Clipper Ship

Extraordinarily Fast Sailing Ships Had a Brief But Glorious Heyday

Library of Congress
The New York Clipper Ship Challenge. Library of Congress

A clipper was a very fast sailing ship of the early to mid-1800s. 

According to a comprehensive book published in 1911, The Clipper Ship Era by Arthur H. Clark, the term clipper was originally derived from slang in the early 19th century. To "clip it" or to go "at a fast clip" meant to travel fast. So it is reasonable to assume the word was simply attached to ships which had been built for speed, and as Clark put it, seemed to "clip over the waves rather than plough through them."

Historians differ on when the first true clipper ships were built, but there is general agreement that they became well established in the 1840s. The typical clipper had three masts, was square-rigged, and had a hull designed to slice through the water.

The most famous designer of clipper ships was Donald McKay, who designed the Flying Cloud, a clipper that set an astounding speed record of sailing from New York to San Francisco in less than 90 days.

McKay's shipyard in Boston produced notable clippers, but a number of the sleek and speedy boats were built alongside the East River, in shipyards in New York City. A New York shipbuilder, William H. Webb, was also known for producing clipper ships before they fell out of fashion.

The Reign of the Clipper Ships

Clipper ships became economically useful because they could deliver very valuable material faster than more ordinary packet ships. During the California Gold Rush, for instance, clippers were seen to be very useful as supplies, ranging from lumber to prospecting equipment, could be rushed to San Francisco.

And, people who booked passage on clippers could expect to get to their destination faster than those who sailed on ordinary ships. During the Gold Rush, when fortune hunters wanted to race to the California gold fields, the clippers became extremely popular.

Clippers became especially important for international the tea trade, as tea from China could be transported to England or America in record time. Clippers were also used to transport easterners to California during the Gold Rush, and to transport Australian wool to England.

Clipper ships had some serious disadvantages. Because of their sleek designs, they could not carry as much cargo as a wider ship could. And sailing a clipper took extraordinary skill. They were the most complicated sailing ships of their time, and their captains needed to possess excellent seamanship to handle them, especially in high winds.

Clipper ships were eventually made obsolete by steam ships, and also by the opening of the Suez Canal, which dramatically cut sailing time from Europe to Asia and made speedy sailing ships less necessary.

Notable Clipper Ships

Following are examples of illustrious clipper ships:

  • The Flying Cloud: Designed by Donald McKay, the Flying Cloud became famous for setting a spectacular speed record, sailing from New York City to San Francisco in 89 days and 21 hours in the summer of 1851. To make the same run in less than 100 days was considered remarkable, and only 18 sailing ships ever accomplished that.The New York to San Francisco record was only bettered twice, once again by the Flying Cloud in 1854, and in 1860 by the clipper ship Andrew Jackson.
  • The Great Republic: Designed and built by Donald McKay in 1853, it was intended to be the largest and fastest clipper. The launch of the ship in October 1853 was accompanied with great fanfare when the city of Boston declared a holiday and thousands watched the festivities. Two months later, on December 26, 1853, the ship was docked on the East River in lower Manhattan, being prepared for its first voyage. A fire broke out in the neighborhood and winter winds tossed burning embers in the air. The rigging of the Great Republic caught fire and flames spread down to the ship. After being scuttled, the ship was raised and rebuilt. But some of the grandeur was lost. 
  • Red Jacket: A clipper built in Maine, it set a speed record between New York City and Liverpool, England, of 13 days and one hour. The ship spent its glory years sailing between England and Australia, and eventually was used, as were many other clippers, transporting lumber from Canada.
  • The Cutty Sark: A late era clipper, it was built in Scotland in 1869. It is unusual as it still exists today as a museum ship, and is visited by tourists. The tea trade between England and China was very competitive, and Cutty Sark was built when clippers had been essentially perfected for speed. It served in the tea trade for about seven years, and later in the trade in wool between Australia and England. The ship was used as a training vessel well into the 20th century, and in the 1950s was placed in a dry dock to serve as a museum.