The tangible result of the reductions in the duty on imported tea in the 1860s was the creation of a new generation of clipper ships; all exceptionally stylish, it was their capacity for speed however which provoked the most admiration and no event caught the public's imagination more than the spectacular 'Tea Race' of 1866. Each year the clippers went out to China in the spring and waited at one of several ports for the tea to be brought down from the interior. The principal loading port was Foochow, up river from the coast, and in May 1866, the most celebrated clippers afloat lay there awaiting cargoes. The first vessel to complete loading was Ariel and, casting off at 5.00pm. on 28th May, she dropped clear of the other shipping and then anchored in the river for the night. By the next morning, three more ships - Fiery Cross, Taeping and Serica - were moving down river and Taitsing was not far behind them. Problems with tugs and tides in the estuary delayed them all slightly but, by noon on 30th May, the first four were in open water and Fiery Cross had gained an early lead of 14 hours.
Thus began the most memorable tea race of them all with the four ships passing, re-passing and sometimes even sailing abreast of each other throughout the long journey home. By the time they reached the Scillies for the final dash, Ariel and Taeping were neck and neck as they raced up the English Channel logging 14 knots for much of 5th September. At 8.00am. the next day, Ariel signalled her number off Deal with Taeping only ten minutes astern of her. Off the Nore, Taeping picked up the better of the two available tugs and arrived off Gravesend just ahead of Ariel to wait for the tide. Still a race even to the last, Taeping - drawing less water than her rival - docked in London at 9.47pm., Ariel at 10.15pm and Serica got in at 11.30pm., just as the dock gates were closing. It was a remarkable finish to an astonishing race across the world, the like of which was never repeated in quite such breathtaking style.
Ariel, 852 tons, was one of that small group of British clippers which assumed almost legendary status even in their own time. Built by Robert Steele of Greenock to the order of Shaw, Lowther & Maxton of London, she was launched on 29th June 1865. She and Taeping shared the honours of being first home in the thrillingly close Tea Race of 1866 whilst her next passage out - 79 days from Gravesend to Hong Kong (pilot to pilot) - was the fastest ever recorded. Other good passages followed and in the 1870-71 season she carried tea from Yokohama to New York. Her brilliant career was to be short-lived however and after leaving London for Sydney on 31st January 1872, she was never heard of again nor was any trace of her ever found.
The widely acclaimed Taeping was Robert Steele's first composite tea clipper and one of the most famous of her breed. Built to the order of Alexander Rodger of Glasgow in 1863, she was registered at 767 tons and measured 183½ feet in length, with a 31 foot beam. Excelling in light winds, she made a very good maiden trip home with her first tea in 1864 despite being disabled in a typhoon off Formosa and being forced into Amoy for emergency repairs. Her equally good run home in 104 days in 1865 was eclipsed the very next year by her heroic 99 day race against Ariel when, only 10 minutes behind her running mate off the Downs, Taeping managed to dock in London 30 minutes ahead of her rival. So close was the finish that the race was declared a dead heat and the two vessels shared both the glory as well as the premium on the first tea cargo of the year. First home again in 1867 as well as in 1870, and recording a particularly fast passage in 1868, she was wrecked on Ladd's Reef in the South China Sea on 22nd September 1871.