Comet (clipper)

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This article is about a clipper ship. For other ships, see Comet (disambiguation).
Career (United States)
Name: Comet
Owner: Bucklin & Crane, New York
Builder: William H. Webb, New York
Launched: July 10, 1851
Career (United Kingdom)
Owner: T.M. Mackay & Co., Liverpool, for the Black Ball Line
Acquired: 1863
Renamed: Fiery Star [VNKF]
General characteristics
Class and type: Extreme clipper
Tons burthen: 1836 tons OM, 1361 tons NM
Length: 241 ft (73 m) LOA
Beam: 41 ft 4 in (12.60 m)
Draft: 22 ft 2 in (6.76 m)
Notes: 2 decks [1][2]

The Comet was an 1851 California clipper built by William H. Webb which sailed in the Australia trade and the tea trade. This extreme clipper was very fast. She had record passages on two different routes: New York to San Francisco, and Liverpool to Hong Kong, and beat the famous clipper Flying Dutchman in an 1853 race around the Horn to San Francisco.

In 1863 the Comet was sold to the Black Ball Line and renamed the Fiery Star. She was lost at sea on 12 May 1865 after a fire had broken out in her cargo of wool.


As the Comet[edit]

Sailing card

Her first Captain was E C Gardner, previously of the Celestial.[3] Her first voyage was from New York to San Francisco, departing on 1 October 1851 and arriving on 12 January 1852 in 103 days. She made a return journey to New York arriving back in San Francisco on 18 January 1853. From there she sailed to Whampoa, where she loaded a cargo of tea and silk for New York. She arrived in New York on 6 May 1853, an 83-day journey.

Record passages[edit]

In February 1853 she raced the Flying Dutchman from San Francisco to New York, beating it by 30 hours in a time of 83 days and 18 hours. She returned to San Francisco on 10 December 1853. Sailing to New York again on 27 December, she reached Cape Horn in 35 days 7 hours, which was a record for the route. She reached New York on 14 March 1854 in 76 days (pilot to pilot). She then sailed across the Atlantic to Liverpool. From Liverpool she sailed to Hong Kong arriving there in 83 days 21 hours (pilot to pilot) on 9 September 1854, a record time. Her best days run on the voyage was 350 miles.

Arriving back in New York from Bremen on 19 August 1855 Captain Arquit replaced Captain Gardner. She made further journeys to San Francisco, New York, and Wampoa through 1856 to 1858. On 15 December 1858 Captain Todd took command of her. In 1859 she sailed to Manila and Anjer. Further trips were made between New York and San Francisco in between 1859 and 1862, as well as journeys to Hong Kong and Macao.


On her journey from New York to San Francisco on 2 October 1861 her bowsprit was badly sprung off at Cape Horn. This was followed by her rudderhead being sprung in her 1862 journey from Macao to New York when she encountered a typhoon in the South China Sea.

As the Fiery Star[edit]

On the ll March 1863 she sailed from New York for the final time as the Comet. Arriving in England she had been acquired by T M McKay & Co of Liverpool for the Black Ball Line. She sailed out of London, England on 11 April 1863 in the Australia trade, with voyages to Queenstown, Moreton Bay, and Brisbane.

Her final voyage was on 1 April 1865 when she departed from Morton Bay for London with a cargo of wool and 63 passengers. On 17 April the wool had caught fire and all but the Chief Officer, one passenger and 16 crew abandoned the boat. On 12 May, just before the boat sank the barque Dauntless of Kingston rescued those still on board. Those who abandoned the boat were never found.

Race with Flying Dutchman[edit]

In 1853, Comet beat the Flying Dutchman, another William H. Webb-built clipper, in a race from San Francisco to New York by 30 hours. Comet arrived on May 7, after a passage of 83 days and 18 hours.[2]

Loss of the ship[edit]

The Comet, renamed Fiery Star, left Moreton Bay, Queensland, Australia for Liverpool on April 1, 1865 with a crew of 42 under Captain W Hunter Yule. She had a cargo of wool and 63 passengers. On 17 April she encountered a severe gale and two days later, on 19 April when she was 400 miles north west of the Chatham Islands a fire was discovered by one of the crew, James Adams, in the cargo of wool in her foreword hold. Her position at the time was given as being in latitude 46 degrees 10' south and longitude 170 degrees west.[4]

She changed course for Lyttleton while efforts were made to put out the fire. However, the wind changed and a gale rose forcing her to change course for the Hauraki Gulf. By 7pm on 20 April after unsuccessfully trying to put out the fire the captain and 86 people, including all but one of the passengers, abandoned ship in 4 boats intending to make for the Chatham Island. There had been 6 boats on board but two were lost overboard in the earlier storm. As the remaining boats were to small to carry everyone the chief officer - W C Sargent, a passenger - John Ormond, and 16 crew members volunteered to remain on board.[5] During the night the life boats parted company with the 'Fiery Star'. The remaining crew then constructed a raft in case they had to abandon the ship.

By 25 April the weather began to deteriorate and the seas wer rough through to the 28 April.

By 3 May the ship was thought to be about 98 miles from New Zealand and two islands, possibly Mercury and Alderman were sighted. Another gale struck the ship on 4 May and drove her back out to sea. The wind again changed and by 11 May the ship was thought to be about 25 miles from shore. At 10pm on 11 May lights of another ship, the bargue Dauntless (barque) was sighted rockets and cannon were fired, and blue light shown to attract its attention. The Dauntless sent a lifeboat over and this remained alongside overnight.

At daylight the Chief Officer invited Captain Moore from the Dauntless came on board to assess the situation. Captain Moore agreed with the Chief Officers decision to abandon her as the fire was worsening and the ship badly damaged. After transferring as much that was salvagable she was abandoned at 4pm and the crew transferred to the Dauntless.[1][2] Her position was given as being off Great Barrier Island in latitude 37 degrees 5' south and longitude 175 degrees 42' east. The Dauntless remained near the Fiery Star until it sank at about 10:30pm (11:30pm in some accounts). The origin of the fire was undetermined. [6][7]

The seventeen of the eighteen survivors were John Ormond - passenger; W C Sargent - Chief Officer; William Marshall - quarter master; George Maber - engineer; George Strickland - chief steward; John Sutton Palmer - second steward; Charles White - boatswains mate; David Hariot - sail maker; James North - carpenter; Knight Stevens, Charles Applequist, John Hargett, Charles Smith, David Payne, John Bullin, Richard Breton - seamen; Richard Herdman - butcher.

A search was mounted on 16 May of the Chatham Islands for the passengers and crew who had left in the lifeboats by HMS Brisk under Captain Charles Webley Hope. The Brisk arrived in the Chathams on 20 May and a search of the island and neighboring Pitt Island found no trace of the missing crew and passengers. Given their distance from the Chathams when they left the Fiery Star and the bad weather in the intervening period, they were presumed to have perished.[8]


  1. ^ a b Crothers, William L. (1997). The American-Built Clipper Ship, 1850-1856: Characteristics, Construction, Details. Camden, ME: International Marine. pp. xv, etc. ISBN 0-07-014501-6. 
  2. ^ a b c Bruzelius, Lars (1998-04-23). "Sailing Ships: Comet (1852)". Comet. The Maritime History Virtual Archives. Retrieved June 21, 2010. 
  3. ^ The American Clipper Ship, 1845-1920: A Comprehensive History, with a Listing of Builders and Their Ships, Glenn A. Knoblock, McFarland, 2014, page 87, ISBN 1476602840, 9781476602844
  4. ^ Supposed loss of four of the boats with all hands. Arrival of eighteen survivors, Daily Southern Cross, Volume XXI, Issue 2440, 16 May 1865, Page 5
  5. ^ The loss of the 'Fiery Star', Daily Southern Cross, Volume XXII, Issue 2668, 5 February 1866, Page 6
  6. ^ Fearful loss by fire of the ship Fiery Star, New Zealand Herald, Volume II, Issue 470, 16 May 1865, Page 4
  7. ^ The loss of the 'Fiery Star' Daily Southern Cross, Volume XXI, Issue 2440, 16 May 1865, Page 4
  8. ^ Cruise of HMSS Brisk, New Zealand Herald, Volume II, Issue 484, 1 June 1865, Page 4

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