A master designer in Boston built America’s fastest sailing ships

Image via <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flyingcloudclipper2.jpg">Wikimedia Commons</a>
Image via Wikimedia Commons

April 1851: With a cold spring wind blowing across East Boston, the Flying Cloud slid from its shipyard and into the water for the first time. The vessel was a massive beauty, all long lines and angles, with a 1,782-ton cargo capacity, decks that spanned 225 feet, and a sharp prow built to knife through the water. The keel was made of rock maple, and three sails carried a total of 10,000 yards of canvas. Beneath the bow, a carved white-and-gold angel trumpeted the way forward.

At a time when sailing merchant vessels ruled the mid-19th century seas, the Flying Cloud became the fastest “clipper” ship of the day, and was built in Boston by a pioneering shipbuilder, Donald McKay.

At the height of the clipper ship era, a brief boom time for sailing and shipbuilding in America, McKay was a master. He constructed 28 ships in all, more than any other clipper maker, and his portfolio included the fastest and largest clippers of the era. His modern New England yard set the standard for the region, and his renown helped establish the area as a source for reliable and quality ships beyond New York’s building hub. From yards in Boston, Medford, Newburyport, Cape Cod, and beyond, Massachusetts alone produced 233 clippers between 1844 and 1859 — more than any other state.

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Mere weeks after launch, Flying Cloud embarked from New York on a record-breaking journey around the tip of South America and up to San Francisco in 89 days 21 hours. Three years later, the ship made the same trip in 89 days 8 hours — the only clipper ever to make that journey twice under 90 days. The Cloud’s size would be outmatched, but its swiftness in that era would not.

McKay trained at the best of New York’s shipyards, where builders were pioneering design for speed. But according to a book written by his grandson, McKay’s colleagues at the Brooklyn Navy Yard “bullied him out” because he was Canadian. Their loss — McKay went on to set up his own shipyards in East Boston, and became renowned as the builder behind some of the greatest, fastest, and most consistently record-breaking clipper ships around.

McKay’s yard was a modern operation, Donald Gunn Ross III writes in his 2012 book The Legacy of Donald McKay. He brought in steam-powered sawmills and cranes similar to those used in New York yards. But other additions, like an adjustable saw that cut multiple angles for complicated objects, were devised by McKay himself.

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Armed thus, McKay tapped into ideas like the connection between a ship’s length and its potential speed, that were long-known but never seriously applied to clipper design.

“One thing that is most notable about McKay’s ships is that he often built on a grand scale,” writes historian Glenn Knoblock in his 2014 volume, “The American Clipper Ship.” “Now, with improved construction techniques and the use of iron strapping to further strengthen a vessel, larger and longer vessels were possible and Donald McKay took advantage of these advances to the extreme right from the start.”

McKay’s first attempt at a clipper was the Stag Hound, launched in 1850 and the largest and longest commercial ship in the world when it first appeared. Flying Cloud emerged a year after that, and successfully raced to San Francisco against New York rival ship Challenge.

When it arrived at its destination, Ross notes, the freshness of the butter in Cloud’s cargo earned a mention in the California Courier: “It is not only as sweet as a nut, but has the same delicious flavor that marks fresh butter from the hands of the milkmaid.”

Just two years after Cloud rolled out of the Boston shipyard, McKay surpassed himself again with the Great Republic, the largest clipper of the entire period at 4,555 tons and the only ever made with four masts. On the day of the ship’s October launch, Boston businesses and schools closed. The Republic also set new records, passing the equator from New York in 15 days and 18 hours.

The clipper era petered out toward the end of the 1850s, as the gold rush calmed and the US economy dipped. The ships themselves dragged on in less glamorous tasks — guano shipments, slave trade. Many were destroyed in the Civil War. The Flying Cloud endured until 1874, when an accident off St. Johns damaged past repair, and the ship was condemned, sold, then burned for metal. But anyone can still find the outline, etched above McKay’s own profile on the builder’s Castle Island monument on the Boston Harbor shore:

Donald McKay (1810-1880) Master-builder whose genius produced ships of a beauty and speed before unknown which swept the seven seas made the American clipper ship famous the world over and brought renown and prosperity to the city of Boston.