Champion of the Seas, a speed record that lasted 130 years!


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champion of the seasAt a time when giant trimarans, ultralight boats and flying hulls continue to string together ocean records (we told you just yesterday about Hydroptère, first boat with foils to embark on a peaceful crossing and two days ago of the new distance record in the 24-hour 100-foot Comanche), we want to tell you a story.

champions of the seas
One of the very rare photographs of the Campion of the Seas

The story of a record capable of enduring a full 130 years, although it was not set by a racing superboat, but by a very heavy 2447-ton sailing ship. It was back in 1854, when the 252-foot (77 meters by 13.7 meters wide) clipper Champion of the Seas, recently launched, sailed from Liverpool on the maiden voyage to Melbourne (It had been built by Donald Mackay’s Boston shipyards for Liverpool shipowner James Baines’ Black Ball Line for use as a passenger ship on the England-Australia route).

In the 24 hours between noon on Dec. 10 and noon on Dec. 11, Champion of the Seas, under the command of Captain Alexander Newlands, traveled 465 miles at an average speed of 19.375 knots, incredible for the time. We can only imagine the intensity of the wind that propelled the giant three-mast (on which 5,230 square meters of sails were rigged) from the stern!It would have to wait until August 1984 to break the clipper record, when Canadian Mike Birch’s (famous for winning the first Route du Rhum in 1978 on Olympus) 80-foot Formule Tag catamaran would travel 512 miles over 24 hours at an average speed of 21.33 knots.

The Lighting, the sailing ship from which Mackay was inspired to build Champion of the Seas
The Lighting, the sailing ship from which Mackay was inspired to build Champion of the Seas

But what kind of superboat was it? It was built with volumes shifted aft and was a sort of “update” of the Lightning, another 277-foot sailing ship built by Mackay in 1853 for the British Merchant Navy and which in March 1854 (at the mercy of Commander James Nolan “Bully” Forbes) traveled 436 miles in one day at an average speed of 16.16 knots. In short, the Mackay shipyard at the time was a hotbed of ultrafast boats. A Perch Marine ante-litteram! The supporting structure of the hull was white oak, reinforced diagonally with iron. The planking and deck were made of hard pine. It had three decks and three masts. At the bow was space for a figurehead depicting a sailor with his hat in his right hand and his left hand open in salute; the stern was semi-elliptical and decorated with Australia’s coat of arms. It was painted black on the outside and white and blue on the inside, reminiscent of the colors of the Black Ball Line.

Passage to Cape Horn aboard an unidentified sailing ship
Passage to Cape Horn aboard an unidentified sailing ship

From 1854, the year of her launch, the Champion of the Seas served as a passenger ship until 1868: in 1857, the year of the Sepoy revolt-the Indian mutiny against British colonial power in India exercised by the British East India Company-it was “chartered” by the British government to transport about 1,000 British soldiers to Calcutta. From 1868 she was used as a cargo ship: she was abandoned by her crew (whose members were rescued by the British ship Windsor) and sank on Jan. 3, 1877, in Cape Horn, irreparably damaged while carrying a cargo of guano, a valuable fertilizer, from Callao (Peru) to Cork (Ireland).

Eugene Ruocco



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