The Clipper route

The fastest sailing route around the world – the Clipper route – is also the most dangerous.

Clipper ship on the Clipper route
Unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Clipper ships were the true speedsters of the mid-19th century CE. The clippers carried a ridiculous amount of sail for a ship their size. They were built to get a small amount of cargo to its destination as quickly as possible: tea from China to Europe, gold from California to New York, and wool from Australasia to Britain.

Because speed was the key, clipper ships took the fastest routes they could find. Before the creation of the Suez and Panama Canals, that meant going south. Far south.

The Roaring Forties are strong winds that blow from the west to the east in the deep south, between 40 and 50 degrees latitude. Because this zone is to the south of every continent (bar Antarctica), these winds circle the globe without interruption. The Roaring Forties are strong, and get stronger the further south you go. (Beyond 50 degrees latitude you get the Furious Fifties, and beyond 60 degrees latitude you get the Shrieking Sixties.) They are perfect for sailing around the world as fast as possible.

The Clipper route took advantage of this unique wind. Ships sailed from Europe down the length of the Atlantic Ocean and joined the Roaring Forties, riding the wild wind below Africa and Asia all the way to Australia and New Zealand. They dropped off cargo, picked up cargo, then rejoined the wind. The last part of the Clipper route passed Cape Horn at the southernmost point of South America, carefully avoiding the false Cape Horn, before sailing back up the Atlantic to their final destination.

Clipper route map
Johantheghost, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A clipper ship could take this route, a full circumnavigation of the globe, in less than half a year. This was much faster than any other possible route, but it came at a high cost. Icebergs and high waves threatened any clipper ship on the route. As you pushed further south you got faster but the passage got more dangerous, and many ships were wrecked (and sailors shipwrecked) following the Clipper route’s promise of unmatched speed.

The use of the route for trade died out following the introduction of steam ships and the opening of the transcontinental canals. It’s still used today, but mainly for round-the-world ocean races like the Vendée Globe.

(End note: I have a lot more to say about the Clipper route. Expect some more posts on this topic in the coming months!)

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