Donald McKay – The mechanic who revolutionised clipper ships

30th June 2016

Clipper Ship

“I am just a mechanic… But a mechanic with luck.” These words uttered by Donald McKay would define an era of tall ship sailing around the world. It was on Clipper Lane – which was barely 100 metres in length - in East Boston, Massachusetts, that some of the fastest and most elegant clipper ships of the 18th century were built by this seafaring wizard. During a time where clipper ships dominated the seas and worldwide exploration reached new peaks, Donald McKay was able to not only produce fantastic vessels but could also build them quicker and more efficiently than other shipyards.

Born in 1810, Donald McKay gained a wealth of experience through learning shipbuilding in various shipyards in New York throughout the 1820’s and 1830’s. In 1841, he opened his own shipyard in Newburyport and moved to Boston in 1845, where he began to put his knowledge to use and soon starting creating ships of his own.

One of the significant changes he made was to the hull, which paid off handsomely and resulted in all his ships being record breakers. It was in 1842 that he built his first ship, Courier, which was a 380-ton early clipper trading ship. In 1849, he redefined clipper ships by building Helicon, an extreme clipper barque. Remarkably, McKay also designed steam-powered cranes and various other aides in order to help speed up the rate of production.

The British and American press regularly reported on the newest and fastest ships, as these ships were able to move cargo at a faster rate and proved very popular with passengers. McKay went on to build 40 clipper ships over the course of 20 years – some of which were even capable of outpacing the revolutionary steamships. This was tested in 1853, when McKay’s Sovereign of the Seas was pitted against the steamer, S/S Canada, over a five day period. The comparisons show that Sovereign of the Seas, was, on average, almost three knots faster.

Despite this high acclaim, McKay was quick to ensure he shared the praise among those who had helped him. “[I am] a mechanic with luck. My wife taught me algebra and trigonometry, the bases for making a construction drawing. And it was not me, but John Griffiths, who designed the sharp bow; narrower midships and full stern. And it was Nathaniel Palmer who developed the flatter hull.”

One of McKay’s greatest ships was the Flying Cloud, which was built in 1851 and set the record for completing the passage from New York to San Francisco. She completed the journey in 89 days and 21 hours – which was 10% faster than the previous holder. In 1854, the Flying Cloud beat her own record and achieved a time of 89 days and 8 hours. This record was so incredible at the time that it was deemed unbeatable and remained that was for 130 years.

Donald McKay passed away in 1880, but the waterfront in which he worked remains full of timbers, piles, jetties and other relics as a memento of the period in which these renowned vessels were built. A park and school in East Boston were also named after one of the most influential figures in the history of sailing.

Royal Clipper


Today, you can relive this elegant bygone era of clipper sailing by embarking on a cruise upon Star Clipper, Star Flyer and Royal Clipper. The fleet’s largest vessel, the Royal Clipper, is also a record breaker for being the largest square-rigged ship in service, with 5,202 square metres of sail. You can appreciate this magnificent vessel for yourself as you sail to some of the most spectacular regions of the world including the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and Far East Asia.