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    Sale 1963

    Maritime Art Including Fine Paintings, Nautical Antiques, Scrimshaw And Ship Models

    30 January 2008, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 343

    Michael James Whitehand (b. 1941)

    The Californian clipper ship Sweepstakes passing the needles lighthouse

    Price Realised  

    Michael James Whitehand (b. 1941)
    The Californian clipper ship Sweepstakes passing the needles lighthouse
    signed 'MJ Whitehand' (lower left)
    oil on canvas
    32 x 40 in. (76.2 x 101.6 cm.)


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    Although the timing was undoubtedly coincidental, the month of June 1853 witnessed the launching of a fine quartet of new California clippers from several of the most eminent shipyards on the eastern seaboard of the United States. Of these four ships, "Sweepstakes was by far the largest, handsomest and most fortunate" and, despite an inauspicious start, went on to become one of the most famous of her breed during her short but glamorous life.
    Sweepstakes was designed and built by Daniel and Aaron Westervelt in the New York yard they had recently established after leaving the employ of their father Jacob, himself a prominent New York shipbuilder. Ordered by the New York merchants Chambers & Heiser, no expense was spared in her construction and, when completed, she was registered at 1,735 tons and measured 235 feet in length with a 41= foot beam. As Helen La Grange later wrote, "she was heavily sparred, with no nonsense about her save for a gold ribbon around her waist; she was built for speed, and looked it." Notwithstanding this splendid appearance, her launching on 18th June 1853 was nothing short of a disaster and almost ended her career before it had begun. A large crowd had gathered for the event but instead of gliding into the water as expected, Sweepstakes halted halfway down the ways and then suddenly keeled over and rammed the stagings of the clipper Kathay being built alongside her. Quite apart from the uproar created by the numerous spectators who nearly drowned when catapulted into the river by the accident, it then took the yard's workmen a further seventy-six hours of exhausting labor before the ship was finally afloat and the subsequent repairs in the Brooklyn Navy Yard added another $20,000 to her already excessive costs.
    With her maiden voyage thus delayed almost two months, Sweepstakes eventually sailed from New York on 3rd September, her holds crammed with freight valued at $55,000 but riding ominously low in the water thanks to a deck-cargo of heavy boilers. The passage to San Francisco was both smooth and uneventful and she made the Golden Gate in a reasonable 125 days before going out to Hong Kong and then returning home in 110 days, Whampoa to New York. Other good passages followed in 1854-55 but in 1856 she was on top form, with her dash of 95 days from New York to San Francisco, anchor to anchor, the second fastest of the year. Her fourth long voyage out of New York was a record-breaking run to Bombay in 74 days in the spring of 1857, the fastest time ever recorded on that route, and for the next few years she turned in one fast passage after another, to and from either China or Australia. On 4th February 1862, she left the South Australian port of Adelaide, in ballast, bound for Batavia where she was to pick up a cargo for home. Whilst sailing through the Sunda Strait which separates the islands of Java and Sumatra, she ran ashore in heavy weather and was pounded by the surf for over ten hours. Finally refloated, she limped into Batavia on 24th April where her master, Captain Magill, appalled at the huge estimated cost of repairing her serious injuries, sold her to local shipbreakers who dismantled her in full view of her heartbroken crew.

    J. & H. La Grange, Clipper Ships of America and Great Britain, 1833-1869, New York, 1936, pp. 199 - 203. (for further information on this ship)