Considered by many to be the most beautiful ships ever afloat, clipper ships dominated transoceanic trade routes in the mid-19th century. Named for the time they clipped from standard passages between ports, clippers hauled tea from China and wool from Australia at record speed, sometimes achieving speeds as fast as 22 knots. Modern clippers are used primarily for recreational yachting. The Star Flyer was built in 1991. Its more than 3,300 sq m (36,000 sq ft) of sail propel the 110-m (360-ft) ship through the water at an average speed of 17 knots.
In the middle of the 18th century, speed surpassed cargo capacity as the most important feature for merchant ships. Speed was especially valued by traders engaged in the lucrative Atlantic slave trade and the Chinese opium and tea trades. Traders had to outrun pirates and warships, so speed won shipping contracts at higher rates per ton of cargo carried. These conditions necessitated the development of clippers, fast sailing ships probably named for the time they clipped from standard passages between ports.
A sharp, curved bow and an extremely large sail area made the clipper ship both swift and beautiful. Clipper ships enjoyed brief popularity in the middle of the 19th century, but were soon phased out of commercial trade by steamboats. The American clipper ship Antarctic, pictured here, was designed by architect Donald McKay, whose clippers were among the biggest and fastest ever built.
The term clipper ship is sometimes used as a synonym for any fast ship, but true clipper ships have distinct features designed for speed. True clippers began to appear in the late 1840s. A clipper has a long, sleek hull with a sharp bow and an overhanging stern to reduce contact with the water, thereby reducing drag. It typically has three tall masts that fly as many as five sails each. Later clippers, such as the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, England, were built with iron frames covered with wood planks.
The clippers revolutionized long-distance shipping. The 1,700-ton Flying Cloud made the 29,000-km (18,000-mi) passage from New York City, New York, to San Francisco, California, in only 89 days. The American clipper Oriental sailed from New York City to Hong Kong in a record 81 days. From 1849 the Chinese tea trade attracted clippers, as did the California gold rush. Prospectors wanted to travel from the East coast to California as quickly as possible. To this day, clippers are revered as some of the most beautiful ships in history.