Month: September 2016

On this day in 1833, Asa Eldridge sailed out of Calcutta as captain of the ship America, bound for New York. He was returning to the US on the second leg of a round-trip whose outbound leg had been a major success, the first of two record-breaking voyages he made during his career. In late June he had arrived in Calcutta eighty-nine days after leaving Boston, a record time that would not be bettered for two decades—and then only by one of the new generation of clipper ships, which were much larger than the America and built expressly for speed. Eldridge’s record was all the more striking because of his relative youth; he was only twenty-three at the time, young for an ocean-going shipmaster.

Ship about same size as America, Asa Eldridge's command for the first of his two record-setting voyages
The replica ship Friendship at Salem, MA, is about the same size as the America captained by Asa Eldridge (By Salem Maritime and Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site (Friendship at wharf) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

     Just as the ship that eventually beat his time from Boston to Calcutta was a clipper, so too was the vessel that carried Eldridge to his next record. In January 1854, he took the Red Jacket from New York to Liverpool in thirteen days, one hour and twenty-five minutes, which is still the fastest-ever crossing of the Atlantic by a sailing ship. Remarkably, the Red Jacket was on her maiden voyage with a pick-up crew recruited at the last minute on the wharves of South Street in Manhattan. Eldridge therefore had no prior experience of either the ship or the crew he was commanding, but was still able to set a record that has never been beaten.

     Eldridge’s record-breaking voyages were also notable for the routes on which he made them. Trade with India and England was crucial to the development of the young United States as an independent trading nation in the decades following the War of 1812. The transatlantic route between New York and Liverpool was particularly important, in that era probably the busiest and most important shipping route in the world. The epic struggle between the US and Britain for commercial supremacy on this route is a fascinating tale of innovation in business and technology, intervention by governments, and the eventual capitulation of one side—issues that are explored in detail in The Lost Hero of Cape Cod.