimean War gave American clippers business, for they were the fastest and best transports available.

A new gold rush, this time to Australia, gave more business. Some of the very greatest of the big American clippers were built to British order for the Australian trade—the mighty James Baines, the Lightning, the Champion of the Seas. Yankee ships were best and the world provided the buyers, and the users.

What ships they were! Man had never before and has never since been hurtled along by the elemental force of the wind at sea at such a speed, to achieve which the vessels had to be well-nigh perfect. And that they were! Grace of line, sea-kindliness of hull, true streamlining, maximum efficiency from their vast area of wind-blown sail and strength enough in their standing rigging to accept the stress of the thousands of horsepower generated aloft—for free, by the untaxable, indefatigable ocean wind—all these qualities they combined in their wondrous forms which, even a century later, remain an inspiration.

So much for the ships. What about the men? Without able and fearless men in unending supply, the clippers would not have been worth much. But read what the greatest rival had to say on this subject. Lindsay, the historian of the British Merchant Service, says:

“During the first half of the 19th century, the masters of American vessels were as a rule greatly superior to those who held similar positions in English ships. American shipowners required of their masters not merely a knowledge of navigation and seamanship but of commercial pursuits, the nature of exchange, the art of correspondence, and a sufficient knowledge of business to qualify them to represent the interests of their employers to advantage with merchants abroad. On all such matters the commanders of English ships, with the exception of the East India Company, were at this period greatly inferior to the commanders of the United States vessels.”

That is plain enough. As for crewmen, a learned committee of that august body, the British House of Commons, referred in a special report to the “vast superiority in officers, crews and equipment and the consequent superior success and growth of American shipping.”

The North Atlantic packet-ship trade was more or less an American monopoly, under sail, too. The clipper Dreadnought was champion in that trade, and her redoubtable master—the famous Captain Samuels—drove her across in rapid time, over and again. Samuels was a picturesque character who had run away to sea at eleven, had been in a Coast Guard brig and had been shanghaied into a Baltimore clipper bound for Liverpool. He had been chased by pirates, had served in the Texas navy, fought with cannibals and, at 21, was commander of a Yankee sailing ship. Under him, the Dreadnought guaranteed to deliver her freight in a certain time or give back the freight money, and she didn’t give back much.

Nor was this driving era an age of recklessness—far from it! These seamen knew what they were at. Any fool could drive a ship under but they drove them skillfully, scientifically, and to survive. And they did survive.


But already then steamships (of a sort) were crossing the North Atlantic, more or less regularly. American packets fought back hard at steam as late as the 1870’s. But it was a losing fight. The customers, then as now, went in the fastest and best ships no matter how much they might applaud the spirit of other and perhaps older vessels. Before 1850, Cunard steamers were crossing from New York to Liverpool in less than eleven days and coming back westbound—the harder way—in less than a fortnight.

Not to be driven off the seas by what they regarded as an “arrogant monopoly,” the American Collins Line of transatlantic steamships was formed and began business in April, 1850. The Collins Line ships were good and they were fast—faster than the Cunarders. Soon they had a good share of the passenger trade—for a while, the best of it. Crossing in a little less time than the Cunarders averaged, Collins ships carried 4,306 Atlantic passengers between January and November, 1852. In the same time Cunarders carried 2,969.

But speed cost money—a lot of money. Powerful engines burned a great deal of fuel. The faster the ship, the less economic was her operation. Directors of the Collins Line were soon telling a Congress which paid scant attention that it cost a million dollars a year to effect a saving of a day and a half on the transatlantic run. There were four Collins steamers then, seven Cunarders. The Cunarders had an assured mail subsidy and they plugged steadily on. It was the Collins ships which went out of business.

The Collins Line had the worst of bad luck. It had good ships, great masters, fine men. It was well run and it deserved to prosper and to keep the Blue Riband of the North Atlantic for American steampships, as American clippers had held it for sail. But Collins’ fine steamer Arctic sank as the result of a collision with a French liner off the foggy Banks, with loss of life. Then the Collins liner Pacific sailed from Liverpool for New York with 45 passengers and a crew of 141 and never arrived. From that day to this, nothing has been heard of the Pacific.

These losses were fatal blows, but politics sank more American ships than ice and collisions ever did. By 1861, the American flag had disappeared from the steamer routes. But it returned to fight back, to fight in the face of the fiercest international competition in a trade which lent itself (on the European side particularly) to the organization of monopolistic cartels and conferences. It returned to fight but it could not fight back with faster and more powerful steamers against subsidized foreigners. Fast sailing ships were a matter of skill and good seamanship which the virile Yankees could well supply. But speed under power was a different thing. Its source and its strength were money—money which Washington’s politicians consistently refused to supply.

The day of the clippers, the great day of American excellence in speed at sea, was gone.

American eyes were turned inland. The glorious era of the clipper ships was not only past; for the time being, at any rate, it was quickly being forgotten. Where such great opportunities existed for expansion inland, few landsmen cared what ships were doing or who sailed them. After the Collins Line, the U.S. dropped out of the effective steam picture in the fast transatlantic service for years and years.

But not for good. The ideal of speed—speed with seaworthiness—was never given up. Now the long lethargy which was never the industry’s own fault has been shaken off, and shaken off splendidly, with the all-conquering return of the liner United States, a long lean monster of shapely, safe, and efficient speed. Speed costs money still, of course, and the United States costs a great deal of money. But speed in ships is still their greatest safeguard in time of war and speed will bring the traffic in time of peace, too.

Not only the United States herself has re-established American merchant shipping supremacy in the field of speed. The U.S. has built, too, the fastest merchantmen both for dry cargo and oil—big fellows that do better than twenty knots and have proved themselves wonders of the naval architect’s art.

There is also the air. Now the air over oceans is at least as important as the surface water. In the era of Sail versus Power, U.S. merchantmen may have gone down, for a while, but they are back now, and in the air, too, American ships of another kind lead the world.


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