The Day of the Clipper

I grew up with sea stories. Dad sailed as a child and teen, and was in the Navy. I memorized sea chanteys as a child, and literally cut my teeth on a model of the Bismark (Dad wasn’t pleased.) One of my favorite books growing up was H. C. Holling’s Sea Bird, about the seas, sailing, and advances in nautical technology. Some time ago, Dad mused that perhaps if we’d lived closer to the sea, I’d have become a master mariner instead of a pilot. Who’s to say?

Sailing ships run in Dad’s family. One of his ancestors was Donald McKay, who designed and built a number of famous ships, including Flying Cloud.

Beautiful, fast as the blazes, and over-sailed to the point of risk, the clipper is a beautiful beast. Public Domain – wikicommons.

Clipper ships were very fast American-designed sailing ships that were meant for the China trade, and are sometimes called “China clippers.” Most are associated with tea, and they carried high-value cargoes. You can tell by the picture above that, unlike whaling ships, they are not meant to have huge loads hanging off the sides, even temporarily. When the winds and seas cooperated, clippers could cover up to a hundred miles per day more than a “standard” cargo ship, which gave them a major advantage in terms of getting the tea before it sold out, and racing back to the US and elsewhere to get the best price for their cargoes. One clipper survives that can be visited, although it is in England. It is the Cutty Sark. It is named for the little shirt, “cutty sark” worn by the witch in the poem Tam O’Shanter.

Some years back, for reasons I don’t quite recall, I was poking around the ‘net and found a beautiful book about the Segelschulschiffverein. This is an international organization for teaching schooners, or literally “sailing-school-ships.” These include things like the U.S. Coast Guard’s Eagle, the Großherzogin Elizabeth, and other “tall ships,” that serve as floating classrooms for teamwork, sailing skills, and navigation. All are multi-masted sailing ships, some owned by countries, some by individuals, and some by charitable or education foundations. Every year there are gatherings of these ships at various places around the world. Not every tall ship goes to every event, but just getting to see two or three of them under way is a treat.

If you are ever in Rostock, Germany, there is a place that does “vintage” (as in medieval and later) sailing tours. Yes, most of the ships also have motors, since the wind does not always cooperate with sailing schedules, but if all goes well, you get to sail the Baltic for a day or two, or a few hours (smaller ships). I didn’t get the chance, but it was neat to see the masts poking up behind the edge of the city. If you are really determined, in August is an international “Hansa Sail” festival.

The Eye of the Wind, one of the ships on view this coming August.

I’ve never gotten to sail on a full-rigged ship. I’d like to some day, but that involves saltwater, sunlight, and other things that are not congenial to my coloring. But who knows?


15 thoughts on “The Day of the Clipper

  1. Or, perhaps, a different kind of pilot. A life not bad for a hardy lad, though surely not a high lot … . And it requires being a Master of any.

  2. Got some decent pictures of a Tall Ships procession into an anchorage a few years ago. Wonderful to watch them enter in reduced sail. Great fun, because the channel was near the shore, and you wave at the ships and get waves from passengers.

  3. Recently finished “Seized” by Max Hardberger recounting his adventures recovering ships from seizure by corrupt officials and modern day pirates. He has both a commercial pilot’s license and a Master’s license for unlimited tonnage, unlimited oceans. So at least in his case, the two are not mutually exclusive.

    • In Hardberger’s case, the pirates were governments! He’s also got a prequel 9d sorts, “Freighter Captain”. Great writing.

  4. And here I thought Tay was getting his claws clipped. 😉

    Seriously, sounds interesting. 😀

    • Say TXRed, is there a reason why you made the lemur (nocturnal) Tay a morning person, apart from bothering his mage?

      My Circuit Theory professor declared himself a night person, then explained, “A night person is someone who thinks a sunrise is the most beautiful thing in the world, and the absolutely perfect way to end a day.” For the record, he was a terrific instructor and grader.

      • In part because it keeps Lelia off-balance, and reminds her that he’s not an animal at heart. In part because it keeps her attention outside of herself. That’s going to become more important as the story progresses.

  5. I was lucky enough to participate in Tall Ships 76 at Newport, RI. Two particular incidents come to mind, one was Kruzenshtern BARELY clearing the Jamestown bridge at low tide (something less than 6 feet), and getting a ride on the Spanish Navy ship de Elcano from Newport to Boston. Simply amazing time. It was, at the time, one of the largest ever gatherings of tall ships.

    • I think it’s still up there with the largest. The centenary of the Statue of Liberty might have been slightly bigger, but I’d have to hunt down exact numbers.

  6. I’ve seen a handful of schooners under sail, and I’ve seen one small Tall Ships parade – at Portsmouth a couple of years ago. I have yet to see a full-rigged ship under sail, or even a bark like USCGC _Eagle_.

    When I was a kid I read the Hornblower books and envisioned those enormous wooden ships under mountains of white canvas, and I thought that something great and romantic died when we swapped sails and masts for steel hulls and diesel engines. Then I got older, read a few more realistic accounts of life aboard a sailing ship, and spent a couple of weeks at sea myself (though not aboard a sailing ship). Eventually I decided it must have been one of the harshest, most exhausting, least pleasant ways humans have found to make a living. Tedious, dull, slow, boring… day after day you came on deck, looked around at the same endless sea, then set about the same endless tasks. Also dangerous beyond belief and all-too-often fatal… few men lasted more than a handful of years sailing before the mast. Pirates had it even worse; even if they escaped the noose, most of them didn’t last very long.

    Clipper ships in particular had a grossly reckless ratio of sail area to hull, and IIRC more than one of them probably went to Davy Jones’ locker as a result.

    Y’know what? For all that, I still think we lost something when we swapped sails and masts and wind for steel hulls and diesel engines.

    These days I get out on the ocean whenever I can, usually whale-watching and occasionally birding. It’s a GREAT way to gafiate. I enjoy it so much that sometimes I wonder if I was a sailor in a previous life.

    I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky
    And all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by
    (John Masefield, “Sea Fever” )

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