Nautical heaven.

The Challenge - A. B. C. Whipple

I Love Ships! If you don't, skip this and continue to be blissful in your ignorance. A.B.C. Whipple, author of many fine books on sailing vessels, including several in the Time-Life series, has written a terrific book about one of the more famous clipper ship voyages. The Challenge was the name of the Flying Cloud's bitter rival in the race to be the fastest ship plying the waters. The Challenge might have broken the Flying Clouds record except for the events that make up most of this book.

It's hard for us to remember that clipper ships were essentially freighters, a strictly commercial response to the demands of the tea trade, in which huge premiums were rewarded to the owners and skippers of ships which brought in the first of each year's tea crop from China. When gold was discovered in California, a whole new commerce sprang up supplying all the items necessary to a mob of millionaires. Even though they had to travel 15,000 miles to San Francisco, the clippers could beat the wagon trains who only had to travel 3,000. (The record, held by the Flying Cloud, was 89 days.) The design of the clippers was a most happy congruence of efficiency, aesthetics, and economy. (As an aside, another extremely interesting book deals with the same mix of beauty, efficiency, and economy in civil engineering, specifically in the history of bridge building: The Tower and the Bridge by David P. Billington --I recommend this book very highly.)

In the "race," the Flying Cloud's passage, although marred by a partial dismasting and attempts at sabotage by panicky crew members, was a record breaker. The Challenge's was a disaster, ending in a near lynching of the skipper and mate and prolonged court trials of officers and crew. Yet what happened aboard the two ships was not unique, as Whipple's careful research shows. Vile and brutal conditions for the forecastle hands were part of the price for all that speed and beauty.

The author's talent for informative digression provides some of the book's most engaging chapters. Not only can he explain the developments in ship design that gave the clippers their speed, but he is also able to bring home, in landsman/s terms some of the terrifying demands of such a vessel: for example, working on the highest yardarm was like being "perched on the windowsill of a 23 story building during an earthquake." This is a fascinating book.