The clipper ships that defined an era

10th November 2016

Clipper Ship

Up until recently, when Mikael Krafft realised his dream, clipper ships represented a bygone era of worldwide exploration. Sailors from across the empires of Europe would embark upon journeys on board magnificent vessels in search of products such as spices, tea, opium, and gold.

Clipper ships were built in vast quantities and became faster and larger in size as time progressed. That said - there is no specific definition of a clipper ship, although Alan Villiers, a renowned author, and mariner described them as such: “To sailors, three things made a ship a clipper. She must be sharp-lined, built for speed. She must be tall-sparred and carry the utmost spread of canvas. And she must use that sail, day and night, fair weather and foul.”

One theory suggests these merchant ships got their name from the famous mechanic and shipbuilder Donald McKay, who built a number of vessels on Clipper Lane in East Boston, Massachusetts. It is possible, however, that the name derives from the verb “clip”, which once meant to “run or fly swiftly” and was synonymous with speed. This was the name applied to topsail schooners – otherwise known as the Baltimore clippers – which reached their peak between 1795 and 1815, although it is not clear whether this name was given much later after their prominence.

The original clipper ship is generally considered to be a ship known as Ann McKim, which was built in Baltimore in 1833. She was built by the Kennard & Williamson shipyard and was a truly unique vessel at the time of launch. However, she is not regarded as the founding vessel of the clipper ship era, and it is instead believed that the clipper ship design was based on Ann McKim. It is thought that Ann McKim may have influenced the 1845 vessel, Rainbow, which was regarded as the first extreme clipper vessel.

Weighing in at 757 tons, Rainbow was a large American vessel which had been designed with speed in mind over cargo. A lengthened bow above the water and a sharpened forward body were contributors to speed. However, as magnificent as this vessel was, she was impractical for cargo purposes and by 1854; extreme clippers had been replaced by medium clippers across American shipbuilding yards.

As previously mentioned, Donald McKay was a pioneer in terms of building clipper ships and he built one of the most famous vessels to sail the seas. The Flying Cloud was a distinctive vessel for a number of reasons, most notably, for setting the world’s sailing record for the fastest passage between New York and San Francisco – completing the journey in 89 days and 8 hours. This record was held for over 100 years – from 1854 to 1989. She was also known for sailing in the Australia timber trades and for featuring a female navigator.

Clipper ships largely ceased being constructed in the 1860’s, but the British continued to build clippers through to 1870 in a bid to supply the demand for tea from China. It is thought that 25 – 30 of these vessels were built, with an average of 4-5 vessels being built per year.

In 1869, the opening of the Suez Canal created an easier link between Europe and Asia and ultimately led to the collapse of clipper ships. The Suez Canal greatly benefitted steam vessels, as sailing ships struggled to navigate this unique waterway and by the end of the 19th century, most ships sailing the seas were powered by steam. One of the only survivors of this unique era of sailing was the Cutty Sark, which sits gracefully on display in London to this day.

It wasn’t until much later that travellers saw sailing as a means of pleasure, with the slow introduction of cruising opportunities. With this, Mikael Krafft had a dream to recreate the clipper era of sailing and, in 1992, he succeeded by introducing the four-masted Star Flyer and Star Clipper barquentine vessels to the world. These were followed by the magnificent five-masted Royal Clipper – which has been listed by the Guinness World Records as being the largest square-rigged ship in service.

Towards the end of 2017, the Star Clippers fleet will be bolstered once again by the introduction of the fleet’s largest vessel and the first to be built for 15 years. Modelled on France II, this five-masted vessel will carry 300 passengers and 140 crew members.