A clipper ship is a synonym for a merchant ship from the 19th century that plied global routes and ferried cargo and passengers. In the 1840s, a new kind of merchant navy vessel was created by American ship builders. It facilitated faster transport of cargo through the oceanic waters. These ships were later incorporated by the English ship builders and the clipper ship started becoming popular across the world. In its own way, the clipper ship revolutionized water transport, thanks to its speed even while transporting cargo.
The most important aspect of a clipper ship was speed. The ship is built to enhance a streamlined design and enable cargo owners to maximize revenue while reducing costs. A clipper ship had three masts with square sails covering every feasible area on the mast. This unique mast-and-sail combination also enabled them to gain immense popularity. Clipper ships were more popular during the mid-to-late 19th century.
In this article, we dive into the world of clipper ships, the role they played in sustaining the global economy during its 19th century boom, and the generations of vessels they inspired.
History of Clipper Ships
The origin of the term “clipper ship” in naval architecture is disputed. But the consensus is that the Baltimore Clipper was the first vessel to employ that name. It was part of the American shipbuilding spree that gripped the nation in the 18th-19th centuries. The other maritime contemporaries of the Baltimore Clipper were Pilot-boat, Virginia Built, and Baltimore Built vessels. A possible theory suggests that the term “Baltimore Clipper” shortened to be “Clipper”, giving rise to the now-popular name.
The term clipper originated in English texts and was followed by its prominent use in America. Being a fast and able vessel, the clipper ship gained popularity and the term became mainstream by the second-half of the 19th century. The phrase, “to clip” means “to proceed at a swift pace”, which explains the origin of the term clipper.
The East India Company was a major driving force in creating a demand for goods in Asia and Europe. They employed fast clippers to keep a constant supply of goods between these locations and India. In fact, the Chinese clippers that plied these routes were touted to be some of the fastest ships ever built. Even today, they rival the speed of modern commercial vessels. Opium was a fast-selling commodity in Britain and China, with annual consumption far exceeding production capabilities of the East India Company.
Tea was another commodity with a high demand in British society. Produced in the plantations of China and India, they required short voyage times in order to retain cargo freshness. To meet this growing requirement for high quality tea and Opium, the British turned to a new class of clippers operating from Asia- the Opium and Tea clippers. Built and operated by Chinese and Arab merchants, and manned by Indians and Far East Asians, these vessels featured extremely high deadrise angles. To make up for the lost space, they had high beams above the waterline and used extra sails to quicken the journey around the Cape of Good Hope.
Development and Subsequent Decline of the Clippers
In order to meet the requirements of being classified as a “fast” ship, clippers were covered in sails on every possible inch of the mast. The famous clippers of the 19th century were predominantly constructed out of Britain, America, Brazil, France, and the Netherlands. They were capable of making trans-Atlantic voyages with their fast speeds. Common routes included Europe-America’s passenger and cargo trips, trade to and from the UK, from China with tea, spices, and opium, and Java with laborers. A celebrated route was the San Francisco-New York journey that supplemented commerce during the Gold Rush. Operational before the construction of the Panama Canal, this route went around Cape Horn (southernmost tip of South America) and ferried passengers between both coasts of the United States.
Clippers were in high demand during spikes in economic boom, especially in Europe, America, and Asia. For instance, the Gold Rush resulted in American shipyards constructing numerous clippers to meet customer demands. The increase in tea consumption, farming of Opium, and import of textiles from India to the West further spurred the clipper industry.
Although clippers experienced a decline following the start of the American Civil War and Crimean War, British shipyards continued to build high-quality and fast vessels. They developed the concept of composite hulls to maximize strength and durability while cutting down on weight. Much like modern composites that provide the best of both worlds. British clippers operating from the later half of the 19th century included copper sheathing, wooden planks, and iron spars.
Ultimately, it was the construction of the Panama and Suez canals that led to a gradual decline in the use of clipper ships. As travel times further reduced, an ability to carry large cargo shipments was the need of the hour. Fast travel was no longer a necessity, since commodities were required in bulk and had to be consistently supplied by the shipper. While some clippers modified the under-deck hull to accommodate more cargo while sacrificing speed, their construction declined by the 20th century. They were replaced by faster and fuel-efficient models powered by diesel engines and steamships.
Characteristics of a Clipper Ship
A clipper ship offered its captain and crew a sailing speed of over 250 miles in a day, whereas the routine ships travelled at an average speed of 150 miles per day. In earlier times, covering 250 nautical miles in a day was a long journey. In fact, the origin of a clipper ship was spurred because of the predominant slow-moving water transportation of that time. With competition to bring Chinese tea into the goldfields of California before the first tea leaves of the season were sold out, competent ship builders and innovative naval architects created the sleek signature design of a clipper ship.
Clippers are broadly recognized as belonging to one of three categories on the basis of their design:
- High deadrise clippers
- Medium deadrise and full mid-section clippers
- Combinations of a sharp deadrise with a fuller mid-section
Some of the important terms used to define clipper designs are as follows:
- Deadrise angle – The angle between a horizontal plane through the keel and a plane passing through the hull bottom from the keel till a point where a radius of curvature is first introduced.
- Mid-section – The area enclosed by the hull of a ship on a transverse plane passing through the midship region of a vessel.
To assess the hull design, the “fullness” of the hull is often used as a measure of hydrodynamic performance. Fullness measures how close a hull shape is to an enclosing rectangular cuboid of dimensions equal to the longest dimension (length, beam, draft) of a ship. By using draft, we compare the underwater volumes of these types of ships. The technical factors used by naval architects during the design phase are “prismatic coefficient” and “block coefficient”. The prismatic coefficient is more widely used since it compares the underwater volume with an equivalent prism rather than a rectangular cuboid.
Size wise, each clipper ship was different from the other. But their tonnage was anywhere between a few hundred to 4000 tons. In terms of ship’s weight, tons meant the number of tons of wine that a ship could carry rather than a ship’s equivalent weight in pounds. And in case of a clipper ship, the tonnage is extremely important because even if the ship was designed for speed and mobility, piling extra cargo loads meant the owner losing out on not just precious cargo but also an entire ship during a capsize.
Another set of definitions used to classify clippers are as follows:
- Extreme clipper – Extremely sharp hull forms but with reduced under deck tonnage capacity. The primary source of income is the speed and promise of multiple voyages at a fraction of the time of similar sea-going vessels.
- Medium clipper – Mid-Lesser hull sharpness but with better under deck tonnage than an extreme variant. These clippers are fast and allow a larger cargo to be shipped. They were favored for voyages that were not urgent and had flexible schedules.
- Standard clipper – These variants were a cross between extreme and medium clippers. They came with the speed of extreme clippers but also had sizeable under deck tonnage.
Famous Clipper Ships and Surviving Vessels
Amongst the wide range of clipper ships that dominated the era, there were quite a few famous ones that carved their place in the pages of shipping history. Of these famous clipper ships, the Flying Cloud (which was launched in 1851) was a very important American clipper ship, as it made the journey between New York and San Francisco in 89 days – a record by itself. The Lightning however created another record by cruising and covering 436 nautical miles in just 24 hours.
But more than these two clipper ships, there is one more remarkable clipper that needs special mention. The Cutty Sark was a clipper ship built in 1869. It was the last clipper ship to be built and now stands on dry dock in Greenwich London. The biggest attraction of this clipper ship is that it is the last original clipper ship that is still available in physical form.
There were other famous clippers that set records in fastest sail times between regular routes. The Sovereign of the Seas was the fastest ship in 1854, but was ousted by swifter and finer models in subsequent years. Clipper models came to include schooners, brigs, and brigantines that were fast and capable of long voyages. By enlisting full use of the multiple sails on the three masts, these vessels were capable of reaching speeds that also made them common during warfare. The British Blockade during the American Revolution was characterized by the widespread use of clippers to snipe at enemy positions while remaining safe owing to the vessel’s speed.
A clipper ship was a pioneer of water transport in the 1800s and even today holds a very relevant place in the development of the transportation mode. Post the industrial revolution and after the world started to get modernized, steamers and other top-line ships have come into existence making things far easier for people who want to have an experience of transportation by water – for themselves as well as for their cargo. But even in the midst of these developments and transformations, the share and contribution of a clipper ship in water transportation, is something that deserves and merits immense acknowledgment and appreciation from across the world.
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