June 28, 2011

The clipper-ship myth

IN THE GOLDEN AGE of clipper ships there was a lot of boasting about their speed. Indeed, even today those of us who have habitually plodded around at 5 knots under sail are impressed by the numbers.

Under perfect circumstances, the clippers recorded some remarkable speeds, ranging from 18 knots by the Donald McKay to 22 knots by the Sovereign of the Seas in 1854.

But when we’re sitting in the cockpit, sawing away at the tiller to keep her going straight before a fresh following breeze and thinking what it would be like to be splitting the sea at 22 knots, there is something to take into consideration: those clipper speeds were not the norm. They achieved them only for short times in exceptional conditions.

You and I can maintain 5 knots until the seacows come home, but a clipper needed to be lightly loaded, for a start, to achieve record speeds. Her bottom had to be smooth and clean, and she needed special conditions.

Ideally, the wind was strong from aft, a wind that would create long, fast swells to power her on her way, and it’s not often that this happens, because of a host of factors including land nearby and contrary currents.

The oldtimers knew that a clipper captain might spend a lifetime at sea without experiencing all the perfect conditions needed for his ship to reach her best speed for a short period.

In fact, if you look at some of the times the clippers took to sail from New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn, some 15,000 miles, you’ll note that their average speeds were nothing like the fastest speeds their passenger agents boasted about.

Most of them took about 200 days over this passage, but the Flying Cloud held the record for more than 100 years, from 1854 to 1989, with a time of 89 days and 8 hours.

It took a French maxi-catamaran to show how it’s done these days. The Gitana did the trip in 43 days at an average speed of 15.88 knots (including a five-day wait to round Cape Horn). That’s less than half the time it took the fastest clipper ship, so the Flying Cloud couldn’t have averaged much more than 7 or 8 knots.

Therefore, next time you’re bowling along at 5 or 6 knots in your Tupperware cruiser you needn’t in any way feel inferior. No matter what they said, no matter what claims they made, a clipper ship would only be going a couple of knots faster than you. You might want to raise a glass of good cheer as she crawls past.

Today’s Thought
Three things only are well done in haste: flying from the plague, escaping quarrels, and catching flies.
— H. G. Bohn, Handbook of Proverbs

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #215
Because of the difficulty of measuring wave heights from a small sailboat at sea, the rule of thumb is that the real sea is probably not much more than half as high, or as steep, as it looks at its worst moment. The only reasonable way to estimate the height of the waves is to wait until you are truly in the trough, midway between crests. Then most crests will be even with the horizon in all directions. Your perception of sea height at that brief moment will be untainted by illusion.

Two cannibals were chatting over lunch.
“You know,” said the first one, “I can’t stand my mother-in-law.”
“Gee, no problem,” said the second, “just eat the noodles then.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Anonymous said...


Nice thinking about relative speeds.. OTOh the clippers were anyway freight carriers (which were in use for only a short while for only very profitable routes) and somehow comparing their speeds to current multihulls or Volvo boats is not quite equal. The clippers, down easters, etc needed to make money for their owners as such, without sponsors or such and they also had to carry freight at least on the way back from China (tea) or Australia (wool) etc. so their usage is quite different from current boats that break this and that record.
So perhaps these vessels should be in their own classes - usually Lasers do not race 6 meters either... (although I've seen some occasions, but that wasn't Very Serious race...)

Thanks for the blog and good sailing,

Matt Marsh said...

Interesting observations, John. I felt a little smug realizing that any of the 14 to 20 foot boats I drive could outrun the clippers two-to-one... of course, they can only do that in force 3 or less, and have to stop for fuel after two hours ;)

I suspect that, along the coast, the small modern sailboat might even have the advantage, being rather more close-winded and easier to tack. When the tall ships are in town, it's rather amusing to watch them tack six or eight times (each tack taking a couple of minutes, and losing ground each time) to get up a channel that any 30-year-old sloop can do in three or four quick spins of the wheel. But the modern plastic boat just doesn't have the character of a big ol' clipper...

Aaron Headly said...

The (false) clipper bow on my ketch still adds half a knot, though, right?

Good post, thanks.

Deb said...

John do you have the Boater's Rule of Thumbs all in one publication somewhere? It would be a great reference.

S/V Kintala

John Vigor said...


Yes, it's probably my best seller -- been going strong since 1994. It's called The Practical Mariner's Book of Knowledge; 420 Sea-Tested Rules of Thumb for Almost Every Boating Situation
(International Marine/McGraw-Hill).
It's a super little book, with a lot of extra facts and figures in the appendix and I'm in talks with the publisher right now about a revised version. It's a very handy book to have on board for a quick check of rules, reassurance that your mast won't fall down because the shrouds are too thin, and many other things that sailors and powerboaters need to know.

I don't usually blow my own trumpet, but you did ask ...


John V.

Deb said...


Any chance you can get the publisher to put that one on the Kindle?

S/V Kintala

John Vigor said...

Deb: I have no control over McGraw-Hill, but I can tell you that they're thinking of publishing a revised edition, and that would probably be available on Kindle. But it wouldn't happen for at least 9 months.


John V.