Today's History Highlights Archive

The Sea Serpent: China to New York in 101 Days

Clipper ships, the ‘greyhounds of the sea,' are considered the most magnificent sailing ships ever built.  They were designed to sail to China and back quickly because their cargo – tea – was so fragile.

Controversy surrounded the first clipper ship, the Rainbow, when she launched in 1845. Some said she’d be swamped because she was too sharp up front; others said she’d lose her rigging in the first stiff gale because her masts were too high and the yards too wide.

The Rainbow on her second voyage sailed to China and back in an astounding six months, 16 days – half the time of the typical voyage. Four years later, the California gold rush created an almost insatiable demand for clipper ships to sail.

The Sea Serpent

Shipyards began building clipper ships in New York, Boston, Baltimore, Newburyport, Mass., Mystic, Conn., Bath and Damariscotta, Maine, and Portsmouth, N.H.

The Sea Serpent on Nov. 20, 1850. She set the season's record for speed in 1853, sailing from Canton, China to Indonesia in 29 days.

The Sea Serpent would also sail to San Francisco and China. Her owners, Grinnel & Minturn of New York, said, "We do not own a ship that has given us more satisfaction."

She raced the Crest of the Wave from Shanghai to London in a contest that foretold Boston Marathon cheater Rosie Ruiz. Approaching England, the American captain left the Sea Serpent in the hands of the mate, went ashore in the boat that carried his pilot, took a steamer to Southampton, a train to Waterloo and a cab to the Custom House, where he announced the Sea Serpent had arrived.

The Sea Serpent had a service life of 36 years and 5 months, one of the longest lived clippers ever. Her crew abandoned her in 1891 on a voyage from Dublin to Quebec. The crew was rescued. The Sea Serpent drifted 1,120 miles in 93 days, and sighted 19 times before disappearing.

This story about the Sea Serpent was updated in 2018.

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