The Age of Sail

“At River’s Edge,” sketch by James Fuller Queen ca. 1850-60.

There is something thrilling and romantic about the sight of a vessel under full sail—or even tied up in harbor. One of the defining moments in the history of Corsair’s Cove is when Captain Daniel Blackthorne, the Wolf of the West, sails his ship the Belle Swift into harbor, and disaster ensues that has repercussions for the next century and a half.

Clipper ship “Challenge,” Currier & Ives, ca. 1835-56

I love to imagine what his ship might have looked like. The Age of Sail is roughly defined as that period between the end of oars and the beginning of steam, or 1571 through about 1870. That’s three hundred years of sails, culminating in the development of the tea clippers, the fastest ships ever built. Their purpose was to bring tea (and, sadly, opium) across the ocean, so time was of the essence. In 1854, the Sovereign of the Seas recorded a speed of 22 knots, or 41 km/h (about 35 miles an hour). American clipper ships held most of the speed records. The most famous one—and loveliest of all, in my opinion—was Cutty Sark, which you can visit today in Greenwich, Connecticut. That’s on my bucket list!

A sailing ship could make the China run the fastest, but when steamships came into use, they didn’t need to rely on the vagaries of the trade winds. They might be slower, and need more in the way of supplies, but they could run on a schedule. Eventually they eclipsed sailing ships and by the early 20th century, sail had begun to decline.

“Until some new motive power replaces steam, or steam is replaced by the use of petroleum or other concentrated fuel, the clipper still has an occupation, and the hearts of all old-time skippers will be gladdened by the sight of her white wings upon the seas.” — Chadwick, F.E., Ocean steamships … (1891) New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, p. 225-226

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, it seemed every house had a picture of a sailing ship under full cover, braving a stormy sea. I wonder what happened to the one my parents had …?

Images from the US Library of Congress:


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