Lightning (clipper)

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"Clipper Ship Lightning" by Bruce Von Stetina
"Clipper Ship Lightning" by Bruce Von Stetina
Career (UK) RN Ensign
Owner: James Baines & Co.
Ordered: 1853
Builder: Donald McKay
Cost: ₤32,000
Laid down: 1853
Donald McKay shipyard, East Boston
Launched: 3 January 1854
Christened: 3 January 1854
Acquired: British Merchant Navy
Commissioned: 18 February 1854
Maiden voyage: 18 February – 3 March 1854 to Liverpool
In service: 18 February 1854
Out of service: 31 October 1869
Homeport: Liverpool
Fate: sunk 31 October 1869 at Geelong in Australia
General characteristics
Class and type: full-rigged three-masted sailing ship (clipper rigging)
cargo clipper ship
Tonnage: 2,084 GRT
Tons burthen: 3.500 tons
Length: hull: 237.5 ft (72.4 m),
277 ft (84 m) (LOA)
Beam: 44 ft (13 m)
Height: 164 ft (50 m) main mast (deck to truck)
Draught: 23 ft (7.0 m) loaded
Propulsion: Sails
Speed: 19 kt (35.3 km/h); best 24-hour run: 436 miles (702 km) sm in 1854
Boats and landing
craft carried:
6 lifeboats
Capacity: 1,450 tons cargo
Complement: 100 crew

Lightning was a clipper ship, one of the last really large extreme clippers to be built in the USA. She was built by Donald McKay for James Baines of the Black Ball Line, Liverpool, for the Australia trade.[1]

Lightning was the most extreme example of a type of ship classified as an extreme clipper. Her builder was the famous Donald McKay of Boston, a follower of John Willis Griffiths and his principles of ship design. Lightning is a prime example of a change in thinking that turned builders away from shaping ships' hulls like cod's heads and mackerel tails. She had 16 feet (4.9 m) of concavity in her bows and a beautiful fine run, yet she also had a moderate deadrise and a good full midsection with tumblehome, allowing her to be fast yet stable with good sail-carrying ability.


When Lightning was built in 1854 in Boston, America's extreme clipper boom was on the wane. The Australian gold rush was on, however, and McKay was building ships for James Baines of the "Black Ball Line" (house flag featured a black disk ("ball") on a red background) in Liverpool. Baines needed to transport passengers and cargo to Australia and had been impressed by the huge American ships. Lightning was powerfully and heavily constructed to handle the heavy seas and storms of the Australian run. Only the finest materials went into her construction. She cost ₤30,000 to build, and Baines put in another ₤2,000 in interior decoration, adding fine woods, marble, gilding and stained glass. It is said that her rooms rivaled those of the later Queen Mary. An on-ship newspaper called the Lightning Gazette was published for the passengers and crew.

After arriving in England, Lightning's hollow bow was ignorantly filled in by her captain Anthony Enright. McKay called the people who did it "the wood butchers of Liverpool". When her captain was changed to Bully Forbes, who drove her mercilessly, often running with the lee rail underwater, the fillings soon washed out. Lightning began to set records. Some examples of records are: she crossed from New York to Liverpool in 13 days, 19 ½ hours, she sailed 436 miles (702 km) in 24 hours, doing 18 to 18 ½ knots. In 1854–55, she made the passage from Melbourne to Liverpool in 65 days, completing a circumnavigation of the world in 5 months, 9 days, which included 20 days spent in port.[2]

Lightning did a brief stint as a troop ship bringing British soldiers to fight an uprising in India.

Lightning caught fire at around 01:00 on 30 October 1869 at Geelong in Australia when fully loaded and ready to sail with 4,300 bales of wool, 200 tons of copper, 35 casks of wine and some tallow. Attempts to control the fire were unsuccessful, and at around noon the decision was taken to sink her, and she was towed out to the shoals. The initial attempts were by cannon fire from the shore to try to hole her below the waterline, but this was unsuccessful. At about four in the afternoon some of the crew scuttled her by cutting holes on the waterline, and she sank in 27 feet (8.2 m) of water. The shoals became known as "Lightning Shoals".


  1. Some famous sailing ships and their builder, Donald McKay, by Richard C. McKay. G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1928; Easton Press, 1988.
  2. Francis Chichester (1966). Along the Clipper Way. Hodder & Stoughton. p. 69. ISBN 0-340-00191-7. 

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