THE Clipper Ship Era began in 1843 as a result of the growing demand for a more rapid delivery of tea from China; continued under the stimulating influence of the discovery of gold in California and Australia in 1849 and 1851, and ended with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. These memorable years form one of the most important and interesting periods of maritime history. They stand between the centuries during which man navigated the sea with sail and oar—a slave to unknown winds and currents, helpless alike in calm and in storm—and the successful introduction of steam navigation, by which man has obtained mastery upon the ocean.
After countless generations of evolution, this era witnessed the highest development of the wooden sailing ship in construction, speed, and beauty. Nearly all the clipper ships made records which were not equalled by the steamships of their day; and more than a quarter of a century elapsed, devoted to discovery and invention in perfecting the marine engine and boiler, before the best clipper ship records for speed were broken by steam vessels. During this era, too, important discoveries were made in regard to the laws governing the winds and currents of the ocean; and this knowledge, together with improvements in model and rig, enabled sailing ships to reduce by forty days the average time formerly required for the outward and homeward voyage from England and America to Australia.
In pursuing this narrative we shall see the stately, frigate-built Indiaman, with her batteries of guns and the hammocks stowed in nettings, disappear, and her place taken by the swift China, California, and Australian clippers, which in their turn, after a long and gallant contest, at last vanish before the advancing power of steam.
Many of the clipper ships mentioned in this book, both American and British, were well known to me; some of the most celebrated of the American clippers were built near my early home in Boston, and as a boy I saw a number of them constructed and launched; later, I sailed as an officer in one of the most famous of them, and as a young sea-captain knew many of the men who commanded them. I do not, however, depend upon memory, nearly all the facts herein stated being from the most reliable records that can be obtained. So far as I am aware, no account of these vessels has ever been written, beyond a few magazine and newspaper articles, necessarily incomplete and often far from accurate; while most of the men who knew these famous ships have now passed away. It seems proper, therefore, that some account of this remarkable era should be recorded by one who has a personal knowledge of the most exciting portion of it, and of many of the men and ships that made it what it was.
Of late years there has been a confusing mixture of the terms knot and mile as applied to the speed of vessels. As most persons are aware, there are three kinds of mile: the geographical, statute, and sea mile or knot. The geographical mile is based on a measure upon the surface of the globe, and is a mathematical calculation which should be used by experts only. The statute mile, instituted by the Romans, is a measure of 5280 feet. The sea mile or knot is one sixtieth of a degree of latitude; and while this measurement varies slightly in different latitudes, owing to the elliptical shape of the globe, for practical purposes the knot may be taken as 6080 feet.
The word knot is now frequently used to express long distances at sea. This is an error, as the term knot should be used only to denote an hourly rate of speed; for instance, to say that a vessel is making nine knots means that she is going through the water at the rate of nine knots an hour, but it would be incorrect to say that she made thirty-six knots in four hours; here the term miles should be used, meaning sea miles or knots. The term knot is simply a unit of speed, and is derived from the knots marked on the old-fashioned log line and graduated to a twenty-eight-second log glass which was usually kept in the binnacle. In this book the word mile means a sea mile and not a geographical or statute mile.
I wish to make my grateful acknowledgment to the Hydrographic Office at Washington, the British Museum, Lloyd's Register of Shipping, the American Bureau of Shipping, the Boston Athenæeum, and the Astor Library, for much of the data contained in this book.
New York, 1910.