Before the rise of the internet in the 1990s, the period of greatest technological innovation in the U.S. occurred during the first half of the 19th century. The railroad, the telegraph and the photograph conspired to shrink time and space in this era and, in the process, to knit together an increasingly far-flung people in the expanding nation. In Barons of the Sea, the nautical historian Steven Ujifusa chronicles another invention—the clipper ship—and the immense fortunes that both propelled and resulted from its development ... The book is almost a beginner’s manual in sailing and is infused by a clear love for the regal triple-masters of the past. But while it is filled with vivid portraits of the key players in America’s sailing dynasties, the focus on the ships themselves sometimes squeezes out more human stories. More attention could have been spent, for instance, on the remarkable Eleanor Creesy, whose knowledge of astronomy and oceanic currents rivaled those of her male peers. About the crews of the clippers we learn very little ... But these are small flaws. Mr. Ujifusa’s subject ultimately is a handful of vessels, as ephemeral as they were fast, that nonetheless produced fortunes still with us to this day.
There were two simultaneous revolutions in sailing unfolding in America in the mid-19th century, and one of them was making frantic newspaper headlines virtually every single day. This was the sudden-feeling and all-consuming race for the sleekest, most advanced '90-day sailer,' trim-lined vessels piled high with tall white pyramids of sail, carefully designed to slice through the sea at unprecedented speeds. These were the famous 'clipper ships,' and they're the dream floating before the eyes of all the characters in Steven Ujifusa's fast-paced and entrancing new book Barons of the Sea ... A great deal of Barons of the Sea concentrates on the men (and a few remarkable women) who poured their energy, their avarice, their bravery, and their vision into creating vessels of almost unearthly speed and elegance, vessels like Stag Hound, Flying Cloud, Flying Fish, Sovereign of the Seas, Great Republic, Lightning, Champion of the Seas ... It's all masterfully done, creating a rich and multi-faceted portrait of an era that's too often wrapped in the gauze of romance.
Ujifusa begins at the beginning, Feb. 22, 1784, less than a year after independence, when, free from British mercantile restrictions, the Empress of China sailed from New York to Canton, returning 14 months later laden with cargo that sold for a nice profit. The rush was on as shipping firms, mostly family-run and New England–based, took up the trade. The author delivers lively portraits of half a dozen young American entrepreneurs who, by the 1830s, had established themselves in China and grown rich. Equally significant, after 1840, American shipyards began building sleek, sharp-lined, tall-sparred vessels with a huge sail spread. Sacrificing cargo capacity for speed, clipper ships cut the 6-month voyage to China in half .... An account of larger-than-life if not always attractive characters and a technological marvel that briefly captivated the Victorian world.