SHE was one of the Concorde jets of her day - small, extraordinarily fast - and she traveled all over the globe. She was a Yankee Clipper with a brief but glorious career on the high seas and more than a century under them. Now, part of Snow Squall, as she was christened, has an assured future as a museum piece in the city that launched her 136 years ago. The sharp bow that gave Snow Squall such impressive speed under sail recently returned to Portland aboard the British freighter Asifi after 123 years in the waters off the Falklands, most of them as support for a pier in Port Stanley harbor. She was carrying gunpowder, along with other high value cargo, from New York, bound for San Francisco, when storm damage as she rounded Cape Horn forced her to turn back and make for the Falklands. Attempts to repair her proved futile and she slowly settled into the mud.
The recovery of Snow Squall is significant because she is all that remains of some 400 clippers built in Yankee shipyards from New York to Portland during the 1850s. Their impressive speed enabled the United States to compete effectively in international trade and earned the respect of the British, whose dominance of the world sea lanes was unparalleled at the time.
Clippers were spawned by the gold rush on the West coast and another in far-off Australia a few years later. The need to get people and high value cargoes from one part of the globe to another as fast as possible made speed paramount. Cargo space was sacrificed in a narrow hull that cut through the water rather than plow ing through it as did the more blunt-nosed ships of the day.
Only about 100 ``extreme clippers,'' such as the Snow Squall, were ever built. These ultra-sharp, concave-bowed ships could cover as many as 300 miles a day with a favorable wind. Passengers from New York would complete the 15,000 mile trip to San Francisco in 90 to 100 days, far sooner than by traveling overland where heat, cold, hostile Indians, and mosquitoes were constant threats. So valued was speed at the time that owners would sometimes recover their entire investment from freight rates on the very first trip. Snow Squall's $30,000 cost was a pittance for the number of voyages she made.
The clippers brought a new sense of romance and excitement to trading on the high seas. Clipper names included Witch of the Waves, Sea Prince, Flying Cloud, Wild Pidgeon, Comet, and, along with Snow Squall, the Black Squall. ``Compare those,'' says Portland historian Bill Jordan ``with the Claude B. Jones, typical of ships' names before that time.''
Despite their trim beauty and the surrounding romance, clipper ships ``were built fast and cheap,'' says Fred Yalouris, a nautical archaeologist and project manager of the Snow Squall recovery. ``Builders cut corners,'' he says. ``Ten years out of a clipper was good. But they did have that bow!''
It was ``that bow'' and the prospect of learning how it was constructed that drew Dr. Yalouris, a Portland native, now with Harvard's Peabody Museum, eagerly into the project. No known drawings exist of clipper hull construction because boat builders of the time simply used shipwright tools to transfer lines from two-foot-long models to the full-sized craft.
Snow Squall was ``rediscovered'' in 1979 but no sooner had expeditions for her recovery begun in 1982, when Argentina invaded the Falklands. In the brief war that followed, a drifting barge rammed into the wreck, loosening many timbers.
But, what damaged the ship was good for the project. ``The war put Snow Squall on the front page of American newspapers,'' Yalouris says. Fund contributions, which had been barely trickling in before that, became a steady stream.
So far, it has cost $500,000 to raise the Snow Squall and bring her back to Portland. About another million dollars will be needed to restore and preserve the timbers over the next few years, build the museum to house the hulk, and construct the model that will become an important part of any display.
David Switzer, a professor of history at Plymouth State College in Plymouth, N.H., and one of the divers on the project, describes the safe arrival of the Snow Squall bow in Portland as ``thrilling.'' ``We're rapidly becoming a non-maritime nation,'' Professor Switzer says, ``so it's vital that we have this link with our maritime past.''
Switzer describes the brief clipper era as ``the last gasp of sail,'' before steel ships and steam-power took over, spurred on by an acute timber shortage in Britain. In fact, the first steam-sail steel ship was built in Britain six years before Snow Squall was launched, Yalouris points out.
Yet the British were so impressed by the American clippers that they built many of their own, primarily to bring tea from the Far East. The most famous of them all, the durable Cutty Sark, was built with steel ribs and wooden planking. She is moored today at Greenwich, England, a fully navigable museum piece and tourist attraction.