In May of 2022, the Hudson River Maritime Museum will be running a Grain Race in cooperation with the Schooner Apollonia, The Northeast Grainshed Alliance, and the Center for Post Carbon Logistics. Anyone interested in the race can find out more here.
Last month we briefly covered the Great Grain Races on which the Northeastern Grain Race competition is based. While those were informal races, with little at stake for the vessels aside from pride of place for a fast passage, this was not the case of their predecessor, the Tea Races from Fuzhou, China to London in the 19th century.
The Tea Races were quite a bit more competitive than the Grain Races, as they were set up more like a usual race: Everyone left the same port, headed for the same destination, and a bonus awaited the first cargo of tea to hit the docks in London. While there was some choice of route from China to England, this was up to the captains, and part of the skill involved.
The neat thing about the Tea Races is they were not just a test of the ship's efficiency and the skill of captain and crew. It was just as much a test of the entire logistical system from purchasing tea from farms, arranging for the right tugboats, and skilled, fast stevedores who could pack a ship well, maintaining the vessel's trim and sailing ability while also avoiding damage to the goods. While the harvest was available to everyone at about the same time, shaving even a few hours off the time to get everything set to sail could mean leaving on a more favorable tide and wind. A day or more could mean a significant head start on the competition.
Once out of port, the race was really on, and sailing skill was in the fore. The fastest ship which could get around the Cape of Good Hope could expect a significant reward in London. The balance of routes between reliable winds and shortest distance was a gamble, and there were differing approaches to this, but the average distance was some 14,000 miles, and took about 100 days on average.
The margin of victory in some of these Tea Races was very tight: In 1866, the margin between Taeping and Ariel was less than a half hour, with three ships docking within 2 hours after 99 days at sea.
The rise of steam propulsion and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 sealed the fate of the tea clippers and the tea races. Larger ships with passengers and tea were able to make the journey through the canal in around half the time it took a clipper to sail an additional 3-4,000 nautical miles around the bottom of Africa, and as coal-fired steam engines became more efficient the cost competitiveness of sail freight declined on the Tea Trade.
There are a few lessons to be learned about alternative transport in the modern world from the Tea Races. Most prominently, the lesson is that as fuel prices rise, sail freight (and other alternative means of transportation) becomes more competitive, but only if it can use the same routes as conventional transportation. During the period of the Grain Races, before the Suez Canal opened, the inefficiency of steam engines meant that Colliers, ships carrying coal for fuel, were normally sailing vessels. This was because there wouldn't be much coal left in a steam ship if you wanted to land a cargo, and have enough fuel to return to Europe. With the opening of the Suez Canal and rising fuel efficiency, the reduction in distance made for a major savings in fuel for steamers, making them more than competitive against Sailing vessels. The same could happen with current movements toward sustainable transportation systems, and should be kept in mind for things like bicycle and rail infrastructure.
You can read more about the Great Tea Race of 1866 Here.
You can find more information on the Grain Race here.
Steven Woods is the Solaris and Education coordinator at HRMM. He earned his Master's degree in Resilient and Sustainable Communities at Prescott College, and wrote his thesis on the revival of Sail Freight for supplying the New York Metro Area's food needs. Steven has worked in Museums for over 20 years.
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