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Clipper Ships – greyhounds of the sea

caption:<i>The Red Jacket in Hobson's Bay </I>1856-1867 Captain Thomas Robertson ANMM Colelction.

Clipper Ships - greyhounds of the sea

Past exhibition 

During the 1840s and 1850s American shipbuilders developed a new breed of sailing ships that won the admiration and envy of the world. Hundreds of Yankee clippers, long and lean, with a beautiful shape, and acres of canvas sails roamed the globe carrying passengers and freight. Clipper Ships - greyhounds of the sea brings to life, though ship models, paintings and recreated accommodations the experiences of passengers and crew of these great ships.

For a brief period beginning in 1845 America led the world in sailing ship design and seamanship. The clipper ship era was filled with national pride, romance, competition, and rapidly changing technology. These vessels were a powerful symbol of American ingenuity and capitalism that highlight a pivotal moment in American maritime history.

The Yankee clipper was long and lean, with a beautiful shape, and acres of canvas sails. These ships set many records for speed and profit - critical elements in the early decades of an expanding global economy.

As quickly as it had appeared the clipper vanished again with the opening of the Suez Canal. The age of sail gave way to the emerging age of steam. This was a truly significant time in America's maritime history- the age of the clipper ship.

The origin of the clipper ship can be found in the mindset of the 19th century entrepeneur that was driven by market competition and profit. Profits depended on how quickly a cargo reached the market. This created a demand for fast vessels and a willingness to push the boundaries of design and technology. Speed was certainly the most striking aspect of the clipper. This was made possible by their long narrow hull shape and sharp bow. These vessels were capable of sailing nearly 20 knots and were able to average more than 400 nautical miles in a 24-hour period.

In the early days of the California gold rush, before the advent of the clipper ship, it took more than 200 days for a ship to travel from New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn - a voyage of more than 16,000 miles. In 1854 the clipper Flying Cloud made the same journey in only 89 days and eight hours - a headline-grabbing world record that was not broken until 1989. At this same time the voyage between Liverpool and Melbourne, a distance of 14,688 nautical miles, was reduced from 100 days to just 64 days.

The career of naval architect and shipwright Donald McKay was spent in the pursuit of speed under sail and perfection of the clipper ship form. The record-setting voyage of his vessel Flying Cloud (1851) only served to raise his own expectations. His next vessels tested his theory of ship design. In Sovereign of the Sea (1852), McKay achieved perfection in a vessel designed specifically for the Australian trade across the Roaring Forties of the Great Southern Ocean. His last vessel, Great Republic (1853), caught fire while loading cargo for its maiden voyage. It never sailed as McKay had designed it.

McKay clipper Lightning was a frequent visitor to Australian ports. The vessel ended its days in Australian waters. Lightning caught fire at around 01:00am on 30 October 1869 at Geelong in Australia. The clipper was fully loaded and ready to sail with 4,300 bales of wool, 200 tons of copper, 35 casks of wine and some tallow. Unable to control the fire the decision was taken at around mid-day to sink her. The initial attempts were by cannon fire from the shore to try and hole her below the waterline but this was unsuccessful. At about 4:00pm some of the crew scuttled Lightning by cutting holes on the waterline and the vessel sank in 27 feet (8 m) of water.

Cutty Sark is the last of the British tea clippers, preserved in dry dock at Greenwich England. In the middle of the 19th Century, clippers raced all the way from Foochow on the South China Coast to London to bring the first tea crops of the season. A fast voyage meant a fast profit (approx. 8.00 per pound for the first shipments).

In July 1889, when the Cutty Sark was in the Australian wool trade, the vessel was involved in a famous incident with the P&O steam ship Britannia. On the night of the 25th, Britannia, doing between 14.5 and 16 knots, was overhauled by the Cutty Sark doing a good 17 knots. Robert Olivey, Second Officer on Britannia, watched the lights of the sailing ship overtaking his vessel with amazement and called Captain Hector. Neither could have known it was Cutty Sark, and Britannia's log read with great amazement, "Sailing ship overhauled and passed us!"

Exhibition shown at Australian National Maritime Museum 25 May 2006 - 24 June 2007.

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