Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Steven Ujifusa's "Barons of the Sea"

Steven Ujifusa is the author of Barons of the Sea: And Their Race to Build the World’s Greatest Clipper Ship. Barons of the Sea tells the saga of the great 19th century American clipper ships and the Yankee merchant dynasties they created. It is a story of high-stakes competition on the high seas, groundbreaking technical innovation in shipbuilding, and intense family rivalries. Nathaniel Philbrick described it as “A fascinating, fast-paced history…full of remarkable characters and incredible stories” about the nineteenth-century American dynasties who battled for dominance of the tea and opium trades.”

Ujifusa applied the “Page 99 Test” to Barons of the Sea and reported the following:
From page 99:
Palmer estimated that his new ship could bring fresh tea from China to New York in fewer than a hundred days, a faster voyage than the Paul Jones and other ships in her class. The relatively flat-bottom contours of Palmer’s prototype created the interior volume needed for greater carrying capacity. His new model would be ideal for hauling the maximum number of tea chests with the minimum amount of wasted space. And there was another factor at work. Some sailors on the China run had noticed how their ships sailed differently with a cargo of tea versus bulk goods. “A ship with a tea cargo is very buoyant and is not deep in the water and sails very well,” the young sailor Charlie Low observed. This enabled tea ships to make nine or ten knots sailing large in a quartering wind—compared with six or seven knots for merchant ships loaded with heavier cargo. Imagine how fast a better-designed ship could be.

Such was the ship that Captain Nathaniel Palmer envisioned while slogging homeward on John Murray Forbes’s brand-new Paul Jones. With luck, Palmer reasoned, a sharp-bowed ship could average twelve or thirteen knots in a fresh breeze—possibly even faster—when loaded with a full cargo of tea. The question was whether a ship with such sharp ends would lose crucial buoyancy and become unstable or structurally deficient in bad weather, especially when fully loaded with cargo.

Late in 1843, a newly disembarked William Henry Low turned up at the South Street offices of A. A. Low & Brother, sadly without the competence he had sought in China, but bearing Captain Nat’s model ship. His brother Abbot controlled the family purse strings, and after careful examination and consultation with the East River shipbuilders Brown & Bell, he gave his approval for building this experimental craft. Captain Nat would design the new vessel and supervise her construction at the shipyard.
Page 99 of Barons of the Sea discusses how a few strokes of imaginative thinking on the part of an experienced sea captain (Nathaniel Palmer) and two brothers from a prominent New York shipping family (William Henry Low and Charles Porter Low) led to the construction and financing of one of the earliest clipper ships: the Houqua of 1843, named after China’s wealthiest merchant. Because of her revolutionary design, Houqua could sail from China to New York in less than 100 days, which became the new gold standard for the passage, when only a few years earlier six months was considered an average run. Houqua helped touch off a race to built the fastest tea clipper, which culminated in the Sea Witch of 1846, which sailed between Hong Kong and New York at an astonishing 74 days, a record which stood for over 150 years.

A clipper ship is a three-masted, full-rigged sailing vessel built for speed at the sacrifice of capacity. To achieve speeds of 13 knots plus, a clipper ship’s bow and stern had sharp lines rather than the traditional full ones. These sharp lines had their origins in the small, schooner rigged “opium clippers” owned by the Lows, fast boats that smuggled the Indian drug into China to pay for the tea. A clipper ship’s keel had to be strong to compensate for the loss of buoyancy at the bow and stern. Clipper ships also carried a much larger spread of canvas than a typical vessel, which meant a larger crew and higher operational costs. To make a clipper ship’s great speed pay, the cargo had to be extremely valuable. First, it was high quality tea from China to be sold at auction in New York or Boston. Then, during the California Gold Rush, this meant dry goods and provisions to be sold to miners in booming San Francisco to be sold at sky-high prices.

The American clipper ship revolutionized world trade similarly to the way Amazon has in modern times by greatly speeding up the global supply chain The men who owned and operated clippers were bare-knuckled, laissez-faire capitalists. Ships were built with great skill and creativity, for speed and profit first, safety last. There were no trial voyages, government inspections, or labor regulation. Crew life was harsh and dangerous: one misstep ten stories above the ocean meant near-certain death.

These innovative clippers made the Lows and a handful of other families (including that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather) fabulously wealthy, and established America as a global economic superpower. Due to the advent of steam, railroads, and changing economic conditions, the clipper ship era only lasted about two decades, but these beautiful ships live on in art, song, and the family fortunes that they produced. They were the perfect blend of art and commerce. As maritime historian Samuel Eliot Morrison wrote, “These were our Gothic cathedrals, our Parthenon; but monuments carved from snow. For a few brief years they flashed their splendor around the world, then disappeared with the finality of the wild pigeon.”
Visit Steven Ujifusa's website.

--Marshal Zeringue