Running Her Easting Down is an overview of the life and times of the great tea clippers of the 19th century. It was written by William F. Baker (not to be confused with the engineer who designed the Burj Khalifa), an entrepreneur and businessman who decided to take his model-ship building hobby to the next level.
The back cover reads, “to see [Cutty Sark] with her sticks almost scraping the clouds in the center of modern-day London was, to my mind’s eye, an awe-inspiring sight. My first thoughts were here is the last vestige of a glorious era; this ship I must someday model.” His interest in researching the Cutty Sark turned him from hobbyist to author, the result being Running Her Easting Down.
The term “Running Her Easting Down” refers to the intense sailing required in the “Roaring Forties” of the southern hemisphere. After rounding the southern tip of Africa, clippers would race through the ice-strewn seas between 40 and 50 degrees latitude, battling enormous waves and extreme winds that angled the ship drastically in the water.
Baker relates a story from C. Fox Smith where the captain of the tea clipper Thermopylae at the end of her record-breaking maiden voyage Melbourne to London, pointed to the ship’s rail and said to the pilot:
“Do you see that?’
“Yes,” replied the pilot , not a little surprised.
“So do I,” replied Captain Kemball, “for the first time since leaving China!”
This book was published in 1974 some 50 years after Basil Lubbock’s Log of the Cutty Sark and 20 years after MacGregor’s The Tea Clippers, where Lubbock is surveying uncharted seas and MacGregor fills in the outline with color and detail, Baker is treading water, with a few notable exceptions.
Running Her Easting Down has wide margins and very little text, giving the entire book a kind of “coffee table” feel. For enthusiastic readers who want to make lots of notes in the margins this won’t be a problem. The best feature this book has to offer are the rare photographs. Even today with internet image searches and instant archive access, I had never seen some of these photos before. It is one thing to hear thirty mile icebergs described in a captain’s log, it is another to see them in photographs taken by Captain Woodget himself.
Of particular note is the photo of the jury rudder from the famous race between Thermopylae and Cutty Sark and several shots of her under full sail at sea.
Running Her Easting Down does not pretend to be a book of academic historical scholarship, technical sailing schematics, or an all-inclusive account of the voyages that made these vessels famous. It does a fair job of explaining the significance of these ships to the average layman land-lubber, and throws in character details about what life was like at sea for the men who sailed them.
At times it felt like Baker was hugging the shore of authors who had come before him, not bringing as much original detail to the narrative as I would like, but perhaps that was never his intention. This book is a great starter for anyone interested in the Cutty Sark, the 19th century clippers, and the final majestic voyages of the golden age of sail.
I maintain a Twitter account that follows the history of the Cutty Sark and the famous tea clipper races in real-time. Please follow @CuttySarkLog by clicking here.
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