April 16 2011
One of the things about getting older is that I am running out of things to give up; traditional intemperate habits such as the large-scale consumption of intoxicants have long been absent from my life and now I am down to toying with the idea of quitting coffee in favour of tea. I have actually managed to abandon the bean for the leaf for a period of around six months before now, but the exhilaration of the espresso creeps back into my life, just one in the morning, then two, and by the time I am at one or other of the watch fairs I am guzzling thimbleful after thimbleful of the stuff. I suppose that this creeping reconquest of one’s life by a stimulant is what cigarette smokers who wish to stop must go through.
I suppose I was trying to alter my choice of hot beverage, using the pursuit of serenity, when in fact I would have been far more motivated by snobbery. I have always found glamour or drama more persuasive than equanimity or tranquillity, so while my choice of green tea, either Sencha or the more evocatively named gunpowder, may be among the least sensational beverage to pass my lips, I have at last found a tale of excitement to make every pot I brew and cup I drink just that little bit more interesting: the Tea Derby.
As a man of the world, I thought I really ought to improve my knowledge of sailing vessels and this lacuna in my knowledge became critical when someone told me they had a Bermudian ketch and I responded by saying I did not know that they were keen on cricket (ketch-catch; geddit?). What vestigial knowledge I have of the sea is a relic of my drinking career. After Captains Birdseye and Pugwash, the only other mariner who played much of a part in my life was Captain Morgan, and my knowledge of sailing craft could be summed up in two words: Cutty Sark.
Of course, clippers used to take part in the Tea Derby, the competition between the fastest vessels of the China tea trade to bring the season’s first crop of tea to London. The serving of the first cuppa of new season at smart tea parties was of course all the go in society. As well as the glory, the winning vessel was awarded a bonus for every ton of freight delivered, and the captain of the winning tea clipper was given a percentage of the ship’s earnings. National interest was intense; there was clearly nothing on the telly in those days so a thirsty nation became obsessed with the rapid delivery of tea.
The 1860s saw the rise of the “extreme clipper” and in 1863 a new type of composite construction, part wood, part iron, appeared, promising even more spectacular performance. These were the fastest commercial sailing vessels ever built and competition peaked in 1866, with heavy bets on the outcome.
In 1866, nine ships laden with the first tea of the season left Fuzhou between May 29 and June 6 – each hoping to be the first into port in London. The race took the winners just over 100 days, and three-quarters of the way around the world: crossing the South China Sea, passing through the Strait of Indonesia, across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, and up the Atlantic Ocean to the English Channel. Incredibly, the three leaders docked within minutes of each other
Under the headline “The Great Tea Race of 1866”, The Daily Telegraph of September 12 reported that the leading ships “sailed almost neck-and-neck the whole way, and finally arrived in the London docks within two hours of each other. A struggle more closely contested or more marvellous in some of its aspects has probably never before been witnessed.”
The Cutty Sark was launched in 1869, which, poignantly, was the year that the clippers’ suzerainty of the seas collapsed. The Suez Canal opened and steam triumphed over sail – carefully located coaling stations, such as that held by the British at Aden, meant that steamships could compete commercially; until then the cost and quantity of coal needed to sustain a steamship on a long voyage in open seas had made the carriage of a commercial cargo a financial impracticality.
Given that I am using the glamour and romance of those days of sail to urge me to drink more tea, I am naturally ignoring the fact that China clippers first appeared in the early 19th century to service the opium trade, running cargoes of the drug between India and China at speed. While I can of course appreciate the irony of using the fastest vessel to deliver the “slowest” of drugs, having been able to give up coffee, it would be taking tranquillity to an extreme if I were to sink into the Lethe-like embrace of the Romantic poets’ drug of choice.