The Golden Years of navigation under sail

By Harry J. TOMLINSON from "The Grace Log"

S/ V Archbald RusselThe cold was cruel that 7th day of December in 1850, when the bow of the clipper STAG HOUND made way for the first time in salt water. With no thought of the cold or the danger of frostbitten feet and hands, over ten thousand Bostonians congregated at the foot of Border Street, East Boston, to applaud or jeer as Donald McKay’s new sailing ship commenced the first of many challenges.

The great ship shook as she slipped stern first into the sea. The head of the shipyard, from his position in the bow, broke a bottle of Medford rum against her gunwale singing: "STAG HOUND, your name is STAG HOUND!" The tolls of the church bells ringing in the city could be heard in the midst of the excited shouts cutting through the cold air, while the graceful ship floated tall and proud on the waters of Boston Bay, and with dignity slowed down to accept the applause of her admirers.

But the creations of an imaginative genius are invariably accompanied by skepticism. The old mariners, whose wrinkled and weather-beaten faces and whose knotted fingers were proof of long years under sail, shook their heads dubitatively and did not think that this great creation of Donald McKay’s could come to a happy end.

Henry HideThe beauty of these sailing ships could not be denied. The black hull, the tall masts, the strong timbered forestaff supporting over eight hundred yards of white canvas, the sharp and sweeping bow and elliptic stern, gave them an aesthetic beauty which had never been seen before on the coasts of New England.

The launching of the STAG HOUND was the prelude to an era, an era giving birth to heavy sails and narrow hulls, and sailing ships proudly flying the stars and stripes of their country. This was a familiar sight in ports from Fuchow to Newcastle.

The golden age of North American navigation had dawned and would not disappear until sailing records over many centuries lay broken by the assault of the Yankee Clippers, the building of which obliged all other designs to bow down to the inflexible and insatiable demand for speed.

The thin masts and sharp bows cut their way through turbulent seas which in bygone days never dreamt of such speed. The vast spread of the sails designed to grasp and make use of every breath of wind, allowed the clipper to perform.

James BainesThe United States were born facing the sea; the British colonies had become trade centers, exchanging the fruit of their forests and fertile regions for products from their home country. The lumber traders sailed near the Atlantic shores and thus made it possible for shipbuilding to develop.

The sons of the new nation were versed in ocean sciences. The Yankee masters were heading their profession, and the strong men of the sea did not hesitate when they had to climb the salt-encrusted ratlines to reef the sails of a ship in heavy wind. Ship designers such as John Griffiths and Donald McKay, were experts in the sailing qualities of different ships. The discovery of gold in California, on 24th January 1848, found a nation well prepared and accustomed to the excitement of incessant shipbuilding.

The clipper was not born overnight, but emerged after endless years of work and sailing experience from the gradual progress of the art of shipbuilding, needing only the inducement of gold in California to achieve its final graceful form.

Medium "Baltimore Clippers" and "China Clippers" rode the waters of the seven seas before the STAG HOUND was launched.


The ANN MCKIM, christened in Baltimore in the year 1833, was the largest merchant ship at the time, carrying more sail than any of her contemporaries, establishing many records before disappearing. Her gleaming handrails of Spanish mahogany, her fittings and copper clad hull were a portent of what was to come. But she had one defect, her stern drew more water than her bow. Nevertheless, the final model was born from her design.

The medium size RAINBOW was the work of John Willis Griffiths and built by the Smith and Dimon shipyards in 1845. Her concave bow, her larger stern frames and enormous spread of sails led her to be considered a guide ship, despite being destined to the special demands of the China trade. After four voyages to Canton and other Chinese ports, she sailed for Valparaíso and was never heard of again.

In 1894, no less than seven hundred and seventy-five sailing ships reached Eastern ports by the Golden Gate, with their holds laden with food supplies and tools.

The ship owners, who collected 300 dollars per passage, and San Francisco inhabitants who paid $ 60 for beef and pork, $ 4 for tea and coffee and over $ 50 for a pair of boots, helped to build more ships. A thousand three hundred and sixty ships sailed in the first six months in 1850, and of these, two hundred and forty-seven were fully equipped. In December 1850, the STAG HOUND was launched in Bostonian waters and thus the age of the clippers was born.

The FLYING CLOUD, GAZELLE, WITCH OF THE WAVES, N.B. PALMER, FASCINATION, WESTWARD HO, GAME COCK, SEA SERPENT, ARCHER, COMET, CHALLENGE, FLYING FISH, SWORDFISH, HORNET, SOVEREIGN OF THE SEAS and GREAT REPUBLIC were considered the best value, some of the most exciting moments of maritime history being engraved on their hulls. The largest of all was the FLYING CLOUD.

Flying CloudThe result of the building ingenuity of Donald McKay and his Boston Yard, the FLYING CLOUD met salt water for the first time at the beginning of 1851. On 3rd June, with her mast nearly obscured by the enormous spread of her mainsail, topgallants, royals, staysails and light sails, she formally sailed from the port of New York. Eighty-nine days and twenty-one hours later, still with all her sails unfurled, she entered San Francisco, California, by the Golden Gate, having broken the old record by a week. An entry made on the 31st of July states: "Distance covered today and observed, 374 miles, an average of 15.7 / 12 knots. With strong gusts of wind, 18 knots of line were insufficient to measure her speed. Until that date, no other sailing ship had run so fast. Undoubtedly Captain Josiah Perkins Creesey, whose only reply to a gust was "Set more sail", was the hero of California, and when his fame reached Eastern shores, men from Maine to Virginia drank to his health at every tavern.

The FLYING CLOUD was called "Queen of the Clippers" and more so in 1854, when she repeated her heroic feat covering the distance from Maiden Lane to the Golden Gate in eighty-nine days and eight hours. This symbol of the supremacy of Yankee builders was sold to England and ended her days in Canada where she was burnt. But the glory she achieved with all her sails set and literally almost flying before a wind capable of inspiring fear in anyone, survives in the brilliant annals of the California Clippers.

The SOVEREIGN OF THE SEAS carried twenty thousand yards of canvas on her first crossing in August 1852. The 300 tons of cargo she stowed in her holds was greater than any borne by the U.S. sailing ships until then. This sailing ship was so large that her builder, McKay, found no buyers and had to operate her jointly with his brother, Captain Lauchlan McKay. Financially, this risk was successful as the "Sovereign of the Seas" was able to establish the record from Sandy Hook to the Golden Gate (San Francisco), fulfilling her builder’s expectations. On her return trip, sailing with the wind, she covered four hundred and twenty-one nautical miles in a day, beating her predecessor, FLYING CLOUD, by far.

The WESTWARD HO, BALD EAGLE, EMPRESS OF THE SEAS, GREAT REPUBLIC and ROMANCE OF THE SEAS were also created by the McKay shipyards. They competed with the YOUNG AMERICA, FLYING DRAGON, CHAMPION and other graceful creations of the Webbs, the Bells and the Westerbelts, master builders of the fleet of Cape Horn Clippers.

Valparaíso, January, 2003