Donald McKay

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Donald McKay
Donald McKay by Southworth & Hawes, c1850-1855.jpg
BornSeptember 4, 1810 (1810-09-04)
Jordon Falls, Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, Canada
DiedSeptember 20, 1880(1880-09-20) (aged 70)
OccupationShip Designer
Known forFlying Cloud
Spouse(s)Albenia Boole and Mary Cressy Litchfield

Donald McKay (September 4, 1810 – September 20, 1880) was a Canadian-born American designer and builder of sailing ships, famed for his record-setting clippers.

He was born in Jordan Falls, Shelburne County on Nova Scotia's South Shore. In 1826 he moved to New York, working for shipbuilders Brown & Bell and Isaac Webb.[1] In 1841, he opened his first yard in Newburyport and moved to East Boston in 1845, building substantial packet ships for the Atlantic emigrant route. McKay later designed and built some of the most successful clippers ever built. His house in East Boston was designated a Boston Landmark in 1977[2] and is also on the National Register of Historic Places.

McKay was the great-grandfather of the American actor, author, and artist Gardner McKay (1932–2001),[3] best known for playing a character plying the South Pacific as captain of his own windjammer in the television series Adventures in Paradise.

Design practices[edit]

McKay Shipyard, East Boston, ca.1855

McKay's designs were characterized by a long fine bow with increasing hollow and waterlines. He was perhaps influenced by the writings of John W. Griffiths, designer of the China clipper Rainbow in 1845. The long hollow bow helped to penetrate rather than ride over the wave produced by the hull at high speeds, reducing resistance as hull speed is approached. Hull speed is the natural speed of a wave the same length as the ship, in knots, , where LWL = Length of Water Line in feet. His hulls had a shorter afterbody, putting the center of buoyancy farther aft than was typical of the period, as well as a full midsection with rather flat bottom. These characteristics led to lower drag at high speed compared to other ships of similar length, as well as great stability which translated into the ability to carry sail in high winds (more power in extreme conditions). His fishing schooner design was even more radical than his clippers, being a huge flat-bottomed dinghy similar in form to 20th century planing boats. These design changes were not favorable for light wind conditions such as were expected on the China trade, but were profitable in the California and Australian trades.

Pan Am named one of their Boeing 747s Clipper Donald McKay in his honor.


  • 1842 Courier, early clipper trading ship, 380 tons OM
  • 1849 Helicon, extreme clipper barque, 400 tons OM
  • 1849 Reindeer, extreme clipper trading ship, 800 tons OM
  • 1850 Moses Wheeler, extreme clipper trading ship, 900 tons OM
  • 1850 Sultana, extreme clipper barque, 400 tons OM
  • 1850 Stag Hound, extreme clipper, 1534 tons OM - first large or true clipper ship built by Donald McKay)
  • 1851 Flying Cloud, extreme clipper, 1782 tons OM
  • 1851 Staffordshire, extreme clipper, 1817 tons OM
  • 1851 North America, extreme clipper, 1464 tons OM
  • 1851 Flying Fish, extreme clipper, 1505 tons OM
  • 1852 Sovereign of the Seas, extreme clipper, 2421 tons OM - fastest sailing ship ever built
  • 1852 Westward Ho!, extreme clipper, 1650 tons OM
  • 1852 Bald Eagle, extreme clipper, 1704 tons OM
  • 1853 Empress of the Seas, extreme clipper, 2200 tons OM
  • 1853 Star of Empire, extreme clipper, 2050 tons OM
  • 1853 Chariot of Fame, extreme clipper, 2050 tons OM
  • 1853 Great Republic, extreme clipper barque, 4555 tons OM - largest clipper ship ever built
  • 1853 Romance of the Sea, extreme clipper, 1782 tons OM
  • 1854 Lightning, extreme clipper, 2083 tons OM
  • 1854 Champion of the Seas, extreme clipper, 2447 tons OM
  • 1854 James Baines, extreme clipper, 2525 tons OM
  • 1854 Blanche Moore, extreme clipper, 1787 tons OM
  • 1854 Santa Claus, medium clipper, 1256 tons OM
  • 1854 Commodore Perry, medium clipper, 1964 tons OM
  • 1854 Japan, medium clipper, 1964 tons OM
  • 1855 Donald McKay, extreme clipper, 2594 tons OM - last extreme clipper ship built by Donald McKay
  • 1855 Zephyr, medium clipper, 1184 tons OM
  • 1855 Defender, medium clipper, 1413 tons OM
  • 1856 Henry Hill, medium clipper barque, 568 tons OM
  • 1856 Mastiff, medium clipper, 1030 tons OM
  • 1856 Minnehaha, medium clipper, 1695 tons OM
  • 1856 Amos Lawrence, medium clipper, 1396 tons OM
  • 1856 Abbott Lawrence, medium clipper, 1497 tons OM
  • 1856 Baltic, medium clipper, 1372 tons OM
  • 1856 Adriatic, medium clipper, 1327 tons OM
  • 1858 Alhambra, medium clipper, 1097 tons OM
  • 1867 Helen Morris, medium clipper, 1285 tons OM
  • 1869 Glory of the Seas, medium clipper, 2102 tons OM

Records set[edit]

  • Lightning set multiple records
    • 436 miles in a 24-hour period
    • 64 days from Melbourne, Australia, to Liverpool, England
  • Sovereign of the Seas posted the fastest speed ever by a sailing ship – 22 kts. in 1854.
  • James Baines logged a speed of 21 knots (June 18, 1856)
  • Flying Cloud made two 89-day passages New York to San Francisco[4]
  • Bald Eagle set the record of 78 days 22 hours for a fully laden ship from San Francisco to New York.[5]

Other ships[edit]

Between 1845 and 1850 McKay built five large packet ships for Enoch Train's White Diamond line, which specialised in the Atlantic emigrant route from Europe to North America. These were the Washington Irving, the Anglo Saxon, the Anglo American, the Daniel Webster, and the Ocean Monarch.[6] The Ocean Monarch was lost to fire on August 28, 1848, soon after leaving Liverpool and within sight of Wales; over 170 of the passengers and crew perished.[7] The Washington Irving carried Patrick Kennedy, grandfather of Kennedy family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., to Boston in 1849.

McKay is also probably the designer of two fishing schooners of an extreme clipper design, the Mary B. Dyer and H & R. Attwood.[8]

During the American Civil War he was contracted by the US Navy to build the USS Nausett, one of the few Casco-class monitors to be commissioned. There is a monument to McKay in South Boston, near Fort Independence, overlooking the channel, that lists all his ships. There were more than 30.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ McCutchan, Philip Tall Ships The Golden Age of Sail London Book Club Associates 1976 p.37
  2. ^ Public Hearing on Donald McKay House. Boston, Massachusetts: Boston Landmarks Commission. 1977.
  3. ^ Video on YouTube
  4. ^ Octavius T. Howe; Frederick G. Matthews (1986). American Clipper Ships 1833–1858. 1. New York. ISBN 0-486-25115-2.
  5. ^ Cutler, Carl C. (1967). Greyhounds of the Sea. United States Naval Institute. pp. 284, 419, 451, 492, 506.
  6. ^ Laxton, Edward The Famine Ships The Irish Exodus to America 1846–51 London Bloomsbury 1997 pp144–5 ISBN 0-7475-3500-0
  7. ^ Laxton, Edward op cit pp91–8
  8. ^ Howard I. Chapelle (1973). The American Fishing Schooners. New York. p. 105. ISBN 0-393-03123-3.

Further reading[edit]

  • Judson, Clara Ingram (1943). Donald McKay: Designer of Clipper Ships
    Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, p. 136, Url

External links[edit]