The historical rise of clipper ships

21st September 2017

Today, a sailing with Star Clippers offers a chance to delve into a historical realm of traditional wind-powered travelling. The three ships of the fleet offer a chance to break away from the larger and more modern vessels of the 21st century and enjoy tranquil sailings to a number of hidden islands, charming towns and mesmerising landmarks.

Throughout the early 19th century, these ships offered one of the quickest and most efficient ways in which to cross the seas. These ships were built for their speed, which was a necessary factor when considering the amount of cargo they were sent to collect. Although their cargo holds weren’t particularly large, they were regarded as the quickest way to travel and were regularly sent around the world to acquire low volumes of tea, opium, spices and even gold.

Clipper Ship

No exact time or definition was ever recorded for the first clipper ship to sail the seas, but it is thought the term may have first been applied to a specific type of topsail schooner. A schooner is a sailing vessel that is defined by fore-and-aft sails on two or more masts – with the foremast being shorter than the main mast. This took a step forward following a development in the Chesapeake Bay before the American Revolution, which saw a new type of vessel that featured three or more masts and a square rig.

It is thought that the term “Clipper” was derived from the verb “clip” – which roughly means “to run of fly swiftly”. Famed mariner and author, Alan Villiers, applied the following characteristics to a ship known specifically as a clipper. He said the ship must be “sharp-lined, built for speed; tall-sparred and carry the utmost spread of canvas; and she must use that sail, day and night, fair weather and foul”.

These narrow ships reached their prominence from towards the end of the 18th century through to around 1869. The growing demand for tea from China was a particularly strong influence in the construction of further clipper ships. One of the most notable clipper ships to have been involved in the tea trade was the Cutty Sark, which has been preserved and, despite suffering significant fire damage in recent years, can still be seen in Greenwich today.

Cutty Sark

The tea route to China became slightly more complicated following the Chinese Emperor’s decision to embargo European manufactured goods. This saw a rise in price for tea and other Chinese goods, for which payment was demanded in silver. The British got around this, however, by acquiring a product from India that was secretly highly prized by the Chinese. Opium, a painkiller, was acquired from India and subsequently used as a bargaining chip for the cheaper acquisition of tea from China.

Steamships began to make their slow introduction into the seafaring industry around the 1850’s, which would ultimately bring about an end to the reign of the clipper ship. Although clipper ships maintained a much faster top speed, their dependence on the wind made them somewhat unreliable. Steamships were able to keep to a schedule and this was only reiterated in 1869, following the opening the Suez Canal.

While the Star Clippers ships of the 21st century provide a nod to this bygone era in terms of their appearance and functionality, they are – thanks to the addition of a propulsion engine – able to adhere to a schedule, even if winds are not favourable. Built in the early 1990’x, the Star Flyer and Star Clipper ships are two of the most modern clipper ships in existence, while the five-masted Royal Clipper holds the record for being the largest square-rigged ship in service.

In 2018, these vessels will be joined by the Flying Clipper, which will be a completely new build based on the legendary France II. She will accommodate a maximum of 300 passengers, all of which will be able to enjoy spacious cabins, a two-deck restaurant, an 18ft dive pool, and much more on board.


Star Clippers currently operates sailings around the world, with the chance to experience traditional tall ship sailing in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Far East Asia. For more information, contact us via the freephone number above or chat to an advisor online.

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