Two Shortcuts that changed the World of Sailing

17th February 2016

Suez Canal

1860 - Illustration depicting a dredger in Port Said working on the construction of the Suez Canal.

During a time that saw Europe explore the wider world in search of exotic products, clipper ships dominated the seas. Many sailors would head east into Asia for spices, tea and silk; whilst others would head west to California in search of gold. The routes were treacherous, with many sailors spending hundreds of days at sea travelling through fierce weather and tidal conditions.

Those seeking the tastes and fragrances of Asia had no other option than to sail around the southern tip of Africa – the Cape of Good Hope. Sailors hoping to dig for gold in California were forced to endure one of the most notoriously difficult routes. Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America, is regarded as the Mount Everest of sailing routes.

In 1869, a new shortcut between Europe and Asia was introduced that would redefine the world of sailing forever. The Suez Canal opened a route through Egypt that connected the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. No longer would sailors have to traverse the difficult route around the Cape of Good Hope in order to access the lucrative products Asia had to offer.

In the same year, one of the world’s most renowned clipper ships was launched: the Cutty Sark. However, due to the opening of the Suez Canal, this prestigious vessel was never able to achieve as much as its predecessors. She operated a tea trade route for a few years, but this was brought to an abrupt end, in 1873, upon realising steamships traversing the Suez Canal were able to complete the journey 27 days quicker.

The construction of the Suez Canal took ten years to complete and required the labour of one million people. Sadly, 120,000 were lost during this time through various diseases. In spite of the number of workers lost in the process, it would only be a few years before another ambitious project would commence.

Panama Canal

1912 - Panama Canal construction showing huge locks before the gates were installed.

In 1880, France began work on an enormous project that would see the construction of a new waterway through the Isthmus of Panama. Ten years later, they abandoned the project as a result of yellow fever, malaria, cholera and other technical problems. It is thought that 22,000 people died during this period of early construction.

The project was later picked up by the United States in 1904, and great efforts were made to combat the threat of tropical diseases. Over the course of the next ten years, a further 5,500 people would lose their lives. Although the layout of the canal was altered slightly to include artificial lakes and locks, it was finally inaugurated in 1914.

As was the case with the Suez Canal, steamships made full use of the Panama Canal to avoid traversing the treacherous Cape Horn route. Interestingly, though, Cape Horn continued to be used by many sailors, including those from Chile, who were looking to transport saltpetre – a key ingredient in fertilizer and gunpowder. To this day, Cape Horn remains widely regarded the fastest route from the Atlantic to Pacific or vice versa. In fact, in the early 20th century, many sailors would opt to avoid it, so as to not have to pay the expensive fees the Panama Canal presented.


Although the world of sailing and cruising has developed considerably since the ‘age of exploration’, Star Clippers provides a unique insight into the world of traditional tall ship sailing. You can even experience the magnificent achievement that is the Panama Canal for yourself on board one of our selected itineraries. Or, alternatively, you can admire cultural Egyptian landmarks with a unique Suez Canal cruise on board the Star Clipper in October 2016.

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