The mastermind behind some of America’s fastest clipper ships is the focus of an exhibit at the Centerville Historical Museum.
For one brief, glorious period, prior to a tidal wave of steam-powered boats, the swiftest, tallest, most beautiful sailing ships ever built rode the crest of popularity on the high seas. The three-masted clipper ship, so named because it moved at such a “fast clip” with its mammoth square sails and streamlined hull, remains the most romantic icon of an era when wind power was the sole means of trans-ocean transport. From 1843 to 1869, America was known as the powerhouse of clipper ship construction.
All who admired American clipper ships knew the name of designer and builder Donald McKay of Massachusetts, whose accomplishments and family memorabilia are the subjects of Donald Mckay: Master Shipbuilder, an exhibit on display at the Centerville Historical Museum through September 21.
At his famed East Boston shipyard, McKay constructed more than 30 clipper ships—some as tall as 20 stories, many of which broke sailing speed records that lasted for decades. It is a tribute to McKay that his ships, such as The Flying Cloud and the Staffordshire, pictures of which highlight the exhibit, remain familiar names today.
Randall Hoel, museum director and curator of the McKay exhibit, says McKay was an out-of-the-box thinker who stood by his design conviction to narrow the hull, sharpen the bow, and heighten the sails of the regular packet ships in the face of expert criticism and prophesies of doom. He was second-guessed by those who said his ships would sink upon encountering the first strong gust. But the doubters were silenced as his clipper ships shattered previous records and ushered in a new era of speed sailing.