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A clipper was a very fast sailing ship of the 19th century that had multiple masts and a square rig. They were generally narrow for their length, could carry limited bulk freight, small by later 19th century standards, and had a large total sail area. Clipper ships were mostly made in British and American shipyards, though France, the Netherlands and other nations also produced some. Clippers sailed all over the world, primarily on the trade routes between the United Kingdom and its colonies in the east, in trans-Atlantic trade, and the New York-to-San Francisco route round Cape Horn during the California Gold Rush. Dutch clippers were built beginning in 1850s for the tea trade and passenger service to Java.



"Clipper Ship Lightning" by Bruce Von Stetina

The term clipper originally applied to a fast horse and most likely derives from the term clip meaning "speed", as in "going at a good clip". The Oxford English Dictionary says its earliest quotation in English is from 1830. Cutler reports the first newspaper appearance was in 1835, and by then the term was apparently familiar. Clipper bows were distinctively narrow and heavily raked forward, which allowed them to rapidly clip through the waves. The cutting notion is also suggested by the other class of vessel built for speed, the cutter.

In the United States, "clipper" referred to the Baltimore clipper, a topsail schooner developed in Chesapeake Bay before the American Revolution. It was lightly armed in the War of 1812, sailing under Letters of Marque and Reprisal, when the type — exemplified by Chasseur, launched at Fells Point, Baltimore in 1814 — became known for her incredible speed; the deep draft enabled the Baltimore clipper to sail close to the wind.

The first archetypal clipper, with sharply raked stem, counter stern and square rig, was Annie McKim, built in Baltimore in 1833 by Kennard & Williamson. Clippers, running the British blockade of Baltimore, came to be recognized for speed rather than cargo space.

"The Prinz Albert," 1897, by Antonio Jacobsen

Clippers were built for seasonal trades such as tea, where an early cargo was more valuable, or for passenger routes. The small, fast ships were ideally suited to low-volume, high-profit goods, such as spices, tea, people, and mail. The values could be spectacular. The Challenger returned from Shanghai with "the most valuable cargo of tea and silk ever to be laden in one bottom". Competition among the clippers was public and fierce, with their times recorded in the newspapers. The ships had low expected lifetimes and rarely outlasted two decades of use before they were broken up for salvage. Given their speed and maneuverability, clippers frequently mounted cannon or carronade and were often employed in piracy, privateering, smuggling, or interdiction service.

Clipper ship sailing card for the "Free Trade," printed by Nesbitt & Co., NY, early 1860s

Departures of clipper ships, mostly from New York City and Boston, Massachusetts to San Francisco, California, were advertised by clipper ship sailing cards, and represented the first pronounced use of color in American advertising art.

China clippers and the epitome of sail

The Clipper Ship "Flying Cloud" off the Needles, Isle of Wight, by James E. Buttersworth, 1859-60.

The most significant clippers were the China clippers, also called Tea clippers, designed to ply the trade routes between Europe and the East Indies. The last example of these still in reasonable condition is Cutty Sark, preserved in dry dock at Greenwich, United Kingdom, although she suffered extensive damage in a fire on 21 May 2007.

The last China clippers were acknowledged as the fastest sail vessels. When fully rigged and riding a tradewind, they had peak average speeds over 16 knots (30 km/h). The Great Tea Race of 1866 showcased their speed. China clippers are also the fastest commercial sailing vessels ever made. Their speeds have been exceeded many times by modern yachts, but never by a commercial sail vessel.

There are many ways of judging the speed of a ship: by knots per hour (sic), by day's runs, by port-to-port records. Judged by any test, the American clippers were supreme. Donald McKay's Sovereign of the Seas reported the highest rate of speed ever achieved by a sailing ship - 22 knots (41 km/h), made while running her easting down to Australia in 1854. (John Griffiths' first clipper, the Rainbow, had a top speed of 14 knots... ) There are eleven other instances of a ship's logging 18 knots (33 km/h) or over. Ten of these were recorded by American clippers... Besides the breath-taking 465-mile (748 km) day's run of the Champion of the Seas, there are thirteen other cases of a ship's sailing over 400 nautical miles (740 km) in 24 hours... And with few exceptions all the port-to-port sailing records are held by the American clippers.

– Lyon, Jane D , P.138 Clipper Ships and Captains(1962)New York: American Heritage Publishing



Decline in the use of clippers started with the economic slump following the Panic of 1857 and continued with the gradual introduction of the steamship. Although clippers could be much faster than early steamships, they depended on the vagaries of the wind, while steamers could keep to a schedule. The steam clipper was developed around this time, and had auxiliary steam engines which could be used in the absence of wind. An example was Royal Charter, built in 1857 and wrecked on the coast of Anglesey in 1859. The final blow was the Suez Canal, opened in 1869, which provided a great shortcut for steamships between Europe and Asia, but was difficult for sailing ships to use. With the absence of the tea trade, some clippers began operating in the wool trade, between Britain and Australia.

Although many clipper ships were built in the mid-19th century, Cutty Sark was, perhaps until recently, the only survivor. Falls of Clyde is a well-preserved example of a more conservatively designed, slower contemporary of the clippers, which was built for general freight in 1878. Other surviving examples of clippers of the era are less well preserved, for example the oldest surviving clipper City of Adelaide(a.k.a. S.V. Carrick).

During the first and second World Wars, several battleships and aircraft carriers were built with a "clipper bow" for improved hydrodynamic efficiency. The clipper bow on carriers was an American peculiarity, Japanese ships did not feature it and British ships had the similar but differently-shaped "hurricane bow," whose purpose was, like the clipper bow, to improve hydrodynamic efficiency and, unlike the clipper bow, protect the hangar deck from spray.

In 2000, two new clippers were built: Stad Amsterdam and Cisne Branco (Brazilian Navy). They are not replicas of any one ship, but an attempt to combine what their builders consider the "best" qualities of clipper ships.

Notable examples of the clipper ship include:

  • Archibald Russell, 1905, a steeled-hulled 4-masted barque, 291.3ft x 43ft x 24ft, built by Scott Shipbuilding and Engineering Co of Greenock. In 1923 she was sold to Gustaf Erikson, Mariehamn, Aland Islands, Finland and put on the Australian wheat trade. It was scrapped in 1949.
  • Ariel, 1865, 197.4ft x 33.9ft x 21ft, designed by William Rennie, built by Robert Steele & Co, Greenock for Shaw, Lowther & Maxton of London. In late 1872 she left London bound for Sydney and was not heard of again.
  • Blackadder, 1870, (sister ship to Hallowe'en), built by Maudsley, Sons & Field at Greenwich for John Willis. On 5 November 1905 she was wrecked whilst on passage from Barry to Bahia loaded with coal.
  • City of Adelaide - Oldest surviving clipper
  • Cornwallis - Ship of the Black Ball Line, new in 1862, as depicted in The Illustrated London News. Wrecked off the Pitcairn Islands and commemorated on a 1994 set of the Islands' stamps, Pitcairn 403-406, MNH. Michel 432-435
  • Cutty Sark
  • Donald McKay, 1855. Extreme clipper, 2604 tons, 266' x 46'3" x 29'5". Named after its designer.
  • Fiery Cross- In 1861, Richard 'Dickie' Robinson of Workington was appointed captain of the Fiery Cross, and under his command she won the tea race three times in the six years. Fiery Cross finished fourth in the famous The Great Tea Race of 1866 won in 106 days. Captain Robinson won the race a further two times when he was in command of Sir Lancelot. On his final passage in 1869, he came home in 89 days, a record that still stands to this day.
  • Flying Cloud Sister ship of the Northern Light. Second copy of the new design that produced the fastest clipper ships (Northern Light was built first).
  • Great Republic Designed by Donald Mackay and built in New York, it was at 335 feet the largest wooden merchant sailing ship ever built, a record that still stands. Before she made her maiden voyage, however, a fire on shore spread to her dock, and she burned to the waterline.
  • Hallowe’en, 1870 (sister ship to Blackadder), 920 tons, 216.6ft x 35.2ft x 20.5ft, built by Maudsley, Sons & Field at Greenwich for John Willis. Due to faults in her sister ship Blackadder, which caused dismasting on her maiden voyage, Hallowe'en was not handed over to Willis for nearly 18 months after her launch due to protracted legal action. Hallowe'en was fast in light airs and recorded many fast passages from China. In 1887 she was on passage from Foochow loaded with tea and was wrecked off Salcombe, South Devon, Britain.
  • Herzogin Cecilie, 1902, a steel-hulled four-masted barque, 336.9ft x 46.3ft x 24.2ft. Built by Rickmers AG, Bremerhaven as a schoolship for Norddeutscher Lloyd, Bremen. In 1921 it was handed to the French government as war compensation and was sold the same year to Gustaf Erikson, Mariehamnand sailed on the Australian wheat trade. In 1936 it was stranded at Bolt Head, South Devon, Britain.
  • Houqua By many accounts the first true clipper, she was laid down along lines designed by packet captain Nat Palmer of Stonington, CT. Built by Brown & Bell of New York for the China merchants A.A. Low & Bro, she was launched in 1844, named after a Chinese merchant who had died the previous year. Dogged by ill luck during her career, she disappeared at sea after leaving Yokohama in 1864.
  • James Baines
  • Leander, 1867, composite built clipper, 215.5ft x 35.2ft x 20.7ft, 848 tons net, designed by Bernard Waymouth, built by J G Lawrie, Glasgow for Joseph Somes.
  • Lightning
  • Lothair, 1869, iron, 794 tons, built by William Walker at Rotherhyde for their own shipping business. In 1873, she was purchased by Killick, Martin & Co. Lothair sailed on until about 1910.
  • Marco Polo made England-Australia round trip in less than 60 days
  • Mimosa, 1853, converted to carry Welsh settlers to Patagonia in 1865.
  • Norman Court, 1869, composite built clipper, 197.4ft x 33ft x 20ft, 833.87 tons net, designed by William Rennie (almost certainly his best clipper ship design), built by A & J Inglis, Glasgow. On the night of 29 March 1883 in a strong gale she was driven ashore and wrecked in Cymmeran Bay.
  • Northern Light, 1851, Built in Boston and designed by the brilliant naval architect Samuel Hartt Pook. His design for the new Northern Light was radically innovative, being raked very sharply below the waterline and with full and powerful lines topside. Arguably, the Northern Light was the fastest of all the clipper ships. In 1853, Northern Light set the record from San Francisco around Cape Horn to an east coast port (Boston) of 76 days 5 hours which stood until the 1990s when the record was broken by a high-tech catamaran that had been purpose built to beat the record, carried no cargo, and had the advantages of modern weather forecasting and satellite navigation.
  • Phoenician, 478 tons, White Star line, first clipper ship to go to Australia, arrived Port Jackson July 21, 1849, a trip of 91 days.
  • Queen Of Nations, 827 tons, built in Aberdeen in 1861, wrecked in 1881 with a cargo of distilled spirits
  • Rainbow First of the true clipper ships, designed by John W. Griffiths and built by Smith & Dimon of New York for China merchants Howland & Aspinwall in 1844. So extensive was criticism of its radical design that Howland & Aspinwall delayed its construction, weighing a redesign, while rivals Brown & Bell, also of New York, completed and launched the clipper Houqua for China merchants A.A. Low & Bro. Rainbow was not launched until Feb 1845, 9 months after Houqua.
  • Red Jacket, 1853 260 ft x 44 ft, 4,000 tons net. Designed by Samuel Hartt Pook, built by the George Taylor yards, Rockland. Her maiden voyage, from New York to Liverpool set an unbroken dock to dock speed record of 13 days, one hour and 25 minutes. She originally sailed the Liverpool to Melbourne run. In 1854 she set another record from Liverpool to Melbourne of 67 days, 13 hours. In 1870 she was sold into the Canadian timber trade, and in 1882 was sent to the Cape Verde Islands, where she expired as a coal hulk.
  • Sea Witch Launched Dec 1846. 170 ft, 3 in. Her 140 ft mainmast carried 5 tiers of sails, as did the shorter fore and mizzen masts. In 1849 she made a record-setting run from Hong Kong to New York in 74 days under Captain Robert "Bully Bob" Waterman. The previous record, also held by Sea Witch and Captain Waterman, was 77 days, set in 1847.
  • Serica 1863, built by Robert Steel & Co, Greenock for the China tea trade. Participated in The Great Tea Race of 1866.
  • Sir Lancelot, 1865, 197.6ft x 33.7ft x 21ft, 886 tons net, built by Robert Steel & Co, Greenock. Richard 'Dickie' Robinson of Workington was appointed captain. Robinson had already won three tea races as the commander of Fiery Cross, before placing a disappointing fourth in The Great Tea Race of 1866 which was won in 106 days. Captain Robinson won the race a further two times with Sir Lancelot. On his final passage in 1869, he came home in 89 days, a record that still stands to this day. In 1895 under Persian ownership, she was rumoured to have sank on 1 October during a cyclone near Sand Heads, Calcutta whilst on passage from the Red Sea loaded with salt.
  • Sovereign of the Seas, 1852, 258ft, the fastest and longest ship yet built when she was launched in New York, designed and built by Donald Mackay, America's foremost clipper designer. On her maiden voyage, she sailed New York to San Francisco in 103 days. This ship achieved the fastest ever recorded speed of a sailing vessel (22 knots).
  • Stad Amsterdam, clipper, perhaps extreme clipper, built in 2000 for the Randstad and the City of Amsterdam.
  • Stag, built in LaHave, Nova Scotia in 1854, known for her dramatic Aberdeen bow and fast Atlantic passages.
  • Stag Hound extreme clipper, designed by Donald McKay and built in Boston in 1850. When it was built, it was the largest vessel in the American merchant marine; the record did not last long.
  • Tayleur
  • Taitsing, 1865, composite clipper, 192ft x 31.5ft x 20.15ft, built by Charles Connell & Co, Glasgow.
  • Thermopylae
  • Ticonderoga
  • Witch of the Wave,1852
  • Young America, Built by William Webb of New York in 1853.

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