Surprise (clipper)

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Clipper ship Surprise.tiff
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.

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 East Coast of the United States to California.

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]

Surprise was a highly profitable vessel for its owners. One historian has asserted that the vessel "was one of the most successful clipper ships ever constructed."[1]

Early history[edit]

Launch in Boston[edit]

As with many Boston-built clipper ships, 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.

Arthur Hamilton clark described the ship as fully rigged on the stocks, with all her gear rove off. She was launched with her three skysail yards across and colors flying, which attracted a multitude of people. When 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]

Surprise was 190 feet long, with a breadth of 39 feet and a depth of 22 feet. 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. She was painted black from the water-line up. The figurehead was a finely carved and gilded flying eagle, and the 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. The steamer R. B. Forbes towed the ship to its loading berth in New York.[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."[4] Her fastest passage was eighty-one days, from Shanghai, in 1857.

Surprise beat the record voyage record of ninety-seven days to San Francisco, which was set by Sea Witch, by one day.[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 raced from Canton to Liverpool and Deal. The ships 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" was evident. However, A. A. Low & Brother's ship Surprise, of A. A. Low & Brother proved unexpectedly fast and profitable. Surprise made a ninety-day voyage from San Francisco to New York with an 1800-ton cargo. after discharging, loading, and leaving for London via Canton, Surprise arrived in London 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). This voyage netted her owners fifty thousand dollars in excess of her cost and running expenses. As a result, English shipbuilders changed their minds about adopting practices of the "Yankees" and started to build "clipper" ships.[6]

Ice trade and mutiny[edit]

In his letters, Marcus L. Woodard described his 1861 voyage from New York City to Batavia aboard Surprise. The ship was carrying a cargo of ice. The secessionist crew mutinied when the ship arrived at Batavia.[7]

Loss and salvage[edit]

Surprise encountered a heavy gale in Kaneda Bay on February 3, 1876, and wrecked on the Plymouth Rocks. Four days later, the ship was found. It was floating bottom up. The ship itself was a total loss, but 10,000 cases of kerosene it was carrying were salvaged. No deaths were reported.[8][9] Responsibility for the mishap was placed on an "unqualified pilot, who boarded the ship off the entrance to Tokyo Bay."[9]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Clark, Arthur Hamilton (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. ^ a b 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 (1896-01-01). Reminiscences of an Octogenarian of the City of New York: (1816 to 1860). Harper & Brothers Publishers. 
  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. ^ a b Butow, R.J.C. "A Note on the Sources". Prologue Magazine. The National Archives. 31 (3). Retrieved Apr 3, 2010. 

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