There had always been a friendly rivalry among Clipper Ship Captains in the China Trade. The ship that made the fastest time with the new crop of tea from China, gained prestige and a better price for it cargo. During the 1866-67 season there were at least 57 ships listed that sailed from Foochow, Hankow, Shanghai, Woosung, Canton and Hong Kong bound for the London tea markets. In May of the year 1866, the best clippers assembled at the Pagoda Anchorage on the Min River which was just down river from Foochow, China. The fastest ships were to be loaded first. The front runners were Ariel, Fiery Cross, Serica, Taitsing and the Taeping.
For many years there was no real incentive to rush getting the new crop of tea out of Fuzhou or Shanghai because the British East India Company had a monopoly on the tea trade between Brittan and China. For nearly two centuries the monopoly provided no reason for the ships to hurry. Only British Ships owned by the East India Company could land teas in Britain. The monopoly ended in 1834 with the repeal of the ancient Navigation Acts which meant that there was real competition for ships carrying tea and even great desire to get the newest tea crop to Britain first. The ships used by the British East India Company were in no hurry because of the monopoly. Once that was gone, the speed of China Tea Clippers became important because the Tea Clippers could command a higher price for their cargos. Tea wholesalers were able to charge higher prices for early cargos. They even advertised the name of the ship which had brought the earliest tea from China.
By 1854 ships like the Vision were able to charge one pound more per ton, if she was the first to dock. By 1861 a premium of 10% of te price of her cargo was offered.
Clipper ships came from United States and Scotland. The Clipper design allowed the ship to cut through the waves rather than bounced over them as older ship did. The American Merchant Ship Rainbow, built in 1845, is considered by many to be the first of the clipper ships. Oriental came soon after. She made passage from New York to Hong Kong in just 81 days in the year 1850. That feat of speed gained an offer of 25% above the prevailing freight rates of a charter to London. On August 27, 1850, loaded with 1,650 tones of teas she sailed out of Whampoa north of Hong Cong. Sailing against monsoons, she reached the West India Company docks in London on December 4, a passage of 99 days.
The Tea Races were not a formal race like the America’s Cup. The came about from the competion and the added money awarded to the first ship to make it to Britain with the new crop of tea. They encouraged the development of faster ships. In fact, the clippers were faster than steam vessels of the time and did not burn tons of coal to transport their cargo.
It was not only the speed that could win a race. Often the power of the tugs that were hired to tow the clipper out of the crowded ports and into open water were not powerful enough. At Foochow for example, the paddle wheel steamer Island Queen was commissioned to tow the clipper Ariel over the bar on the Min River which, when the falling tide impeded the clipper from preceding. Unfortunately, the tug just did not have the power to pull the ship against the tide. Ariel had to wait at anchor for the next tide. Rivals in the race like the Fiery Cross, towed by a more powerful tug, made her way to open water well ahead of Ariel and her other rivals Serica and Taeping. This awkward start was the beginning of the Great Tea Race of 1866.
The route from China tea ports to London was across the China Sea, then across Indian Ocean , passing Maurtius rounding the southern tip of Africa and into the Atlantic ocean. Generally, clippers passed to the west of the Azores before turning toward the English Channel. Sometimes the prevailing winds in the China Sea encouraged captains to take a direct route to the Indian Ocean through the Sunda Strait. Wind conditions might also prompt a captain to use the “Eastern Passage” that would have him heading out into the Pacific Ocean heading down the eastern coat of Formosa (Taiwan) and the Philippines then on through the Gillolo Strait, the Pitt Passage and then through the Ombai Straight and into the Indian Ocean. Although it was a longer route, it did not take necessarily take longer to make the journey. Crossing the China Sea was hazardous because of there were many hidden hazards and a an accurate fully surveyed chart for these waters did not exist.
Some captains chose to sail for the Sunda Strait bringing the close to the westward coast of Annam now know as Vietnam where they could pick up land breezes There were some serious dangers in this route because of it meant crossing the Paracels. where there were low-lying islands and reefs. From Annam they headed south to the coast of Borneo.
Savvy skippers like Captain Keay, skipper of the Ariel, paid close attention to the trim of the ship. He assigned crew members to working fore and aft trim of the ship. They moved cargo and gear for about two weeks to obtain the desired draft of 18feet 8 inches 3 inches forward and 18 feet 3 inches aft. The careful attention to trim improved steering and sailing performance. Adjusting the trim was an ongoing process and could make the difference between a winning passage on a slower passage.
Ariel sighted the Taeping on June 2 off the coast of Annam. On June 8th Taeping passed the Fiery Cross. Ariel and Taeping met again on the 9th and 10th of June as they neared Borneo. As they crossedt he Indian Ocean and passed around the southern tip of Africa the race became tighter. The lead shifted back and forth among the first three. Serica made up for lost time and was close by the time they were passing the Inland of St. Helena. As the race progressed the five ships got closer and closer as the reached the Azores. On August 29th Taitsing was just 48 hours behind them when they reached the next waypoint, the entry into the English Channel.
Aerial sighted the Bishops Light at 1:30 on the fifth of September 1866. At 3:00 Am on the 6th of September. At 5:55 Am the pilot boat came along side. In the distance a mile behind, was the Taeping . Both ships signaled for tugs. Taeping got the stronger of the two tugs. But, to reach the docks they had to pass through the East India Dock gates. Ariel did this at 9PM but was delayed by the low tide. Taeping’s shallower draft allowed her though the outter gates, they filled up the lock from the basin. Taeping passed through the gates at 9:47pm. Ariel entered the East India Dock at 10:15PM.
They had sailed over 14,000 miles in a racewhich lasted 99 days then all three ships, Ariel, Taeping and Serica had arrived on the same tide with less than two hours between them. Anticipating there could be a dead heat, the owners of Taeping and Ariel agreed they wo
uld share the extra 5 pound per ton prize for the first ship docked. Taeping claimed the prized then shared it with the Ariel. Captains Keay and MacKinnon shared the 100-pound prize for the captain of the winning ship. That was the last of the China Tea races. The premium was abandoned after the 1866 tea race.
The end of the Tea Races also signaled the beginning of the end of the Tea Clippers. Steam vessels were faster and more reliable.
The Ariel, Fiery Cross, Serica and others left Foochow at the end of May 1866. The competing steam auxiliary vessel Erl King was still loading a million pounds of tea and left on the fifth of June. Despite stops for coal, she was in London 15 days before the first clipper. Her passage took 77 days, the fastest clipper too 99 days. The handwriting was on the wall. The Suez Canal built in 1869, provided a shorter route saving 3,300 nautical miles on the China to London run. Steam vessels would soon take over routes once dominated by the Tea Clippers. The steam ship Agamemnon beat the time of the auxiliary steamer Erl King and did the passage in 65 days. With the demise of the clippers there ended an era where beautiful ships sailed the seven seas white sails billowing in the sun while blue waters beat and foamed against the narrow bows of the fastest sailing freight vessel ever known. The days of the dashing clippers have ended, but their memories live on.