In 2010, the headline read, Modern cargo ships slow to the speed of the sailing clippers. The article was subtitled, “Container ships are taking longer to cross the oceans than the Cutty Sark did as owners adopt ‘super-slow steaming’ to cut back on fuel consumption.
“The world’s largest cargo ships are travelling at lower speeds today than sailing clippers such as the Cutty Sark did more than 130 years ago.
“A combination of the recession and growing awareness in the shipping industry about climate change emissions encouraged many ship owners to adopt “slow steaming” to save fuel two years ago. This lowered speeds from the standard 25 knots to 20 knots, but many major companies have now taken this a stage further by adopting “super-slow steaming” at speeds of 12 knots (about 14mph).
“Travel times between the US and China, or between Australia and Europe, are now comparable to those of the great age of sail in the 19th century. American clippers reached 14 to 17 knots in the 1850s, with the fastest recording speeds of 22 knots or more.”
Similar stories were reported via various news outlets and blogs. Earlier this month in an article about rate wars among container lines, the author made the statement, “Just to put that into context: the tea clippers of the 19th century normally averaged around 16 knots. Shipping is now officially slower than in the age of sail.”
This is all really interesting, but is it true? Unfortunately, not really.
What is true is that the clipper ships, and even the more full-bodied windjammers that came after them, could make some very impressive passages in fair winds. The extreme clipper Sovereign of the Seas designed and built by Donald McKay was indeed recorded sailing at 22 knots, which given the length of the ship translates into a Speed/Length ratio (knots divided by the square root of the waterline length in feet) of around 1.5, which is very fast indeed. The Cutty Sark was also a very fast ship. She once sailed 2,163 nautical miles in six days, for an average speed of just over 15 knots.
Nevertheless, the Sovereign of the Seas, the Cutty Sark and other fast sailing ships did not average such speeds. The Cutty Sark set a record for a passage from Plymouth to Sydney of 72 days, when a fast passage was considered to be anything around 100 days. Even on the record setting voyage, however, the Cutty Sark actually only averaged around 8 knots. The ships which made “fast passages” of 100 days averaged around 5 knots. The Flying Cloud on her record setting voyage between New York and San Francisco ol 89 days, likewise averaged around 7.5 knots.
The reason that average speeds of so many clipper ships were often low had to do with the doldrums, the regions of light air just South of the Equator. Even the fastest sailing ships are slow when the wind is light or non-existent. But what of ships that did not have to traverse the light air of the doldrums? The fastest passage ever recorded by a sailing ship between New York and Liverpool was made by the clipper Red Jacket in 13 days, 1 hour and 25 minutes. During the voyage she reached speeds of over 17 knots. Nevertheless her average speed was around 10.5 knots.
These are the record speeds set by the fastest sailing ships. It is probably fair to say that most sailing ships in the 19th and early 20th centuries averaged between 5 – 8 knots on average depending on the size of the ship, the route and the weather. There are nothing wrong with these speeds but they are not comparable with container ships, even those slow steaming at 12 knots.
But are container ships the wrong ships to be comparing to sailing ships? Perhaps modern bulker carriers should be compared to the windjammers, which were also designed to carry bulk cargoes. Modern bulk carriers are indeed traveling at close to sailing ship speeds. Panamax bulk carriers, for example, are currently traveling at speeds of 8-9 knots. A modern sailing bulk carrier with auxiliary engines to move through regions of light air, might not be such a sluggard as compared to her motorized competition.
It is also interesting to look at the windjammers of the early 20th century. At 3,000 – 8,000 dead-weight tonnes, they were among the largest ships of their day and were designed specifically to carry bulk cargo and to sail in the windier passages below the capes. These days, similar bulk carriers are referred to as “Capesize” and are typically larger, sometimes much larger, than 150,000 dead-weight tonnes.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to see a new generation of commercial Capesize sailing ships return to the seas, twenty times larger by cargo capacity, than the largest of the old windjammers? The winds of the Southern Ocean have not gone away, even if the large sailing ships have largely disappeared. As fossil fuels grow ever more expensive and environmentally damaging, there is no reason why the energy that once drove the clippers and the windjammers may again power a new generation of mighty sailing ships. That would indeed be a sight to behold.
Thanks to Alaric Bond for contributing to this post.