The Lightning and Great Clipper Ships

Part II of An Australian Emigrant Family

Peter Blackwell, Ph.D. Brown University '88 (Rhode Island) and Mark Blackwell, B.Com. B.D. (Euroa, Victoria, Australia) [[email protected]]

George Blackwell and his twelve-year-old son George Francis Blackwell sailed from England to Australia during the period of great "Colonial" clipper ships and a fierce competitive rivalry had developed between two companies and their captains. The competition to this point had centered on the Atlantic run to and from New York. The White Star Line had at the head of its fleet, Red Jacket, under the command of Captain Eldridge, and the Black Ball Line now had the Lightning, captained by James Nichol Forbes.

In the Liverpool Courier of March 1854, there appeared an article indicating that Captain Eldridge had made the fastest Atlantic crossing ever in the Red Jacket in January of that year. Captain Forbes was incensed. He wrote a Letter to the Editor of the Northern Daily Times dated March 8th, 1854, "...I think I can dispute that assertion, not only in so far as regards my own passage in the Lightning, but I can also name several other ships which have made faster passages than the Red Jacket." He went on to say,

From inquiries I have instituted I find that the Red Jacket left her dock at New York on January 9th, and proceeded some distance down the bay and that she finally sailed at 5 a.m. on the 10th and arrived in the Mersey at 6 p.m. on the 24th, which makes the passage after deducting difference of time, 14 days and 8 hours, and not 13 days and 1 hour as represented at the time of her arrival.

I find on reference to the Liverpool Courier that the passage of the Sovereign of the Seas [another Black Ball Line ship, sister to the Lightning] in July last year, one of the worst seasons for making a fast passage in a sailing ship, occupied only 14 days and 2 hours, and the old packet ship Independence made the passage from New York to Liverpool ten years ago in 14 days and 5 hours, and if I remember rightly the Yorkshire made the passage in about the same time upwards of ten years ago, which are all faster passages than the Red Jacket's and from the same port.

His clincher was to scornfully note that the White Star owners refused to bet on the Red Jacket against the Lightning the sum of 100 to 500 guineas (the money to be given to charity) as both ships were scheduled to leave for Melbourne on the Australian run around the same time. No wonder his nickname was "Bully".

The race now focused on the trip to and from Australia.

The Lightning had been built in Boston by Donald Mackay for James Baines's Black Ball Line in the winter of 1853-54 as a three masted, ship rigged vessel. Her tonnage was registered at 1600 tons, length 244ft, beam 44ft, height of mainmast 164ft and she spread over 13,000 yards of sail.

In 1855, John Willis Griffiths observed in the Monthly Nautical Magazine, "No timid hand or hesitating brain gave form and dimensions to the Lightning. Very great stability; acute extremities; full, short midship body; comparatively small deadrise, and the longest end forward, are points in the excellence of this ship." The hand and brain that had made her, Donald Mackay, wrote a Letter to the Editor to the Scientific American in November 26, 1859, saying:

Although I designed and built the Clipper Ship Lightning and therefore ought to be the last to praise her, yet such has been her performance since Englishmen learned to sail her that I must confess I feel proud of her. You are aware that she was so sharp and concave forward that one of her stupid captains who did not comprehend the principle upon which she was built, persuaded the owners to fill in the hollows of her bows. They did so, and according to their British bluff notions, she was not only better for the addition, but would sail faster, and wrote me to the effect. Well, the next passage to Melbourne, Australia, she washed the encumbrance away on one side, and when she returned to Liverpool, the other side was also cleared away. Since then she has been running as I modeled her. As a specimen of her speed, I may say that I saw recorded in her log (of 24 hours) 436 nautical miles, a trifle over 18 knots an hour.

It was a great day when this remarkable ship ship left Constitution Dock in Boston for her maiden voyage. Duncan McLean in the Boston Daily Atlas of 1854, said of her, "Not a ripple curled before her cutwater, nor did the water break at a single place along her sides. She left a wake straight as an arrow, and this was the only mark of her progress. There was a slight swell, and as she rose, one could see the arc of her forefoot rise gently over the sea as she increased her speed."

On March 1, 1854, the Lightning sailed 436 miles, which is the longest day's run recorded by a sailing ship. The ships's log reported,

March 1. Wind S., strong gales; bore away for the North Channel, carried away the foretopsail and lost jib; hove the log several times, and found the ship going through the water at the rate of 18 to 19 knots per hour; lee rail under water, and the rigging slack; saw the Irish land at 9:30 p.m. Distance run in the twenty-four hours, 436 miles.

She was ready for the big race!

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