The Great Tea Race of 1866 - The contenders

The Contenders

The tea trade from China was a large undertaking. MacGregor lists 57 ships sailing in the 1866-67 tea season, with a clear caveat that not every ship is listed - only the ones that he had researched. Over the season, these sailed from several ports: Foochow, Hankow, Shanghai, Woosung, Canton and Hong Kong. Most departure dates stretch from the end of May 1866 through to February 1867. In May 1866, 16 of the best clippers had assembled at the Pagoda Anchorage on the Min River, downriver from Foochow (Fuzhou). The quickest ships, as judged by the agents based in China, would be loaded first. However, it was not always the fastest that sailed first - much depended on the tonnage of the vessel and the standing and influence of the local agent.

The front runners of the 1866 Tea Race were:
Ariel, launched in 1865. She was thought to be the fastest of her day, being designed for excellent performance in light winds. The downside to this was that in a strong gale, sail had to be reduced rapidly or the ship even hove to, as her extreme lines left her susceptible to being pooped or, if going to windward, damage would be caused by waves sweeping the deck.

She was of composite construction (wooden planking on an iron framework), built at the yard of Robert Steele & Co in Greenock on the Clyde. She carried 100 tons of fixed iron ballast, moulded to fit low in the hull and a further 20 tons of moveable iron ballast. This gives an indication of the "yacht like" nature of her design.

Fiery Cross had been the first tea clipper home in 1861, 1862, 1863 and 1865. As a slightly older ship, built in 1860, she predated the widespread acceptance of composite construction, so was built of wood. Nevertheless, she was full of the latest technology; for example steel masts and Cunningham's patent roller reefing topsails and t'gallants.

Serica, launched in 1863, was another ship built by Robert Steele & Company, and the penultimate wooden clipper from that yard before they moved to composite construction. She was the first ship home from China in 1863, and was closely beaten (through lack of a tug) by Fiery Cross in 1865.

Taitsing was another Clyde-built ship, of composite construction. She was launched from the yard of Charles Connell & Co. of Glasgow in 1865, so was on her first trip to China.

Taeping was the first composite ship built by Robert Steele & Co (the third from this yard out of the five ships listed here), being launched in 1863. On her maiden voyage she was dismasted in a typhoon off Formosa (Taiwan), losing her foremast and main and mizzen topmasts. After repairs in Amoy (Xiamen), she then made a remarkably fast passage of 89 days to London.