|Technology and Culture: Chapter 13
The Age of the Clipper Ship
There was no "first" clipper ship. These legendary "Greyhounds of the Sea," which reached the height of their fame between 1845 and 1859, evolved from
the American interest in finding ways to make ships--in fact everything--go faster. Lacking the protection of a great navy, American shipbuilders
and sea captains knew that sailing at a fast "clip" was the best way to elude the enemy warships that had threatened American
commerce between 1807 and 1815, the era of the Embargo and the War of 1812. The opening
of new commercial ports in China in the 1830s and 1840s intensified the quest
for speed to overcome both great distances and the tendency of tea leaves
to spoil if left in the hold for too long. By the mid-1840s Americans were starting to boast of their "extreme clippers."
Compared to traditional sailing vessels, these extreme clippers--so many were built that before long it became pointless to add "extreme"--carried a lot of sail in relation to their tonnage. In mariners' language, they were heavily "sparred." Spars were wooden masts, yardarms, or booms that supported the rigging and
enabled clippers to spread as much canvas as possible in order
to take maximum advantage of the wind, their only source of propulsion. The bows of clippers were unusually "sharp," with little buoyancy. While the barrel-chested bows and wide hulls of traditional vessels pushed the water out of the way,
the sharp bows and narrow hulls of clippers knifed through it. The clippers' sleekness translated into an average speed of twelve knots an
hour (a knot is a nautical mile, about a mile and one-eighth), compared to
six to eight knots for traditional
Had clippers been designed only to carry cargo, their narrow beams would have been a drawback. But in the late 1840s demand
for faster passenger ships mounted. British emigrants were heading for Australia,
and British shipowners commissioned the building of clippers in American
yards. Then the California gold rush sparked demand for voyages from eastern ports to San Francisco.
Not all of these passengers were headed for the gold fields. In California's dizzy gold-rush economy, cart drivers, carpenters, masons, and cooks could
command four to five times the daily wages of workers in the rest of the nation. Paying two hundred
dollars, three hundred dollars, or more for sea passage--close to a year's wages--struck many of them as a good investment.
Before the end of February 1849, eleven thousand passengers had left on ships from eastern ports to go to San Francisco and the gold fields,
most on slow vessels that averaged 157 days for the sixteen thousand-mile
trip from New York to San Francisco around Cape Horn, the southernmost tip
of South America. In theory, it was faster to sail from New York to the isthmus of Panama, the narrowest
point of North America; cross the sixty-mile isth-mus by foot, mule, and
boat; and take a steamship north to San Francisco. But dense jungle, snakes,
scorpions, armies of mosquitoes, and weeks or months waiting for a steamship limited the appeal of the
By the early 1850s the shipyards of Boston and New York were turning out
clippers for the Cape Horn route at astonishing rates. Boston's shipbuilder Donald McKay oversaw the construction of thirty-one clippers between 1850 and 1858. The most
famous of these was the Flying Cloud, which McKay sold for $60,000 to a Boston ship owner, who almost immediately
sold it to a New York owner for $90,000. Guided by its captain, Josiah P. Cressy, and its navigator, Cressy's wife Ellen (a masterful mistress of the sextant and other instruments for
locating a ship's position at sea), the Flying Cloud made the run from New York to San Francisco around the Horn in eighty-nine
days in 1851, a record not broken by any sailing vessel until 1989. At one point on
this voyage, the Flying Cloud attained the unheard of speed of eighteen knots an hour.
The speed of the Flying Cloud and other clippers gripped the public's imagination. A betting industry sprang up around the clippers, with wagers on how many days and hours
it would take a ship to reach the equator or to drop anchor at San Francisco.
In the early 1850s many shipbuilders were concluding that the newly invented
steamship, slow and with boilers prone to explode, had reached its limits and that the future, at
least for ocean voyages, belonged to the clipper.
They were wrong. Like the gold rush itself, the reign of the clipper was
brief. The invention in 1836 of the steam-powered screw propeller, which
churned off a steamer's stern and eliminated the drag-producing side-wheels of the early steamers,
made it possible for steamships to average thirteen knots by the mid-1850s.
However magnificent, clippers were expensive. Man-aging their immense spreads of sail required relatively large crews of at
least sixty, and, running nearly flush to the sea, clippers took a horrific pounding in bad weather. Insurance rates soared by the mid-1850s,
less because clippers were sinking than because they needed so much repair
after each voyage. As interest in the gold fields waned, most of the clippers
were shorn of their masts and miles of rigging and converted to barges. The Flying Cloud itself, its masts shortened to make it easier to handle with a smaller crew,
met a pitiful end in 1874 when, damaged by a storm while in port, it was
deemed not worth repairing. Under orders from the insurance underwriters, a team of workers towed it to sea, doused it
with kerosene, set it ablaze, and watched it burn to the water.