The Clipper Ship Era/Chapter 11

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CHAPTER XI


CALIFORNIA CLIPPER PASSAGES OF 1851


EACH of the clippers had her devoted admirers, who gave tangible proof of loyalty by investing money liberally in support of their belief in her speed. At that period the merchants and shipowners of Boston used to meet "on 'change" in front of the old Merchants' Exchange in State Street, and before going home to their comfortable two o'clock dinners, these old-time gentlemen would lay many a quiet wager upon the Northern Light, Flying Fish, Witch of the Wave, Raven, John Bertram, Shooting Star, or Game Cock as to their relative speed and the length of their passages from Boston to San Francisco.

In New York the Astor House was the meeting place of merchants, ship-builders, and sea-captains, who carried on endless arguments concerning the merits of the clipper ships, their builders, owners, and captains, and discussed the latest shipping news with untiring earnestness. These men knew whereof they spoke, for almost any evening there was sufficient capital represented by ship-owners to pay for half a dozen clippers, and the men were there also who could build and navigate them. Occasionally an argument would reach a point of animation where something had to be done, and one might hear a remark very much like this: "No, no, Henry, I can't do that, but I will lay five dollars at one to three on the Challenge against the fleet, bar one, or the same even on the Flying Cloud against the N. B. Palmer." These were pleasant evenings, gay with the clink of mugs and glasses and the murmur of small talk and laughter rippling among wreaths of smoke from fragrant Havanas, until, at a little before ten, Michael, the venerable barkeeper would announce, "Gentlemen, I will take the last orders of the evening; we close in ten minutes."

The interest in clippers was not confined to seamen and capitalists, for when the mail steamer from Aspinwall was reported toiling up the bay, there would be a large number of persons patiently waiting on the wharf, who were not expecting friends among the passengers or crew, but who had come to hear the latest news, then five or six weeks old, of arrivals of clipper ships at San Francisco.

The first clipper to arrive at San Francisco from New York in 1851 in less than 110 days was the Seaman, a smart little Baltimore ship of 546 tons. She made a fine passage of 107 days, arriving on March 11th.

The second to arrive was the Surprise. A merchant of San Francisco wagered heavily on her beating the passage of the Sea Witch—97 days—of the year before, and as the time limit grew near he began to feel rather nervous. On the morning of her ninety-sixth day out, March 19th, he thought if the Surprise was going to win his money for him it was about time for her to do it, so he mounted his horse and rode over to the North Beach to get a glimpse of her if she was in sight. He found the weather thick outside and so returned, but he had not reached his counting-room before the Surprise had passed the Golden Gate. And by noon, Captain Dumaresq was with his friends on shore, 96 days from New York. The Surprise had sailed 16,308 miles since leaving Sandy Hook, and had reefed topsails but twice. It should not, however, be supposed that she had not had plenty of wind, for it was usually blowing hard when Captain Dumaresq began to think of taking in his topgallantsails, to say nothing of reefing topsails. A list of her cargo on this voyage filled a manifest twenty-five feet long, and her freight amounted to the sum of $78,000.

The Sea Serpent arrived on May 17th, after putting into Valparaiso for repairs, as she had lost spars and sails off Cape Horn. She had made the passage in 115 days, deducting her delay at Valparaiso. This was the first of a series of disasters which befell the clippers that year, and which proved pretty clearly that their power of carrying canvas had been underestimated. It became quite evident that these ships could stand stouter spars and rigging, and indeed required them.

The Eclipse, Captain Hamilton, also went into Valparaiso with the loss of some of her spars and sails, and allowing for her loss of time in port, made the passage from New York to San Francisco in 112 days, arriving May 20th, with the remarkable run of 63 days from New York to Valparaiso to her credit. Captain Hamilton was not only an accomplished mariner, but a most delightful companion, and he had many friends in San Francisco, some of whom gave a dinner at the Niantic Hotel in honor of his arrival on this occasion. When the proper moment came, one of the party proposed the health of Captain Hamilton, and this is the way he did it:

"Gentlemen! I give you the shipper-clips—the clippy—sh—the, gentlemen, I give you the—the slipper." Here he paused, steadied himself by the table edge, bowed with great dignity, and began again very slowly: "Gentlemen!—I—give—you— the—ship—E—clipse, and her gallant cap'n Hamilton," and then with an at-peace-with-all-the-world grin, this disciple of Silenus subsided.

The Niantic had a curious history, even for a San Francisco hotel. This refuge for the traveller, or rather a portion of it, had originally been the British ship Niantic which arrived at Valparaiso from Liverpool just as the California gold fever was at its height. She was bought by a Chilean merchant and started for Panama, where she loaded a cargo of tropical fruits and two hundred and forty-eight passengers, and arrived at San Francisco, July 5, 1849. Most of the fruit had either been devoured by the passengers or become so decayed that it was thrown overboard, and as soon as the anchor was down, the captain and all hands cleared out for the mines, leaving the ship to take care of herself.

After some months of neglect, she was bought by a real estate speculator, who hauled her broadside to on the beach, at what was then the foot of Clay Street, and turned her into a warehouse. By degrees the old craft found herself embedded in some ten or twelve feet of sand and mud at a considerable distance from the water-front, but she made more money for her owner here than at any other time in her career, until one of the periodical fires swept away her top sides. The rest of her hull, which being below ground had escaped destruction, became the cellar of the Niantic Hotel, erected over her remains, and had the reputation of being the only tight and dry cellar in the neighborhood.

In the course of time the Niantic Hotel was torn down to make room for a more substantial building, and upon clearing away the debris to secure a more solid foundation, thirty-five baskets of champagne were discovered hidden away among the floor timbers of the old hull, where they had remained unmolested for some twenty-one years. So faithfully had the wine been bottled and so dry had been its resting-place, that there was not a speck of rust on the wires securing the corks, and the labels were as fresh as the day they were put on, while the wine was found to have retained much of its original sparkle and bouquet. It was the then celebrated Jacquesson Fils brand, which at the time of its arrival might easily have been sold for $25 a bottle. I am not sure that it did not sell at nearly its former value, for almost every one in San Francisco in 1870 needed at least one bottle with which to celebrate the anniversary of his arrival "in the fall of Forty-nine or the spring of Fifty," and thirty-five baskets would seem a small allowance for that vast and increasing multitude.

The Stag-Hound arrived May 26th. She sailed from New York in January, and when six days out in a heavy southeast gale, her maintopmast and three topgallantmasts came down by the run. She was without a maintopsail for nine days and without topgallantsails for twelve days; nevertheless, she crossed the equator 21 days from Sandy Hook, arrived at Valparaiso in 66 days under jury rig, and, allowing for her detention there, reached San Francisco 107 days from New York. Captain Richardson reported that she was a very fast ship in moderate breezes, while in strong winds she frequently logged sixteen and seventeen knots, although her best day's run was only 358 miles.

The Witchcraft arrived August 11th. She, too, had suffered aloft and put into Valparaiso for spars and repairs, and, allowing for this delay, she had made the passage from New York in 103 days. The N. B. Palmer arrived August 21st in 108 days, and the Flying Cloud on August 31st in 89 days—a passage never surpassed and only twice equalled—once three years later by the Flying Cloud herself, and once in 1860 by the Andrew Jackson.

The Flying Cloud's abstract log on this passage is as follows:

Sandy Hook to the equator … 21 days.
Equator to 50° S … 25 "
50° S, in the Atlantic to 50° S. in Pacific. … 7 "
50° S. to the equator … 17 "
Equator to San Francisco … 19 "
Total … 89 "
It was during this passage that the Flying Cloud made her famous run of 374 miles, while steering to the northward and westward under topgallantsails, after rounding Cape Horn. This was the fastest day's run, under steam or sail, that had ever been made up to that time, and exceeded by 42 miles the best day's run that had ever been made by a mail steamship on the Atlantic. A few extracts from her log will, I think, be of interest:

"June 6th (three days out from New York). Lost main and mizen topgallantmasts, and maintopsail yard.—June 7th. Sent up main and mizen topgallantmasts and yards.—June 8th. Sent up maintopsail yard.—June 14th. Discovered mainmast badly sprung about a foot from the hounds, and fished it.—July 11th. Very severe thunder and lightning, double reefed topsails, split fore and maintopmast stay sails. At 1 p.m. discovered mainmast had sprung, sent down royal and topgallant yards and studding sail booms off lower and topsail yards to relieve strain.—July 13th. Let men out of irons in consequence of wanting their services, with the understanding that they would be taken care of on arriving at San Francisco. At 6 p.m., carried away the maintopsail tye and band round mainmast.—July 23d. Cape Horn north five miles. The whole coast covered with snow.—July 31st. Fresh breezes, fine weather, all sail set. At 2 p.m. wind southeast. At 6 squally; in lower and topgallant studding sails; 7, in royals; at 2 a.m. in foretopmast studding sail. Latter part, strong gales and high sea running. Ship very wet fore and aft. Distance run this day by observation is 374 miles. During the squalls 18 knots of line was not sufficient to measure the rate of speed. Topgallantsails set.—August 3d. At 3 p.m. suspended first officer from duty, in consequence of his arrogating to himself the privilege of cutting up rigging, contrary to my orders, and long-continued neglect of duty.—August 25th. Spoke barque Amelia Packet, 180 days from London for San Francisco.—August 29th. Lost foretopgallant mast.—August 30th. Sent up foretopgallant mast. Night strong and squally. Six a.m. made South Farallones bearing northeast ½ east; took a pilot at 7; anchored in San Francisco harbor at 11:30 a.m. after a passage of 89 days, 21 hours."


An analysis of this remarkable log shows that during twenty-six consecutive days the Flying Cloud had sailed a distance of 5912 miles, an average of 227 miles a day, or within a fraction of 91½ knots, and for four consecutive days 284, 374, 334, 264—a total of 1256, or 314 miles per day, an average speed of 13½ knots. This splendid passage of the Flying Cloud reduced by one quarter the clipper-ship record of 120 days made by the Memnon two years before, and established a new record that stands to-day.

This grand ocean exploit was celebrated in San Francisco with rejoicing, as every American in the town felt, now that the voyage round Cape Horn had been made in three months, that he was nearer to his old home in the East; while in the Atlantic seaports the news was received with enthusiasm, and was regarded by the press not only as a personal victory for the owners, builder, and captain of the Flying Cloud, but as a triumph of the United States upon the sea. One of the New York papers[1] in the course of an editorial remarked: "Such a passage as this is more than a local triumph, and inures to the reputation not alone of the builder of the ship and her enterprising owners, but of the United States. It is truly a national triumph, and points clearly and unmistakably to the preeminence upon the ocean which awaits the United States of America. The log of the Flying Cloud is now before us. It is the most wonderful record that pen ever indited, for rapid as was the passage, it was performed under circumstances by no means the most favorable."

The Challenge arrived October 29th, 108 days from New York—a fine passage, certainly, but not what her friends had hoped or expected. She had on this voyage a large but very poor crew—incompetent and mutinous—indeed, some of them were among the most desperate characters that ever sailed out of the port of New York. It was only after the ship had passed Sandy Hook and the pilot had been discharged that Captain Waterman began fully to realize what a gang of ruffians he had to deal with. He seriously considered taking the ship back to New York for another crew, and a less resolute man probably would have done so; but he realized that it would mean a heavy expense to the owners, as each of the crew had received three month's advance wages, which would have to be paid over again to another crew, besides other expenses and loss of time and disappointment to the shippers of cargo, so he decided to protect every one but himself and kept the ship on her course.

The crew of the Challenge consisted of 56 men before the mast, supposed to be able seamen, and 8 boys. Of the men in the forecastle only two were Americans, the remainder representing most of the maritime countries of Europe. So soon as Captain Waterman decided to continue the voyage, he made his plans quickly. After giving some orders to Mr. Douglas, his chief officer, he called all hands aft and manufactured a speech in which, among other things he said that the men would find that they were on board of a good comfortable ship, with plenty to eat and very little work to do; but when the officers gave them orders they must obey willingly and quickly; that he hoped none of them had brought spirits or weapons on board, as such things were apt to make trouble at sea. This camp-meeting discourse occupied perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes, during which the mates, carpenter, sailmaker, and boatswain were employed in the forecastle breaking open chests and boxes, emptying bags, and gathering up bottles of rum, knuckle-dusters, slingshots, bowie-knives, and pistols which they threw over the side. After the watches were chosen, each man was made to lay his knife on the main hatch, where the carpenter broke the point of the blade off square.

It was found that only six men among the crew could steer the ship properly; these were made quartermasters and did nothing else during the passage except to lend a hand making and taking in sail. Fully one half of the crew who had shipped as able seamen were not sailormen at all, but blacklegs of the vilest type, who had taken this means of getting to the California gold mines. It also developed that many of the men had contracted a loathsome disease, most difficult to cure at sea, and at one time seventeen of the crew were laid up and off duty. Captain Waterman had the sailroom turned into a sick bay, but although these men received every care, five of them died, and eight were still in their berths when the Challenge arrived at San Francisco.

For some time after sailing from New York, Captain Waterman and his officers were always armed when they came on deck, but after a while the crew appeared to be in such good shape that this precaution gradually became neglected, until, one morning off Rio Janeiro, while Captain Waterman was taking his sights, he heard shouts for help from the main deck. He at once laid down his sextant and hurried forward to find the mate, Mr. Douglas, with his back to the port bulwark just abaft the main rigging, defending himself with bare fists from four of the crew armed with knives, who were attacking him. As Captain Waterman ran along the main deck he pulled a heavy iron belaying pin out of the rail, and using this with both hands as a club, he dealt a terrific blow on the skull of each of the would-be assassins, which laid them out on deck—two of them dead. Mr. Douglas had received no less than twelve wounds, some of them of a serious nature; indeed, he barely escaped with his life. From that time the officers always carried arms, and there was no further trouble with the crew. Off Cape Horn three men fell from aloft, one of whom was drowned while two struck the deck and were killed. The bodies of the men who died were sewn up in canvas with holystones at their feet, and were buried in the sea. Captain Waterman read the funeral service over their remains, but the ship was not hove to as the braces were never allowed to be started except when absolutely necessary, owing to the difficulty and danger of handling the yards with such an inferior crew. The bodies of the two men who attempted to murder the chief officer were taken from where they fell and lowered into the sea. Many years afterward Captain Waterman told me that he could not bring himself to read the Christian burial service over these corpses, but that he gave the crew permission to take the bodies forward, and offered them canvas, holystones, and a prayer-book with which to hold their own service, but none of the crew would volunteer to bury these men.

The Challenge had moderate winds the whole passage, excepting a succession of westerly gales off Cape Horn, and with her wretched crew besides, there was really no opportunity properly to test her speed. Her best day's run was only 336 miles, with the wind abeam and skysails set. She was 55 days from Sandy Hook to Cape Horn, thence 34 days to the equator in the Pacific, and 19 days from the equator to San Francisco. The great wonder is, not that Captain Waterman made such a fine passage, but that he succeeded in getting his ship to San Francisco at all.

Soon after the Challenge rounded to and let go anchor, in San Francisco Bay, she was boarded by a throng of crimps and runners who at once took the crew and their dunnage ashore. There was nothing unusual in this, for it happened nearly every day, captains and mates being powerless to prevent it. A gang of longshoremen would then be sent aboard at wages of from $3 to $5 an hour each, to heave up anchor, put the ship alongside the wharf, stow sails and clear up the decks. As these prosperous sons of toil were never in much of a hurry, it usually required from four to five hours to finish up these jobs, and meant a heavy expense to the ship-owner for work that should have been done by the crew.

When the crew of the Challenge got on shore, some of them had terrible tales to tell about their hardships and privations during the voyage; how they had been nearly starved to death; how some of the crew had starved to death or been murdered, and their bodies hove overboard like dead rats, and how six men had been shot from the mizzentopsail yard in a gale of wind off Cape Horn. According to these blatant imposter's, no such floating hell as the Challenge had ever before set sail upon the ocean, and as for Captain Waterman, he was a blood-thirsty, inhuman navigator, the like of whom had never been seen or heard of, since the days when Noah put his ship ashore among the mountains of Ararat. All this was, of course, profitable material for journalists, one impetuous knight of the pen actually proposing that Captain Waterman should be burned alive, until finally the publisher of this attack became frightened for his own safety, as he had incited the most dangerous set of men, perhaps, that ever existed in any seaport—ticket-of-leave from Australia, cut-throats from New Mexico, and drainings from the social gutters and cesspools of European ports.

At this moment San Francisco happened to be in one of the numerous stages of reform through which that amazing city has passed. It had recently emerged from a reign of lawlessness and mob rule under the guidance of a Vigilance Committee, and while this admirable body of citizens was not yet disbanded, it had in a measure relaxed its grasp upon public affairs. Now, a number of the newly-converted thugs, murderers, and outlaws of the town, whose necks had narrowly escaped the hangman's noose, formed themselves into a new "Vigilance Committee," to deal with Captain Waterman and the officers of the Challenge. These outcasts, crafty and unscrupulous as they were, possessed neither the courage nor the mental capacity to carry out their own plans. They accordingly called a public meeting, held somewhere among the sandhills, at which it was decided to "execute" Captain Waterman and his officers "on sight," and then burn or scuttle the vessel at her wharf. Naturally, the real Vigilance Committee were the first to learn of these proceedings, and at once took the captain and officers under their protection, holding themselves in readiness to scatter the mob should this measure become necessary.

The crowd that gathered at the sandhills consisted of two or three hundred men who had lately been hunted from one end of San Francisco to the
The Challenge p186.jpg

The "Challenge"

other, and had prudently kept themselves stowed away in order to escape the righteous wrath of the Vigilance Committee. One can scarcely conceive anything more grimly grotesque than the spectacle of these inexperienced reformers, in their red flannel shirts and black slouched hats with pistols and bowie-knives stuck in their leather belts, and trousers tucked into the tops of their cowhide boots, the odor of the gin palace and dance-hall clinging to their unwashed skins and clothing, as they wended their way to Pacific Wharf, where the Challenge lay moored, and demanded that Captain Waterman and his officers be delivered over to them for purposes of justice.

As might have been expected, these gentlemen had vanished and no one but a few members of the Committee knew where they were. So finding that Captain John Land had been placed in command of the ship, the mob seized this venerable seaman, and for more than an hour wrangled among themselves as to whether they should shoot, drown, or hang him in place of Captain Waterman. They, however, concluded to hold him as a hostage, and walked their white-haired prisoner up to the office of Alsop & Co., the agents of the Challenge. By this time, the crowd had been considerably augmented and numbered about two thousand men, who filled the air of California Street with yells, curses, lewd jests, and ribald songs. They again demanded from the agents that their intended victims be given up, and six of the ringleaders forced their way with crowbars and axes into the house of Alsop & Co. At this point the bell of the Monumental Fire Engine House began to toll—the well-known signal that called the Vigilance Committee to arms—and long before the Marshal had finished reading the Riot Act, the mob had dispersed with alacrity.

Captain Waterman was not the man to submit quietly to such attacks upon his character and conduct, and he at once offered to meet any charge that might be brought against him before a proper legal tribunal. When no one appeared, he demanded that a full investigation be made into the facts of the voyage of the Challenge. It then appeared, from the testimony of a portion of the crew, that a large number of the men who had shipped in New York as able seamen were grossly incompetent and desperately mutinous; that the food had been of the best, in fact, the same quality of beef, pork, and flour that had been used in the cabin had also been served to the crew without stint, and that no more punishment had been inflicted by the officers than was necessary to maintain proper discipline for the safety of the ship and her cargo.

It also appeared that from the time the ship sailed from New York until the time of her arrival at San Francisco, Captain Waterman had never been out of his clothes except to change them, and had never slept in his berth, but had taken such rest as he could find upon the the transom in his chart-room near the companionway. He was commended for his skill and courage in bringing his vessel safely into San Francisco without the loss of a spar, sail, or piece of rigging. It is therefore humiliating to record that neither the owners of the Challenge nor their underwriters, for both of whom Captain Waterman had saved thousands of dollars, ever had the courtesy to make the slightest acknowledgment of his services, although they were well aware of their obligation in this matter. It is, however, some consolation to know that he asked and needed nothing at their hands.

As we already have seen, Captain Waterman had taken the Pacific Mail steamship Northerner from New York to San Francisco in 1850, and fully intended at that time to retire from the sea. He was then forty-two years old, and had passed thirty-two years upon the ocean; he possessed ample means, with a portion of which he bought four leagues of land in Solano County, California, and it was only at the earnest solicitation of N, L. & G. Griswold, the owners of the Challenge, that he consented to take her from New York to San Francisco in this year. He was now free to attend to his own affairs. Together with Captain A. A. Richie, he founded the town of Fairfield, California. In 1852, he was appointed Port Warden and Inspector of Hulls at the port of San Francisco, a position he held for twenty-eight years. He then retired to his farm, where he died in 1884, at the age of seventy-six. Probably no man in California was more widely known or more highly respected.

One of the best ocean races of 1851 was that between the Raven, Captain Henry; the Typhoon, Captain Salter, and the Sea Witch, Captain Frazer. These clippers sailed for San Francisco nearly together: the Sea Witch passed out by Sandy Hook on August 1st, followed by the Typhoon on August 4th, while the Raven passed Boston Light on August 6th. All had able commanders, who carried Maury's wind and current charts to assist them. In this month of light and baffling breezes a quick run to the equator was hardly to be expected, but these clippers threaded their way across the calm belt of Cancer, ran down the northeast trades, and drifted through the doldrums, with surprising speed. The Sea Witch still kept her lead at the equator, crossing on August 30th, closely followed by the Raven and the Typhoon, which crossed together on the 31st, so that the Raven had gained four and the Typhoon two days on their swift competitor. They all weathered Cape St. Roque and stood away to the southward for a splendid dash of over three thousand miles through the southeast trades and the strong westerly winds further south, all crossing the parallel of 50° S. in the same longitude, 64° W. The Raven had gained another day on the Sea Witch and these two clippers were now side by side, with the Typhoon only two days astern.

Here began one of the keenest races ever sailed upon the ocean. They all stood to the southward with studdingsail booms and skysail yards sent down from aloft, with extra lashings on the boats, spare spars, and skylights, while all hands hardened their hearts for a thrash to windward round Cape Horn. On this desolate ocean the clippers raced from horizon to horizon in heavy westerly gales and a long, fierce, sweeping head sea. For fourteen exciting days and nights, with single-reefed, double-reefed, close-reefed topsails, reefs in and reefs out, their keen, watchful captains made use of every lull and slant to drive their ships to the westward of Cape Horn, across the great, broad-backed, white-crested seas. The Sea Witch and Raven were having it out tack for tack, sometimes one and then the other gaining an advantage, both carrying sail to the utmost limit of prudence, lifting their long, sharp bows to the wild, surging seas, the cold spray flying across their decks and blue water swirling along their lee waists, each handled with consummate skill, and not a spar carried away or rope parted. The Typhoon in hot pursuit, was pressing the two leaders and slowly closing upon them, for her greater length and power helped her here. Finally the Sea Witch and Raven emerged from this desperate contest side by side, as they had entered it, both crossing latitude 50° S. in the Pacific in fourteen days from the same parallel in the Atlantic. The Typhoon had now gained another day, and was within twenty-four hours' sail of each.

Clear of Cape Horn they all went away fast to the northward, rushing through the southeast trades with studdingsails, skysails, water-sails, and ringtails—every yard of canvass set that would draw. On this stretch to the equator, the Sea Witch fairly flew through the water, and crossed in 22 days from 50° S., leading the Raven 2 and the Typhoon 4 days. They now stood to the northward, close-hauled on the starboard tack, for their final struggle. Here again length and power counted in favor of the Typhoon, and she came up with the Sea Witch and Raven, leading them both into port; the Raven, too, for the first time fairly headed the Sea Witch. The Typhoon glided through the Golden Gate, November 18th, 106 days from Sandy Hook; the Raven, November 19th, 105 days from Boston Light, and the Sea Witch, November 20th, 110 days from Sandy Hook. Here is a brief abstract from their log-books:

Raven Typhoon Sea Witch
To the equator in the Atlantic … 25 days 27 days 29 days.
From the equator to 50° S … 21 " 23 " 22 "
From 50° S. in the Atlantic to 50° S. in the Pacific. … 14 " 13 " 14 "
From 50° S. to the equator … 24 " 25 " 22 "
From the equator to the Golden Gate … 21 " 18 " 23 "
Total … 105 " 106 " 110 "

This was a great victory for the Raven, the only ship of her tonnage that ever outsailed the Sea Witch, to say nothing of vanquishing the large and famous Typhoon, a ship more than double her size. It should, however, be remembered with regard to the Sea Witch, that she was at that time over five years old, and had led a pretty wild life under Waterman, while she had known no peace with Prazer in command, and had been strained and weakened by hard driving. Moreover, a wooden ship, after five or six years, begins to lose her speed through absorbing water, and becomes sluggish in light airs. In her prime and at her best with Waterman in command, the Sea Witch was probably the fastest sailing-ship of her inches ever built.

The California clippers were, of course, racing all the time, against each other and against the record, and the strain upon their captains in driving their ships against competitors whose relative positions were unknown, was terrific. It became a confirmed habit with them to keep their ships going night and day in all weathers and at their utmost speed.

In order to appreciate what a passage of 110 days or less from an Atlantic port to San Francisco really means, we must take a few of the long passages of 1851, made by ships that were not clippers: Arthur, from New York, 200 days; Austerlitz, Boston, 185 days; Barrington, Boston, 180 days; Bengal, Philadelphia, 185 days; Capitol, Boston, 300 days; Cornwallis, New York, 204 days; Franconia, Boston, 180 days; Henry Allen, New York, 225 days; Inconium, Baltimore, 190 days. The logs of these vessels tell of long, weary days and nights of exasperating calms, and dreary, heartbreaking weeks of battle with tempests off Cape Horn.

Some of the vessels built in 1851 did not take part in the races of that year, as they were not launched until too late; and did not arrive at San Francisco before 1852. Those among them which became most famous were the Hurricane, Comet, Northern Light, Flying Fish, Staffordshire, Trade Wind, Sword-Fish, and Shooting Star. We shall hear of them later.

The record of San Francisco passages for 1851 should not be closed without mention of the pilotboat Fanny, of 84 tons; length 71 feet, breadth 18 feet 4 inches, depth 7 feet 2 inches, built by Daniel D. Kelly at East Boston in 1850. This schooner was commanded by Captain William Kelly, a brother of her builder, and arrived at San Francisco February 18, 1851, 108 days from Boston. She passed through the Straits of Magellan and thus saved a considerable distance; but even allowing for this, her passage was a very remarkable one for a vessel of her tonnage, and reflects much credit upon the skill and courage of her captain and his plucky companions.


  1. New York Commercial, October 8, 1851.