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Book Review, NRJ 60.4

November 15, 2015 12:00 PM | David Eddy

Clipper Ships and the Golden Age of Sail: Races and Rivalries on the Nineteenth Century High Seas

Sam Jefferson

The title and the last two paragraphs of Chapter One advise that this book focuses on captains and is a selection of true fo’c’sle stories. The stories are illustrated with a remarkable collection of old and new art and photographs which depict the clipper ship era magnificently reproduced in color, and dominate the book. The production and manufacture of the book is to a very high standard. 

The author, who concentrated solely on the prose and pictures, left the book devoid of any technical detail regarding the development, design, and construction of clipper ships; with the only exception being a brief outline in the first chapter. Rainbow was born from more radical Baltimore clipper designs, with no mention of e Ann McKim; the topsail and the topgallant are depicted as whole and then split; and the ships progress from wood to composite to iron, with no explanation within the book for these developments. The book focuses on the tales of the times and the art depicting the era. Not enough technical detail could be included to satisfy the typical Journal reader without detracting from the real focus of the book.

The readers are the beneficiaries of a professional writer’s passions for the sea and clipper ships. Jefferson’s Clipper Ships is excellent story telling. The sea, ships, and crew are hard task masters, but for the right personalities, glory is to be found. However, with the loss of vigilance and the accession of untempered arrogance, failure, disaster, and death await. Concentrating on the lives of clipper captains, the author provides several of their biographies, some of whom are doomed to ultimate failure while others gracefully leave the sea or remain upon it. The book includes some of the voyages of all of the great clippers of America and Britain which begin with the necessity for speed to reach California through the domination of speed from China to London during the tea races in the 1860s.

Jefferson really hits his stride in the telling of the Great China Tea Race of 1866 (Chapter Six) and the incredible passage of Sir Lancelot in 1869 (Chapter Seven). He succeeds in placing one on the deck of a great ship and wonderfully conveys the excitement and the anxiety of an event. For a writer of non-fiction, always a neat trick. The value of this book to a ship modeler or a researcher is that it allows one to immerse oneself in the lore of the clipper ship era. The book provides sufficiently detailed art credits to allow further research into the selection of a clipper before selecting a model to build. Do not limit yourself to Cutty Sark or Flying Cloud. A most beautiful book and an easy, short, enjoyable read.

  •  8-3/4” x 11-1/4”, hardcover, ix + 230 pages
  • Illustrations, maps, diagrams, index. $45.00
  • ISBN: 9781472900289

Reviewed by Phillip A. Roach, Naples, Florida

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