Surprise (clipper)

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For other ships of the same name, see Surprise (disambiguation).
Career (United States)
Name: Surprise
Owner: A. A. Low & Brother
Builder: Samuel Hall, East Boston, MA
Launched: 1850
Fate: Wrecked in 1876
General characteristics
Class and type: Clipper
Length: 190 ft.
Beam: 39 ft.
Draft: 22 ft.
Complement: A captain, "30 able seamen, 6 ordinary seamen, 4 boys, 2 boatswains, a carpenter, a sailmaker, 2 cooks, a steward, and 4 mates."[1] Captain Philip Dumaresq, 1850-1852, Captain Charles A. Ranlett, 1852-1876.

The Surprise was a California clipper built in East Boston in 1850. It initially rounded Cape Horn to California, but the vessel's owners, A. A. Low & Brother, soon found that the vessel performed well in Far Eastern waters. From that point onward the vessel spent much of her working life in the China trade, although the vessel also made three trips from the United States East Coast to California.

The Surprise served as a clipper-rigged ship for 17 years, from 1850 until 1867, giving her an exceptionally long working life with this demanding rigging. After her sail plan was cut down in 1867, removing her skysails, she entered a second life as a slower merchant sailing ship from 1867 until her loss in 1876.[2]

The working life of the Surprise was summarized by one historian who concluded that the vessel "was one of the most successful clipper ships ever constructed, and proved a mine of wealth for her owners."[1]

Early history[edit]

Launch in Boston[edit]

As with many Boston-built clipper ships, the Surprise was fully built and rigged in her port of origin, but was towed to the East Coast's shipping hub, New York City, to take on its first long-distance cargo. The ship's owner, and the New York reporters who covered the new ship's arrival from Boston, were impressed with the clipper's appearance and measurements.

"She was fully rigged on the stocks," a later historian writes, "with all her gear rove off, and was launched with her three skysail yards across and colors flying, which attracted a multitude of people ... When the Surprise arrived at New York to load for San Francisco, the New York Herald declared that she was the handsomest ship ever seen in the port."[1]

"Her ends were said to be quite sharp," another account reads, "but she was not quite as large and did not carry as much sail as other clippers of her era, such as Game Cock, Sea Serpent and White Squall. The Lows were delighted with her and gave Samuel Hall a $2,500 bonus."[3]

"The Surprise measured: length 190 feet, breadth 39 feet, depth 22 feet with 30 inches dead-rise at half floor. Her main-yard was 78 feet long from boom-iron to boom-iron, and her mainmast was 84 feet from heel to cap, with other spars in proportion. She was beautifully fitted throughout, was painted black from the water-line up, and carried a finely carved and gilded flying eagle for a figurehead, while her stern was ornamented with the arms of New York."[1]

Arrival in New York[edit]

The new clipper's arrival from Boston drew a significant number of spectators. "A large number of persons gathered to see her placed at her loading berth by the steamer R. B. Forbes, which had towed her round from Boston."[1]

The ship's owners underwrote an organized celebration of the arrival of the new ship in New York City for service to California. Receptions of this sort were intended to help "sell" the new clipper's (relatively high-priced) shipping services to New York merchants and wholesalers. The steamer-towboat R.B. Forbes was an integral element in gatherings of this type. "The R. B. Forbes ... was generally on hand at launches, regattas, and Fourth of July celebrations," our historian reports, "with a jolly party of Boston underwriters and their friends on board ... With a rainbow of bunting over her mastheads, the brass band in full blast, and champagne corks flying about her deck, she contributed liberally to the gayety of many festive occasions. She was also usually the first to introduce a new-born ship to the end of a manila hawser, and for several years she towed most of the eastern-built clippers to their loading berth at Boston or New York."[1]

Voyages and records set[edit]

Surprise "made eleven consecutive passages from China to New York in eighty-nine days or less, six from Hong-Kong, five from Shanghai-- the best, eighty-one days from Shanghai in 1857."

Surprise "beat W. H. Aspinwall's Sea Witch's record of ninety-seven days to San Francisco by one day. She soon left San Francisco for London via Canton, and, when she reached London, her freight receipts had entirely paid her cost and running expenses besides netting her owners $50,000.[4]

Race home from China[edit]

“There were several famous races home from China. Once the British clippers Chrysolite and Stornaway, and the American clippers Race Horse, Surprise, and Challenge engaged in a race from Canton to Liverpool and Deal, and arrived at the home ports as follows: At Liverpool, Chrysolite in 106 days; at Deal, Stornaway in 109 days; Challenge in 105 days; Surprise in 106 days.” [5]

Influence on British clipper ship building[edit]

"When [the clipper ship] ... was first brought to the attention of English shippers and builders, the customary dissent and ridicule of "Yankee notions" were both entertained and proclaimed; but when the Surprise, of A. A. Low & Brother, reached San Francisco from [New York] ... in ninety days, with a cargo of 1800 tons, and discharging, loading, and leaving for London via Canton, arrived there with the first cargo of tea and freight at six pounds sterling per ton (while English vessels were obtaining but from three to four pounds), netting her owners fifty thousand dollars in excess of her cost and running expenses, our English brothers, with their practical good sense, especially whenever the opportunity is presented to them to reap an advantage, were not slow to avail themselves of the example thus presented, and however distasteful it was to them to be goaded on by "Yankees," yet they discarded sentiment and built "clipper" ships."[6]

Ice trade and mutiny[edit]

The letters of Marcus L. Woodard describe "a voyage aboard the clipper ship Surprise under Charles Ranlett from New York City to Batavia with a cargo of ice (1861), and the mutiny of her secessionist crew upon reaching that port."[7]

Loss and salvage[edit]

"1876 February 3. Was wrecked on the Plymouth Rocks, while seeking shelter for a heavy gale in Kaneda Bay. The cargo of 10.000 cases of kerosene was salvaged off the wreck which was found floating bottom up four days later."[8] An unqualified pilot, who boarded the ship off the entrance to Tokyo Bay, had "put the ship about to seek shelter from the storm, but misjudgment on his part drove the ship onto some offshore rocks, causing it to go over nearly on its beam ends. Apparently everyone on board managed to reach shore safely ... A Japanese man-of-war helped salvage some gear and cargo, but the ship was a total loss."[9]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Clark, A H (1912), "California Clippers of 1850", The clipper ship era; An epitome of famous American and British clipper ships, their owners, builders, commanders and crews, 1843-1869, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, p. 138 
  2. ^ "Surprise". Lars Bruzelius/Sjöhistoriska Samfundet. Retrieved 2010-09-23. 
  3. ^ "Pook-Surprise". The Era of the Clipper Ships. Retrieved Apr 3, 2010. 
  4. ^ Bank of the Manhattan Company, & Walton Advertising and Printing Company (Boston, Mass.) (1915). Ships and shipping of old New York: A brief account of the interesting phases of the commerce of New York from the foundation of the city to the beginning of the Civil War. New York: Printed for Bank of Manhattan. p. 56. 
  5. ^ Beach, Frederick Converse, ed. (1912), "Sailing Vessels", The Americana; A universal reference library, comprising the arts and sciences, literature, history, biography, geography, commerce, etc., of the world 18, New York: Scientific American compiling department 
  6. ^ Haswell, Charles Haynes (1896). New York: Harper. pp. 470–471  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. ^ Woodard, Marcus L (1869), Letters, Manuscript 
  8. ^ Bruzelius, Lars (1996-12-02). "Sailing Ships: Surprise (1850)". The Maritime History Virtual Archives. Retrieved Apr 3, 2010. 
  9. ^ Butow, R.J.C.. "A Note on the Sources". Prologue Magazine (The National Archives) 31 (3). Retrieved Apr 3, 2010. 

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