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The Skeleton Closet

Lightning in the Colonies

The ship "Lightning" was an extreme clipper ship built in 1854 by Donald McKay of East Boston, Massechusets, USA.


length -226 feet
beam - 44 feet
depth of hold -26 feet

Length 243 feet over all

2084 tons - her entire weight un-laden


The life of the Lightning:-

January 1854

1854 January 3 - Launched at the shipyard of Donald McKay, East Boston, MA, USA, for the Black Ball Line (James Baines & Co.), Liverpool.

"No timid hand or hesitating brain gave form and dimensions to the Lightning. Very great stability; acute extremities; full, short midship body; comparativily small deadrise, and the longest end forward, are points in the excellence of this ship." - John Willis Griffiths: Monthly Nautical Magazine, Vol. IV (1855), August.

February 1854

1854 February 18 departed Boston, USA - March 3 arrived Liverpool, England in 13 days, 20 hours under the command of Captain James Nicol Forbes who was previously the master of the "Marco Polo" which he left to take command of the new McKay clipper.

In a Letter to the Editor of the Northern Daily Times dated, March 8th, 1854, Captain Forbes disputes a claim from Captain Eldridge of "Red Jacket" of having made the fastest Atlantic crossing. [ Letter ]

"Not a ripple curled before her cutwater, nor did the water break at a single place along her sides. She left a wake straight as an arrow, and this was the only mark of her progress. There was a slight swell, and as she rose, one could see the arc of her forefoot rise gently over the sea as she increased her speed." - Duncan McLean: Boston Daily Atlas, 1854.

March 1854

1 March 1854 - Lightning sailed 436 miles, which is the longest day's run recorded by a sailing ship of that era.

From the abstract log of the Lightning:-

"March 1. - Wind S., strong gales; bore away for the North Channel, carried away the foretopsail and lost jib; hove the log several times, and found the ship going through the water at the rate of 18 to 181/2 knots per hour; lee rail under water, and the rigging slack; saw the Irish land at 9:30 p.m. Distance run in the twenty-four hours, 436 miles."

May 1854

Deaprted Liverpool on 14 May 1854 - arrived Melbourne on July 31 - 77 days sailing. The round trip from England to Australia and back has been recorded and written about in several good nautical references including the U.S. Nautical Magazine and Naval Journal, and extracts from a passenger diary from this passage have also been reprinted in the Dog Watch.

August 1854

20 August 1854 departed Melbourne - arrived Liverpool 23 October - 64 days 3 hours.

January 1855

Departed Liverpool on 6 January 1855 and arrived in Melbourne on March 20 after

Sailing for 73 days. Captain Anthony Enright took over from Captain Forbes as master.

April 1855

Departed Melbourne on 11 April 1855 and arrived at Liverpool on June 29 after sailing 79 days. Eleven issues of The Lightning Gazette which was originally printed onboard the ship during the passage have been reprinted in Sea Breezes Vol. 18-19(1954-1955).

Other voyages of 1855

1855 - Sailed from Liverpool to Melbourne in 81 days.

28 December 1855 - Sailed from Melbourne to Liverpool.

May 1856

Departed Liverpool on 6 May 1856 and arrived at Melbourne on July 13 taking 68 days 10 hours.

August 1856

Departed Melbourne on 28 August 1856 and arrived at Liverpool on November 20 in 84 days.

February 1857

Departed Liverpool on 5 February 1857 and arrived at Melbourne on 15 April in 69 days 6 hours.

March 1857

19 March 1857 - recorded the second longest day's run for a sailing ship - 430 miles in 24 hours while bound for Australia.

May 1857

Departed Melbourne on 11 May 1857 and reached Liverpool on August 1 after sailing 82 days.

August 1857

Departed Portsmouth on 25 August 1857 bound for India and arrived there on November 20 in 87 days with 650 men and officers of the 7th Hussar regiment on board.

May 1859

Departed Melbourne on 20 February 1859 and arrived in Liverpool on 11 May after sailing 80 days.

November 1859

Donal McKay wrote a letter to the Editor of the Scientific American which was published on November 26, 1859 about the ship. [ Letter ]

Other 1859 voyages

1859 - Sailed from Liverpool to Melbourne in 69 days.


June 1861

Departed Liverpool on 10 June 1861 and arrived at Melbourne on August 30 after sailing 81 days.

November 1862

30 November 1862 Struck a previously unrecorded submerged rock near Point Nepean at Port Phillips Head. At the time the Lightning carried a cargo of 4372 bales of wool and 18.650 oz. of gold. She damaged to the forefoot and keel but was quickly repaired.


Lightning was sold to Thomas Harrison of Liverpool but continued to sail for the Black Ball Line.

October 1869

31 October 1869 The Lightning burned while loading wool at Geelong Wharf. The disaster was described in the Geelong Advertiser on November 1, 1869. [ Report ]


Plans, Blue prints and drawings

Plans and blueprints of her dimensions and other drawings of her can be found in the following works:-

Blueprint, scale 1:96 - the Clark Collection, Hart Nautical Museum, MIT, Cambridge, MA, USA.

A black ink tracing on cloth - Clark Collection, Hart Nautical Museum, MIT, Cambridge, MA, USA.

A black ink tracing on cloth - Henry Hall: Report on the Ship Building Industry of the United States, 1884 - this is identical to the one in the Clark Collection.

A scale drawing - Scale 1:96 - Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass. USA, this is a copy of the plan in the Clark Collection.

A scale drawing - Scale 1:80 - U.S. Nautical Magazine.

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Other information

Other information on this ship can be found in the following publications:

The Lightning Gazette, Nos. 13-23.

Sea Breezes Vol. 18 (July - December) & Vol. 19 (January - June), Liverpool, 1954-1955.

The Lightning Passage.

The Dogwatch, No. 25 and No. 26, Melbourne, 1968-1969.

Chapelle, Howard I.: The Search for Speed Under Sail 1700-1855. Bonanza Books, New York, 1967.

Hall, Henry: Models and Measurements (1883).

Notebook, Penobscot Marine Museum.

Henry Hall: Report on the Shipbuilding Industry of the United States, 1884.

Howe, Octavius T. & Matthews, Fredric C.: American Clipper Ships 1833-1858.

Argosy Antiquarian, New York, 1967 (facs av ou 1926). 2 vols.

McLean, Duncan: The New Clipper Lightning, of Liverpool.

The Boston Daily Atlas, Vol. XXII, No. 181, Tuesday, January 31, 1854. Reprinted in Howes & Matthews: American Clipper Ships 1833-1858, 1926. and in the Nautical Research Journal Vol. 25 (1979).

Loney, Jack: The Clipper Lightning in Geelong 1862-1869 Portarlington, Victoria, 1988.

McKay, Richard: Some Famous Sailing Ships and Their Builder Donald McKay. G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1928.

Stammers, Michael K.: The Passage Makers. Teredo Books, Brighton, 1978.