What Defines a Clipper Ship?

20th August 2015

Clipper Ships

A sailing experience with Star Clippers is more than just a cruise. To sail on a tall ship is to appreciate a bygone era of exploration, trade and travel – purely by utilising the power of the wind. The Royal Clipper, Star Clipper and Star Flyer ships celebrate a time when the only way to traverse the globe was by the oceans. But what makes a clipper ship different to any other ship? And how can they be distinguished from the hundreds of other vessels that once roamed the seas?


It is thought the term “clipper” is most likely derived from the verb “clip”, meaning to run or fly swiftly. John Dryden, an English poet of the 17th century, was one of the first to use the term in the context it is defined today. He used the term to describe the graceful and swift flight of a falcon, stating: “And, with her eagerness the quarry missed, Straight flies at check, and clips it down the wind.” Thus, the term was also used to refer to speed.

The first vessels to which the term “clipper” was applied were the Baltimore Clippers. They were named as such as they were intended to clip over the waves, rather than simply plough through them. These ships were small and were designed with speed in mind, rather than vast amounts of cargo. The term appeared in England after this period, with the first Oxford English Dictionary entry dating back to 1830 – but it is thought to have been a widely popular term prior to this.

Whilst there is no specific definition for clipper ships, renowned mariner and author, Alan Villiers, has comprised probably the finest explanation of the ships’ characteristics. “To sailors, three things made a ship a clipper. She must be sharp-lined, built for speed. She must be tall-sparred and carry the utmost spread of canvas. And she must use that sail, day and night, fair weather and foul.”

Prior to the introduction of steam-powered vessels, it was these characteristics that were instrumental in success of clipper ships around the world. Their speed made them ideal for transporting goods such as opium between England, India and China; tea between China and England; and gold from California.

Due to vast number of sails on board a Clipper ship, they generally required a much larger crew for the day-to-day operation. Combine this factor with the speed at which these ships could travel and it is possible to truly appreciate the sheer sailing skill behind a clipper ship.

You can appreciate the elegance and sailing skill behind clipper ships today with Star Clippers cruises. With itineraries in the Eastern and Western Mediterranean, Caribbean and around Cuba; Star Clippers presents the unique opportunity to appreciate a bygone era of sailing, whilst also exploring new destinations.

Our Latest Brochures


Reservations Centre

UK and Eire passengers please contact Fred. Olsen Travel, the General Sales Agent for Star Clippers or any ABTA Travel Agent.

Opening Hours:
Monday to Friday - 9:00am to 6.00pm
Saturday - 9:00am to 4:00pm
Sunday - Closed