Tall ships and high seas

Tall ships and high seas

Margaret Powling marks the 60th anniversary of the Tall Ships Race with a brief history of the golden age of sail

Header Image: The battle of Trafalgar, 21st October 1805 – Nelson's flagship Victory and Téméraire in close action with the French Rédoubtable as the battle rages around them, painted by Thomas Luny in 1822

Margaret Powling, an antique columnist, who researches social history, historic houses, costumes and accessories.

Margaret Powling

an antique columnist, who researches social history, historic houses, costumes and accessories.

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by …

One of the best loved sea poems in the English language – John Masefield’s Sea Fever – conjures up powerful imagery of the oceans – white sails shaking, sea-gulls crying and even the vagrant gypsy life.

My first experience of tall ships was in July 1956 when 21 vessels set out on what was officially called the Torbay to Lisbon International Sail-Training Race. By 1962 when the race again started from Torbay with Rotterdam the destination it had been christened the Tall Ships Race. It has continued from different locations to distant foreign ports at intervals since, says historian and former chief librarian of Torbay, John Pike. ‘Tall ships’ present one of the great sea-spectacles of our time. But what is a tall ship?

To previous generations, this would have been a superfluous question but “technically, a ‘tall’ ship has at least three masts, all with square sails [although those sails are actually rectangular] that better enable the most efficient use of the wind and thus provide faster speed,“ explains Dean Server, an expert on maritime history. In the 21st century, the term is now often used to describe a large, classic, sailing vessel although the exact definitions have changed over time.

Although early ships, such as those built by the Romans more than 2000 years ago, had rudimentary sails, they were mainly man-powered or, rather more accurately, slave-powered. On the largest of ships over a thousand slaves and prisoners were used for rowing. A major breakthrough was the addition of a rudder in the 13th century and, by the 15th century, significant developments had taken place with the creation of the full-rigged ship, with large square sails on the front and middle masts and a triangular sail on the back mast. “As ships became more proficient at using the wind, the need for huge forces on board gradually diminished,“ says Server. “By the end of the 18th century, the large galley ship had disappeared completely.”

he mighty Clippers - Taeping and Ariel racing home
The mighty Clippers - Taeping and Ariel racing home neck-and-neck with the new season’s tea – by Montague Dawson (1890-1973)

In times past most large vessels were designed to be in a state of readiness for battle even if they were not technically military ships, just as the Royal Yacht was designed to be a hospital ship in times of war. All the major nations in Europe built ships in an attempt to reign supreme on the high seas and, according to Dean Server, by the 17th century, battleships were carrying armaments so heavy that they had to be designed differently from other large sailing ships ,

Perhaps the most famous of all ‘tall ships’ designed for battle was HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship. The plans for Victory were based on HMS Royal George and the naval architect chosen to design the ship was Sir Thomas Slade (1703/4-1771). She was designed to carry at least 100 guns and her name was chosen somewhat in celebration of many recent victories in land and sea battles, such as Quebec and Quiberon Bay; and of course she played a key role in Nelson’s own victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. HMS Victory is now listed as part of the National Historic Fleet and has been the flagship of the First Sea Lord since October 2012. She is the oldest commissioned warship in the world and around 350,000 people visit her in her role as a museum ship in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard.

Cutty Sark waiting in Sydney Harbour
The Cutty Sark waiting in Sydney Harbour for the new season’s wool, c1890

The grand scale of the Battle of Trafalgar taught many lessons about the vulnerability of warships, says Dean Server, so that in subsequent years, improvements were made to the navies of many European countries. Furthermore, the creation of yet more and more deadly explosives meant that combustible wooden-hulled ships were quickly replaced by iron hulls. “Once steam-powered ships proved superior in combat, they replaced all sailing warships.”

But countries did not participate solely in the war for supremacy, they battled for trade, to bring to our shores from distant ports wondrous silks and ivory, exotic spices and tea, hand painted Chinese wallpapers and porcelain and the ships used – most notably by Portugal, the Netherlands and England – were known as East Indiamen. They were more than 150 feet (46 metres) long and, by the end of the 18th century, capable of carrying well over 1,000 tons (900 metric tons), says Server.

But while safety was paramount – the goods, let alone the crew, were precious – the East Indiamen were solid-but-cumbersome and their average speed was only around 3 miles (5 kilometres) an hour. A voyage to Asia and back would often take more than a year, a gruelling journey for the crew (indeed those who survived the harsh conditions and poor quality food and water, not to mention illness and disease.) Therefore, new ships, known as China clippers or tea clippers, were designed, the term ‘clipper’ most likely deriving from the verb ‘to clip’ meaning to run or fly swiftly, the ships appearing to clip along the ocean. To sailors, a clipper ship had three main attributes: she must be sharp-lined, thus built for speed; she must be tall-sparred and carry a huge spread of canvas; and she must be designed to enable the use of sail by both day and night and in fair and foul weather. That she must be able to withstand the treacherous conditions of Cape Horn goes without saying.

With all these attributes, a clipper ship was very fast and the demand for them was high. The first British clipper was Scottish Maid, launched in 1839 in Aberdeen, with what was known as an Aberdeen clipper bow, a forward curving bow. The design of clipper ships was influenced by tonnage regulations, and these were used to calculate tax and harbour dues. In 1836, new regulations measured depth and breadth with length measured at half midship depth, and any extra length above this level was tax-free, thus becoming a feature of clippers.

Those travelling predominantly to China were known as ‘tea clippers’ or ‘opium clippers’ and were built for seasonal trades, tea being a seasonal commodity. Competition between the ships and their owners was fierce, with their times being recorded. The last China clippers were some of the fastest sailing ships, capable of an average speed of 16 knots (19 mph) and the Great Tea Race of 1866 showcased their speed. The race had an amazingly close finish, considering the distance it covered: after 14,000 miles from China to England, the winner Taeping was only 28 minutes ahead of the second to finish, Ariel, but because of such a close finish, the ‘prize’ (not so much a real prize but an acknowledgement of success) was shared between them. Such accolades were important to ships, ensuring commercial success and a better rate for freight in the future.

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One of the last great clipper ships is the Cutty Sark. She was built on the Clyde in 1869 for the Jock Willis Shipping Line and named after Cutty-Sark, the nickname of the witch in Robert Burns’ poem Tam o’Shanter.

However, with the opening of the Suez Canal, also in 1869 (and the Panama Canal in 1914) The Era of the tall sailing ship was nearing its end: these gracious, majestic ships could not travel as fast as the steamers who nipped through the canal, saving around 4000 miles on the trip to and from the major Chinese ports. Because the steamships could return from China so much more quickly with the freshest crop, they could sell their tea for much better prices than the tea arriving much later by sailing ship. It was now that ship builders began to switch over to steamers because that was where more of the business was.

Cutty Sark measured 212’ 5” (64m). Apparently, those extra five inches (13 cm) made her longer than a rival ship, Thermopylae, built in the George Thompson shipyard. At first, Thermopylae had the edge on Cutty Sark for speed, but in the 1880s, this shipping tortoise became the hare when in her last decade of the 19th century she was always faster than her main rival.

Ships of the line
Ships of the line – schematic diagrams (from 1728) showing warships of the ‘third rate’ and ‘first rate’. First rate ships were the largest and had 80 or more guns on three gun decks; third rate ones had between 64 and 80 guns, usually on two gun decks

Many of the old tall ships which didn’t naturally meet their fate, being destroyed at sea, were stripped down and their parts used, but Thermopylae was given the honour of being ‘buried at sea’ and was intentionally sunk in the Atlantic in 1907.

As with HMS Victory, Cutty Sark is listed as being part of the National Historic Fleet (the nautical equivalent of a Grade 1 listed building) and is one of only three remaining original – ie wooden hull on an iron frame – clipper ships from the 19th century. Although she has been damaged by fire on several occasions, she has been restored and is preserved in dry dock at Greenwich where she has been since 1954.

Although the age of the sailing ship has ended, some still exist and are used by navies of various nations as training ships for young sailors. Ships such as Norway’s Christian Radich, built in 1937 for training sailors of the Norwegian merchant navy, and one of the fastest of all the modern sailing ships, ensures that the tall ship lives on.

Further reading

  • Tall Ships in Torbay by John Pike (1986)
  • Tall Ships – The Magic of Sail by Dean Server (1999)

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