The Clipper Ship Era/Chapter 14

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CHAPTER XIV


CALIFORNIA CLIPPERS OF 1853


DURING the year 1853, twenty ships arrived at San Francisco from Atlantic ports, chiefly New York, in 110 days or less, showing the high standard of efficiency that had been reached. The best passages of the year were made by the Flying Fish, 92 days; John Gilpin, 93 days; Contest, 97 days; Oriental 100 days; Trade Wind, 102 days; Westward Ho, 103 days; Phantom, 104 days; Sword-Fish, Hornet, and Flying Cloud, each 105 days; and Sea Serpent, 107 days. The Comet arrived on January 17th, after a passage of 112 days from Boston. While off Bermuda she encountered a heavy southwest gale, and was laying to under close-reefed fore- and maintopsails and foretopmast staysail, when the wind suddenly shifted into the southeast and blew with terrific force, carrying away the foretopmast stays, sending the foretopmast over the side, and making junk of the two topsails. Captain Gardner had a good crew, and so soon as the weather moderated, he rerigged his ship at sea, and took her into San Francisco as noted, in 112 days.

Racing had now become close and exciting, and the fleet was so large that it was not uncommon
The Comet p224.jpg

The "Comet"

for two or three ships to be in company at sea, each striving to outsail the others. As we have seen, the Flying Fish won the race this year, and from one of the finest fleets of clippers that ever sailed from New York. The match between her and the John Gilpin was exceedingly close, and taken altogether was one of the best ever sailed upon this famous ocean course, the Derby of the sea. It was Samuel Hall against Donald McKay, Justin Doane against Edward Nickels, and all against the fleet.

The John Gilpin sailed out past Sandy Hook, October 29, 1852, followed by the Flying Fish on November 1st, and before the green Highlands of Neversink had disappeared below the horizon both ships were under a cloud of canvas. The Flying Fish fanned along through the doldrums and crossed the equator 21 days from Sandy Hook, leading the John Gilpin by one day. From the line to 50° S., the John Gilpin made the run in 23 days, passing the Flying Fish and getting a clear lead of two days. The Flying Fish did some fine sailing here; dashing through the Straits of Le Maire, she came up alongside the John Gilpin just off the Horn, and Nickels, ever famous for his jovial good-cheer, invited Doane to come aboard and dine with him, "which invitation," the John Gilpin's log-book ruefully records, "I was reluctantly obliged to decline." This is perhaps the only instance of an invitation to dine out being received off Cape Horn. Few men have had the opportunity to extend such unique hospitality and certainly none could do so more heartily and gracefully than the famous commander of the Flying Fish. His vessel made the run from 50° S. in the Atlantic to 50° S. in the Pacific in 7 days, leading her rival by two days. From this point to the equator, the Flying Fish was 19 and the John Gilpin 20 days. From here the John Gilpin showed remarkable speed, making the run to San Francisco in 15 days, a total of 93 days, closely followed by the Flying Fish, 92 days from Sandy Hook. Their abstract logs are as follows:

Flying Fish John Gilpin
Sandy Hook to the equator 21 days 24 days.
Equator to 50° S 27 " 23 "
50° in the Atlantic to 50° S. in Pacific 7 " 11 "
To the equator 19 " 20 "
Equator to San Francisco 18 " 15 "
Total 92 " 93 "

When we reflect that this match was sailed over a course of some 15,000 miles, and that the difference of time was only twenty-four hours, one is impressed with the perfection to which the models of the vessels had been brought, as well as the exactness of the data relating to the winds and currents that had been gathered and reduced to a system by Maury, and with the skill of their captains, who were guided by his charts and sailing directions. The average difference of sailing between these two ships was less than six seconds per mile over the entire distance. Few races over thirty-mile courses have been sailed by yachts more evenly matched.

No racing yachts have ever been handled with greater care and skill than were these clipper ships over courses of thousands of miles. It was the custom for the captains to change their clothes at eight o'clock in the evening and at the same time in the morning, the exceptions being in thick and stormy weather, when they would not be out of their clothes perhaps for two or three days at a time. The officers and men of the watch below were expected to be ready to tumble out on deck at a moment's notice to make or to shorten sail. The "old man" was very likely to appear on deck at any moment, night or day, which kept the officers in a high state of watchfulness. This was the only way in which these ships could be sailed and make the passages they did.

Another splendid match of this year, sailed to the eastward round the Horn, was that between the Northern Light and the Contest. The Contest was built by Jacob A. Westervelt and commanded by Captain William Brewster, of Stonington, and was one of the fastest ships owned by A. A. Low & Brother. She sailed from San Francisco for New York, March 12, 1853, followed by the Northern Light on the 13th, bound for Boston. Off Cape Horn, the Northern Light came up with and signalled the Contest, and from there led her home by three days, the Northern Light being 76 days 5 hours to Boston Light, while the Contest was 80 days to Sandy Hook. In 1854 the Comet made the passage from San Francisco to New York in 76 days, these being the record passages from San Francisco to Atlantic ports. On this famous passage the Northern Light made the run from San Francisco to Cape Horn in 38 days, and was off Rio Janeiro in 52 days, thence to Boston Light in 24 days. Her best day's run was 354 miles. She made the round voyage to San Francisco and return, including detention in port, in exactly seven months. Captain Hatch, her commander, was a thorough clipper ship captain, who never allowed his ship to suffer for want of canvas, and on this passage he brought his vessel across Massachusetts Bay before a fresh easterly breeze, carrying her ringtail, skysails, and studding-sails on both sides, alow and aloft, until she was off Boston Light—a superb marine picture, and one seldom seen by landsmen even in those days.

No more beautiful sight can be imagined than a morning at sea, with these magnificent vessels racing in mid-ocean, perhaps two or three of them in sight at once; the sun rising amid golden clouds; the dark blue sea flecked with glistening white caps; long, low black hulls cleaving a pathway of sparkling foam; towering masts, and yards covered with, snowy canvas which bellies to the crisp morning breeze as if sculptured in marble; the officers alert and keen for the contest; the African cook showing his woolly head and grinning, good-natured face out through the weather door of the galley, while the wholesome odor of steaming coffee gladdens the hearts of officers and men. And after all, when has anything ever tasted half so refreshing as a tin pot of hot coffee, sweetened with molasses, under the lee of the weather bulwark, in the chill dawn of the morning watch? The third mate walks over to the lee side and knocks the ashes out of his pipe against the rail, and as the sparks fly far to leeward, like falling stars among the foaming waves, he sings out, "Turn to there forward and wash down decks; boatswain, take a pair of those gulpins and rig the head pump; the rest of you get the gear triced up." The watch, with sand, buckets of water, and brooms, bare-footed and with trousers rolled up to their knees, begin to scrub and scrub and scrub. Then when the sun has dried out ropes and canvas, the gear is swayed up fore and aft, with watch tackles on the chain topsail sheets, and a hearty:

"Way haul away,
Haul away the bowline,
Way haul away. Haul away, Joe!"

The halliards are led along the deck fore and aft in the grip of clean brawny fists with sinewy arms and broad backs behind them, the ordinary seamen and boys tailing on, and perhaps the cook, steward, carpenter, and sailmaker lending a hand, and all hands join in a ringing chorus of the ocean, mingling in harmony with the clear sky, indigo-blue waves, and the sea breeze purring aloft among the spars and rigging:

"Oh, poor Reuben Kanzo,

Ranzo, boys, O Ranzo,
Oh, Ranzo was no sailor,
Ranzo boys, O Ranzo.
So they shipped him aboard a whaler,
Ranzo boys, O Ranzo,
And he could not do his duty,
Ranzo boys, O Ranzo.
So the mate, he being a bad man,
Ranzo boys, O Ranzo,
He led him to the gangway,
Ranzo boys, O Ranzo,
And he gave him five-and-twenty,
Ranzo boys, O Ranzo,
But the captain, he being a good man,
Ranzo boys, O Ranzo,
He took him in the cabin,
Ranzo boys, O Ranzo,
And he gave him wine and whiskey,
Ranzo boys, O Ranzo,
And he learned him navigation,
Ranzo boys, O Ranzo,
And now he's Captain Ranzo,

Ranzo boys, O Ranzo."

Finally the mate's clear, sharp order comes: "Belay there; clap a watch tackle on the lee fore brace." "Aye, aye, sir!" And so every sheet, halliard, and brace is swayed up and tautened to the freshening breeze. The gear is coiled up, the brasswork polished until it glistens in the morning sun, the paintwork and gratings are wiped off, decks swabbed dry, and the pumps manned to another rousing chanty:

"London town is a-burning.
Oh, run with the bullgine, run.
Way, yay, way, yay, yar.
Oh, run with the bullgine, run."


The "old man" gets his morning sights, the log is hove, the wheel and watch are relieved at eight bells, and the clipper is ready for another day of stress and strain.

Mornings like these bring keen appetites to officers and men, so the watch below sit about on their chests in the forecastle or on the fore hatch and dive into the mess kit with knives and spoons. It may be a chunk of salt pork or cold salt beef, or what Rufus Choate, in one of his flights of forensic eloquence, described as the "nutritious hash," "succulent lob-scouse," or "palatable dandy funk," with plenty of hard tack in the bread barge, and all washed down with unlimited coffee. Not quail on toast or devilled kidneys, to be sure, but good substantial seamen's food, upon which a man can work better at sea, grow stronger, and become less tired than on any other.

In the old days captains used to lay in large stocks of chickens, eggs, etc., for their crews at Anjer Point, but before the ship was half-way across the Indian Ocean, the men would begin to crow in the dog watch, and come aft in a body, asking that their salt junk might be restored to them. In those days, as now, salmon were plentiful in California, but their introduction on board the clipper ships failed to tempt the appetites of sailormen when off soundings. They said they liked salt junk a good deal better. Besides, it gave them something to growl about—for sailors knew how to curse junk according to traditions approved by generations of jackies, but when it came to chickens and salmon they were at a loss for sufficiently vigorous and appropriate expletives to express their disgust. There used to be a yarn about an old shellback who, in a cross-examination, was asked by a smart Boston lawyer whether the crew did not have enough to eat. The mariner replied, "Well, yes, your honor, there was enough of it, such as it was"; and upon further inquiry as to the quality of the food, he answered, "Now, you see, sir, it was like this: the food was good enough, what there was of it." And this summed up a sailor's idea of food and pretty much everything else, in those days.

The building of clipper ships in the United States reached its zenith in 1853. In that year forty-eight clippers were added to the California fleet, and the wild excitement of building, owning, and racing these splendid ships was at its height. Every one who had capital to invest wanted one, or at least shares in one, and the ship-building yards were taxed to their utmost capacity. It should be remembered also that there was a great deal of other shipbuilding going on in the United States besides the clippers, and that captains, officers, and crews for such a large number of vessels were by no means easy to obtain.

In this year Donald McKay built the Empress of the Seas and Romance of the Seas; William H. Webb, the Fly Away, Snap Dragon, and Young America; Jacob A. Westerwelt, the Cathay and Sweepstakes; Samuel Hall, the second Oriental, the Amphitrite, and Mystery; Greenman & Co., the David Crockett; Roosevelt & Joyce, the David Brown; John Currier, the Guiding Star; Thomas Collier, the second Panama; J. W.
The Young America p232.jpg

The "Young America"

Cox, the Red Gauntlet; Briggs Brothers, the John Land and Golden Light; and Toby & Littlefield, the Morning Star—all beautiful ships, the pride of their owners and captains.

The Romance of the Seas, owned by George B. Upton, of Boston, was the last extreme clipper ship built by Donald McKay for the California trade. She was a beautiful vessel, with extremely fine lines, heavily sparred, and proved an exceedingly fast ship in moderate weather. Captain Dumaresq was in command on her first voyage to San Francisco. She was 1782 tons register; length 240 feet, breadth 39 feet 6 inches, depth 29 feet 6 inches. The Sweepstakes, owned by Grinnell, Minturn & Co., and designed by Daniel Westervelt, a son of Jacob A. Westervelt, was a very sharp and handsome ship, and was the last extreme clipper built in the Westervelt yard. She made three passages from New York to San Francisco averaging 106 days. Captain George Lane, who commanded her for a number of years, was subsequently a commander in the Pacific Mail between San Francisco and China, and later became the agent of the company at Hong-kong.

The Young America, the last extreme clipper built by William H. Webb, was owned by George Daniels, of New York, and for several years was commanded by Captain David Babcock. This ship was 1962 tons register; length 236 feet 6 inches, breadth 42 feet, depth 28 feet 6 inches. She proved an excellent and fast vessel. Among her many fine passages may be mentioned: from New York to San Francisco, 103, 107, 110, 112, 117, and 116 days, and from San Francisco to New York, 92, 97, 85, 101, 103, and 83 days; San Francisco to Liverpool, 103 and 106 days; Liverpool to San Francisco, 117, 111, and 99 days; and twenty consecutive passages from New York to San Francisco averaging 117 days. Her best performance, however, was from 50° S. in the Atlantic to 50° S. in the Pacific, in the record time of 6 days. She, too, was an exceedingly handsome ship, and was Mr. Webb's favorite among all the splendid ships constructed by him. After thirty years' continuous service in the San Francisco trade, during which she is said to have rounded Cape Horn over fifty times, she was finally sold to a firm in Austria, upon condition that her name should be changed. She then became known as the Miroslav and foundered with all hands in 1888, while bound from Philadelphia to a European port.