Tea Clippers: Not beaten for speed until air-freight.
In the 1850’s there was huge competition to build ever leaner and faster tea clippers to bring the harvest from China to Europe and north America. This was epitomised by the Champion of the Seas which in 1854 sailed 465 miles in one day – a feat never since beaten under sail. Even though the more economical steamers had been in existence for more than thirty years it was not until the 1880s that these ships attained the speed of the clippers.
Rivalry began in 1834 when the East India Company’s monopoly on the trade in tea with China ceased. As competition between merchants commenced the slow, lumbering East Indiamen which took four months to reach London were soon superceded by sleek clippers built for speed. The designs were first based upon the infamous and sleek, low decked Baltimore clippers which started to be built for independent traders around the time of the American War of Independence. Centred around Hong Kong Jardine’s opium trader Falcon was also a model for the future tea clippers.
Sea Witch, designed by John Willis Griffiths and built by Smith and Dimon of New York, was the first of the true clipper ships and had a design that learnt much from the V shaped hulls of such transatlantic packets as Rainbow which he had designed, owned by Howard and Aspinall, which was captained by John Land, and the flat bottomed Houqua, designed by Nathaniel B Palmer, owned by A A Low & Bros. Griffiths worked with Captain Bob Waterman to design the rigging which soared to 140 feet and carried more sails than a 74 gun warship three times its size. Her beam was only one fifth of her length compared with a quarter more typically seen. On the return run of her maiden voyage Sea Witch made Hong Kong to New York with her cargo of tea in only 81 days but on the Sea Witch’s third voyage it made Hong Kong to New York in only 74 days a record still unbeaten by a sailing ship.
One of the most attractive China ports for tea was the Pagoda anchorage at Foochow, 25 miles up the Min river through narrow and perilous gorges for which a pilot was required to negotiate the sandbanks and rocks. It was to here that tea was brought down river by sampan from teas gardens as much as 100 miles up stream. It was worth the trouble however as the tea here was harvested two months earlier than elsewhere so enabling captains to return home with the added bonus of missing the monsoon.
By 1860 Britain had twenty clippers of its own, starting with the Chrysolite and Stornoway, so had to rely less on the American ships whose problem was compounded by blockades established during the Civil War. By its end Britain had supremacy in the size of its clipper fleet. Her ships tended to be half the weight and their voyage from China was a predictable 110 days. There was much rivalry between clippers to bring the season’s new teas to London: a premium of ten shillings per ton was offered to the fastest ship. The Great Tea Race of 1866 was the most famous when the Taeping and Aerial docked in London on the same tide after a voyage of 101 days. However, with millions of pounds of tea being unloaded, these races had the unfortunate effect of bringing too much tea to market at one time and consequently market prices became depressed.
On the China to London route in 1868 Thermopylae, owned by George Thompson, took only 91 days on her maiden voyage. Flying a golden rooster from her main sail she asserted that she was the fastest ship. A rival owner, Jock Willis promptly commissioned a new ship, to be designed by Hercules Linton, designed to knock this cocky competitor off its perch. Linton took inspiration from Willis’ Tweed, a frigate-like merchant ship, and the renown square bottomed fishing boats of the Firth of Forth. He built it using very strong yet cheaper iron ribbing and structure, a first for a sailing ship. Hardwood continued to be used for the hull for it would not foul in warm seas. The Cutty Sark was launched in 1869 at a time when the route to China had recently become much shorter for steamships with the opening of the Suez Canal. However this three masted clipper with its ¾ acre of canvas was capable of capturing 3000 horse power of wind. Sandwiched in every available space, demonstrating great skill in loading, it could hold 1.3 million pounds of tea. However, the Thermopylae remained unbeaten despite, on one trip the Cutty Sark captain, George Moodie, having to fashion a new rudder at sea having lost its own in heavy seas. This was a marvellous feat of seamanship.
Tea clippers brought unparalleled public interest in tea and wagers for the fastest ships abounded with prices for the winning vessel’s cargo commanding a premium and great prestige amongst wealthy buyers who sought the best teas. Soon however supply would shift from reliance upon China to the new British tea plantations of India. This tea would be brought home by steamer along the Suez canal which opened in 1869. It was the end of tea clippers. Only the Cutty Sark, dry-docked at Greenwich, remains to remind us of these glory days.
See our information page on Chinese tea.