clipper ship

A clipper ship.

clipper ship labeled

A ship is a vessel for conveying passengers and freight by water. Modern ocean-going ships developed from early sailing ships, such as the carracks (Mediterranean merchant ships) of the thirteenth century and larger early ships called galleons. Fighting ships of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries included frigates of various designs; later models had several rows of guns. Sailing freighters led to the development of the great clippers of the late nineteenth century, some of which had iron hulls.


The clippers

The great days of the clipper ship came after 1850, when the UK parliament repealed the Navigation Acts. This meant that foreign ships were able to compete with British ships in collecting from China the new season's crop of tea. The stately British ships were built for safety at sea on long voyages; the Americans entered the tea trade in competition with them, using fast ships which brought home the new tea in record time, and so secured the highest prices on the London market.


British ship owners replied to this challenge by building special ships designed to sail even faster than the American clippers. As a result, an exciting series of races developed which were followed by the public with great interest.


Tea clippers were quite small, some only 700 tons, and were given fine lines so that they could make a fast passage, under a press of sail, in the light airs expected in the China Sea. They were not really suited for other trades. But the term 'clipper' came to be used for fast sailing ships in general, and after 1870, when the Suez Canal had been opened and it was no longer economic to export tea from China in sailing ships, fast vessels on passage to Australia, or anywhere else in the world, were advertised as clippers. Men spoke of 'clipper' brigs or schooners, and the word came to mean nothing more than fast sailing. Sailing required large ship's companies (crews) to handle the heavy masts and spars, and the large acreage of bellying canvas that could drive a tea clipper through the water at 10, 12, or even 18 knots (nautical miles per hour). Growing competition with steam ships had to economise. Sailing ships were still thought to be safer and more reliable, although unable to run on a timetable. Crews became smaller, and the sail area was reorganized into smaller units (the topsails and topgallant sails were cut into two), and more winches eased the labor. Thus even the very biggest sailing ships were easy to handle and lasted well into the twentieth century.


Early steamships

Around the start of the nineteenth century, the first steamships had been built. They were powered by wood- or coal-burning steam engines that drove large paddle wheels, hence the term paddle steamer.


In 1819 the first Atlantic crossing was made by "steam-assisted sail" and this crossing soon became a regular service. By the mid-nineteenth century steamships driven by propellers or screws, were in general service and were voyaging on trade missions in all oceans. Marine steam turbines were developed at the turn of the nineteenth century and gradually replaced reciprocating (back-and-forth cranking) steam engines for large vessels, examples being ocean liners of the early 1900s with displacements (weight of water that a ship displaces when fully laden) up to 10,000 metric tons. Oil, rather than coal, was now the favorite fuel for large marine engines.


Some of the newest military ships and icebreakers are fitted with nuclear engines in which heat from a nuclear reactor raises steam in boilers to drive steam turbines. The larger modern ships are classified as warships, passenger vessels, bulk dry cargo ships, tankers for bulk liquids, freighters for mixed cargo, and container ships. The largest of these are the supertankers carrying oil, with displacements of about half a million metric tons and lengths of several meters.