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The Baltimore Clipper appeared shortly after the Revolutionary War. The designers and architects of the Baltimore Clippers looked to countries whose maritime histories were full of conquest of speed, with and against the wind. They considered the Phoenicians broad-beamed hulls; the Viking hulls that navigated through Scandinavia's icy fjords; and Mediterranean war galleys which moved with low water resistance and speed under sails. In the mid-17th century new designs came from Holland of the first "fore-and-afters" gaff-rigged sails which allowed for quick maneuvering, culminating in the type of vessel commonly called a schooner.

Also of European ancestry was the sloop which was most common in Sweden, France, and Spain. The sloop was a single masted craft with a gaff sail and a fixed bowsprit which allowed for several triangular headsails. Finally, from the turbulent waters of the English Channel, came tall-rigged fishing boats from France and Britain called luggers. These boats were able to combine the sturdiness they needed to survive in rough water with the speed they needed to be competitive.

Baltimore. 1800s.

These ships, and the design principles used to create them, were the backbone of the Maryland shipbuilding industry for many years. Because of the importance of watercraft on Maryland's economy in the eighteenth century, the Chesapeake Bay was an area of shipbuilding innovations. One such predecessor would be the Chesapeake schooners that were mainstays of the bay industries in the late 1700's. These boats were "sharp built", with a merchant type or fast sailing hull for use in letter of marque service (to engage enemy vessels and take prizes) or for privateering.

Clippers are said to have originated with the small, swift coastal packet known as the Baltimore clipper, the true clipper evolved first in the U.S. (c. 1833) and later in Britain. The basic concept of the Baltimore Clippers was first seen in the ship Ann McKim, one of the largest and fastest clippers ever to sail. Though no two Balitmore Clippers were ever built to the same dimensions or specifications, they share common bonds:

A long, slim, graceful vessel with a projecting bow, a streamlined hull, and an exceptionally large spread of sail on three tall masts. Clippers carried tea from China and goldminers to California. Famous clippers included the American Flying Cloud and the British Cutty Sark. Though much faster than the early steamships (already in use when the clipper appeared), they were eventually outrun by improved steamship models and largely disappeared from commercial use in the 1870s.

All Clippers were approximately 100 feet in length from stern to bow. Baltimore Clippers had heart shaped midsections with short keels and raking sterns. The undecorated hulls of these ships were black, low-sided, and sharped bowed, leaving the Clippers with minimum freeboard. Quite unlike other ships of the period, the clippers bore no figureheads, headboards or trailboards.

A Clipper's mast was further aft on the ship just as the foremast was proportionately taller, therefore allowing a more efficient use of sails.

Pride of Baltimore, Clipper Ship.

Pride of Baltimore Clipper Ship.

Baltimore Clippers were often the ship of choice for slavers, smugglers, and West Indian pirate craft. They also carried light cargoes, but Baltimore Clippers received their true recognition for their role in the War of 1812 when Captain Thomas Boyle commanded the Chasseur which was able to capture 45 British merchant ships in a five month period. Because of its impressive performance, it returned home with its new nickname Pride of Baltimore. Chasseur's history is illustrative of the fate of Baltimore Clippers. Just three months after her triumphal return to Baltimore from her exploits against the British Isles, she set sail for Canton, China. According to the super cargo's log of the six month voyage around Africa, through the Indian Ocean, and up the coast of Southeast Asia, she encountered gale force winds, but sailed well. In Canton, she loaded on a cargo of tea, silk, satin, porcelain and other high demand items for the return voyage. Despite deteriorating conditions of the ship, she set a speed record from Canton to the Virginia Capes in 95 days. This Orient-to-America record held for 16 years until it was broken by the clipper Atlantic in 1832. Her cargo of exotic goods sold for a handsome profit for her owners.

Because Clippers could outsail their opponents, Baltimore Clippers were responsible for more than 500 sinkings or seizures of British ships. But after the treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, the uses for the Baltimore Clippers declined in number. They were still known worldwide for their usefulness in trade, both legal and illegal, allowing merchants the speed they needed to be competitive. They went to the West Indies with cargoes of flour and cotton, returning with coffee and sugar.

The Pride of Baltimore. Baltimore Operation Sail.

The Baltimore Clippers faded away to be replaced by larger ships capable of carrying greater cargoes with the same speed as that of the Clippers. In the 1840s a new generation of fast large ships evolved that came to be known as Yankee Clippers or simply Clipper Ships. These were three masted, full-rigged ships, that is, they had square sails on all three masts.


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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; Maritime Library, San Francisco, California, various Maritime Museums around the world.

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