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Clipper Wars

by Steve Dahill 8 Feb 12:49 PST
A new novel - Clipper Wars © Steve Dahill

A Race to the California Gold Rush! Entire Fortunes Bet on the Winning Ship. Gambling, Murder and Fighting Captains Vying for Glory

"Pirates never retire!" declares Boston author and sailor, Steve Dahill as he delivers his sequel, Clipper Wars in his historical fiction Age of Sail historical fiction trilogy. In Clipper Wars, the world's greatest sailing race crosses the oceans in Clipper Wars’ competition for gold, status, and revenge. At the height of the California Gold Rush, New England and New York families join a deadly race from New York to San Francisco aboard extreme clipper ships, the largest, fastest sailing ships ever built.

Clipper Wars follows the lives of venal captains, ruthless pirates, and fearless sailors, and vying for revenge and redemption, Gant and Briggs from Dahill’s seminal novel, Secrets of Mary Celeste (2023). Calamity and the ultimate prize await the driven clipper captain who reaches the Golden Gate first after a 17,000-mile voyage around treacherous Cape Horn and two continents. Which unscrupulous competitors sacrifice everything to win the Great Chase of Clipper Wars?

Author Q&A Video Interview with Author Steve Dahill and his Editor, Ghia Truesdale. Duration seven minutes.

Author and sailor, Steve Dahill lives in Marion and Boston, Massachusetts overlooking Boston Harbor and the USS Constitution. He is a direct descendant of the privateer brother of Revolutionary War hero John Barry cited as the Father of the United States Navy. He is also a direct descendant of revered Irish rebels hanged by the British during 1798 uprising. Dahill’s Age of Sail historical fiction trilogy explores the violent adventures of 19th-century American smugglers, privateers, slave traders, and clipper ship captains.

After a career as an executive in the software industry, Dahill sails his family’s racing sailboat, Riva, along the Southern New England coast, crewed by his wife and three daughters. Readers will find strong female protagonists throughout Dahill’s Age of Sail trilogy wherein New England’s leading families vie for dominance in the exploding 19th-century American seafaring economy. Secrets of the Mary Celeste (2023), his debut novel, is followed by Clipper Wars (2024) and Privateer published by JumpMaster Press. Steve Dahill also delivers an engaging interview and lively presentation whether in person or Zoom. The author has most recently lectured at Beverly Yacht Club, The Sippican Historical Society, Hull Lifesaving Museum, and other Northeastern Corridor locations.

In Steve Dahill’s seminal work, Secrets of Mary Celeste he immerses readers in one the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries: What happened to the crew of sailing ship, Mary Celeste? This tragedy inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to leave his job as a ship’s surgeon and write mysteries featuring the world’s most famous consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. Fans of Patrick O'Brian and C.S. Forrester seafaring adventures love Dahill’s debut novel wherein he reveals unsolved secrets behind the Mary Celeste’s heiress namesake, and desperate players vying to recover the ship.

When the ship Mary Celeste is found adrift off the Azores Islands, Mary Celeste Briggs’ devoted son, Alexander, unaware that his father has absconded with the entire family fortune, hires a ruthless smuggler to rescue his family. The smuggler ship captain learns of the Briggs fortune hidden aboard ship and aims to steal it. Will he succeed, or will his fiery green-eyed daughter Pricilla Gant help Alexander Briggs outwit the unscrupulous Captain Gant in a desperate race to save the missing family?

Excerpt from Clipper Wars - Cape Horn Sailing Scene

Flying Spirit

August 2, 1850. Winds increased to a heavy blow on a bowline. The Horn is expected within this watch off our starboard bow. The captain rests comfortably. I have plotted a course from yesterday’s sighting and have factored in tide, current, wind, and drift. We have not had any sighting of Banshee nor any of the other clippers in our chase, a chase that for us is over. We must round the Horn quickly and lay a course to Valparaíso. We are in a chase of a different sort. I must get the captain ashore. Soon.

“On deck, ahoy! A sail to the east!”

David Noah had a strong voice and the entire ship’s company on deck heard him and rushed aft to see what they could. There was about one hour of daylight left and the clouds broke, those closest to the water where the air was warmer and atmosphere more rushed and disrupted. Eleanor had a decision to make?wear ship to the north first then swing around in order to head southerly, with enough sea room to clear the Horn once sighted, or tack in the freshening wind and risk a failed maneuver or even if done smartly, risk the rig. Flying Spirit sailed uncomfortably restricted with only fore, main, and mizzen topsails full. Her hull tracked steady—a large ship and heavy?she handled the seas with composure. Eleanor had the crew strike the main topmast earlier to lower the ship’s center of gravity as she anticipated the turn.

That maneuver exhausted the energy of the last watch, now relieved except for her and the second mate, bone weary, barely clinging to their post. Huan Wu and three of his men also rested, men with muskets exacerbating the fear every soul on board felt: if they drove too near Cape Horn after darkness descended, they might not have the time nor room to clear it safely.

“Where, pray tell?” Eleanor screamed using the speaking trumpet through the wind.

“Five miles or more astern. Our tack. To leeward, two miles.”

Good lad, she thought-everything she needed in one gulp of air.

“Aye!” she responded. “Watch if they turn!”

The clouds and fog closed in again. This might be their only sighting; it must do. What action would her father take? She peered through the clouds?the whitecaps to the south appeared a non-stop maelstrom of spray and wave tops broken from their mass under. It was an ugly grey sea between their ship and Antarctica. Their current course, however, more to windward and the north, revealed seas decidedly less violent. The ship must have entered the lee protection of the nearing Cape and its mountains; a turn away would be necessary, the question: how soon? And how far necessary to clear?

She rushed below for one last look at her charts and thought of the weeks in Willy Harrison’s arms. He had lied to her?it was beyond doubt. And she determined it would be hard, if not untenable, to forgive him for that. Yet was he a killer on top of being a liar and fortune-hunter? Would he send ships of men and boys to their death for gold and glory? Would he have deliberately altered this chart showing the most critical navigation hazard in the entire world just to gain an advantage in this foolish race?

She thought of the times when his eyes told her she could count on him if all else in her world fell apart; when his strong arms held her, first when she was a girl and then again these past months, arms that were tanned and strong and did not give way to doubt or betray a weakness of spirit. Willy would never betray her; that was her final conclusion. He gave her charts he believed true. She would trust the charts, the headings, the recommendations, and the soundings. If he meant for her to die at sea, he would not have provided her with funds for the voyage; she would not have believed in the depths of his sighs.

He might be a liar and an opportunist, but he was not despicable like her father. Her husband, the captain of Flying Spirit, her Robert had reassured her to trust her navigation; she would also trust Willy Harrison. She needed some other sign, however. It must come from Banshee. Captain Gant would send it to her. Her father hated a lee shore and would not wait for one to dictate his course. Eleanor reached the deck just as David’s distinctive voice was heard by everyone on deck:

“Deck ahoy! The Banshee is falling away from the wind...” No one spoke. “She has a new course heading north. She is wearing ship, ma’am!”

Eleanor calculated quickly. Banshee was south of Flying Spirit. The rocks they both must avoid lay to the north. Banshee had more sea room for the maneuver than she. Her father would not have waited for the last moment?he would not have given up to blind faith. Eleanor believed that Captain Gant would turn while he was sure he had enough room to make the turn. In these conditions, wearing ship?jibing away from the wind?would take one half mile or more. Gant would make sure Banshee had that one half mile. Flying Spirit might not.

“All hands on deck! We shall wear ship! Smartly now, boys. We must cover Banshee. But she’s got more sea room than us, so we must turn away sharply. Do you hear me?”

Eleanor heard more than a few men and boys shouting, “Aye!”

“Mr. Wu! I need my full complement of crewmen for this maneuver. Our lives depend on it-release them! I need all your men too!”

“So, they must drop their weapons and face your men who outnumber them five to one? Do you think people from my country are stupid?” Wu glared back at the woman devil.

“Your men will drown in the same seawater as mine if we do not make this turn! I do not have time to argue?release my people or prepare to die! After, they will return to their captivity, you have my word!”

Wu looked through the fog and haze and could not see danger. Was this a ploy? Likely. He wanted more than a fanqui woman’s promises.

“I need more than your word!” shouted Wu.

“Then here, come behind me, take out your knife and hold it to my throat-if any of my people fight with you or your men, cut my throat, deep and to the bone?take my life! Will that suffice?”

Wu felt foolish as he obediently took his position behind her. He held his knife close to her face but did not press it upon her delicate skin. The Americans had heard and seen all, so too the Chinamen though most did not understand the foreign tongue. Wu shouted a few commands in Mandarin and Yankee crewmen soon after staggered to the deck, the mate telling them the score, and pointed to Eleanor, and Wu holding his knife. Eleanor turned and stared at Wu with dangerous eyes yet asking the question: Would you really murder the one person who can save this ship tonight? He backed away but kept his knife out and at the ready. She glared at him and then down at his knife. Wu slid it into his shirt and bowed.

The effort to wear a clipper ship - to change tacks, to turn the ship away from the wind, around in a complete circle with wind constantly in the sails and powering the ship forward and then around?took less preparation than a tack. The maneuver required far more sea room, however. Far out in the ocean with hundreds of leagues of deep open water on every side, it was a move most captains of square-riggers preferred. Wearing ship saved sails and spars from possible damage from a tack when sails and lines flew momentarily loose in ferocious winds. In tight quarters, however, such as a rounding against a lee shore to wear ship, was an extraordinary risk.

Weighed against tacking in the approaching gale to the south, or tacking and falling backwards without seaway or control, wearing ship was a risk that Eleanor as well as her father on Banshee were prepared to take. But did Flying Spirit have enough navigable water to the north? Banshee believed so having started her turn from a position two miles further south and farther away from the unseen danger the charts showed clear and near.

“Douse stay’sls!” cried Eleanor, and the turn began.

Men removed lines, buntlines and the like from their pins along the mast partners and the bulwarks. Lines were carefully faked, or checked by coiling, to ensure no snags. Most of the crew without instruction ran to their stations-a third of the men fore, a third at the mainmast, the rest aft at the mizzen mast and spanker boom. Two men were hauling the mizzen and main stay sails-jib-like sails between masts-as fast as a runaway bull.

“Mizzen, set preventer!” cried Eleanor McFay.

Her men secured the huge, thirty-foot-long boom tying the preventer line tight to far side of the deck in the event the huge gaff rigged sail was tempted to jibe on her own-a violent misfortune that could take the mizzen mast down with it. Commands came aft from the section captains in competent order.

“Fore manned!”

“Main manned!”

“Mizzen manned!”

The crew ready, Eleanor, however, felt apprehensive. She had seen this done many times. The sequence was the key: the crew must adjust the yardarms in unison. Five men hoisted the massive mainsail by its yard, cleared it, and secured it out of the way waiting for the turn.

“Wear-O!” Eleanor shouted firmly. There is no need to sound alarmed, she reminded herself. Only our lives depend on it. “Helm to starboard!” And Flying Spirit swung north. The men instinctively understood their crucial role?to trim and pull the braces from one side of the ship to the other, keeping the yards straight and sails simultaneously filled with wind and aligned to each other. Thankfully, they only had three square sails set so the turn was less complicated than if they had fifteen or more yards to brace home. “Keep’em together!” Eleanor shouted, alarmed that the mizzen topsail appeared to be moving faster than the fore or main topsails.

If they trimmed too fast, if the sails were brought in further than her intended new course, the men would struggle to trim them against the full force of the wind that blew cold and fierce with notions to strengthen. The ice-crusted sheets holding the clew of each sail were trimmed tight and the ship prepared to head back up-wind. They had not yet reached the edge of her far northerly course.

“Breakers ahead!”

What Eleanor had most feared?they were too close to shore!

“What room have we?” she screamed. Damn it, I let my cursed fears show to the world!

“Less than a quarter of a mile!” came the equally frantic response.

Good, I am not the only one terrified. Eleanor turned to the two helmsmen. “How goes your rudder?”

“It’s holding, ma’am. It’s a sturdy one.”

Again, clarifying information she needed. They believed the rudder could take more pressure. If the rudder, its post, or steering cables failed, they would be on the rocks. Her husband built this ship strong, she reminded herself?his rudder would not fail under even the strain of Cape Horn.

“Ease main and fore braces!” She needed to catch more wind, turn sharper. “Helm-over hard! All the way!”

The men on the braces let the yards slide forward ten feet and the two sturdy sailors on the helm cried for help. Two others joined them and then a third. Five men struggled with the wheel forcing it to fight the swirling water, the force of wind and wave against a hull that did not want to go in the direction they needed. Eleanor stared at the breaking water, closer than she had feared in even a worst case. Rocks were only one hundred yards ahead. The ship did not have room to clear!

“Costa, Bartley-take axes and go below and cut all the binders on the cargo on the port side-we must have ballast to starboard, hear me? Fast!” The two men disappeared. The rudder was over all the way. Flying Spirit lay closer and closer to her gunnels; the green water now enveloped the entire deck from stem to stern and the main yard was nearly in the ocean. “Secure and batten down all hatches!” cried Eleanor and ten men jumped to pound in the strips of maple that secured the tarpaulin covers to the catches and companionways. Still the ship leaned as it turned. “Helm?”

“Nothin’ more there, ma’am! She’s all the way over!”

“Hoist main’sls and jibs! Flying jib, as well. We must get the bow around faster!”

The additional sails made a difference: the bow swung even closer to the rocks yet started to fall away at the same time. They were within a hull’s length from either clearing or hitting. From below deck, a crash was heard even above the breaking water?the cargo had let go, falling to starboard, to their heeling side with such a motion that the ship nearly lay on her side. In doing so, her keel raised another ten feet from the depths. The ship was nearly on her beam ends, and still she tracked. Eleanor remembered her husband’s distracted description of how he built his new rudders?with enough depth and strength to hold the water, to keep the ship on course even if, in a typhoon or hurricane, an unexpected wave pulled her over further than any captain would have sailed her.

Even if she was pulled over, somehow she was able to stay on course, steady and in control. Robert McFay’s rudder did its job, masterfully: the ship did not wallow or lose way. Flying Spirit finished her jibe in her own hull’s length and the crew on the port side could see with their naked eyes the rocks to leeward that they had missed by twenty-five feet. Flying Spirit trimmed onto her new course, headed away from the north, with enough room now to clear Cape Horn.

As she turned, dark gray clouds broke. Isla Horne suddenly rose from the gloom, streaking out like a dull, gnarly curbstone, wordlessly warning them to stay away. The ship was not yet out of danger. As soon as they cleared the Cape and were again in open ocean, the swells would grow to thirty feet or more, enough to bury the clipper’s bow with each surge. The wind screamed and the dark came down like a woolen blanket over a terrified child’s head. They would need to sail another two hundred miles west until they could safely turn north. It would be a dreadful two-hundred-mile stretch with no rest for crew or passengers, whether prisoner or guard. Banshee suddenly appeared out of the gloom?less than two miles distant and closing, strangely now less a threat than a reminder. Eleanor turned to Wu and then to the deck full of exhausted men.

“Larboard watch will go below!” she cried. “Obey the Chinamen-give them no quarrel and they will do the same. We will disembark in Valparaíso and be set free...” She turned to Wu. “…if our guests are the men of honor they claim to be.”

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Salient points for the Age of Sail Trilogy by Steve Dahill - Debut novel, Secrets of Mary Celeste, and sequel, Clipper Wars

• Boston’s own Steve Dahill crafted an “Age of Sail” 19th-century historical fiction trilogy teeming with smugglers, privateers, captains, and daring female heroines

• Page-turners in the spirit of sea-faring novels from C.S. Forrester (Captain Horatio Hornblower) and Patrick O’Brian (Master and Commander)

• Dahill’s “Age of Sail” trilogy is a family saga of greed, passion, friendship, and coming of age

• Fast-paced, intriguing stories wherein every major character hides secrets that may decide the outcome: a rescue in the nick of time, or a tragedy.

• Dahill’s stories set brother against brother, father against daughter, while loathsome principal characters heighten tensions.

• Tales of violence and suspense set far out at sea without any possible escape.

• Dahill’s Age of Sail trilogy depicts the exciting, dangerous life in the 19th century when American commerce exploded and enormous family fortunes were built from violent trades such as smuggling, slaving, and privateering.

• Steve Dahill is a direct descendant of a Revolutionary War privateer captain, Thomas Barry, whose ship foundered as he brought supplies to George Washington from France in 1778. Thomas’ brother was a Revolutionary War naval hero, Captain John Barry, often called “Father of the United States Navy”.

Book #2 Clipper Wars: The world's greatest sailing race shreds 117,000 miles of ocean

• Clipper ships, the largest, fastest sailing ships ever built, compete for gold, prominence, and revenge.

• At the height of the California Gold Rush, the Gant and Briggs families race to the death from New York to San Francisco aboard extreme clipper ships

• Follow the lives of venal captains, ruthless pirates, and tainted sailors

• Calamity and the ultimate prize await the lucky clipper captain who reaches the Golden Gate after a 17,000-mile voyage around treacherous Cape Horn.

• Which unscrupulous competitors will sacrifice everything to win the Clipper Wars?

• Sequel to Secrets of Mary Celeste

Book #1 Secrets of Mary Celeste: A ghost ship discovered abandoned far out at sea

• One of the world’s top-10 unsolved mysteries

• Inspired by an actual Massachusetts ship and its missing crew

• A young man ventures to sea to find and rescue his lost family.

• But the rescue ship he hires is run by an avaricious smuggler intending to steal the family fortune hidden aboard Mary Celeste.

• Only the captain’s beguiling daughter and a former slave can help him.

• An innocent young woman fends off both her violent father and a despicable mate while she tries to aid a young man she just met aboard her father’s ship.

Author Steve Dahill’s Historical Notes

Most Americans or their descendants (noteworthy exception: indigenous peoples) including those forcibly enslaved and transported from Africa and the West Indies came to America by ship.

Most trade, until the building of the highway system in the mid-20th century, was done via watercraft: sailing ships large and small, barges along canals, skiffs, and dories. The American economy was built on merchant sailing ships and the armed naval ships that protected them.

The U.S. government raised money primarily from tariffs on traded goods until the 20th century, which resulted in a huge industry of smugglers, thieves, and privateers.

Women often accompanied their husbands or fathers on sailing voyages. Entire families sometimes lived on board for years.

Sailing ships were wrecked and sunk on a regular basis—sailing was hazardous and in places like Vineyard Sound and Wellfleet in Massachusetts, Long Island, Sable Island, and the treacherous Cape Hatteras, thousands of ships were sunk, many with all hands. To this day—all along the East Coast of the United States—ships’ ribs sometimes stick out of the beach sand.

Pirates of all nationalities were common on every ocean—not just in the Caribbean Sea—and aggressively hunted unarmed merchant ships from all nations.

Many powerful and respectable New England and New York merchant families owned and operated slave ships as well as ships that traded opium into China that caused wars and addicted millions. Britain expanded both trades, but Americans also played a major supporting role as Britain’s leading competitor in illicit global trade.

Recommended American and British novels were written about or influenced by our common sailing heritage:

• Moby Dick by Herman Melville

• The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

• Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

• The Aubrey/Maturin Novels by Patrick O’Brian

• Captain Horatio Hornblower novels by C.S. Forrester—Winston Churchill’s favorite

• The Lively Lady by Kenneth Roberts

• As well as non-fiction books about Admiral Horatio Nelson, the USS Constitution, Captain Paul Jones, or Commodore John Barry

• Non-fiction books by Nantucket’s Nathaniel Philbrick

• The Wager by David Grann

• Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy by Ian W. Toll

• Nelson: The Sword of Albion by John Sugden

• John Barry, An American Hero in the Age of Sail by Tim McGrath

• Rebels at Sea by Eric Jay Dolin

• Barons of the Sea by Steven Ujifusa

40-minute version of the interview with Steve Dahill

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