Clipper ships were long, narrow, very fast sailing ships designed by Americans (1843-1869) for very long voyages, as to China. The were full-rigged ships that had upwards of an acre of canvas; the design made for limited cargo space.
They set many speed records. The "Flying Cloud" in 1854 went from Boston to San Francisco in 89 days 8 hours. The "Sovereign of the Seas" once sailed 421 nautical miles (227 km) in a day—an average of 20.2 mph (32.5 km/h), or 17.5 knots, which is faster than the cruising speed of most cargo ships today.
The American Civil War and the increasing use of composite iron and steel hulls led to a shift in clipper construction to Britain, where shipyards had been building smaller vessels of the clipper type for some time, but now began competing directly with the Americans. A golden age of the tea-clipper ensued with the races to bring the first of the seasons’ tea from China to the London tea-market, creating enormous public interest.
- In 1866, 5 clippers left Foo Chow in China at about the same time with the two leading ships – Ariel and Taeping - arriving in London on the same tide, 99 days later. The last of the 5 arrived less than 2 days after the leaders.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 spelt the end of the specialised tea-clipper. For a while they were used in the Australian wool trade and carrying South American nitrate - and as a large smuggling craft they were without peer - but the development of the large 4 and 5 masted barques with their enormous efficiency and a drop in the need for large cargoes to be transported very quickly led to a rapid end for this glorious craft.
Whilst it is the large full-rigged ship that comes to mind, the term was first applied to the very fast schooners of the Baltimore type which became famous for their blockade-running exploits during the War of 1812, and infamous as slave ships after the British abolition in 1807. The introduction of square-rig to the beautifully efficient hull design of these vessels created the American clipper which is still considered to be the pinnacle of the age of the sailing ship.
- Arthur Hamilton Clark. The Clipper Ship Era: An Epitome of Famous American and British Clipper Ships... (1910) 404 pages full text online
- William L. Crothers. The American-Built Clipper Ship, 1850-1856: Characteristics, Construction, and Details (2000)