Sailing On The Seas With Tea

Sailing On The Seas With Tea

I have been sailing all my life. As an infant, I was strapped into a life jacket, tethered to a safety rail, and plopped on top of the sails in the bow of our family’s sailboat. As a teenager I was navigating through harbors, learning the water right of ways, and keeping the toe rails above the water line. I still carve out time to sail, and take sailing classes albeit a very busy life. My love of sailing is an inherited trait. My father taught me and continues to teach me about sailing. While he is selective on his sailing trips now and stays dockside more often than in the cockpit; his passion for sailing is still as strong as a “nor’ easter”. This history lesson regarding sailboats, and how they relate to tea, is in honor of my dad. 

A Long Sailing Trip 

Tea has been exported from China to auction houses in London, England for centuries. The first recorded London tea auction took place on March 11, 1679. Subsequently, teas were auctioned off in London quarterly per year. The last London tea auction was held on June 29, 1998. 

Tea was shipped in huge, floating warehouse boats called “tea wagons”. They were built deep and wide to maximize tea chest storage. The boats were very slow and cumbersome in the water. The sailboats, owned by the East India Company, would sail from Canton China to the port of London. In the best of weather, the journey from China to the port of London would take roughly a year to fifteen months. Depending on trade winds, the weather, and the distribution of weight in the boat, it may have taken even longer to sail to London. 

Tea, A Weighty Item 

Tea was packed in the hull of the ship, the below deck, or bottom part of the boat. Much like loading cargo in a plane, the loading of cargo in a ship is paramount to making the ship move in its intended manner. Ballast is the even distribution of weight displacement in a boat. The weight displacement enables the boat to sit upright in the water and move forward in a safe and uninhibited manner. Correct distribution of weight in the hull of the boat positively affects a boat’s maneuverability while under sail. The speed of the boat is adversely affected if the boat is leaning to one side (heeling), or if the back of the boat (stern) is sitting too low in the water, or if the front of the boat (bow) is sitting too low in the water. 

Tea shipped in wooden crates added weight to the boat, causing the boat to sit lower in the water than if the boat was empty. If the tea crates were stacked unevenly to one side of the boat, the boat would lean in that direction. The Chinese packed small drinking cups made of china, along with the tea cargo, in the hull of the boat. The drinking cups were used to add ballast to the boat, ensuring that the boat would sit properly in the water. Eventually, the small drinking cups became a much sought after item, and were sold along with the tea that was sent to auction. 

The Clipper Design 

One of the first American newly designed sailing ships, called the “Rainbow”, was introduced to the shipping trade in 1845. It was called a clipper ship. It was a sleek ship that looked more like a racing yacht than a cargo ship. The design of the front of the boat (the bow) was modified into a pointed and angular front that overhung the water and was made to cut through the water more efficiently. In addition, the sail area was increased, further adding speed to the boat. The speed of the boat was increased due to the design of the hull and added sail area, and could reach speeds up to 18 knots ( 20.7 miles per hour). If a clipper ship was fully rigged, it could sail around the Horn of Africa from Hong Kong half way to London in a record two month’s time. 

The clipper ships could carry increased cargo weight. The hull of the ship could carry over a million pounds of tea which was dependent on how the stevedores packed the cargo. Stevedores are also called longshoremen, and are people who pack and unload ships. The word is derived from a spanish estibador - “one who loads cargo”, and Latin stipare - “to pack down or press”. The only surviving example of a clipper ship is the “Cutty Sark” on exhibit in London, England. 

The Tea Sailing Races  

The invention of the clipper ships changed the course for sailing from ports of China to ports in London and The United States. The clipper ships were sleek and fast. They were known as the greyhounds of the sea. The “Great Republic” clipper ship cut the sailing time from China to New York in half. The boat could sail round trip from China to the East Coast of the United States in approximately eight months. British shipbuilders began to build their own clippers ships and in 1850, the Stornoway was launched in the water. The race was on! 

Clipper ship races took place from the mid 1800’s until 1871. The invention of the steam ship and the opening of the Suez Canal caused the cessation of the races. Numerous clipper ships would start the round trip race in the port of London. The ships would sail to Fouchow (now Fujian Province) where tea was ready for shipping several months earlier than in Canton China, load the tea cargo, and sail back to the port of London. 

It was a great spectacle in London watching the boats sail into port. Often people would watch, dockside, to see which boat would win the race. Bets were placed on the clipper ships prior to leaving the port of London for the round trip race. The captain of the winning ship, along with the winning crew, would receive prize money. 

Shipping Today 

Tea races may not occur today like they did in the mid 1800’s but a race of sorts is still on to bring tea from the gardens to the consumer in the quickest way possible. Shipping tea now includes airplanes as well as boats. While tea garden owners may not receive a bag of silver or gold for implementing the quickest form of shipping tea from garden to store or home; they are rewarded with happy repeat customers who are pleased with fresh tea sent to their tea business or home. For a tea garden owner, that is just as beneficial as a silk purse full of coins awarded to them due to a fast sailing race against time. 

May you have smooth sailing, calm waters and copious amounts of tea in your life,



Hohenegger, Beatrice. Liquid Jade: The Story Of Tea From East To West. St. Martin’s Press, 2006. 

Pettigrew, Jane. The Tea Companion: A Connoisseur’s Guide. Running Press, 2004. Pettigrew, Jane and Bruce Richardson. A Social History Of Tea. Benjamin Press, 2014. Pratt, James Norwood. Tea Dictionary. Tea Society Press, 2010. 


About the Author

Leslie Sundberg is a World Tea Academy Certified Tea Specialist, a World Tea Academy Apprentice Tea Sommelier, a Specialty Tea Institute Levl IV trained Tea Specialist, and a Tea and Business Etiquette Specialist. On any given day, Leslie can be found teaching, speaking or sharing in the joys of a cup of tea.  No matter what Leslie is doing or where she is, one thing remains constant: 4:00 in the afternoon is tea time!

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