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Rainbow (clipper)

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Title: Rainbow (clipper)  
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Subject: Clipper, Jacob Aaron Westervelt, Donald McKay, List of clipper ships, Bully Hayes, Maritime history of California, John W. Griffiths
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Rainbow (clipper)

Career (United States)
Name: Rainbow
Owner: Howland & Aspinwall
Builder: Smith & Dimon, New York
Launched: 1845
General characteristics
Class & type: Extreme clipper
Tonnage: 757 tons OM
Length: 159 ft.
Beam: 31 ft. 10 in.
Draft: 18 ft. 4 in.[1]
Propulsion: Sails

The Rainbow, launched in New York in 1845 to sail in the China trade for the firm Howland & Aspinwall, was the first extreme clipper ship.

The first extreme clipper ship

Rainbow is identified as the first extreme clipper ship, because she was the first clipper ship built based upon the ideas of John W. Griffiths with a design intended to sacrifice cargo capacity for speed. His ideas encompassed a lengthening of the bow above water, a drawing out and sharpening of the forward body, and the greatest breadth further aft.[2]

"She was built to a new model at the initiative of the American naval architect J.W. Griffeths who is said to have based his design on the owner's previous ship the Ann McKim."[1]

"In 1845, John Willis Griffiths built the fast ship Rainbow and followed it in the next year with the even faster Sea Witch. Both vessels would have tremendous impact on merchant hull design. Sea Witch, in fact, had more influence on the configuration of fast vessels than any ship built in the United States. Vessels built in general accordance with the Sea Witch model were known as clippers, a term already well entrenched in the language of fast vessels."[3]

"In 1845 John W. Griffiths, an American naval architect, designed and built the Rainbow, the first "clipper ship." The hull of the Rainbow differed from the hull of any vessel previously constructed. Its greatest breadth was in the midship section instead of forward, and the concave lines of the long narrow bow enabled the vessel to cleave the water with a minimum amount of resistance. Many shipbuilding experts jeered at Griffiths' revolutionary work and predicted that the Rainbow would never return from her first voyage. Their jeers gave place to admiration when the new clipper made a voyage between Canton and New York in three months; less time than the distance had ever before been covered. Griffiths' ideas were at once adopted by shipbuilders in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere, and in a short time a large number of clipper ships were constructed. British shipowners gladly bought vessels of the new type. The discovery of gold in California gave the operators of clipper ships an opportunity to show what their vessels could do ..."[4]

"The first tea clipper ships were the Helena, built in 1841 by W. H. Webb, then the Montauk by the same builder, and the Rainbow by Smith & Demon in 1844, and the Houqua in the same year by Brown & Bell, the Sea Witch in 1846 by Smith & Demon, and the Samuel Russell in 1847 by Brown & Bell. These vessels were not representative of the clippers of a few years later: they were much smaller, and the early ones were not so heavily constructed so as to stand the whip and spur for driving as were those of later years, though some made remarkably fast voyages, and passed through some trying occasions at sea."[5]

Design and construction

Clipper bow

"The Rainbow, which created a sensation while on the stocks because of her concave or hollowed lines forward, which defied all tradition and practice, was launched in 1845."[6]

"The sharp model of the Rainbow gave rise to a great deal of discussion while she was on the stocks in course of construction. It was generally admitted by the recognized shipping authorities of South Street, that she was a handsome vessel, but whether she could be made to sail was a question on which there were varieties of opinion."[7]

"Her bow with its concave waterlines and the greatest breadth at a point considerably further aft than had hitherto been regarded as practicable, was a radical departure, differing not merely in degree but in kind from any ship that preceded her. One critical observer declared that her bow had been turned " outside in," and that her whole form was contrary to the laws of nature."[8]

By 1930, looking back on the clipper era, the bow appeared much less shocking than it did at the time. Cutler writes, “The Rainbow represented a certain departure from fast-sailing models of her day but she was far from being a radically new type ... However, her appearance as she gradually took shape on the stocks aroused so much criticism that her owners delayed her completion for more than a year. She was, perhaps, the first ship of the extremely hollow bow type, and in spite of the fact that very similar lines had been incorporated in pilot boats for years, old wiseacres grumbled that her bows were 'turned inside out.'"[9]


"Perhaps it was the ongoing philosophical contest between the proponents of the traditional flat-footed vessel, as staunchly favored by Nathaniel B. Palmer, and those who were swayed toward the sharp-bottomed vessels championed by John Willis Griffiths in the form of Sea Witch and Rainbow, both vessels of remarkable performance and far-flung reputation."[10]

"In 1841, John W. Griffeths, of New York, proposed several improvements in marine architecture, which were embodied in the model of a clipper ship exhibited at the American Institute, in February of that year. Later he delivered a series of lectures on the science of ship-building, which were the first discourses upon this subject in the United States. Mr. Griffeths advocated carrying the stem forward in a curved line, thereby lengthening the bow above water; he also introduced long, hollow water-lines and a general drawing out and sharpening of the forward body, bringing the greatest breadth further aft. Another improvement which he proposed was to fine out the after body by rounding up the ends of the main transom, thus relieving the quarters and making the stern much lighter and handsomer above the water-line."[11] "This proposed departure from old methods naturally met with much opposition, but in 1843 the firm of Howland & Aspinwall commissioned Smith & Dimon, of New York, in whose employ Mr. Griffeths had spent several years as draughtsman, to embody these experimental ideas in a ship of 750 tons named the Rainbow. This vessel, the first extreme clipper ship ever built, was therefore, the direct result of Mr. Griffeths's efforts for improvement."[11]


"Mr. Griffeths [sic] relates a good story about the masting of this vessel. It appears that Mr. Aspinwall, who had an excellent idea of what a ship ought to be, had come to the conclusion that the masting of vessels was a question of no small moment in shipbuilding, and determined that his new ship should have the benefit of foreign aid in placing the masts. Accordingly, he informed the builders that he would obtain assistance from abroad, for their benefit as well as his own. The builders naturally paid little attention to this information. The port-captain, who was appointed to superintend the construction, was directed by Mr. Aspinwall to select the best authorities in Europe on masting ships. The European experts were written to in reference to this important matter, and after they had duly considered the principal dimensions of the vessel, the trade in which she was to be employed, etc., a paper draft and elaborate calculations were prepared and forwarded to New York.[12]

"In the meantime, the construction of the Rainbow had progressed steadily.[12]

"The clamps being ready, the deck beams were placed according to the original drawings, the framing of the decks completed, hatches and mast partners framed, channels and mast-steps secured; the masts and yards were also made and the ship planked and caulked by the time the important despatches arrived."[13]

"They were examined by the port-captain, Mr. Aspinwall was informed that they were all right, and the port-captain was requested to give the information to the builders, which, of course, was done. The ship, however, was finished without the slightest alteration from the original plans. Mr. Aspinwall, who never doubted that his pet project had been carefully carried out, attributed much of the success of this vessel to the placing of her masts by foreign rules."[7]


"Rainbow "proved an excellent ship in every way and exceedingly fast."[7]

The following example illustrates her ability to sail to windward: "The 'fine clipper ship Rainbow reached New York on the 29th of February [1848], 88 days from Canton. The passage was not especially noteworthy, except for the fact that Captain Marshall had beaten out of the Sunda Straits under double reefed topsails—a feat that very few square-riggers of that or any other time could have accomplished ...[14]

Rainbow carried a great deal of canvas — perhaps too much!

On her maiden voyage, "Captain Land had driven the top gallant masts out of her four days after leaving New York, incidentally driving her under and nearly losing her." "The Rainbow returned to New York on the 19th of September [1845], in the unfavorable season run of 105 days. She had, however, made the new record of 7 months and 17 days for the round trip."

In the process of setting this record, Rainbow's remaining set of sails had been blown out, necessitating ten days of repairs while underway.[15]

At this point, even a hard-driving clipper captain had to acknowledge that his exciting new vessel was somewhat oversparred. Land had three feet cut off the masts. The decision to reduce the height of the masts seemed to work out well, without negative impact on performance.

"On her second voyage to China the Rainbow went out against the northeast monsoon in ninety-two days and came home in eighty-eight, a record which few ships were able to better."[6]


On March 17, 1848, Sea Witch arrived in New York, "having set the all-time record from Canton to the US, 77 days."

That same day, Rainbow sailed from New York on her fifth voyage, bound for Valparaiso and China, under Captain Hayes.[1][14]

The ship was never heard from again, and "it was supposed that she foundered off Cape Horn."[16]


Rainbow made five voyages. She sailed from New York to Hong Kong, with return voyages from Whampoa to New York, making passages of 84–108 days, under Captain John Land.[1]

"Her second voyage to China out and home, was made in six months and fourteen days, including two weeks in port discharging and loading cargo. She went out to China against the northeast monsoon in ninety-two and home in eighty-eight days, bringing the news of her own arrival at Canton.[6][7] (Another source adds two days to this voyage: "the unprecedented time of 6 months and 16 days.")[17]

"Captain John Land, her able and enthusiastic commander, declared that she was the fastest ship in the world, and this was undeniably true; finding no one to differ from him, he further gave it as his opinion that no ship could be built to outsail the Rainbow, and it is also true that [as of 1912] very few vessels have ever broken her record."[7] Captain Land had a "reputation for taciturnity," and had spent many years in slower ships with bluff bows, such as the Globe).[15]

In 1847, "Captain Land was succeeded by Captain Hayes."[1]

Rainbow's fastest passage was in 1846, between Whampoa and New York, in 88 days.[1]


  • leaving New York, Henry Scott (British, 1911–1966)

The bottom was painted green to distinguish it from other boats.

See also

Further reading

  • "The Clipper Ship Era" by Arthur H. Clark (Available to read on )
  • Somerville, Col. Duncan S., The Aspinwall Empire, Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc., Mystic, CT, 1983


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