Crossing oceans, fast

Thu, 12/10/2020 - 6:45pm

“I hate being frightened, but, even more, I detest being prevented by fright.” — Sir Francis Chichester

During the 1840s and 50s, ship designers started to push the boundaries of what ocean- and coastal-going vessels could be expected to do in all weathers; they had to make time in strong or light air. Before the railroad and the Panama Canal were built, ships had to round the tip of South America; it was a slog into prevailing southerly winds and demanding sea states to get to, as an example, San Francisco in order to supply goods for the influx of people lured by the prospect of striking it rich with gold. Time meant money, and with the opportunity to make some serious scoots to transport these goods, it only stands to reason that ships would be needed to get to their destination on the quick step. (For example, getting goods from Canton to New York City could take six months. This was a cost/benefit dilemma and simply not acceptable — people wanted their tea and other consumables fast.) 

To meet the need for speed, clipper ships were invented to be the fastest vessels on the planet prior to the invention of the steam engine — they were designed for speed and the transport of goods. They were sailed hard to move said goods around the world, i.e., tea from China, rum from Jamaica, and supplies for the California Gold Rush. Moreover, these boats were utilitarian in nature, but could also carry paying passengers with deep pockets.

The clipper ship Flying Cloud was a ship designed for such a job.

The Flying Cloud was built in Boston and designed by Donald McKay, who built a ship that was destined — as earlier Baltimore Clippers were wont to do — “clip off the miles” and save money. McKay built many fast ships; however, the record-breaking Flying Cloud is his most notable design. McKay hailed from Nova Scotia and was not the most polished of gentlemen; however, he was a man of his word and he knew how to build boats.

He outdid himself with the design of Flying Cloud. At 1,800 tons, her length on deck was 225 feet, and she had a 41-foot, eight-inch beam, and drew 22 feet. She carried an inordinate amount of sail for her size. The Flying Cloud broke a speed record from New York to San Francisco — anchor to anchor — in 89 days and 21 hours. The average time of making that trip in a sailing ship was 200 days.

This was a powerful testament for the owners and McKay, and she helped these men make a handsome living. Most important were the captains, mates, and seamen, who made these ships do what they were designed to do (at great risk to life and limb). The navigator of Flying Cloud was a woman named Eleanor Creesy, whose husband Josiah was the Master of the ship when she broke the long-held record.

But another sailor wanted to eclipse the Flying Cloud’s feats of speed.

Sir Francis Chichester was a guy clearly standing in his own field and he obviously loved sailing. Before his attempt at beating the time, speed, and distance records of the clipper ships, he had raced across the Atlantic on two previous occasions with notable results.

In the 1964 race from Plymouth, England to Newport in Gipsy Moth lll — he was runner up for the win in that race. (He won it in 1960.) However, he was a man not really interested in romance and accolades of crossing oceans.

During the 1964 race, Sir Francis got the idea to break the clipper ship times. (Single-handing a sailboat crossing the Atlantic must give people plenty of time to get ideas like this rattling around in their heads. Just sayin’.) He also figured he needed a lighter and faster boat to be in contention for this goal.

This is where Gipsy Moth lV comes into the picture.

His new boat was 38.6 feet at the waterline, and was ketch rigged. Her overall length was 53 feet. She carried a substantial amount of sail. She displaced only 10.5 tons, which is very light, thereby creating a tender sailing vessel. She needed more ballast added so she would be self-righting if she got knocked down on her voyage, which would be inevitable. She had tiller steering with a self-steering rig that Chichester could operate from his bunk. Compared to the self-steering devices of today, this was archaic. Sir Francis found her to be “cantankerous and difficult.”

But he sailed her into the record books in 1967.

Following the old clipper ship routes, he made the fastest voyage around the world by a small vessel, and he also set a record for a single-handed sailor by covering 1,400 miles in eight days. Moreover, rounding Cape Horn, he and his wily ketch encountered 50-foot waves, where his speed indicator stopped operating at 60 knots. Gipsy Moth lV was an unruly, unforgiving, and demanding boat for her skipper. She was basically too much boat for one man to sail. The end game for sailors such as Chichester (and boat designers such as McKay), was that if they didn’t push boundaries with their brains and brawn, then they wouldn’t know where the edge of the abyss lives. It’s out there and certain personality types will chase that edge as they sail across oceans, fast.

Nota Bene: In Newport during the 1976 Bicentennial Tallship’s celebration, my sister Maryanne took a picture of the Top Sail Schooner Shenandoah as she was full and bye in Narragansett Bay, which exemplifies the power and grace of a coastal schooner. Shenandoah currently resides in Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard.