History of the Clipper Ship


Clipper, name applied to a ship to indicate that it is a very fast sail. The term, probably derived from the verb clip (to move quickly), was first used in the United States soon after the War of 1812 and was applied to the type of vessel formerly described as Virginia built or of pilot boat construction. After the 1830s the term clipper was adopted to mean any fast ship.

Baltimore Clipper

Although somewhat obscure in origin, the Baltimore clipper was probably a natural development of the known principles of fast-sailing-ship design popular in England in the 16th century. The basic hull form has a heart-shaped midsection, a short keel with very raking stern and stem outline, and a low-sided and sharp-bowed hull.

This hull form, in modified detail, is known to have been used in England in the 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries and on the islands of Jamaica and Bermuda from late in the 17th century to well into the 19th.

The Bermuda model was introduced into the American colonies, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay region, early in the 18th century. The first true Baltimore clipper appeared, presumably on the eastern shore of the bay, sometime before the American Revolution.

Baltimore clippers were first referred to as Virginia built, and, because they were used as pilot boats in Norfolk, Virginia, they were also referred to as pilot boat construction. They were usually schooner, brigantine, or brig rigged, but some ship-rigged vessels of the model were built as early as the American Revolution .

These topsail schooners first attracted attention in Europe toward the end of the American Revolution because they had proved to be very fast privateers.   By the early 19th century the Baltimore clipper had become known internationally as a fast-sailing, seagoing type suitable for naval service, for illegal trading, and for carrying light cargoes.   Its reputation was enhanced by its performance during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812; afterward, most of the slavers and smugglers, as well as West Indian pirate craft, were Baltimore clippers.

The most common example of the type in the first quarter of the 19th century was a topsail schooner or brigantine, heavily sparred and canvased, with sharply raking masts, a low-sided and sharp-bowed hull, and a rather deep draft greatest at the heel of the rudder. Displacement was moderate for the hull dimensions, and the vessel was able to carry little cargo.

Vessels of pilot boat construction were built all along the Atlantic coast after 1800 and were copied outside the U.S., notably in France and in the West Indies.    Because the Baltimore clipper was not primarily designed for cargo carrying, little more than the name survived in the famous clipper ships of American transoceanic trade of the 1840s and 1850s, although the ship long remained the basic model for many small, fast-sailing craft, such as fishing schooners, pilot boats, and yachts.

The Clipper Ship

By 1830 general usage had made the term clipper synonymous with fast sailing, although no specific hull type or rig was standard. After about 1845 the term was used in conjunction with a name indicating the cargo carried or area served by a fast-sailing vessel, and a specific rig and hull type usually were indicated. The more common types were the California clipper, China clipper, coffee clipper, opium clipper, and tea clipper. The California clipper, China clipper, and tea clipper were ship-rigged vessels with sharp bows and were designed for speed. The coffee and opium clippers varied in size and might be schooner, brigantine, brig, bark, or ship rigged, but were equally sharp bowed for fast sailing.      As early as 1832 an enlarged Baltimore clipper, the Ann McKim, had been given square rig; but the first ship with large sales designed for speed was generally held to have been the Rainbow built in 1845 at New York.     The discovery of gold in California in 1848 and in australia in 1850, raising a demand for the fastest passages to both, and the repeal of the British Navigation Acts in 1849, opening the tea trade from China to London to foreign ships, gave a tremendous fillip to the production of American clippers

The ships having the sharpest bows, that is, those in which cargo capacity was most sacrificed for speed, were called extreme clippers. All the extreme clippers were built between 1850 and 1856. Moderately sharp-bowed vessels capable of carrying more cargo than the extreme ships were called clippers. Ships with small cargo capacity but having bows sufficiently sharp to give fairly high speed were called medium clippers or half clippers. A small proportion of the American California and China clippers were of the extreme type; medium clippers predominated.

The American clipper ship era extended only from about 1845 to 1859.   Not many American clippers were launched before 1850 and few were built after 1857. In Great Britain clipper shipbuilding continued until well into the 1870s, because the British tea trade employed fast-sailing ships long after that and similar trades became unprofitable for fast American vessels. Most of the British clipper ships were of extreme models, but on the average they were smaller than the earlier American clipper ships. Some iron clipper ships were built in Great Britain, none in the U.S.    Some 15 or 16 clippers were built in Canada, in Québec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, from 1850 to 1860.   Most of the Canadian clipper ships were employed in the packet service between Great Britain and Australia. A small number of clipper ships were built in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden.

The building of medium or half clippers extended generally from 1845 to 1860. Some vessels of this description that were built after 1860 for the coffee trade were bark rigged, but were of small size compared with the earlier California and China clipper ships. From 1850 to 1860 many sharp-bowed brigantines and schooners were built on the model of the large clippers; these vessels replaced the earlier Baltimore clippers in the coastal and ocean trades.

Because of the diversity of clipper ship models, whether ships, barks, or small vessels, generalizing about their appearance is almost impossible. As conceived popularly in the 1850s, a clipper ship was a large, ship-rigged vessel having a graceful sheer (an upward curve of the lines of the hull as seen from the side), a simple, high-arched stem fitted with a figurehead, a square or a round stern, rather low freeboard when loaded, generally a very sharp bow, and an extremely large sail area. The American clipper ships depended on proportion and line for beauty rather than on carving and external decoration.

For a seagoing, cargo-carrying sailing vessel, the clipper ship was remarkably fast; claims for speeds from 16 to 18 nautical mph are common, and exceptional speeds of up to 20 knots have been documented.

The size of the American clipper ships of the 1850s, many of them built by Boston naval architect Donald McKay, ranged in length from about 46 to 76 m (about 150 to 250 ft). Only six noted American clipper ships were longer than 76 m (250 ft), and the longest, McKay's Great Republic, was 92 m (302 ft) long, the largest clipper ship ever built. Only 30 clipper ships of about 370 vessels classified as American clippers were as long as 64 m (210 ft). The most common length was about 56 m (about 185 ft).

American clipper ships, which usually carried crews of 25 to 50 sailors, established many remarkable and long-lasting records, among them those of McKay's Yankee clippers, the Lightning, which established a world record by sailing 436 nautical mi in one day; the James Baines, which set a transatlantic record of 12 days 6 hr from Boston to Liverpool and an around-the-world record of 133 days; and the Flying Cloud, which sailed from New York City around Cape Horn to San Francisco in 89 days. Other clipper records were set by the Nightingale, which sailed from Shanghai to London in 91 days; the Sea Witch, Canton to New York in 81 days, and the Challenge, Hong Kong to San Francisco in 33 days.

American clipper ships generally were strongly built; iron was strapped over the frames and on the sides of the inner keel, or keels, in many instances. Although they suffered much damage in spars, rigging, sails, and topside fittings because of hard driving, which made them expensive to maintain, clippers commonly lasted well. Some record-holding clipper ships had an active life of 23 to 48 years.

This ompetition, almost entirely from the U.S.A., now spurred British shipowners and shipbuilders who up to this time had been mainly content with improving the sailing quality of the Blackwell frigates, though schooner-rigged ships had been built since 1839 by Alexaner Hall & Sons of Aberdeen for the England to Scotland passenger trade and one of them, the Scottish Maid, had reached London from Leith in 33 hours.     The same firm now built the first small British clippers, the Stornoway and Chrysolite for the tea trade, while R. & H. Green of Blackwell produced the Challenger.

Other British ship yards, chiefly Scottish, also began to build clipper ships, notably Robert Steele & Co. of Greenock, who between 1855 and 1859 completed a number of small but very successful ships. The financial depression of 1857 and the American civil war (1861-65) resulted in a decline in American commercial shipbuilding and in its place led to a revival in Britain which was to result in the golden age of the tea-clipper.
Tea from China was a very profitable cargo in those days and several clippers were specially built for the trade. The first arrival in London of the new crop each year commanded the highest prices.

Robert Steele built such famous ships for this trade as the Taeping, Ariel, and Sir Lancelot. In 1866 occurred the most famous of all the annual tea-clipper races when the Fiery Cross left Foochow on 29 May, the Ariel, Taeping, and Serica on the 30th, and the Taitsing on the 31st.
The Taeping docked in London at 9:45 p.m. on 6 September, the Ariel half an hour later, and the Serica at 11:45 p.m., after having sailed the 16,000 miles from Foochow. The Fiery Cross and Taitsing both reached London two days later.   Two other tea-clippers featured in another famous race from Foochow in 1872. They were the Thermopylae and the Cutty Sark, both completed in 1868, which were lying approximately level when the latter lost her rudder in a gale off Cape Province, South Africa.

The clipper era ended when the transoceanic carrying trade was affected by the reduced freight rates made possible by the introduction of the steamship.  Thereafter only sailing vessels capable of carrying very large freight cargoes could be operated profitably.      The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 struck the death nell for tea-clippers, making the long trip round the Cape of Good Hope unprofitable for their specialized freight. The ships transferred to carrying wool from Australia for a time, but were soon outmoded in a trade in which large cargoes, small crews, and less speed were more economical; these were better provided by the large, steel-hulled, four and five masted barques with which the age of sail came finally to an end.


"Clipper," Microsoft (R) Encarta. Howard I. Chapelle Microsoft Corporation. Funk & Wagnall's Corporation, 1994.