The Golden Age Of Sail
The Western Age of Sail was primarily driven by economic motivations such as trading across the seas, whaling, access to fishing in remote fishing grounds that were more lucrative than local ones, and exploration to find and exploit far away foreign countries and peoples for their gold and other resources.
The earliest Europeans who ventured offshore may have been Portuguese fishermen fishing the Grand Banks just off the Nova Scotia coast in the 1100’s, where they left artifacts that were found centuries later by archaelogists.
(Below) A “Grand Banks Schooner”, such as fished off the East Coast of Nova Scotia during the 18th and 19th centuries; with a 3-masted clipper ship in the misty background.
Development of ship technology and seamanship proceeded as ships departed Europe on various expeditions to plunder and otherwise profit from the New World. The ships and sailors got better and better until the quality of both more or less peaked in the 1850’s with what were called the “Tea Clippers”.
These were relatively small (100 to 400 tons cargo capacity) but very fast sailing ships that went around Cape Horn from Europe and America, bringing back tea, coffee, spices, rare woods, silks, opium, and other trade items from India, China, and the Far East. “Clipper races” resulted between ships trying to make it back to port first with their cargoes. The ship whose cargo arrived first would fetch the highest prices, being in short supply until more ships arrived with similar cargoes, so these clipper races were serious business. The skippers often drove the ships and crew so hard that they foundered in bad weather rather than made it home.
(Below) The clipper ship Star Of Alaska being towed out of the Golden Gate by a steam-powered tugboat before there ever was a Golden Gate bridge; with Alcatraz Island in the background.
These clipper ships carried relatively small amounts of high-value cargoes, and couldn’t be competitive carrying lower-value cargoes. The economic downturn of 1855 was the beginning of the end for this age of sail; and when the Suez Canal was completed in 1869, and the world turned to steamships for the bulk of cargo carried between nations, the age of the clipper ship and of sailing cargo vessels ended.