Whalers & clippers

After the era of Napoleon, trading routes became established all over the globe, Britannia ruled the waves, and sailing ships adapted to the new world.

The whalers

My great-great-great-great grandfather was a whaling captain. Perhaps he wouldn’t have approved of me when I protested against whaling outside Parliament House with my “Save the whales” badge on, many years ago.

Nobody needs whale products nowadays, so there’s no reason to go on killing them. But for centuries, whaling was one of the most important and lucrative maritime industries. Whale oil and blubber was used in lamps and soap, people ate whale meat, whale bones were used in women’s corsets and combs, and ambergris (a fragrant resin found rarely inside a whale’s head) was essential for perfume and incredibly valuable, as indeed it still is.

It was a hard life, as it was on any fishing boat. The crew sailed away from home for months, sometimes years, on relatively small ships. If a whale was sighted (“There she blows!”), they struck out in small boats, rowing as hard as they could, often for miles, hoping to spear the whale with a harpoon.

Once speared, the whale might drag the boat under, or smash it to pieces, or tow it leagues away. Many whalers were lost at sea, or terribly injured. But they became the folk of legend: of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

The great grain races

In the 19th century a new breed of ship was built: the clipper ship. With several huge masts (up to seven!) and a vast spread of canvas, the clipper ships dramatically cut down the time it took to sail from Europe to the US or the Pacific.

On a clipper, you could sail from Portsmouth to Melbourne in only 90 days – a speed unheard of up until then. Migrants or people seeking fortune on the goldfields of Australia, New Zealand or California took the fast passage, and on the return trip the ship would be loaded with grain, sheep or cattle or precious metals.

Ship owners had a great deal riding on these passages: if another ship got into port the day before yours, the prices of everything would drop and you’d lose a fortune. So the captains were urged to sail as fast as they could, from Melbourne or Hong Kong to London or Liverpool, or across the Atlantic.

These grain races became legendary: one of the best books I’ve ever read is The Last Grain Race by Eric Newby.

The end of the sailing ships

By the end of the 19th century, even these fastest of all sailing ships were being left behind by the new steam-powered ships. Steam ships needed coal to fire their boilers (to create the steam which drove the engine) but they didn’t need to wait for a good wind, could power up rivers against the current, and could navigate in any direction with only a twist of a wheel and rudder, so they didn’t need the many crew members that a sailing ship required.

The SS Great Britain used both steam and sail – the steam turned huge screw propellers, instead of the giant paddle wheels used by so many other steam ships. It also had an iron hull and rigging: a truly modern ship.

In 1869, the Suez Canal opened, which meant that steamships could get from the Mediterranean into the Indian Ocean instead of sailing all the way around Africa.

The golden age of sail was over. The modern world had begun.


Star Flyer in sail

Star Flyer

Tall ships in the modern world

The age of sail may be over, but there are still many tall ships sailing the oceans of the world. Some of them are survivors of the golden age, such as the James Craig in Sydney. Others are exact replicas of famous ships, like James Cook’s Endeavour. Some are modern, made in traditional ways or rigs, to help train young sailors or offer life-changing experiences for young people.

A new generation of clipper ships provides exciting adventures to tourists. I once sailed in the Star Flyer from Istanbul to Athens, to experience the speed of a clipper as well as the gentle rocking of the waves at night.

Some of our most precious historic artifacts are old ships. In Britain, you can visit Nelson’s flagship Victory, or the SS Great Britain, in which so many migrants (including some of my ancestors) sailed to new lives on the other side of the world.

Maritime museums contain the relics of rare Tudor ships like the Mary Rose (at Portsmouth in England), or ancient Mediterranean traders (at Bodrum in Turkey), or Viking longships (in Oslo).

Your nearest maritime museum (or one you can visit on holidays) may also have a sailing ship, like the James Craig in Sydney or Breeze in Auckland, that can take you out on the water so you can see how it felt to be part of the great age of sail – just like Lily Swann.

James Craig

James Craig

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