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The Grain Race

By the end of the 19th century, steam-powered vessels had almost completely replaced sailing ships in the commercial shipping business. But along the longer routes, such as from Australia to Europe around Cape Horn, a sailing ship was as efficient as a steam ship. This route, historically sailed by clipper ships and thus known as the “clipper route”, offered captains the fastest circumnavigation of the world, and hence potentially the greatest rewards. Many grain, wool and gold clippers sailed this route, returning home with valuable cargos in a relatively short time.

clipper route

The Clipper Route

A ship leaving for Australia from England would sail down the Atlantic Ocean, crossing the equator, until it reached the Roaring Forties. Once in this zone, the strong westerly winds quickly took the ship along the great circle route from the Cape of Good Hope to Australia. Most ships sailed roughly along the parallel of 40 degrees south, but some captains pushed their vessels down to 60 degrees south, daring the ice, to cut short their trip by a thousand miles and also to take advantage of the stronger winds there. A typical ship sailing from Plymouth to Sydney would cover the 13,750 miles in around 100 days. Cutty Sark holds the record for the fastest passage on this route by a clipper, in 72 days.

For the return passage, the ship sailed east from Australia staying north of the latitude of Cape Horn, at 56 degrees south. The Horn was the most treacherous part of the journey, and had a reputation for turbulent cyclones, narrow passage and shallow waters that together created hazardous conditions for the ship. Ships that survived the Horn made the passage back up the Atlantic, following the natural wind circulation along the great landmasses of South America and Africa. The return journey was slightly longer, at 14,750 miles, but took the same hundred days. Thermopylae completed this run in a record 77 days.

The Thermopylae and the Cutty Sark were frequently at odds, competing with each other trying to make the passage in the shortest number of days. Later, when iron-hulled windjammers replaced the older clipper ships, many captains took part in friendly races carrying cargoes of wheat and barley from the grain ports in South Australia to the Cornwall coast. These races became known as The Grain Races.

pamir ship

Painting of the “Pamir” by Belgian painter Yasmina. The Pamir was the last windjammer with a commercial load to round Cape Horn.

The sailing ships were loaded between January and June, and each departed at a different date, and often from different ports in the Spencer Gulf in South Australia. It was the length of each ship’s passage home that determined the winner. While the race was informal, winning one was a source of great prestige for the captain.

Although the race was very popular among sailors, the ships’ owners were strongly against such pursuits that put precious cargo and the ships themselves at risk. Racing in the gale-force winds of the Roaring Forties and around Cape Horn put unnecessary strain on the ships, risking damage and loss of cargo.

The first Grain Race took place in 1921. The wining ship was a Finnish windjammers named Marlborough Hill, which sailed from Port Lincoln, in South Australia, to the English port of Cobh, finishing the trip in 90 days. The race took place every year for the next 18 years, until 1939, when the outbreak of the Second World War disrupted all shipping. It resumed in 1948. The last race took place in 1949.

The record for the fastest run is held by the Finnish four-masted barque, Parma, which completed the trip in 83 day, in 1933.

Herzogin Cecilie

The Herzogin Cecilie holds the record for the most wins—six times.

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