The Clipper Ship Era/Chapter 18

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CHAPTER XVIII


AUSTRALIAN CLIPPERS, 1854-1856


IN view of the keen rivalry at this period, James Baines & Co. determined to own the finest and fastest ships that could be constructed, and accordingly placed an order with Donald McKay to build four clipper ships for their Australian line. These vessels were the Lightning, 2084 tons; the Champion of the Seas, 2448 tons; James Baines, 2515 tons; and Donald McKay, 2598 tons, all launched in 1854, with the exception of the Donald McKay, which was not completed until January, 1855. This firm also bought from Mr. McKay the sister ships Japan and Commodore Perry, 1964 tons each, while they were on the stocks in course of construction.

These ships designed for the Australian trade were very similar to the later California clipper ships built by Mr. McKay, though with less dead-rise and sharper ends; they were fitted with large accommodation for cabin and steerage passengers; while the Japan and Commodore Perry were somewhat fuller ships than the others, and were designed with a view to carry large cargoes rather than to attain high speed.

The Lightning measured: length 244 feet, breadth 44 feet, depth 23 feet, with 20 inches dead-rise at half floor. She had long, concave water-lines, and at her load-displacement line a chord from her cut-water to just abaft the fore rigging showed a concavity of 16 inches. Her stem raked boldly forward, the lines of the bow gradually becoming convex and blending with sheer line and cutwater, while the only ornament was a beautiful full-length figure of a young woman holding a golden thunderbolt in her outstretched hand, the flowing white drapery of her graceful form and her streaming hair completing the fair and noble outline of the bow. The after body was long and clean, though fuller than the bow, while the stern was semi-elliptical in form, with the plank-sheer moulding for its base, and was ornamented with gilded carved work, though this really added nothing to the beauty of the strong, sweeping outline of her hull.

Aloft the Lightning was heavily and strongly rigged. Her main yard was 95 feet in length, and the total height from the deck to the mainskysail truck was 164 feet; her lower studdingsail booms were 65 feet in length; her topsails and topgallantsails were diagonally roped from clews to earings, and her fore and main stays, lower rigging, and topmast stays and backstays were of 11½ inch Russian hemp, with the rest of the standing rigging in proportion. Indeed, her masts and spars were as strongly secured as skill and labor could make them. Evidently, Mr. McKay had grown weary of having his ships go to pieces aloft.

The quarter-deck was 90 feet long, flush with the top of the bulwarks, and protected by a mahogany rail on turned stanchions of the same wood. She had also two large deck-houses, which, together with the between-decks, gave ample passenger accommodation. The quarters for the steerage passengers were comfortably fitted and well ventilated, while the saloons, staterooms, bathrooms, and smoking-room for the cabin passengers were superbly decorated and furnished.

Captain Forbes, late of the Marco Polo, was appointed to command the Lightning, and came to Boston by one of the Cunard steamers to superintend the outfit of his ship. He brought good letters of introduction, and was well received; indeed, he hardly needed any introduction, as the high reputation he had gained while in command of the Marco Polo had preceded him. He made many friends in Boston, especially among the clergy, as he was an enthusiastic churchman, and he found a congenial spirit in Captain Lauchlan McKay, who likewise took a great interest in ecclesiastical affairs. These two mariners became such close friends that Captain McKay consented to accompany Captain Forbes to Liverpool as his companion and adviser, and as we shall presently see, the Lightning developed her finest speed in the hands of these experienced and skilful seamen.

The Lightning loaded in Train's Line at Constitution Wharf, and sailed for Liverpool, February 18, 1854. The Boston Daily Atlas of that date published the following account of her departure:

"At 2 o'clock the Lightning hove her anchor up, and at 3 o'clock discharged her pilot off Boston Light. She went down in tow of the steamer Rescue, Captain Hennessy, and was piloted by Mr. E. G. Martin. Before the steamer left her, she set her head sails, fore- and mizentopsails, and had a moderate breeze from west to southwest. She appeared to go at the rate of 6 knots under this canvas, though she draws 22 feet of water, and has only 23 feet depth of hold. We have seen many vessels pass through the water, but never saw one which disturbed it less. Not a ripple curled before her cutwater, nor did the water break at a single place along her sides. She left a wake as straight as an arrow and this was the only mark of her progress. There was a slight swell and as she rose we could see the arc of her forefoot rise gently over the seas as she increased her speed. At 5 p.m., two hours after the pilot left her, the outer telegraph station reported her thirty miles east of Boston Light, with all drawing sails set, and going along like a steamboat. We think her talented designer and builder, Mr. McKay, cannot improve upon her model. Her commander, being a pious man, was attended down the harbor by a select party of brethren and sisters of the church, who at parting gave him their blessing. This is much better than the dram-drinking and vociferous cheering which usually make up the parting scenes of the unregenerated."

The voyage so auspiciously begun proved one of the most remarkable ever made by a ship on the ocean; for before the Lightning set her pilot signal off Point Lynas, she had left more miles of salt water astern in twenty-four hours than any vessel that has ever sailed the seas propelled by winds and canvas. From the abstract log, published in the Liverpool Albion soon after her arrival, it appears that she went round the north of Ireland, making the run to Eagle Island in 10 days, and to the Calf of Man, within 80 miles of Liverpool, in 12 days, thence to Liverpool in 13 days 19½ hours from Boston Light. Her day's runs were as follows :

1.—"February 19th. Wind west-southwest, and north-west, moderate; 200 miles.
2.—20th. Wind north-northeast and northeast, strong breezes with snow; 328 miles.
3.—21st. Wind east-southeast with snowstorms; 145 miles.
4.—22d. Wind east-southeast, a gale with high cross sea and rain; 114 miles.
5.—23d. Wind north. Strong gales to east-southeast; ends moderate; 110 miles.
6.—24th. Wind southeast, moderate; 312 miles.
7.—26th. Wind east-southeast and southeast. Fresh
breezes with thick weather; 285 miles.
8.—26th. Wind west-southwest, moderate; 295 miles.
9.—27th. Wind west-northwest, moderate; 260 miles.
10.—28th. Wind west and northwest, steady breezes; 306 miles."
[The position at noon on this day was latitude 52° 38' N., longitude 22° 45' W., and here began the greatest day's run ever made by a ship under canvas.]
11.—"March 1st. Wind south. Strong gales; bore away for the North Channel, carried away the foretopsail and lost jib; hove the log several times and found the ship going through the water at the rate of 18 to 18½ knots; lee rail under water, and rigging slack. Distance run in twenty-four hours, 436 miles.
12.—2d. Wind south, first part moderate, latter part light and calm.
13.—3d. Light winds and calms.
14.—4th. Light southeast winds and calms; at 7 a.m. off Great Orma Head; 12 M. off the N. W. Lightship."

This was a remarkable passage considering the percentage of easterly winds, though its memorable incident is, of course, the phenomenal run of 436 miles in twenty-four hours, an average of 18½ knots, which entitles the Lightning to the proud distinction of being the swiftest ship that ever sailed the seas. There was no ocean steamship of her day that approached her record by less than 100 miles, and another flve-and-twenty years passed away before the Atlantic greyhound, the Arizona, made 18 knots for a single hour, on her trial trip. Even at the present time, according to Lloyd's Register, there are not more than thirty oceangoing mail steamships afloat, that are able to steam over 18 knots. It must have been blowing hard enough when the Lightning's jib and foretopsail carried away, for these were not old, worn-out sails, put on board to attract the favorable consideration of underwriters, but were of new canvas, made unusually strong, and had not been out of the sail loft more than a couple of weeks.

Strange as it may seem, the "wood butchers of Liverpool," as Donald McKay used to call them, were allowed to fill in the concave lines of the Lightning's bow with slabs of oak sheathing, and while she continued to be a fast ship, she doubtless would have proved still faster had her original design not been tampered with.[1]

The second of these ships, the Champion of the Seas, measured: length 269 feet, breadth 45 feet, depth 29 feet, dead-rise at half floor 18 inches; length of mainyard 95 feet. The concavity of her water-line forward was 2½ inches, from which it will be seen that she was a differently designed ship from the Lightning. She was considered by many to be even a handsomer vessel. Her stern was ornamented with the arms of Australia, while at her bow she carried a full-length figurehead of a handsome sailorman rigged out in all his best go-ashore togs. She was commanded by Captain Alexander Newlands, who came from Liverpool to superintend her construction and equipment, the whole inside arrangements of the ship, including the complicated plan for light and ventilation and the details of the cabin, being made according to his designs. After fitting out at Grand Junction Wharf, East Boston, she was towed to New York by the R. B. Forbes, where she loaded for Liverpool, and made the passage to that port during the month of June, 1854, in 16 days.

The James Baines measured: length 266 feet, breadth 46 feet 8 inches, depth 31 feet, with 18 inches dead-rise at half floor. Her mainyard was 100 feet in length, and a single suit of sails contained 13,000 running yards of canvas 18 inches wide. Originally she carried a main skysail only, but later she was fitted with three skysails, main moonsail, and skysail studdingsails, and so far as I know, she was the only clipper ship so rigged. There was only a very slight difference between the lines of the Champion of the Seas and those of the James Baines, the latter ship having a somewhat more raking stem, which brought her lines out forward a little longer and sharper above the water-line. Her bow was ornamented with a finely executed bust of her namesake, which was carved in England and was said to be an excellent likeness. Across her stern she carried a carved medallion of the globe, supported by the arms of Great Britain and the United States. She was commanded by Captain McDonnell, late of the Marco Polo, who sailed from Liverpool for Boston soon after his return from Melbourne.

The James Baines sailed from Boston, September 12, 1854, and made the run from Boston Light to the Rock Light, Liverpool, in the record time of 12 days 6 hours. An English correspondent of one of the Boston papers remarked: "You wish to know what professional men say about the ship James Baines. Her unrivalled passage, of course, brought her prominently before the public, and she has already been visited by many of the most eminent mechanics in the country. She is so strongly built, so finely finished, and is of so beautiful a model, that even envy cannot prompt a fault against her. On all hands she has been praised as the most perfect sailing ship that ever entered the river Mersey."

The last of this quartette, the Donald McKay, measured: length 269 feet, breadth 47 feet, depth 29 feet, with 18 inches dead-rise at half floor, and her mainyard was 100 feet long. While her waterlines were fuller than those of the James Baines, she was still an extremely sharp vessel, and with the single exception of the Great Republic was the largest merchant ship afloat. She sailed from Boston, February 21, 1855, under the command of Captain Warner, late of the Sovereign of the Seas, and made the run to Cape Clear in 12 days, and thence to Liverpool in 5 days. On February 27th, she ran 421 miles in twenty-four hours, and on that date her log records: "First part, strong gales from northwest; middle blowing a hurricane from west-northwest, ship scudding under topsails and foresail at the rate of 18 knots; latter part, still blowing from west-northwest with heavy hail squalls; very high sea running."

The Lightning sailed from Liverpool on her first voyage to Melbourne, May 14, 1854. She encountered light winds and calms to the equator, which she crossed in 25 days from the Mersey; such was the nature of the winds that the topgallantsails were not taken in during the passage, and her best day's runs were only 332, 348, 300, 311, and 329 miles on various dates. She arrived out in 77 days, but the passage home to Liverpool was made in the record time of 63 days. In ten consecutive days of twenty-four hours each, she sailed no less than 3722 miles, her best day's run being 412 miles. On this voyage she brought home gold and dust to the value of £1,000,000 sterling.

The James Baines sailed from Liverpool for Melbourne December 9, 1854, and made the passage out in the record time of 63 days, her best twenty-four hours' run being 420 miles. She made the passage home in 69 days, thus sailing around the globe in the record time of 132 days. On a subsequent voyage in 1856 her log records, "June 16th. At noon sighted a ship in the distance ahead; at 1 p.m. alongside of her; at 2 p.m., out of sight astern. The James Baines was going 17 knots with main skysail set; the Libertas, for such was her name, was under double-reefed topsails." "June 17th. Latitude 44° S., longitude 106° E., ship going 21 knots with main skysail set." This appears to be the highest rate of speed ever made by a sailing vessel of which any reliable record has been preserved.

The Champion of the Seas made the passage out in 71 days and home in 84 days, and the Donald McKay made the voyage in about the same time, but the Lightning and James Baines proved the most famous of these ships. So well pleased was Mr. Baines that he wrote to Mr. McKay, saying, "In these ships you have given us all and more than we expected." These were the last extreme clipper ships built by Donald McKay.

During the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 a large number of British and American merchant ships were chartered by the British Government to carry troops to India, and among others the James Baines, Champion of the Seas, and Lightning. The James Baines sailed from Portsmouth for Calcutta on August 8th, with the Ninety-seventh Regiment on board, and the Illustrated London News, in a notice of her departure, remarked: "Previous to her starting she was honored by a visit of Her Majesty, who highly eulogized the vessel and is said to have declared that she was not aware that so splendid a merchant ship belonged to her dominions."

The Champion of the Seas sailed from Portsmouth on the same day, also bound for Calcutta with troops, and the race between these clippers was close and exciting. Nine days out they fell in
The James Baines - p282.jpg

The "James Baines"

with the steamship Oneida homeward bound, and the Illustrated London News, again mentioning the James Baines, said: "When met by the Oneida, on the 17th of August, on her way to Calcutta with troops, she presented a most magnificent appearance, having in addition to her ordinary canvas, studdingsails, skysails, and moonsail, set and drawing, in all thirty-four sails, a perfect cloud of canvas: the troops all well, and cheering lustily as the vessels passed each other. The sister ship, the Champion of the Seas, was not far astern, both vessels making great headway."

These two ships arrived off the mouth of the Hooghly together, each 101 days from Portsmouth, and the finish of this race was talked about by the Calcutta pilots for a good many years: how these splendid clippers raced in from sea almost side by side, with a fresh three-skysail, scupper breeze, the regimental bands on board of both ships playing national airs, while the soldiers were cheering and wild with the joy and excitement of seeing land once more.

The Lightning sailed at a more favorable season, and made the passage from Portsmouth to the Hooghly in 87 days, beating the entire fleet of sailing transports, including those fitted with auxiliary screw propellers.

Of the large number of ships bought or chartered in the United States for the Australian trade by British ship-owners at this period, those mentioned, with the Red Rover, Comet, Tornado, Sierra Nevada, and Invincible, each with a record of less than 75 days from Liverpool or London to Melbourne, the Belle of the Sea, 64 days from London to Melbourne, and North Wind, 67 days from London to Sydney, N. S. W., were the most celebrated.

There were also many American ships that made the voyage from New York to Melbourne, and among the fast passages may be mentioned those of: the Mandarin, in 71 days; Flying Scud and Nightingale, 75 days; Whirlwind, 80 days; Flying Dutchman and Panama, 81 days; Snow Squall, 79 days, and Ringleader, 78 days. Most if not all these ships loaded in R. W. Cameron's line, and it is worth noting that, of all the great shipping firms that flourished in New York half a century ago, this is the only one which now survives.

It was only natural that ship-owners of Great Britain should feel keenly the invasion of their trade by the American clippers, and in 1855, James Baines & Co. placed an order with Alexander Hall & Co., of Aberdeen, then the leading clipper shipbuilders in Great Britain, for a large clipper ship for the Australian trade, to "outdo the Americans." This vessel was the Schomberg, 2600 tons; length 262 feet, breadth 45 feet, depth 29 feet. She was very sharp forward and had a long, clean run, with considerable dead-rise at her midship section. She was built of wood and heavily sparred, with single topsail yards and three skysails.

When this ship came around from Aberdeen to load at Liverpool for Melbourne, she was greatly admired and it was generally believed that she would prove faster than her American rivals, especially as Captain Forbes, late of the Marco Polo and Lightning, had been appointed to command her. She sailed from Liverpool on October 6, 1855. Captain Forbes was a proud man that day, for the pierheads of the port were thronged with a patriotic, cheering crowd to see the Schomberg off, and as she towed down the Mersey, the signals reading, "Sixty days to Melbourne," fluttered gayly from her mizen truck.

She had moderate winds to the equator, which she crossed 28 days from the Mersey, and then drifted into calms and light airs which continued for ten days and from which she did not possess the nimble speed to extricate herself. Her best day's work, while running her easting down, was 368 miles. When 81 days out she was wrecked and became a total loss on an uncharted reef about 150 miles to the westward of Melbourne, the passengers, crew, and mails being saved. This was by no means a record passage, and it is to be regretted that her career was so short, as it would be interesting to know what she might have done under more favorable conditions. She certainly possessed the qualities of a fast ship, and was ably commanded.

There were also many fine ships of English build sailing out of London in the Australian trade; the Norfolk and Lincolnshire, built and owned by Money, Wigram & Sons; the Kent, Trafalgar, and Renown, built and owned by R. & H. Green; and many others. These ships were built of teak, oak, and elm; were copper-fastened and sheathed with red copper. They resembled smart frigates more than merchantmen, and were about the perfection of that type—splendid ships to be at sea in, though not so fast as the sharper American clippers. None of these vessels was over 1500 tons, and it was thought by shipping men in London and Liverpool that much of the speed of the American ships was due to their greater tonnage. There may have been some truth in this, but it should be remembered that with these large wooden vessels an increase in size made the difficulties in building greater, as well as in getting their wooden masts to stand with hemp rigging, to say nothing of handling their enormous single topsails in heavy weather.

Meanwhile attempts were being made by various companies to introduce steam in place of the clipper ships that had carried the passengers, mails, and specie after the discovery of gold in Australia, but these efforts were beset with many difficulties and heavy financial losses.

The Australian, an iron screw steamer of 2000 tons, was the first steamship to carry the mails from England to Melbourne. She sailed from Plymouth, June 5, 1852, and called at St. Vincent, St. Helena, Table Bay, and St. George's Sound for coal, which had been sent out by ship from England to meet her. She arrived at Melbourne in 89 days from Plymouth, and returned by the Cape of Good Hope in 76 days. She arrived at London, January 11, 1853, having been 7 months and 6 days upon the voyage, a creditable but not a very brilliant performance. The Australian was soon followed by the Great Britain, Adelaide, Queen of the South, Sydney, Cleopatra, Antelope, and other iron screw steamers; but these vessels nearly ruined
The Schomberg - p287.jpg

The "Schomberg"

their owners and did not greatly interfere with the clippers.

In 1854 the Argo, a full-rigged iron ship of 1850 tons register, with plenty of canvas and fitted with an auxiliary engine and screw, made the passage from London to Melbourne in 64 days and home round Cape Horn in 63 days; and though she sailed during the greater portion of the voyage, using her engines only in calms and light winds, she was the first merchant vessel using steam-power to circumnavigate the globe. This voyage is peculiarly adapted to auxiliary steam vessels, as, by following the sailing-ship track, very few strong head winds are met, and of course the screw is of great assistance in light winds and calms.

The Argo was followed (1855–1856) by the Royal Charter, Istamboul, and Khersonese and other iron auxiliary "steam clippers," as they were called. These vessels carried as much canvas as the clipper ships, and were more expensive to handle and not much faster; the rivalry was therefore keen. The clippers still secured their full share of the cabin and steerage passengers, the mails and gold, and were by no means vanquished; indeed, the auxiliaries proved no more successful than the steamships, and brought much the same result to their owners.

It was not till after the close of the Crimean War in 1856, when the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company extended their line to the Australian colonies, that the clipper ships began seriously to feel the competition of steam. From that time iron sailing vessels for this trade were built with a view to carrying large cargoes and steerage passengers, so that by 1860 the day of the Australian clippers had passed away, although the later China tea-clippers sometimes made this voyage. Almost countless splendid iron and steel sailing ships have since been built in Great Britain, and many fine passages have been made to and from Australia, yet the records of the James Baines, North Wind, Lightning, Mandarin, and Lord of the Isles remain unbroken.


  1. These slabs were subsequently removed, one side being washed away.