American-built Ships

In 1791, Tench Coxe wrote that the best doubledecked American ships could be produced for about $34 per ton, while such a vessel could not be purchased in Great Britain, France, or Holland for under $55 to dollarl60 per ton. The only vessels that could compete on a cost basis with American ships were those constructed in such places as Hamburg, Bremen, L├╝beck, and Danzig, which had easy access to Baltic lumber. As late as the 1840's, when shipbuilding costs in the United States had risen far above their earlier levels, British shipowners testified at Parliamentary hearings that, because of the capital charges on high-cost British-built vessels, they could not compete in the North Atlantic with the flash packets of the American Black Ball, Swallow Tail, and Red Star lines. Costs, however, were not the only factor, for American shipbuilders had built ships that could "go" with such speed that they could cross the Atlantic in little more than half the time taken by British vessels. To speed was added prestige. At the Liverpool docks, an Englishman named W. N. Blane wrote in 1824, a man "will see the American ships, long, sharp built, beautifully painted and rigged, and remarkable for their appearance and white canvas. He will see the English vessels, short, round and dirty, resembling great black tubs."

The packets were not the only superior American ships. During the first half of the nineteenth century, American shipbuilders contributed as much to the development of the sailing ship as other countries had in three centuries. Noteworthy changes in rig, design, carrying capacity, and handling of vessels occurred between 1815 and 1850. American builders took the fore-and-aft rig, for which the Dutch were probably responsible, and built a vessel of sharp hull lines called the schooner.

This rig, which has been the favored one for cruising yachts, was particularly adaptable for their coasting trade.

The greatest improvements, however, were in square-riggers. Morison tells of a shipmaster, retired in 1819, who took passage in 1834 on a Boston-built vessel. He was astonished at her ability to carry sail, to beat to windward, and to "tack in a pint o'water." Medford builders had evolved a ship of 450 tons, which, handled by 18 officers and men, could carry half as much freight as a 1,500-ton British East Indiaman with a crew of 125, and could sail half again as fast. Elsewhere we tell of the cotton freighters that doubled the carrying capacity of earlier carriers ton for ton. The sailing ship reached a peak of perfection in the American clipper.

This new type of sailing vessel -- characterized by great length in proportion to breadth of beam, an enormous sail area, and long concave bows ending in a gracefully curved cutwater -- had been devised for the China-New York tea trade. The voyage of the Sea Witch [to San Francisco in 1850 ] showed its possibilities. Her record was broken by the Surprise within a year, and in 1851 Flying Cloud made 'Frisco in eighty-nine days from New York, a record never surpassed. As California then afforded no return cargo save gold dust (the export of wheat began only in 1855), the Yankee clippers proceeded in ballast to the China treaty ports, where they came into competition with the British marine; and the result was more impressive than the victory of the yacht America. Crack East-Indiamen humbly waited for a cargo weeks on end, while one American clipper after another sailed off with a cargo of tea at double the ordinary freights. When the Oriental of New York appeared at London, ninety-seven days from Hong-Kong, crowds thronged the West India docks to admire her beautiful hull, lofty rig, and patent fittings; the Admiralty took off her lines in dry dock, and the Times came out with a leader challenging British shipbuilders to set their "long practised skill, steady industry and dogged determination" against the "youth, ingenuity and ardour" of the United States.

The British answer was the British-built clippers Stornoway and Chrysolite, but, by the time they were built, Donald McKay had launched his Sovereign of the Seas, the largest merchant ship yet built. After gold was discovered in Australia in 1853, McKay built four clippers for the Australian Black Ball Line. One of the reasons for repeal of the British Navigation Acts was that British shipowners wished to employ superior American ships.

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