Marco Polo ship

On the 1852’s Boxing Day, a clipper ship sailed into the Liverpool port,  with a banner on its mast declaring it was “The Fastest Ship in the World”. This was the New Brunswick’s Marco Polo ship. The achievement to sail from Liverpool to Melbourne and back in just 175 days, was a world record at the time. A fearless master of navigation, Captain James Nicol “Bully” Forbes was at the helm.

The ship Marco Polo was a wooden, 3-masted clipper ship with all 3 decks. The vessel was built at Saint John, New Brunswick (Canada) by James Smith. The ship was launched in 1851 (April 17) and named after one of the most famous world travelers and explorers, the “discoverer of China”. The clipper ship Marco Polo measures were: length 184 feet (56 m), beam/width 36 feet (11 m), draught/draft 29 feet (8,8 m), between decks height 8 ft (2,4 m) and registered tonnage 1625 RT.

Clipper ship Marco Polo

Marco Polo shipJames Smith’s shipyard was located on Courtney Bay at the mouth of Marsh Creek. There the vessel’s keel struck mudflat, the ship fell on its side and injured several workers. By April 22, the ship Marco Polo was floated free, suffering little damage. Due to the vessel’s large size, it remained grounded in Marsh Creek and laid for two weeks before being floated free again. It’s been speculated abouth both incidents and the ship’s keel affected, which might have led to the subsequent speed records.

A description of the Marco Polo ship appeared in June 1852 in “Illustrated London News”. The article said that the most distinguishing feature of the ship was her peculiar hull. Hull lines aft and fore were beautifully fine. Bearings were brought well down to bilge (lowest compartment, below waterline). Marco Polo made a displacement amidships to prevent unnecessary “careening”. The ship had a sharp entrance as a steamboat and a clean run. Below draught line, bows were hollow, but above she swelled out handsomely. In fact, with an yacht-like bottom, above water the Marco Polo ship had “the appearance of a frigate”.

The clipper ship Marco Polo was built to operate as an express, ocean-crossing, cargo and passenger shipping vessel, connecting England with Australia. No pains were spared in construction to secure ventilation. In strength, Marco Polo couldn’t be excelled – the timbering was enormous, ponderous and well formed. Deck beams were absolutely huge pitch-pine baulks. The stern and stem frame were of choicest material. Lodging knees and hanging were natural crooks, fitted to greatest nicety.clipper ship Marco Polo

Forward of the poop deck (used as ladies’ cabin), was the “home on deck”. The place was ceiled with maple and used as dining saloon. The pilasters were panelled with ornamented silvered glass. Coins of various countries were used as a novel design feature of decorations. Circular aperture (6 ft / 1,8 m in circumference) was between each pilaster for ventilation and light. Over it was placed a plate glass sheet with gold-painted picturesque window. Whole panels were brought out slightly by perforated zinc rim, so that not only did light from ventilator diffuse over the whole, but air also was freely admitted.

Saloon doors were panelled in stained glass with figures of industry and commerce from Mr. Frank Howard designs. In the saloon’s centre there was a table of thick plate glass, with the advantage to give light to the below dormitories. Upholstery was in crimson embossed velvet. Berths in staterooms were ranged in tween decks.

Marco Polo ship history

Marco Polo ship photo

  • April 17: the vessel was launched near St John, New Brunswick, at Marsh Creek. Due to ship’s size, grounded at opposite shore of creek and remained there for two weeks.
  • Sailed on a 15-days long maiden voyage to Liverpool with a cargo of timber.
  • Sailed to Liverpool from Mobile, AL in 35 days.
  • Sold in Liverpool to Paddy McGee.
  • In June, sold in Liverpool to James Baines for “Black Ball Line” of Australia Packets. Afterwards, the ship was rebuilt, coppered and rebolted (yellow metal bolts) to use in passenger shipping.
  • 76-days voyage from Liverpool to Port Phillips Heads (Victoria state, Australia) under Captain James Nicol Forbes’ command. An epedemic of measels caused the death of 52 during the voyage. In another 76 days, the Marco Polo ship returned to Liverpool and this was the first round trip recorded in less than 6 months.
  • March 13: Arrived in Melbourne after 75 sea days.
  • Sailed to Melbourne from Liverpool in 72 days under Captain Charles McDonald’s command.
  • December 1 – March 1: Sailed to Liverpool from Melbourne in 88 days.
  • August: Saved the crew and passengers of emmigrant “Eastern City” ship which had burnt near Cape of Good Hope (South Africa).
  • September 7: Sailed for Liverpool from Australia with 46.881 gold ounces onboard.
  • March 7: South of Cape Horn (major point on the clipper route between Australia and Europe, used by the sailing ships of that time) the ship collided with an iceberg. Arrived in Valparaiso on May 2, leaking badly. After the repairs, on May 22 continuted to Liverpool.
  • After completing in 76 days the journey from Melbourne to Liverpool, failed to pass passenger survey. Because of that the ship was put on general cargo shipping trade.
  • Sold in South Shields (England) to “Wilson & Blain”, then put in coal and timber shipping trade.
  • Marco Polo ship’s sail plan was reduced to “barque rig” (3 masts, fore-aft sails on aftermost mast, square sails on the other masts).
  • Sold in South Shields to “Bell & Lawes”.
  • Sold in Christiania (Oslo, Norway) to Capt. Bull.
  • June 27: A fire broke out when the ship was in Quebec, Canada, lying at ballast ground, but was got under and much damage was not done.
  • July 19: Sailed after loading cargo of deals.
  • July 22: After a leak sprang in St Lawrence and the pumps couldn’t hold back water, Capt. Bull took a decision to run ashore. Marco Polo was grounded near Prince Edward Island (Canada). The crew cut the masts away to save the ship from being broken to pieces.
  • August: The Marco Polo ship wreck was sold at an auction for just £600, plus additional £5500 for its cargo. The stove and steering gear were removed and put on the new Charles E. Lefargey barque of Charlottetown, Prince Edwards Island.
  • July 22: The ship was totally broken up near Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. It happened after subsequent strong wind and gale, before the cargo was salvaged entirely. Thus ended the life of a truly unique as design, legendary, and awe-inspiring tall sailing ship that proudly and fearlessly crossed the world’s oceans for over 30 years.

Half-model of Marco Polo ship is preserved in “The Mariners’ Museum” collections (Newport News, VA). The ship’s stern sculpture is preserved at “New Brunswick Museum”. At the “Merseyside Maritime Museum” (Liverpool, England) are displayed several stern carving replicas from the ship.  At the following link you can read the extensive Marco Polo cruise ship review (history and facts about the Russia’s former “Aleksandr Pushkin” ship). The page has also detailed information on cabins and facilities, with so many photos. And this is an outgoing link to the ship’s wiki page.