JANUARY 23, 1854 was a cold and blustery day on the Liverpool waterfront, but that did not deter a large crowd from gathering. News had spread quickly that a fabled record was about to be broken. According to the crew of an American steamship that had just arrived, a Yankee clipper had stayed close behind them for much of the way from New York, and must therefore be on the verge of completing the fastest-ever crossing of the Atlantic by a sailing ship. This was too significant an event to be missed. The rivalries between the ships that regularly fought their way across the Atlantic were closely followed, with every departure and arrival faithfully reported in the newspapers; a record crossing would be big news, and the people rushing to the docks wanted to witness history being made.
Squinting into the strong westerly wind, they waited expectantly for the first sight of the clipper ship entering the mouth of the River Mersey. Soon enough, a magnificent vessel hove into view, slicing through the muddy brown waters at a remarkable speed. Initially, all that the watchers could discern was a huge cloud of sail, bulging above a hull that seemed too narrow to carry so much canvas. As the ship came closer more detail emerged: the strange carved figure above her bow—an Indian chief wearing the jacket of a British redcoat—and dozens of deckhands in the rigging, clambering to take up precarious positions along the spars that supported the numerous sails. To the puzzlement of the watching crowd, the clipper showed no sign of slowing down even as she neared the docks, quickly overtaking the tugboats that were vainly offering her towlines. Finally, at what seemed the last possible moment, the captain executed an astonishing maneuver, the like of which no one could ever recall having seen before. With a loudly barked command he ordered all of the sails released, and as they crumpled in unison, he turned the wheel hard over and neatly guided the clipper in a precise rearward glide to her berth.
As the spectators roared their approval, the captain stepped to the rail of the quarterdeck and lifted his peaked cap in acknowledgment. Although middle-aged and somewhat portly, he still cut an impressive figure. Almost six feet tall, he retained a full head of brown hair, carefully combed from right to left over a face that was strong rather than handsome: blue eyes full of determination, with thick eyebrows above and noticeable bags underneath; a narrow but prominent nose; a thin upper over a fat lower lip; and a black beard with no mustache. His name was Asa Eldridge, and he had just sailed the Red Jacket from New York to Liverpool in a fraction over thirteen days—a time that has never been bettered by a sailing ship before or since……