The tea battle of the seas: Ariel and Taeping Clipper race

The year is 1866, Victorian time England. As you can imagine, with no TV or internet around to keep us entertained, the newspapers played a more important part of day to day life. And what could be more exciting than the two fastest ships ever built racing to China to get the ‘fuel’ for this new and exciting drink called tea?

The first tea of the season (called a first flush) is considered the best so being the first ship to bring it back is crucial. Tea merchants pay handsomely to be the first to offer tea at the start of spring. The drink is now very popular with not just royalty but also the middle classes and some will think it’s a good way to revive workers during the afternoon as the industrial revolution will show.

The contestants

Five clippers are competing for the top prize: Ariel, Serica, Taeping, Taitsang and Fiery Cross. Distance: 15,800 miles from China to London. The winner would not only get a premium price of 10 shillings per ton for the tea, but also £100 for the captain and an extra month’s pay for the crew. The price for early arrivals was £7 per ton in comparison.

Everyone who can afford it has placed a bet on which ship is going to win and the agents and owners have chipped in huge sums! The newspapers update the general public every day on the status of the race.

The race

The cargo for Ariel is loaded in a record four days and it is the first ship to go on the 29th of May. Not wanting to be left behind, the captain of Fiery Cross leaves the minute the tea has finished loading, leaving the paperwork behind. He has won 4 of the races in the past 5 years and he is not going to lose this one. With the last ship departing by the 6th of May, the race is now fully on.

Though Ariel was the first to depart, it got stuck in the sands at the mouth of the river FooChow so she has to wait for the tide along with the others. Fiery Cross manages to navigate away from the sands but once they all start navigating the Indian Ocean, the race is neck-to-neck. Taeping is the first to arrive at St Helena is the Southern Atlantic and is now a clear leader. The others are within a day’s sail from each other and on the 29th of August, four of them (Taitsang is far behind) sail close to each other across the Azuros.

In the final part of the race, Ariel is the first to spot the Cornish Coast after 97 day’s at sea, but all four ships are going fast with 25,000 square feet of sails fully used. Taeping is closing in. Fiery Cross and Serica fall behind. On the 6th of September at 3 in the morning, Ariel arrives at London Docks just 2 hours ahead of Taeping. But the fight is not over!

Ariel and Taeping
A painting of Ariel and Taeping neck-in-neck during the race sold at auction for almost £57000. Image credit: Bonhams https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/19924/lot/55/

The ships now have to call for a pilot boat and by the time they both arrive and leave to shore, they are within 10 minutes’ distance. The next part is the tugboats. Both received one at the same time, but they also have to wait for a good tide to dock to officially receive the premium price for the tea. As Taeping has a shallower shaft, it docks 28 or so minutes (sources vary) before Ariel, claiming the first place.

Even so, the agents and owners agree to share the premium of 10 shillings and the captains’ rewards as the race was so close.

What made this race so special?

  • 19 ships were waiting in port ready to depart, with five of the finest ever build in the competition. It would also be one of the last ship races as using them for the transport of goods would soon become obsolete with the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of steamships.
  • The lightest ship was Serica with 708 tons while the heaviest was Fiery Cross at a staggering 888 tons.
  • The race didn’t finish with just reaching London, the winner was whoever got the tea to shore first!
  • It wasn’t just a competition of who had the fastest ship but also who could navigate different conditions better.
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