This James E. Buttersworth portrait of one of the most famous extreme clippers SOVEREIGN OF THE SEAS is extraordinary not only because of the record breaking ship it depicts, but also the painting's own history.
SOVEREIGN was the first of two vessels built by Donald McKay to bear this name. When she was launched in June of 1852 she was the largest clipper then built, 2421 tons register, at a length of 258 feet, breadth 44 feet, depth 23 feet 6 inches, with 20 inches dead-rise at half floor. A Boston Atlas article in June of 1852 hailed the new vessel:
"Behold the modern Sovereign of the Seas, the longest, sharpest, and most beautiful merchant ship in the world, designed to sail at least twenty miles per hour with a whole-sail breeze. See her in the "beauty of her strength", the simplicity and neatness of her rig, flying before the gale and laughing at the rising sea."
The painting has the most extraordinary provenance as it was commissioned by the same family who purchased the ship itself from McKay's shipyard in 1852, the same year it was launched. The painting has remained in their family since then, through five generations and more than 165 years.
The painting comes from the family of Andreas Falch Meincke, a Danish ship captain who had immigrated to the United States. In 1847 Meincke and his business partner Frederick Funch, launched Funch & Meincke Ship Brokers. The offices were located at 93 Wall Street and the corner of Water Street in New York City.
SOVEREIGN had been built by Donald McKay on speculation and Andreas Meincke would purchase the ship shortly after she was launched. The painting was commissioned shortly thereafter and Buttersworth shows the ship brilliantly in great detail and in full sail, that sharp bow cutting through an active sea all under a dramatic sky. Aloft, the ship bears the red and white Funch & Meincke company flag.
Over the next few years SOVEREIGN would sail under Captain Lauchlan McKay, Donald McKay's brother. Like Donald, Lauchlan was also a master shipwright and naval architect in addition to being an experienced maritime carpenter who had served in the US Navy. Her maiden voyage, in August of 1852, took the ship from New York to San Francisco as part of the Great Deep Sea Derby- a race of more than 90 clippers for the title of fastest ship to make the voyage around Cape Horn. During the voyage, SOVEREIGN hit a storm off Valparaiso, Chile and was partially demasted, but despite continued bad weather and high seas the crew had her jury-rigged the next day and fully re-rigged in 12 days, a feat that would win the Captain much acclaim upon his return.
SOVEREIGN would arrive in San Francisco on November 15th, 1852 - 103 days out from New York which wasn't as fast as the Derby's winner FLYING FISH which finished in 92 days, 4 hours but was still very respectable and faster by days and sometimes weeks than most of the other competitors. SOVEREIGN's best day's run was 368 miles. It's thought that if she hadn't been demasted, she was on track for the fastest time.
In early 1853 Sovereign sailed from Honolulu to New York carrying 8000 barrels of whale oil in a record time of 82 days. After the voyage an analysis of the logs showed her best day's run was 421 miles in 24 hours, making her the first ship to break 400 miles in a single day's sail. Only six other clippers after her would break 400 miles in a day, and of those ships five were also McKay designed clippers.
SOVEREIGN's next voyage would be yet another record breaking run, this time between New York and Liverpool making the passage in 13 days, 13.5 hours- a record unbroken throughout the clipper era. She is known to have outpaced Cunard's Steamer SS CANADA for at least part of this voyage, as the two vessels left New York at the same time. At one point in the journey SOVEREIGN was 325 miles ahead of the steamer.
In the second half of 1853 she was chartered by James Baines of the Black Ball Line, Liverpool for the Australia trade and Captain McKay returned to the McKay shipyard, handing the ship over to his First Mate, Henry Warner. Warner would complete two voyages as SOVEREIGN's Captain between England and Australia, the second of which saw an onboard rebellion where a disagreement escalated into several crewmembers attempting mutiny. Captain Warner and his officers banded together with a number of passengers whom they armed and together they fought successfully to regain order onboard. Ten crewmembers spent the rest of the voyage in irons below decks until they could be tried upon landing.
Upon the ship's return to Liverpool in 1854, Funch & Meincke sold SOVEREIGN to J. C. Godeffroy & Sohn, of Hamburg. It was on SOVEREIGN's first voyage with her new owners in 1854 that she would break her final record and the one for which she is still best known today- on a passage from Liverpool to Sydney NSW she broke 22 knots on parts of the voyage, the fastest ever recorded for a three masted, square rigged, sailing vessel- a record which has never been broken.
first name :