This Week in History


Marco Polo: "Fastest Ship in the World"

For the week of Monday July 17, 2006

On July 22, 1883, as the famed clipper ship Marco Polo sailed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, held together by chains wrapped around its hull, the 32-year old vessel encountered an intense summer storm that twisted the hulk, causing leaks that overwhelmed the pumps. The captain, aware that the Marco Polo was finished, grounded the vessel off Cavendish Beach, Prince Edward Island, where a month later it slipped quietly into its permanent watery grave.

Fastest Ship in the World
© Canada Post Corporation. Reproduced with permission.

The Marco Polo was launched on April 17, 1851 from the James Smith shipyard in Saint John, New Brunswick. Its unique design combined the clean, straight underwater body of a clipper with the midship capacity of a cargo carrier. During launch, it accidentally became mired in the mud causing the keel to warp slightly. However, this did not hurt its performance. The Marco Polo made its first Atlantic crossing in just 15 days, a testimony to its excellent craftsmanship.

The Black Ball Line purchased the Marco Polo in 1852 to transport those adventurous souls rushing to Australia to find fortune in the virgin Victoria goldfields. Under the command of Captain R.J. ‘Bully’ Nicols, the lavishly refitted ship set sail from Aberdeen, Scotland, on July 4, 1852 with 60 crew and 930 passengers. The outbound voyage took an astounding 76 days, as did the return trip to England, making the Marco Polo the first ship to circumnavigate the globe in less than six months, earning it the title of “Fastest Ship in the World.” The first trip was no fluke of weather or navigation. On its second and third voyages, the Marco Polo again circled the world in less than six months. The clipper continued to ply the ‘Great Circle Route’ until 1867, when, on its final passage, the clipper again completed the Australia to England voyage in 76 days.

Captain "Bully" Nicols
© The Marco Polo Project
From 1868-83 the Marco Polo reverted to a cargo carrier, transporting everything from guano to timber to cotton. However, itstill commanded the respect of seafarers around the world and because of its success and fame, New Brunswick continued as an important centre of shipbuilding for years to come providing Canada with the majority of its huge tall-ship fleet.

The fame and feats of the Marco Polo contributed immensely to the prosperity of the New Brunswick shipbuilding industry in the 1850s and 1860s. The ship was declared to be a National Historic Event in 1990.

The Marco Polo Project is a publicly and privately supported venture to build a scaled down replica of the famous clipper ship.

Date Modified: