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Journey Of A Clipper Ship

Aleksandra Radyuk

The transformation of the little Baltimore clippers and packets into the grand California Clippers came about very suddenly in the 19th century. The California gold rush, as its name indicates, prized speed above all else. The clipper ship, designed for quick and few voyages, was the perfect vessel for the gold rush, which began in 1848.i

At the time, any man who wanted to try his luck panning for gold was eager to improve his fortunes by heading to California. Land travel to the West was slow, dangerous, and impractical. The sea was the best and fasted mode of transportation. However, this was in the time before the Panama Canal, which meant that some travellers would have to sail down the East Coast from New York to the Isthmus of Panama and cross by land to the other side, where a waiting ship would take them to California to complete the journey. Several packet-lines of steamers that transported passengers in this manner made a fortune during the rush.ii Anything was endurable for these so-called “Forty-Niners”, in order to reach the potential goldmines of California.

New York was always the clear leader in the numbers of clippers sent around the Horn. In 1849, when the rush was just beginning to gain speed, New York had sent 214 of the 775 vessels that docked in California.iii New York was able to take the lead because of the large number of China clippers that had returned from the Orient.

While the Isthmus route was difficult because it involved two ships and a land crossing, it was not nearly as difficult as the rounding of Cape Horn. The Horn, as it is known colloquially, was and is an object of legend and dread. Rounding Cape Horn was considered such a courageous act that men who had rounded the Cape three times were permitted to wear a silver loop in their left ear.iv This tradition, interestingly enough, is carried on into the present day. Several depictions of pirates feature a silver earring in the left ear, though few know that this is a trophy of bravery awarded for rounding the Horn. Only when the Panama Canal is closed, for political or mechanical reasons, do modern-day vessels round the Horn, doing so very reluctantly.

Speed, however, and not pragmatism, was the motive. The old rule book of travel by sea was thrown out. The Horn became the mode of travel. The route of the California clipper travelling from New York started out from the Seaport. Then, travelling rapidly, the clipper would hug the coastline and go through the Caribbean. Having passed Central America, the clipper would travel down the South American coastline until it reached the Cape. Here the endurance of both the vessel and the crew would be tested, as the clipper struggled to turn the corner and continue heading north. Once the clipper had rounded the Horn, the journey was almost complete. The Pacific Ocean, aptly named, provided a smooth journey to San Francisco for the weary clipper.

The 90-day ship could live up to its name, but it often paid a terrible price in human lives. Quite often, the ship would not make the return journey, usually because the crew had abandoned it to pan for gold with the passengers. Of course, the clippers were not intended for long runs or peaceful journeys. Perhaps the most apt way of describing the clippers would be to use the words of the pirate Bartholomew Roberts: “A short life, and a merry one.”


i. Cutler, Carl C. Greyhounds of the Sea. Annapolis, Maryland. 1960: Naval Institute Press. Page 136.

ii. Albion, Robert. The Rise of the New York Port. Hamden, Connecticut. 1961: Archon Books. Page 355.

iii. Ibid., Page 356.

iv. Victor Radyuk, Interview.

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