There is eager anticipation in yachting circles following the announcement that the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race will include a stopover in Hong Kong, but even this prestigious event is unlikely to come close to matching the greatest sailing contest of all time, which started in southern China and concluded with great drama in London, 150 years ago this week.

“It is probable that no race ever sailed on blue water created so much excitement as the great tea race of 1866,” wrote the late maritime writer Basil Lubbock.

Capturing international media attention and enthralling the public, the race that year to deliver the first tea of the season, which began in Fuzhou on May 28, had all the danger, speed and speculative frenzy of a Grand National.

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“Every man with a nautical cut to his jib had a bet upon the result, whilst the rival owners, agents and shippers wagered huge sums,” wrote Lubbock, and that meant a lot of money changing hands in Hong Kong.

The race pitted the fastest and most beautiful sailing ships ever built against one another as they vied to win the 10 shillings per ton premium offered by the city’s merchants for the first Chinese tea of the season delivered to the London markets. Commanded and crewed by the most skilled professional seamen of the day, these graceful tea clippers raced some 16,000 nautical miles to the British capital for big cash prizes and a place in the history books.

Correspondents sent by London and Hong Kong news­papers held their collective breath on May 24, 1866, while the crews of 16 clippers waited impatiently at the Pagoda anchorage on the Min River, some 15 nautical miles down­stream from Fuzhou town, as their cargos of fresh tea arrived by sampan. The ships – with names such as Taeping, Chinaman, Black Prince and Fiery Cross – were listed in the shipping pages of the Hong Kong press, and the London tea markets anxiously awaited news by telegraph of the first vessel to depart, laden with precious Fujian tea.

A media frenzy will too, of course, accompany the Volvo Ocean Race. Each boat will have aboard a multimedia reporter to capture the drama and the dedicated competitors’ village at Kai Tak will have a state-of-the-art media centre. In sailing circles, the event is rivalled only by the America’s Cup and the Olympic Games races in terms of prestige. But the great tea race of 1866 had an attraction that extended beyond nautical enthusiasts in what became known as “the golden age of sail”.

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The best captains were household names with a fame comparable to that of today’s Formula One champi­ons, albeit without the pampered lifestyles. Born in 1826, on the remote Hebridean island of Tiree, in northern Scotland, Captain Donald MacKinnon, of the Taeping, had the classic profile of a clipper captain. An old sea dog, he had taken to the oceans at the age of 18 as an apprentice in the barque Glencairn and was awarded his master mariner’s certificate at the age of 23. His eldest son, William, was born at sea and MacKinnon missed the birth and death (at the age of seven weeks) of his second child, in June 1858, because he was on a voyage.

“The sea never changes and the race around the world is still a human challenge and a battle against the elements,” says Jon Bramley, director of news and media for the Volvo Ocean Race. In both eras, the best skippers walked the fine line between maximum velocity and disaster.

In the 19th century, multiple race winner Richard “Dickie” Robinson, of the Fiery Cross, was said to be worth an extra half-knot in speed to any ship he captained. The clipper Robinson feared most in 1866 was the newly built Ariel, commanded by the experienced and respected John Melville Keay. The Ariel attracted admir­ing glances from even her fiercest rivals and Keay, a man not known for emotional ebullience, was once inspired to write of his ship in surpris­ingly romantic terms: “Ariel was perfect beauty to every nau­ti­cal man who saw her; in symmetrical grace and propor­tion of hull spars, sails, rigging and finish, she satisfied the eye and put all in love with her.”

Her favoured status was reflected in the fact that shipping agents elected to load Ariel first and, in 1866, that meant that Keay, a veteran of several tea races himself, paced the deck as his crew of 40 helped supervise the stowage of 1.2 million pounds (560 tons) of tea contained in thousands of wooden chests.

First loaded, Ariel had the advantage of weighing anchor ahead of her rivals. She could also make use of one of the few steam tugs available to assist with the tricky narrow exit of the river over a shallow sand bar and out into the South China Sea.

Fiery Cross was an apposite name for a vessel commanded by Robinson, who had a reputation for being both. The pug­na­cious skipper was so incensed by Ariel’s early departure that he ordered his ship to leave without the necessary docu­mentation, which the China Mail described as “Fiery Cross bolting without her papers and even without signing the bills of lading”.

“By this manoeuvre she got twelve hours start of the fleet from Pagoda anchorage and drove the captain of the Serica into a state bordering on insanity,” the report continued.

It’s cramped and constantly damp, noisy and smelly. The sailors survive on four hours or less sleep ... The boats are constantly tilting ... It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted
Jon Bramley

George Innes, the captain of Serica (Latin for “Chinese” and “silk”), was a previous race winner and another rugged Scottish seaman with a reputation as a hard-drinking maverick.

Innes might have been furious but Robinson was reward­ed for his impetuosity when he rounded the bend of the river and saw, to his unexpected delight, the Ariel still at anchor, delayed by a series of complications with its tug. With a shallower draft, Fiery Cross was able to overhaul her and sail over the sand bar, its crew taunting their rivals with an ironic three cheers. Many of the crews bet heavily against each other, according to news reports from the time, so there was little room for sympathy.

Having overcome difficulties with the tug, Ariel set sail 12 hours later, followed closely by Taeping, Serica and, a few days later, Taitsing, under a Captain Nutsford.

The race to London was on.

“For weeks at a time, the sailors endure conditions rang­ing from freezing cold to searing heat, while waves constantly slam the boat. All the while, they are under relentless pres­sure to perform at their peak and gain fractional advantages that can, in the end, mean the difference between winning and losing,” says Bramley of the Volvo Ocean Race – but he might just as well be describing the great tea race.

The three-masted clippers, each about 200-feet long, were racing at 14 knots under full sail – some 25,000 square feet of sailcloth – and made a majestic spectacle.

“Since the first race, the boats have become faster, the crews are professional sailors at the top of their game, and the technology ... has evolved hugely,” says Bramley, and again he might have been talking about 1866.

The timber or composite timber-over-an-iron-frame ships could not have been more different from the technologically advanced single-design, 65-foot carbon-fibre boats of the Volvo Ocean Race – which are capable of speeds up to 40 knots – but both were created by the leading naval designers and shipyards of their day for speed.

For Keay, MacKinnon, Robinson and Innes, speed was not just a sporting matter. Each ship was packed with about a million pounds of tea and that year, market prices were £7 per ton for early arrivals, with a multitude of bonuses and wagers to incentivise the winning crew on top of the 10 shil­lings per ton premium for the first ship that docked. Tea was serious business and, in 1866, China was still the only viable commer­cial source.

Tea had traditionally been shipped overland to Canton (Guangzhou) for shipment to the West, often through Hong Kong. It was the tea clippers, originally introduced by American shipbuilders in the 1830s, that opened up inter­national trade direct from Fujianese ports such as Fuzhou.

The British government repealed the Navigation Laws in 1849, exposing the tea trade to foreign competition, and the rule of Britannia was shaken to its core when the American clipper Oriental arrived in London on December 3, 1850. Laden with tea, it had completed the voyage from Hong Kong in a record-breaking 97 days. It was a profound embarrassment for the British mercantile establishment, which set about designing some of the fastest and most stylish sailing ships ever built. They were to become icons of the empire’s maritime prowess.

“The appeal of the clippers is really quite simple – they were the most beautiful ships ever built,” says maritime curator and author Dr Eric Kentley, one of the key figures behind the exhibition of the Cutty Sark, in Greenwich, London. That ship made eight voyages carrying tea from China to London, between 1870 and 1877, the first four loaded in Shanghai, the next four in Hankou, which required a 600-mile tow up the Yangtze River.

The captains of the five ships that led the 1866 race rarely left the deck as they tried every trick in the book to steal an advantage.

“It’s very tough, cramped and constantly damp, noisy and smelly,” says Bramley about the nearest there is to a modern equivalent. “The sailors survive on four hours or less sleep at a time ... The boats are constantly tilting and even our most hardened sailors are known to suffer seasickness. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted.”

The 19th-century seamen had to endure all of this without the benefit of GPS, radar, satellite phones, modern navigation aids, or any prospect of a helicopter rescue in the event of disaster, so acute concentration was required at all times.

“The navigation too was tricky and strewn with faultily charted reefs,” writes Lubbock, and throughout the month of June, Robinson fumed and cursed his crew as he main­tained Fiery Cross’ lead over Ariel. Taeping and Serica were in hot pursuit and Taitsing was making up ground. By July 19, the leading ships were line abreast but out of sight of each other and by late July, Taeping had overtaken Fiery Cross. The highly fancied Ariel had dropped to fourth as they passed St Helena, in the South Atlantic, on July 27.

“The times are truly astonishing in their closeness,” writes Lubbock, but they were to get tighter still.

The lead changed several times during August as the ships raced north from the equator and, as day broke on September 6 and Ariel, the leading ship, entered the English Channel, 99 days after departing Fuzhou, Keay spotted sails close to on his starboard quarter.

“Instinct told me it was Taeping,” Keay later wrote in a letter to Lubbock, and so it proved to be; MacKinnon had made up ground overnight. The crews of the two ships had not seen one another since the Min River; now they raced under every scrap of sail they could muster, neck and neck up the English Channel in a stiff south-westerly wind, each packed with a million pounds of fine Fujianese tea.

Ariel was first to pick up a pilot at Dungeness, in southern Kent. He saluted Keay as captain of the first China ship of the season, but the race was not yet over.

With pilots on-board both ships, Taeping continued to eat into Ariel’s lead, securing a superior tug on the River Thames. Despite this, it was Ariel that arrived at her destination first, but she could not pass through the gates of the East India Docks due to her deep draft. Consequently, Taeping, which had further to run to London Docks, was able to berth 20 minutes before her rival, at 9.47pm on September 6.

“Such a close and exciting finish has never been seen before in an ocean race and the interest it aroused caused newspapers to vie with each other in publishing sensational accounts,” writes Lubbock. The China Mail ran a long report on “the exciting struggle of the sea”.

“The excitement at Lloyds has been immense and the betting ran very high,” the newspaper reported, confirming Taeping as the winner, although the agents and owners of the two front runners had already agreed to share the 10 shilling per ton premium (which was discontinued after 1866), because of the uniquely tight finish.

Almost as astonishing was the arrival of Serica in third place not two hours later, at 11.30pm, and Robinson followed in Fiery Cross the next evening, inconsolable at the disgrace of fourth place.

The race was the apotheosis of ocean sailing, undertaken by ships that captured the public imagination in a uniquely profound way.

“My own theory is that it is not only the beauty of the clipper that appeals, but also its simplicity,” says Kentley.

Keay made headlines again the following October, when he sailed Ariel from London to Hong Kong, against the pre­vailing northeast monsoon, in a record-breaking 83 days. Robinson recovered from his disappointment and was offered command of the smart new clipper Sir Lancelot. He continued to race. MacKinnon, who had gallantly shared his £100 win bonus with Keay, was less lucky. A few weeks after arriving in London, his brother, also a clipper captain, was lost at sea when the Ellen Rodger was shipwrecked. By October 11, he was at sea again with Taeping, bound for Shanghai, when he was taken ill near the southern African coast and died on a mail ship trying to return to his family. He was 40 years old and is buried in Cape Town.

The glory days of sail were ephemeral. Just three years after the greatest tea race, the Suez Canal opened, shortening the route from China by 3,000 miles. Steamships could now reach London in 60 days and sailing ships were gradually forced out of the tea trade.

It was the end of an era but it is intriguing to ponder who would prove the more accomplished skippers; the tech-savvy Volvo Ocean Racers or the 19th-century sea dogs?

“Our modern-day skippers have huge technical advan­tages with navigational equipment, but I suspect the 19th-century tea clipper captains would give them a run for their money with the same kit,” says a diplomatic Bramley. “Shall we say it would be an honourable dead heat?”