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'Barons of the Sea' chronicles the race to build the perfect clipper ship

Clipper ships are the dream floating before the eyes of all the characters in Steven Ujifusa's fast-paced and entrancing new book.

Barons of the Sea: And their Race to Build the World's Fastest Clipper Ship By Steven Ujifusa Simon & Schuster 448 pp.

There were two simultaneous revolutions in sailing unfolding in America in the mid-19th century, and one of them was making frantic newspaper headlines virtually every single day. This was the sudden-feeling and all-consuming race for the sleekest, most advanced "90-day sailer," trim-lined vessels piled high with tall white pyramids of sail, carefully designed to slice through the sea at unprecedented speeds. These were the famous “clipper ships,” and they're the dream floating before the eyes of all the characters in Steven Ujifusa's fast-paced and entrancing new book Barons of the Sea.

The race to build sleeker and faster vessels was prompted by money, of course, specifically two booming trades: one in running settlers and starry-eyed prospectors from the East Coast to California at the height of the Gold Rush, and the other the booming trade in running opium and tea to and from China through its great entrepot at Canton. The China trade especially could be very profitable for a shipping concern; a clipper ship cost between $50,000 and $120,000 to build, depending on size and materials, but such a ship could bring recoup the cost of its construction with the profits of its first voyage, if the markets were favorable.

In such cases, everything depended on speed. Ship designers, shipyards, and captains were caught up on the race for the celebrated 90-day passage from New York to Canton – and the public was no less caught up on the spectacle of it all. When the famous Flying Cloud under the command of Captain Creesy sailed from New York, rounded Cape Horn, and sailed into San Francisco Harbor on September 1, 1851 after a passage of 89 days and 21 hours, Ujifusa writes, “Hundreds of people swarmed out of the homes, offices, warehouses, and saloons of the city and clustered along North Beach to watch the swan-like clipper arrive at her anchorage.”

“The popular excitement which greeted the arrival of a fleet racer with another record; the cheers which spend them on their course when two or more of them weighed anchor for a contest over the long Cape Horn route: the complacent satisfaction, the oratory and dripping 'luncheons' which marked each launching of 'the largest and sharpest yet,'” wrote Carl Cutler in his 1930 classic "Greyhounds of the Sea," “are all imperishably embalmed in a thousand musty old files.”

Ujifusa makes those musty old files live again. A great deal of "Barons of the Sea" concentrates on the men (and a few remarkable women) who poured their energy, their avarice, their bravery, and their vision into creating vessels of almost unearthly speed and elegance, vessels like Stag Hound, Flying Cloud, Flying Fish, Sovereign of the Seas, Great Republic, Lightning, Champion of the Seas. Ujifusa tells the stories of the rival families and shipping firms, families like Forbes or Grinnell or Delano who competed to fund and implement the latest, most scientifically tested design innovations (and navigational finesses) in order to ship the most and the fastest, men like Samuel Hartt Pook, designer of the Surprise which Ujifusa calls “the perfect California clipper,” built in the East Boston shipyard of Samuel Hall in 1850.

Standing apart even in this colorful gallery is the figure of Donald McKay, a Nova Scotia transplant whose own East Boston shipyard Ujifusa rightly refers to as “one of the great shipbuilding centers of the world.” The ships McKay produced, with their towering masts and acres of canvas, were “nothing less than cathedrals of wood, both in their size and in their structural complexity.”

Ujifusa tells these stories with the verve of a natural dramatist, just as several of his predecessors on this subject did – Cutler's sentimental overwriting rings wonderfully true to the era, and virtually all such books are based on 1911's "The Clipper Ship Era" by Captain Arthur Clark, whom Ujifusa calls “one of America's most astute chroniclers of the clipper ship era.” "Barons of the Sea" is every bit as swashbuckling as any earlier clipper ship account, taking readers below-decks, reconstituting dialogue from those musty old files, recounting freak storms, improbable romances, and mutinies on the high seas.

The book excels even its illustrious forebears in presenting a much more rounded picture of both the family rivalries that animated the China trade and also of the trade itself in all its byzantine and sordid detail. Ujifusa is just as confident and evocative when narrating on-shore antics as he is telling stories of rounding the Horn. He dramatizes, for instance, the day-to-day realities of the young men working 20-hour days in Canton to make their fortunes back home in New Bedford, young men who “... kept their thoughts to themselves, staring at the ceilings of their dark bedrooms as the smells of Cantonese cuisine, the rap of sandals against cobblestone, and the cries of beggars wafted into their rooms.”

It's all masterfully done, creating a rich and multi-faceted portrait of an era that's too often wrapped in the gauze of romance.

And that second revolution in sailing that was unfolding at the same time? It was the steady, un-romantic rise of the steamship, and it would spell the doom of the clippers. But that's a book for another time.

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