Every harbour in the world would be honoured to have the world’s fastest clipper ship call it home. Long after her heyday, from 1891 to 1895 Victoria was home to such a vessel.

The clipper ship Thermopylae was named after the battle fought in 480 BC between an alliances of Greek city-states led by King Leonidas of Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I. Both ancient and modern writers have cited the Battle as an example of the power of a patriotic army defending its native soil and appropriately, as an enduring symbol of courage against overwhelming odds, and the advantages of good training and equipment.

The clipper ship Thermopylae, as she looked in her heyday as the fastest ship on any of the seven seas.

The clipper ship Thermopylae, as she looked in her heyday as the fastest ship on any of the seven seas.

Walter Hood & Co of Aberdeen, Scotland built her to a Bernard Waymouth design for George Thompson’s White Star Line. All White Star Line vessels were noted for their green hulls, gilded scrollwork, white masts, yards and bowsprits. Thermopylae was rigged with royals, a single top gallant, and split top-sails, all led by a white and gold figurehead of the Greek hero of the Battle of Thermopylae, Leonidas, King of Sparta, wearing his armour, helmet, shield, and sword.

Thermopylae was christened by Mrs. Hardy Robinson in August of 1868. She was an “extreme composite” clipper ship. An “extreme” clipper was a one whose hull design sacrificed capacity for speed, her bows were lengthened above the waterline, drawn out and sharpened forward, with her greatest beam aft.” Composite” was the term of the day for a vessel constructed of both iron and wood. She measured 212′ × 36′ × 20.9′, with tonnage 991 GRT, 948 NRT and 927 tons under deck, and her under deck coefficient was 0,58.

The fastest of them all

Recollected adventures on the high seas by members of Victoria's Thermopylae Club

Recollected adventures on the high seas by members of Victoria’s Thermopylae Club

She was designed to dominate the competitive express China tea trade in a time when the first shipment of tea from China fetched huge prices in England. Her 63-day maiden voyage from England’s Gravesend to Melbourne, Australia’s Hobson’s Bay under Captain Kendall Bruce continues to stand as that voyage’s record under sail. In 1872, She set the record for a single day’s run of 380 statute miles.

Among the reasons for Thermopylae’s speed was her sail configuration. Her masts were shorter than convention though wider. For example, her mainsail yard was an incredible 80’ long, overhanging her rails by 22 feet on either side. From its bunt the mainsail hung 40’ giving that one sail an area of 3200 square feet.

Cutty Sark was built the following year for the Jock Willis Shipping Line to compete with Thermopylae in bringing the first of the lucrative new season’s tea to England from China. Thermopylae twice beat Cutty Sark in this race for fortune, once by seven days after Cutty Sark lost her rudder.

Her Sister Ship

The success of the Thermopylae’s design led to the launching of her sister ship, Salamis in May, 1875 to serve as a wool clipper. Named for The Battle of Salamis, 480BC, she was an extended version of her sister equipped with H.D.Cunningham patented lower yard braces developed post 1861 to allow the tightening the luff of from the deck. In 1898 she was sold to run guano from the South Pacific. Salamis was wrecked 20th May 1905 on Malden Island in the South Pacific. At 221’6” X 36’ X 21’7” she was longer than Thermopylae by 9’6” with a GRT of 1130, NRT of 1079 and 1021 tons under deck.

Homeport Victoria

Store Street's Rice and Roller mill

Store Street’s Rice and Roller mill, now Capital Iron
BC Archives B-04318

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 shaved 7,000 kilometers (4,300 mi) off the China route, giving steam a significant advantage over sail. Thermopylae and Cutty Sark moved on to serve on the longer Australian wool trade route where the Cutty Sark proved the faster of the two. Gradually, with continuing technological improvements, steamships came to dominate the longer Australia route and the days of the clippers, “greyhounds of the sea” came to an end.

In 1890, Thermopylae was sold to Mr. Redford of Mount Royal Milling & Manufacturing Co. (MRM) of Lachine Quebec for £5,000. After a refit and reduction to a barque rig, she carried Vancouver Island timber and coal to Rangoon, returning with cargoes of rice from Thailand, Vietnam and China to MRM’s Victoria Roller Flour and Rice Mill on the upper harbour. The rice milling building is currently the home of Capital Iron. She dropped her hook, first in Esquimalt on June 24, 1891 and Captain J.N. Winchester, late of Victoria’s sealing fleet, took command of her and a crew composed of men from the sealing fleet.

Despite shortened masts and having been being cut down to a barque rig, and her crew reduced from 35 to 20, the hydrodynamics of Thermopylae’s hull continued to serve her well. In July 1893 she kept pace for three days with Canadian Pacific’s steamship the Empress of India, which averaged 16 knots.

Thermopylae’s most difficult crossing occurred in 1892 when, after 101 days at sea fighting terrific storms and contrary winds including those that kept her from entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca for two weeks. The crew was down to eating nothing but the rice cargo aboard. Upon finally making the shelter of Victoria’s harbour her skipper told The Colonist “We left Bangkok with three suits of sails, now she has not one presentable or serviceable sail!”. Compare that 101 day crossing with her fastest of 29 days and we can imagine the hardship the ship and her crew faced.

In 1895 holes were cut into her beautiful clipper bow and a cargo of 100’ x 2’ x 2’ balks of Vancouver Island Douglas fir were loaded and Thermopylae sailed for England, never to see Victoria’s harbour again.

In 1897 MRM sold Thermopylae to the Portuguese Navy where she served as a naval training ship for a decade under the name Pedro Nunes after a 16th century Portuguese Mathematician and Geographer. On 13 October 1907, two warships of the Portuguese Navy towed her down the Tagus River where, under review of Amelia de Orleans, Queen of Portugal, she was torpedoed with full naval honours off Cascais.

In 1932 a group of deepwater sailors and sealers of the old school establish Victoria’s Thermopylae Club so they could gather to smoke a pipe and spin some yarns. Over the years ex-Navy personnel, Merchant Mariners, yachtspeople, and folk with an abiding love the sea have joined the club, assuring its vibrancy today and into the future.

Then, in 1983 the City of Victoria struck a One Dollar coin to commemorate the great ship’s association with the city.

In June 2003 a group of professional Portuguese divers found the remains of Thermopylae about 30 metres down on the seabed off Lisbon. The hull was buried beneath the sand but enough was visible to identify the bones of that old magnificent clipper ship Thermopylae.