The Tea Clipper Master

Richard Woodman

The mid-nineteenth century saw a number of extraordinary developments in the efficiency of the sailing ship. This late burgeoning was driven by the quest for speed under sail, as steamships, as yet in their infancy, were unreliable. Speed under sail was important in two particular trades: the carriage of emigrants, particularly to the Antipodes, and the carriage of tea from China. In both cases speed had a direct bearing on the economic outcome of a voyage. In the first, swift passages attracted fare-paying passengers. In the second, they made a high initial freight-rate negotiable, and guaranteed a premium on the delivery of the first of the season's crop. Success depended on two important factors: a potentially fast ship, and a thoroughly competent master. The captain of an emigrant ship had to add grace in the handling of passengers to his skill as a navigator and seaman. The commander of a tea clipper had no need of grace. Fie did, however, need an abundance of the last two characteristics.

The first 6000 or so miles of their outward passages — from Britain to the Cape of Good Hope — coincided. From the Cape both the tea clipper and the emigrant ship picked up the prevailing strong westerly winds of the Southern Ocean to run their easting down. The emigrant ship could take a high-latitude route, dipping towards the Austral pole, cutting the distance to her destination, and sail home via Cape Horn.

The tea clipper commander had a different set of problems. On his outward passage, he had to make a fine judgement as to how far to run eastwards before turning northeast into the Indian Ocean, bound for the Sunda Strait, after which he had to weave his way through the archipelago into the South China Sea, choosing from several alternative routes. His homeward passage was even more challenging, for he had to effectively retrace his steps — though to take advantage of favourable winds his homeward track, via Anjer on the Sunda Strait, was usually vert' different from his outward. Thereafter, the passage across much of the Indian Ocean was at a lover latitude than the outward, running in the heel of the southeast trades, then dipping south of Madagascar and picking up the favourable Agulhas Current round the tip of Africa.

To complicate his planning, once north of the equator in the Indian Ocean the clipper master had to take into account several seasonal factors. Between November and April the Indian seas are swept by pleasant, steady northeasterly winds. Between May and October these give way to stronger, wetter southwesterly winds which often reached gale force. These monsoons have less impact on the South China Sea, where they become complicated by local effects — chiefly the offshore breeze at night and the sea breeze in the day, but also by the occasional intervention of a tropical revolving storm.

The land and sea breezes came in useful when the monsoons faltered; a clipper master could work down the coast of Indo-China and the Malay Peninsula by standing off and on according to the time of day or night. Tropical revolving storms were different. In the China seas they are known as typhoons, from the Chinese taifun, “great wind”, and are encountered between July and October. In such systems winds exceed sixty-five knots — force twelve on the Beaufort scale — and commonly far exceed a hundred knots. Such conditions can overwhelm even a modem power-driven vessel, so the prudent master of a lofty tea clipper would use all his wiles to avoid any such risk.

Economics was also a factor of crucial importance, often determin­ing the weather a clipper would encounter on her all-important homeward run.

It was customary for a clipper to load a general cargo on her outward passage: manufactures, woven cotton goods, luxuries, even on occasion a bulk cargo of coal — for `freight was the mother of wages, and without a cargo even a sailing ship, with her free motive power, ran at a loss. This was anathema not only to her owners but also to her master. Even if he did not have a financial stake in his ship, his future depended upon the good opinion of his employers.

The outward cargo might be consigned to a destination far from the tea-loading ports of Fo o chow, Amoy or Shanghai. Depending on the time of year a clipper arrived on the coast, and the likely delivery time of the freshly-picked crop of tea, a shrewd commander might put in several coasting voyages, often with rice from Hong Kong to Singapore, Bangkok or Yokohama. Such cargoes were arranged either through his owner's agents or on his own initiative, and were often of considerable personal benefit to the master himself.

It begins to emerge that in addition to his expertise in seamanship, navigation and business, a tea clipper master needed considerable energy, self-discipline and single-mindedness, as well as qualifies of leadership that could encourage a similar devotion to the common task among his officers and ship's company. But the chief factor in determining a good clipper commander from a merely competent one was the speed of his homeward passages. This required fine judgement, and many excelled in their ability to drive their skips without carrying away gear. But since no man commands the wind, they also required an instinct for divining the weather, and a good deal of luck.

So vast were the potential profits that owners (atypically for their kind) eschewed cheese-paring in chandlery, food and crew numbers. A vine hundred-ton clipper carried as many as forty able seamen under three mates, besides her petty officers. While a good master could make a respectable showing of an indifferent ship, a fine ship was useless under a poor master.

Tea had gained steadily in popularity since its introduction to London in the late seventeenth century. Its carriage had propped up the finances of the ailing East India Company, which had retained the right to carry it until the disbanding of its Maritime Service in 1834. With the removal of the monopoly the price began to fall, but was matched by increased demand from a rising industrial working class upon which Methodism and the Temperance League were having a powerful impact.
By the 184os both American and British skips had begun importing tea into London, creating a competitive carrying trade (which was ended for the Americans by the outbreak of their Civil War in 1861). The tea trade also attracted the steamship owner Alfred Holt.
The glory days of the tea clippers were therefore no more than the quarter-century between 1850 and 1875, by which time most of them, including the Ariel, Taeping, Fiery Cross, Serica, Thermopylae and Cutty Sark, had either been sold or were eking out a living in the Australian wool trade. The period also embraced changes in hull construction from the all-timber ship to the iron hull, though most of the fast tea clippers were of composite construction: an iron frame, which took up less room than heavy timber scantlings, covered with wooden planking. Whatever the method of their construction, their underwater bodies were as beautiful as only fitness for use could make them, while their hull adornments bore witness to the investment of their owners and the devotion of their crews.


The last generation of commercial sail — the steel windjammer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century — was a thing of steel and heavy canvas, four-masted and barque-rigged. The tea clipper was a ship in the purest sense of that misunderstood noun.

With three masts, each crossed by yards, they were `ship-rigged' in the terminology of the day, and while their sail plans often differed subtly from each other, they all shared common characteristics.

Since they had to cope with conditions ranging from typhoons to the light airs of the tropics, their sail plans were versatile. Many adopted double topsails, which tended to reduce the need to reef in favour of furling an entire sail. Rather fewer had double topgallants. Even when they carried these on fore and mainmasts, the single sail was often retained on the mizzen to facilitate beating to windward, necessary if they were to make fast homeward passages.

Also to this end, tea clippers had long lower masts, giving deeplyluffed courses which could provide a leading windward edge when hauled bar-taut down to the cathead by the tackline. The lower lee clew was drawn aft to the chess-tree by the sheet, and the yard extending the head of the course was correspondingly braced sharp up. This severe bracing was continued progressively up the mast, much as a modem yacht sheets her sails in as bard as possible to clave her way to windward.

In strong winds sail had to be reduced, for which the forty able seamen came in handy. In steady breezes 'all plain sail' could be augmented by thrusting out booms from the yards on one or both sides, upon which were set studding-sails. In light and fickle winds a variety of additional light canvas was added. Square skysails and moonsails were set above the main royal on spars sent aloft for the purpose. A loose-footed 'spencer, from a gaff set on the mainmast, also added to a clipper's ability to harness light airs. Upper staysails filled in the spaces between the masts, while above the flying jib set at the end of a long jib-boomed bowsprit an upper and outer jib topsail might be hoisted. To increase lateral spread, lower studding sails, usually known as water sails, were run out under the lower booms, while almost any unoccupied spar capable of supporting an additional halyard could have some canvas addition. The 'Jimmy Green, probably named alter the master who first devised it, was set on a short yard under the bowsprit; the ringtail was hoisted up to the spanker gaff; and a water sail might be hung below the boom.

Some ships were known to perform best in light airs, others in strong winds. Few excelled in both, though both Cutty Sark and Thermopylae were said to do so, sparking a rivalry that endures (at least in theory) to this day. The use of such vast spreads of canvas meant that a clipper master perpetually walked a fine line between triumph and disaster. He knew intimately the characteristics of his vessel, and took pains while loading cargo to have himself rowed round his ship by the apprentices to check her trim as she came down to her loaded draft. This must be to his exact specification, and was usually somewhere between a foot or two and an inch by the stern — a ship whose forefoot was too deep would not come up smartly into the wind; a failure to pass the bow through the wind when tacking meant being caught in irons and forced to Wear ship, losing ground to leeward and hence valuable time.

While being quick in stays was important when the ship was working down the South China Sea, it was less so when she was running in the heel of the southeast trades. Masters had their own ideas. Captain Keay of the Ariel kept a heavy wooden box containing old chain snotters, iron blocks and shackles which were pulled about the deck by the watch to trim the ship fore-and-aft and minimise heel. Men like Keay also had pet theories about the lead of particular ropes and lines, the nature of which would expedite sail changing and trimming.


Stowage was important for more than the ship's trim. It was no good being first home with a quantity of tea if it had been ruined on passage. The tea had to be kept dry — not always an easy master, even in lined tea-chests, when a clipper was working her way through heavy seas with her decks awash. Tea picks up foul smells and is easily spoiled, particularly by damp-induced mould. To this end all evidence of an outward cargo had to be cleared from a clipper's hold before she loaded tea. This was often a dangerous operation, since with empty holds she became unstable, and spars and topgallant masts must be struck until she had taken in a deep layer of clean stone ballast. Sacrificial chests of last season's tea were then loaded over the ballast. These were likely to be spoiled by any bilge water that might penetrate a hard-driven ship's planking — though if they arrived in London dry, they turned a modest but useful profit. But their prime purpose was to protect what was laid over them — the large and small chests of the season's tea, lightered out to the anchored clippers by sampans from the plantations of Fukien Province.


The business of negotiating a homeward freight was complicated. Much depended upon the local Chinese, particularly the cha-tzes, or tea-tasters, whose imprimatur guaranteed quality. Sometimes the clippers would lie at the Pagoda anchorage at Foochow for many weeks, during which inter-ship rivalry reached great heights. The crews titivated their ships, polished brass, or hoisted boasting devices like gilded cocks to their mastheads. Betting on friendly regattas rowed by apprentices in the ships' boats often led to brawls in waterfront drinking dens. The masters too had their wagers, particularly among the so-called "going-ships". Occasionally, a serious purse was put up, but the customary stake among these pillars of the Victorian virtues was a top hat.

At last the sampans appeared upstream, flying flags denoting the ship whose tea they were carrying. The competitive spirit now grew feverish. To turn a profit a tea clipper did not have to be large. Most grossed under i000 tons Thames measurement. Even so, loading could prove an extraordinarily tedious procedure if not properly arranged. Cumshaw, literally "grateful thanks", a semi-licit oiling of the works of commerce, could produce startling results. Records exist of a clipper in Shanghai stowing 8000 chests of tea and 1141 bales of silk in seventeen hours. Other ships waited weeks, even months, loading by small consignments.
Even before a ship was loaded and her top tier of tea-chests covered with canvas, a steam tug would be summoned by signal and a pilot embarked. The organisation for getting the clippers away from a tea port was a mixture of new technologies and ancient arts: steam-tugs and telegraphs on the one band, bard manual labour and harder-won skill and cunning on the other. With the first ship on her way, the urgency for the rest to complete and follow was extreme. Sometimes haste led to sharp practice, sometimes to error. In 1866 Captain Keay of the Ariel took the first available tug, which was insufficiently powerful, thereby missing high water on the bar of the Min River and being overtaken by a rival. A usually careful man who thought of the Ariel as 'a thing Keay must have been under tremendous pressure to get to sea.


Once clear of the coast, some ships remained in sight of one another for a while. Others seemed to vanish, only to reappear in the chops of the Channel three months later, maintaining a fierce rivalry until the very last hours of a passage of many thousands of miles. Even then, quick thinking might alter the outcome, as when Captain Robinson of the Fiery Cross trumped Captain Ryrie of the Flying Spur to earn the 1862 premium by agreeing to pay £100 for a tow into the Thames that Captain Ryrie had refused.

For the mates and seamen, the homeward passage was a mixture of constant toil, occasional boredom and hours of high excitement. They went on and off watch every four hours, except where an enlightened master might, for part of the passage, allow them to work a three-watch system. For the commander himself it was a different master. With so much depending upon him, he rarely left the deck, particularly when working down through the China Sea, where the navigation was tricky. The same went for the Cape of Good Hope — not for nothing had the southernmost point of Africa formerly been called the Cape of Storms. He might relax when his ship was running before the trade winds, but for much of the time most clipper masters remained on deck for weeks on end, half awake or dozing in a hammock-chair set up at the break of the poop as they strove to get the very best out of their ships.

The mates ran each watch, oversaw the helmsman, organised pumping and supervised sail handling and trimming. Some masters and mates were known never to touch a rope in the trades, having set everything up to perfection. Others were known to tweak endlessly, sending the men to the braces to trim the yards on the slightest pretext. Some masters were famous for insisting that when avoiding a squall, a mate on watch should not bear away — the proper, approved method of easing the strain — but luff up, much as a modem yacht does, but a much more difficult and risky process in a square-rigged ship.

Day followed day. The ship's speed through the water was recorded at least every four hours by the officer of the watch and the apprentices with the log-line. The routine of monitoring the cargo and the state of the hull followed its course. The carpenter sounded the wells morning and evening, and the watch was sent to the pumps as and when required. Both mates and master took their sights, latitude at noon, longitude by chronometer in the fore and afternoons, star sights when the occasion presented. And always their eyes were aloft, watching the bowing spars, the taut braces, tacks and sheets, and the chafing buntlines and clewlines that ran over the bellies of the sails and could wear through canvas if left too tight. Occasionally gear did carry away. Very occasionally a ship became seriously incapacitated.

Such an event overtook the Cutty Sark when homeward bound in the Indian Ocean in her only direct race with Thermopylae in 1872. Both ships had had their share of misfortune, losing sails to vicious squalls in the South China Sea. Each had been ahead of the other at some time. Cutty Sark had run miles ahead of her rival and was well into the Indian Ocean when a tremendous sea generated by a westerly gale carried away her rudder. Despite the fact that the Cutty Sark's speed had to be reduced on several occasions to preserve the jury rudder, she was nevertheless only a week behind Thermopylae in picking up her pilot in the Downs.


Competition among British clippers intensified alter the eclipse of the Americans, when the ascendancy of the Aberdeen and London built ships began to be challenged by the Clydeside yard of Robert Steele. Having produced a number of fine wooden ships, the Serica among them, Steele turned to composite construction for the Taeping of 1863.

The Taeping measured one hundred and eighty-four feet in length (55.9m) with a beam of thirty-one feet (9.4m), and was constructed of teak and greenheart bolted to iron frames by phosphorated metal bolts. Although she had an iron bowsprit and lower masts, she was dismasted in a typhoon homeward bound on her maiden voyage. Rerigged, she took eighty-eight days to reach the Downs, earning a reputation for ghosting in light winds. In 1865 Steele launched the slightly larger Ariel. Her eighty days to Hong Kong was, according to Captain John Keay,  “scarce believed'in London, given that it was against the monsoon. The most famous passage in her life, her great race with Taeping, came in 1866.

The Ariel loaded five hundred and fifty tons of tea at Foochow at £5 per ton. Her bills of lading bore the customary endorsement that an extra 10/- would be paid on every ton if she were the first sailing vessel in dock. Keay towed out of the Pagoda anchorage and down the Min River on 26 May astern of the low-powered tug mentioned earlier. The tug failed to get him over the bar before the tide turned. He was compelled to anchor and watch mortified as Robinson's Fiery Cross towed past. It was not until next day that Ariel crossed the bar, making sail in company with the Serica and the Taeping. A firth ship, the Taitsing, sailed on 28 May.

All the contending clippers made daily runs of over three hundred miles, occasionally sighting one another. On the morning of 5 September, Ariel and Taeping passed the Lizard lighthouse and the Lloyd's signal station within minutes of each other, making their numbers. Both were logging fourteen knots, with Serica not far behind them. At about eight o'clock the following morning Ariel arrived off Deal ten minutes ahead of Taeping, Serica appearing in The Downs four hours later. Keay's choice of tugs was again flawed, and Taeping was towed into her dock on the Thames at 2147, half an hour ahead of Ariel. The Serica got in half an hour before midnight, just before she was locked out by the falling tide. Robinson's Fiery Cross, the first clipper to have cleared the Min River, did not arrive until 10 September, four days later.

The enthusiasm with which the year's first tea was awaited may be judged from the berthing in St Katharine's Dock of the Fiery Cross two years previously. After a passage of a hundred and fourteen days from Foochow and arrival at 0400 on 20 September, the energetic Captain Richard Robinson ordered the hatches opened immediately. By 1000 the following morning the Fiery Cross had been emptied of all her 14,000 chests.


The race of 1866 had ironic consequences. The near-simultaneous arrival of three clippers depressed the price of the crop. The premium, divided equally between Ariel and Taeping, was afterwards abolished. Nevertheless Ariel secured a better freight rate the following year, and although he left China late, Keay passed every other ship ahead of him except Taeping and Fiery Cross.

In i868 Keay handed Ariel over to Captain Courtenay, formerly her first mate, following a tradition that was supposed to maximise the potential of the officer most likely to have imbibed the skills of his predecessor. In 1870 Ariel was dismasted of fYokohama on a coasting voyage. In January 1871 she left London for Sydney, to be posted missing and never heard of again. She is thought to have been pooped — with the clippers' long, slender run, their afterbodies possessed little reserve buoyancy beyond that in their counter stems. If this proved insufficient to raise them quickly to meet a heavy following sea, the wave broke, overwhelmed and filled them.

Captain Richard Robinson had not enjoyed being beaten in the tea race of 1866. Leaving Fiery Cross, he took command of Sir Lancelot, whose owner, James MacCunn, paid him handsomely, regarding him as 'the best man I ever had in any ship, and I knew he had got the best racing results out of Sir Lancelot: In Sir Lancelot Robinson suffered a dismasting outward bound off Ushant in December 1866, and was lucky not to lose his new ship. He struggled in to Falmouth and re-rigged her in six weeks, fully justifying MacCunn's encomium as 'a fine fellow in every way with dash, daring and energy quite exceptional. Picking up a cargo in China, Robinson managed to overhaul every ship that had left ahead of him except Taeping, which arrived nine days ahead of him; Ariel, Captain John Keay; and his old Fiery Cross, now under Captain Kirkup, both of which arrived the same day.

Apprentice Frederick Paton remembered the sight of Sir Lancelot passing Captain Ryrie's Flying Spur off Algoa Bay on il August 1867:

[It] was a stormy day and we were carrying what was thought by us to be a heavy press of sail . . . whole topsails and courses with outer jib, whilst other ships in company were closereefed, when we sighted a clipper ship on the other tack carrying three topgallant sails and flying jib. This was an enormous amount of sail considering the wind . . . she proved to be the Sir Lancelot from Hangkow, Capt. Robinson . . . She crossed our bows and just then, when the signalling was going on, her helmsman, paying too much attention to us, allowed her to come up into the wind and get [taken] aback. We thought that she would have been dismasted, she heeling right over and getting sternway. However, they managed to get some sail off her and she righted, but it was a close thing. As the ships were fairly close we could see all that took place on board of her; we saw Capt. Robinson knock down the man at the wheel and jump on him!

And well he might, for to have dismasted his new command twice in one voyage would have strained the quality of MacCunds mercy to cracking-point.

Robinson left the Sir Lancelot at the end of this voyage on the sudden death of his wife. The ship continued to do well, but was lost many years later in a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, long after she, like so many of her sisters, had left the China tea trade.


Even before the opening of the Suez Canal the end was in sight. In 1869 Captain Petherick's fine-lined Leander left Foochow on 1 July to arrive in London on 12 October, a passage of a hundred and three days. The earliest clipper to arrive that year was Captain Burgoyne's Titania, which had left Shanghai on 16 June and was in London by 22 September, taking ninety-eight days. But Captain Middleton's steamer Agamemnon had beaten them all, having left Hangkow on 9 June to arrive on 25 August after a run of seventy-seven days. While on one occasion the Leander kept pace with Agamemnon's sister-ship Achilles between Anjer and Mauritius, the consistency of the steamer proved unbeatable.

The passage was significantly reduced once the Suez canal was operating efficiently. In the 1874-1875 season Sir Lancelot brought two tea cargoes home from China under Captain Felgate. But the steamer Glenartney carried her tea home in forty-four days by way of Suez. For the tea clippers it was the end.

They were wonderful creations, combining beauty and utility to an extraordinary degree. As the poet John Masefield, who served briefly in sail, wrote: "They mark our passage as a race of men. Earth will not see such ships again": Their hard-driving, versatile masters may have been less beautiful, but they achieved peaks of skill, daring and seamanship scarcely equalled before or since.