The Glory that Was Sail

The Glory that Was: Story of a famous line of sailing ships
Guest Blog by Richard Cameron Kelman

Tea-Clipper run to the Orient & Europe inspired races between nations

Tea-Clipper run to the Orient & Europe inspired races between nations

In Aberdeen in 1829 there was launched what seemed a modest sailing vessel, the ‘Scottish Maid’, a ship of some one hundred and forty tons. At t time, the local press had it that

‘a schooner was launched, after which the Company repaired to the Aberdeen Hotel, where a sumptious meal was tastefully provided, and where toasts were happily drunk.’

To the reporter, no doubt, the lunch was more important than the launch, the groaning table preferable to the groaning stocks.

Yet that day the company, had they but known it, were witnessing the flowering of a great line of sailing ships. They were looking at the first vessel of what has been called the Clipper Era, for the ‘Scottish Maid’ incorporated in her construction a radical departure from the traditional design of sailing ships. She was to answer the challenge of steam. She was built for speed. Now critics will be quick to point out—-and none quicker than American critics, for they are jealous of the fame of their clipper ships-—that ships before the ‘Scottish Maid’ were built for speed. Perhaps a Chinese sampan, a French frigate, or a Dutch cutter, or a Baltimore clipper. But the ‘Scottish Maid’ was consciously built for speed and her design gave rise to a whole line of ships.

Her builder, William Hall, experimented with models in a special tank until he was satisfied with the design, which came to be known as the Abedeen bow.

The Americans claimed to have built the first clipper ship, and that is true if by a ship we mean a vessel with three masts, square rigged throughout. But if the heresy of size be discounted, the ‘Scottish Maid’, a schooner, stands as the first of the clippers.

Aberdeen-built by William Hood, 'Thermopylae' was fastest on the Orient tea run

Aberdeen-built ‘Thermopylae’ fastest on the Orient tea run

From 1850, the two nations initiated a great rivalry on the claims of their clipper ships for speed over the routes of the world, in particular on the run home from China with tea. The Americans were building in the yards of Boston, Salem and New York those amazing clippers with wonderful names: Sea Witch, Flying Cloud, Flying Fish, Golden Gate, Witch of the Wave, Sovereign of the Seas—names to suit their lines and their speed.

In Aberdeen William Hall built larger and larger clippers. So successful were his ships against the crack Americans, that a challenge was issued by the American Navigation Club. It was proposed that an American clipper should race a British ship to China and back, with a full cargo on board. The stakes were to be £10,000 a side. The challenge was never accepted. After all, the British challenger would have fallen to Hall and he was an Aberdonian.

Rivalry was not all transatlantic, however, as different building yards around the coast of Britain were turning out clipper ships. The design of such ships, however much details varied, was basically the same as that introduced by Hall. Craftsmanship was superb and materials used were the finest: British oak for planking, Indian teak and Spanish mahogany for the deck, and rosewood and satinwood for the cabins. They were built to last for years, almost as a gesture of defiance against the threat of the steamship. The flared bow, raking masts and towering sails made a romantic picture. But the marine engine was being developed and the screw propeller was ousting the paddle. The sailing ship had become more perfect in construction, in speed and in beauty than at any other time, and yet doom was at hand. This very doom had hastened the perfection of sail after countless generations of slow growth.

With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the era of the sailing ship was over; the route to the East was greatly shortened for the steamship. It is fitting that in that same year there should be built in Aberdeen what to many is the greatest of all tea-clippers: the ‘Thermopylae’. She was built by Walter Hood, whose yard was over the fence from William Hall.

And William Hall? He was still building his ships. He built the last tea-clipper, the ‘Caliph’ in the same stocks where he had built the ‘Scottish Maid’. He lived through the entire era of the clippers, pursuing his calling with craftsmanship, imagination and daring tempered with experience. He started, led and finished the industry of the clipper, and yet, before he died, he guided his firm to the full-scale production of steamships. His going was like some Viking chief, for in the same year he died, the ‘Scottish Maid’ which had walked the waters for nearly fifty years piled herself up on the rocks of a Northumbrian coast.
© c. 1980 Richard Cameron Kelman

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