The art of making clipper ships like the Blue Jacket came down to one thing: Speed. Cargo space was important, but it could be sacrificed for an extra knot of speed. The hulls of the clippers were shaped to cut through the water at the fastest pace possible, and their timbers were double strength so they could hang massive amounts of sail in the stiffest breezes to cross the oceans at remarkable pace.
Though historians will debate what constitutes a clipper, they came into their own in the 1840s, when U.S. merchants competed with the British to bring tea and other goods from China. But the public soon fell in love with the idea of being able to move quickly across the globe and the clippers served more and more uses.
A boom in clipper building accompanied the California gold rush in 1849, and the ships were employed carrying miners west and bringing gold back east. New England, with its vast number of boatyards, naturally played a major role in the rise of the clipper.
In August of 1854, the clipper Blue Jacket was launched in Boston, and it was a showstopper. The US. Nautical Magazine described it:
“This new and beautiful ship was built at East Boston, during the past year, by R.E. Jackson. She is 224 feet on deck, 41 1-3 feet extreme breadth of beam, 24 feet hold, and registers 1,790 tons. Her frame is white oak, the plank and ceiling hard pine.
“She is diagonally braced with iron, and is square-fastened throughout. The stern is ornamented with an arch of gilded carving, in the centre of which are representations of fruits and flowers. The bow is ornamented with a full-length carved figure of a blue-jacket sailor. In the left hand he holds the American flag, in the right a cutlass.
“Her cabins, of which she has two, are under a poop deck. The saloon is 40 feet long by 14 wide, painted white, and ornamented with papier maché gilt work; in the centre of each panel is a representation of flowers, fruit and game. This saloon contains 20 state-rooms, ventilated and finished in a superior manner; the furniture, carpets, and drapery in each, being different. Each room has a square window on its side, and deck lights above.
“The after, or ladies’ cabin, is 30 feet long by 13 wide, and contains eight state-rooms and a bath-room. This cabin is a miniature palace. It is wainscoted with mahogany, the entablatures are of rosewood, and the pillars of satinwood. The panels are ornamented with flowers, surrounded by gilt scroll work. The capitals and pedestals are neatly covered, the whole relieved with papier maché cornices and gilt work. The cabin is well lighted and ventilated, having four windows aft, a large, square skylight, and one in the centre, which ventilates the deck below.”
Her first voyage was to Liverpool, and she achieved it in a speedy 12 days. Upon arrival, she was sold by the Boston merchants E.R. Seccomb and Isaac Taylor to Londoner James John Frost, who put her into service between England and Australia.
Her speed was remarkable; she made her first journey to Melbourne in 68 days, and would repeat the feat many times.
The Blue Jacket was named after the slang for sailors in the American and British navies, “Bluejackets,” and on her bow was a figurehead of the sailor with the carving, “Keep a sharp lookout!”
The ship provided good service until February 11 of 1869, when she set out for what would be her final voyage.
She set off from Lyttelton, New Zealand, with a cargo that contained tallow, furs, gold and wool. On March 5, the crew discovered a fire below decks as the ship was passing the Falkland Islands. The wool was the suspected source. After fighting the blaze for days, it became clear by March 9 the crew was fighting a losing battle.
The crew and passengers took to a small cutter and two lifeboats. The 37 passengers and captain on the cutter with the crew manning the lifeboats. Each vessel carried one third of the gold shipment, as well.
“The last we saw of the Blue Jacket was a bright speck on the horizon on the evening of the second day,” one passenger would recount. Accounts vary, but the lifeboats apparently got separated, over the next several days, and were not seen again.
A passing ship, the Pyrmont, spotted the castaways in the cutter and brought them to safety.
Robert Jackson would continue making clipper ships into the 1870s in his East Boston Shipyard, but the era ended abruptly with the arrival of motor-powered vessels. The only reminder of the Blue Jacket was her figurehead, which washed up on the shore of Rottnest Island off Australia some two years later. It showed charring from the fire, but was recognizable as the reliable Blue Jacket sailor who proudly adorned the bow of the Blue Jacket in her heyday.