Composite ship

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A composite ship is one constructed of timber with iron or steel framing. The term usually refers to the composite clippers built in the English shipyards during the 1860s that mark the pinnacle of the age of sail.

Iron was first used in shipbuilding in the 1820s but its introduction was gradual, especially in larger ships, for a number of reasons - limited availability of iron, the costs associated with retooling from wood to ironwork in the shipyards, its effect on ships’ magnetic compasses (solved in 1839) and – not to be dismissed – the strong traditions and respect for established practices inherent in everything to do with the trade.

Iron (and then steel) is stronger for its weight than wood. Once the problems mentioned above were resolved, construction of larger but lighter hulls could evolve. Iron hulls were more susceptible to fouling and weed growth than copper sheathed wooden ones, so vessels with wooden decks and outer hulls made of timber with iron keel, bracing and deck frames were built, increasing in size and efficiency as the technology grew.

The financial recession in America in the late 1850s followed by the Civil War dampened civilian shipbuilding in that country and the centres for the construction of the fine clipper ships moved to the technologically more advanced shipyards in England and Scotland. Whereas the clipper, the epitome of the beauty of sail, had been an American development with vessels built in shipyards in New England leading the way for up to thirty years, the new composite clippers were larger and faster, and outstripped their competitors. The age of the tea-clippers and their annual races half way around the world, bringing the tea harvest from China to London began.

The Scottish-built composite clipper, “Cutty Sark” of 1869, has fortunately survived and, is on public exhibition in dry dock in Greenwich, England.


  • Dictionary of Ship Types - Dudszus and Henriot, trans. Thomas. (Conway Maritime Press, 1986)
  • Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea.
  • Chambers Encyclopedia, 1959.

See also