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Updated on February 26, 2012

The Clipper was a sailing merchantman designed primarily for speed. Clippers were usually square-rigged ships with three or more masts, but there were also clipper barks, brigs, and schooners.

Considerations of large carrying capacity and economical operation were subordinated to fine hull lines and heavy sparring in order to carry maximum sail. A speedy clipper needed a hard driving captain and a large crew to handle sail quickly.

The components of clipper design evolved slowly and came together when conditions demanded fast ships. Small, fast schooners and brigs were built around Chesapeake Bay in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and came to be called "Baltimore clippers." These sailed often as privateers and later as slavers.

The great age of the Arnelican clipper ship was 1845 to 1860. Speed was demanded in the China tea trade and also for the fast delivery of cargoes at San Francisco and Melbourne during the California and Australian gold rushes. Among the most famous of American clipper designers and builders were John W. Griffiths, Donald McKay, Samuel H. Pook, and William H. Webb. Between 1845 and 1859 nearly 500 clippers were built in American yards. The largest was Donald McKay's Great Republic of 1853 (4,555 tons register). British yards built 27 tea clippers between 1859 and 1869. Unlike the wooden-hulled American clippers, most of the British vessels were "composite," with iron frames and wooden planking.

Demise of the Clipper

Clippers became obsolete as freight rates declined and steamships provided competition. The British tea clipper Cutty Sark is preserved at Greenwich, England.

Some record clipper passages included New York to San Francisco, 89 days, Flying Cloud in 1851 and 1854, Andrew Jackson in 1859-1860; Liverpool to New York, 15 days, Andrew Jackson in 1860; and Hong Kong to New York, 74 days, Sea Witch in 1849.


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