The Marco Polo, The World’s Fastest Clipper Ship

The Marco Polo at full sail

The Marco Polo, The World’s Fastest Clipper Ship

In 1851, the Marco Polo was launched in Saint John as a 3-masted clipper ship. During her launch, her keel became stuck in a mudflat, causing her hull to fall on its side. After six days of effort and the help of a high tide, she was refloated upright. She soon grounded again in the shallow waters of Marsh Creek, where she was stuck for two weeks before being floated free and fitted with rigging.

Typical of ships built in New Brunswick, the Marco Polo was intended to be sold after her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. However, her investors made a considerable profit by loading her with New Brunswick timber, which found a ready market in Britain. The timber-laden ship sailed from Saint John to Liverpool in 15 days and was bought by the Black Ball Line to transport passengers from Liverpool to Australia. On her first voyage, she made the passage in 76 days and set a record as the first roundtrip to be achieved in under 6 months. 

The Marco Polo

As the fastest clipper ship in the world, the Marco Polo made several voyages to Australia, delivering a healthy profit to the Black Ball Line. However, on a voyage in 1861, she hit an iceberg off Cape Horn and was repaired in Valparaiso, Chile. Despite the stopover, she managed to make the passage from Melbourne, Australia to Liverpool in 183 days. It was speculated that the extraordinary speed of the Marco Polo was due to some twisting of her keel during her launch in Saint John.

After serving on the Australian run, the Marco Polo was converted into a cargo vessel in 1867. On July 25, 1883, loaded with timber from Quebec, she sprang a leak just off the coast of Prince Edward Island. The pumps were unable to keep up with the inflow of water, so the ship was intentionally grounded on Cavendish Beach. Her masts were removed in an attempt to keep her from being driven further ashore, but a strong wind arose, causing the ship to break up. 

Marco Polo billboard in Sint John

Today the Marco Polo is commemorated as one of the highlights in the Saint John’s history. The story of the famous clipper ship has also reached a wide audience through a story written by the Prince Edward Island author Lucy Maud Montgomery when she was just 16 years old. 

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