On the Water

Rigged Model, Extreme Gold Rush Clipper Challenge

The extreme clipper ship Challenge was built at New York by the famous shipbuilder William H. Webb. At its launch in May 1851, the $150,000 Challenge was the largest merchant ship ever built, measuring 227 feet in length by 42 feet in beam and 2006 tons. The high length:beam ratio of 5.4:1 was what made the three-decker an extreme clipper, and it set a few speed records over the course of its working life.

The Challenge was expected to set a record on its maiden voyage, and Capt. Robert H. Waterman was offered a $10,000 bonus if he could drive the ship to San Francisco in under 90 days. He pushed his 60-man crew hard, but poor weather and a mutiny by 50 crewmen off Rio slowed the Challenge to a 108-day trip. The mutiny and the unrelated death of seven crew on that maiden voyage gave the ship a bad reputation. Capt. Waterman was relieved of his command after reaching San Francisco, but the next master had to pay a signing bonus of $200 to lure new crewmen aboard for a China trip. Another mutiny on this second leg of the maiden voyage occurred as well—testament to how driven these men were to sail hard and fast.

Over the next decade as a China clipper, an additional mutiny, widespread crew illnesses, frequent dismastings and leaks, and other events cemented the bad reputation of the vessel. It was sold to its captain for $9,350 in 1861. The Challenge changed hands a few more times before sinking off the Brittany coast in February 1877.

ID Number:
TR*326530
Designer:
Webb, William H.
Maker:
Arthur G. Henning Inc.
Date:
1965
Dimensions:
48 x 72 x 18 in.; 121.92 x 182.88 x 45.72 cm