Tuesday February 26, 2008 | 0 comments
The story of the race itself is a digression of perhaps minor historical value, I admit, but I’d have to be cold as a Boston romance to consider omitting the classic account in Mr. Basil Lubbock’s 1914 book, The China Clippers. “The struggle,” he writes,
Began in the offices of the ships’ agents and in the hongs of the Chinese merchants, fortunes in money being dependent on the winning ship. Thus the favorites in the race got the first chests, and were therefore the first to finish loading. The tea . . . was slung aboard the ships, and stowed in every nook and cranny, even to the Captain’s cabin, by clever Chinese stevedores who worked in shifts day and night. Ariel was made the favorite in the betting on the race. Taeping had made the fastest passage in 1865, and the first ships in that year were Serica and Fiery Cross, the latter having the luck to fal in with a tugboat off Beachy Head when Serica was leading her by two miles. But, as regards speed, there was only a slight difference between the first and the last, and the race depended quite as much upon the skill and nerve of their captains as upon the ships themselves.
The Ariel was the first to finish loading but she made an unfortunate start, and had to anchor before the tide had fallen (28 May 1866, at Foochow anchorage). Fiery Cross passed her and put out to sea ahead, getting a day’s lead. Taeping and Serica crossed the bar of the Min River together with Ariel; Taitsing the following day. In a race of one hundred days across three-quarters of the globe, one would imagine that a few days start would have made little or no interest in the result, bust as a matter of fact these racing tea ships were as closely matched as a one-design class of racing yachts, and every hour was of value. Each of the tea ships carried a picked crew; Ariel’s numbered thirty-two all told, all A.B.’s (Able Bodied Seamen), two more than her normal – non-racing – crew.
By the time the Cape of Good Hope was reached, Ariel had nearly wiped off her lost twenty-four hours, being only two or three hours behind Fiery Cross on 15 July, when both ships rounded. Taeping was twelve hours astern, while Serica and Taitsing still lagged behind. In the passage up the Atlantic all five ships got closer and closer to one another without knowing it. Taeping, Fiery Cross and Ariel all crossed the Line (Equator) on the same day, 4 August. Serica had dropped a couple days, and Taeping and Fiery Cross were within sight of each other in doldrums weather. Ariel further to the westward having better winds and running into the lead.