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Captain's Log

April 2015

Clipper Ships

The Great Tea Race of 1866

The Great Tea Race of 1866

The Great Tea Race of 1866
'Shipping it green' was what they called it. When bow waves started breaking over the prow of the ship. The cause was too much sail, too much speed - sailing at the very limits of the ship’s capability. Like driving a sports car with the rev counter beyond the red line. But the risks were far greater than a mechanical breakdown. Not only the cargo but the ship itself was in danger. The slightest error of judgement or merely a moment of bad luck could spell disaster.

The First and the Freshest
What drove clipper ship captains to take such a gamble? Simple - they were racing - using all their skill, experience and daring to be first home with the new season’s harvest of tea. Merchants in England were clamouring and the first to supply them commanded the best price. And the return on the ship-owner’s investment could be very high indeed. For example, a new clipper that cost £12,000 to build might bring home a cargo worth £3,000 on her first voyage.

All the Tea in China
Rivalry between skippers was intense, never more so than in what became known as the Great Tea Race of 1866. Four clippers: Ariel, Taeping, Fiery Cross and Serica were lying at anchor at the Chinese port of Fuzhou - then known as Foochow. Captain John Keay, master of the Ariel, had secured the first cargo of tea - 560 tons packed in 12,000 chests and stowed in record time. Ariel should have been first away but the tug hired to tow her out of the harbour lacked the power to cross the Min River against the tide. The Fiery Cross - towed by a larger tug - had no such problems and was soon in clear water. Forced to wait overnight, Keay's frustration increased when - the following morning - Ariel was joined by Taeping and Serica. Fiery Cross had a head start but the other three clippers were in hot pursuit. The race was on.

No Holds Barred
As he watched Fiery Cross sail out of sight on that first evening, John Keay realised what a challenge he faced. Although slightly smaller than Ariel, the ship in the lead had demonstrated she was the fastest clipper of the period. And her master Dick Robinson had won the tea races of 1861, 62, 63 and 65. He wasn’t averse to short-cutting procedures. Fiery Cross had weighed anchor at Foochow the moment her cargo was aboard. Robinson hadn't bothered with various papers and bills of lading, gaining 12 hours on Serica and Taeping.

The four ships sailed east to round the northern coat of Taiwan and then turned south. Fiery Cross was first to reach Anjer and leave the China Sea followed by Ariel and Taeping two days later. A further day elapsed before Serica was sighted.

Fastest Ships Afloat
West across the Indian Ocean and the quest for speed was paramount. Cargoes and ballast were shifted to achieve perfect trim and more sails were hoisted. Clippers of this period had three masts each fitted with a lower course sail, double top sails, single or double topgallants, a royal and skysail. In addition some captains would unfurl moonrakers at the mast tip. A state-of-the-art ship like Ariel could easily set thirty or more sails when required and could average 12 knots in good conditions. By comparison steamers only managed around 8 or 9 knots and on a home run from China would need four or five refuelling stops for coal.

Around the Cape of Good Hope the four clippers were closing the distances between them and they became closer still by the time St. Helena appeared on the horizon. Lighter winds around the Equator favoured Taeping and Ariel and together with Serica and Fiery Cross they passed the Azores practically in formation.

Neck-and-Neck up the Western Approaches
The final stretch up the Channel saw Ariel and Taeping pull ahead and after 97 days at sea they ran for home, both logging 14 knots and within sight of one another. At eight in the morning of September 6 Ariel signalled to observers at Deal - the official end of the race. Taeping was a mere ten minutes behind, with Serica arriving two hours later. A further 36 hours would elapse before Fiery Cross signalled her arrival.

Although the official winner, Keay couldn't afford the latest and fastest tug and so Ariel was beaten into the Port of London by Taeping. Rivals at sea, the two captains were gentlemen ashore and agreed to split the premium of 10 shillings a ton awarded to the first ship home.

Then they celebrated with a pot of tea. Or possibly something a little stronger...

Footnote: This was the closest Tea Race in its 30 year history. Ariel's time being seven thousandths of one percent faster than Taeping's.

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