Donald McKay
Donald McKay by Southworth & Hawes, c1850-1855.jpg
BornSeptember 4, 1810 (1810-09-04)
Jordan Falls, Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, Canada
DiedSeptember 20, 1880(1880-09-20) (aged 70)
OccupationShip Designer
Known forFlying Cloud
Spouse(s)Albenia Boole (married 1833–1848, until her death) and Mary Cressy Litchfield (m.1850)

Donald McKay (September 4, 1810 – September 20, 1880) was a Canadian-born American designer and builder of sailing ships, famed for his record-setting clippers.

Early life

He was born in Jordan Falls, Shelburne County, on Nova Scotia's South Shore. He was the oldest son and one of eighteen children of Hugh McKay, a fisherman and a farmer, and Ann McPherson McKay. Both of his parents were of Scottish descent. He was named after his grandfather, Captain Donald McKay, a British officer, who after the Revolutionary war moved to Nova Scotia from the Scottish Highlands.[1]

Early years as a shipbuilder

In 1826 McKay moved to New York, working for shipbuilders Brown & Bell and was an apprentice of Isaac Webb from 1827 to 1831.[2][1] After 1832 he did some freelance jobs for Webb and Smith & Dimon. McKay also freelanced for Brown & Bell at their Wescasset's shipyard. In 1840 at Newburyport, he was contracted to finish Delia Walker, 427 tons, for John Currier, Jr.[3] Currier was very impressed with McKay and offered him a five year contract, which McKay refused driven by desire to own his own business.[4]

In 1841, William Currier offered McKay to become a partner of what would become Currier & McKay shipyard in Newburyport. The partnership did not last long and soon McKay found himself in McKay & Pickett, building the packet St. George. The partnership with William Pickett was "pleasant and profitable", but after the success of the Joshua Bates the shipyard became too small for McKay's ambitions and he was convinced by Enoch Train to move to East Boston and open his own business.[4]

Ships built before 1845

East Boston shipyard

McKay Shipyard, East Boston, ca.1855
McKay Shipyard, East Boston, ca.1855

In 1845 McKay, as a sole owner, established his own shipyard on Border Street, East Boston, where he built some of the finest American ships for almost 25 years. One of his first large orders was building five large packet ships for Enoch Train's White Diamond line between 1845 and 1850.

Between 1845 and 1850 McKay built five large packet ships for Enoch Train's White Diamond line: Washington Irving, Anglo Saxon, Anglo American, Daniel Webster, and Ocean Monarch.[7] The Ocean Monarch was lost to fire on August 28, 1848, soon after leaving Liverpool and within sight of Wales; over 170 of the passengers and crew perished.[8] The Washington Irving carried Patrick Kennedy, grandfather of Kennedy family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., to Boston in 1849.

In the summer of 1851, McKay visited Liverpool and secured a contract to build four large ships for James Baines & Co.'s Australian trade: Lightning (1854), Champion of the Seas (1854), James Baines (1854), and Donald McKay (1855).[9]

Ships built after 1845

Records set

Late life

In 1869, under financial pressure from previous losses, McKay sold his shipyard and worked for some time in other shipyards. He retired to his farm near Hamilton, Massachusetts, spending the rest of his life there. He died in 1880 in relative poverty and was buried in Newburyport.[1]

Design practices

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McKay's designs were characterized by a long fine bow with increasing hollow and waterlines. He was perhaps influenced by the writings of John W. Griffiths, designer of the China clipper Rainbow in 1845. The long hollow bow helped to penetrate rather than ride over the wave produced by the hull at high speeds, reducing resistance as hull speed is approached. Hull speed is the natural speed of a wave the same length as the ship, in knots, , where LWL = Length of Water Line in feet. His hulls had a shorter afterbody, putting the center of buoyancy farther aft than was typical of the period, as well as a full midsection with rather flat bottom. These characteristics led to lower drag at high speed compared to other ships of similar length, as well as great stability which translated into the ability to carry sail in high winds (more power in extreme conditions). His fishing schooner design was even more radical than his clippers, being a huge flat-bottomed dinghy similar in form to 20th century planing boats. These design changes were not favorable for light wind conditions such as were expected on the China trade, but were profitable in the California and Australian trades.

Legacy and honors

Pan Am named one of their Boeing 747s Clipper Donald McKay in his honor.

There is a monument to McKay in South Boston, near Fort Independence, overlooking the channel, that lists all his ships. There were more than thirty ships listed.

His house in East Boston was designated a Boston Landmark in 1977[26] and is also on the National Register of Historic Places.

A memorial pavilion to McKay, including a painting of his famous “Flying Cloud,” can be found at Piers Park in East Boston.

McKay was inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame on November 9, 2019.[27]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Chase, Mary Ellen. Donald McKay and the clipper ships. Houghton Mifflin. OCLC 931945646.
  2. ^ McCutchan, Philip Tall Ships The Golden Age of Sail London Book Club Associates 1976 p.37
  3. ^ Strong, Charles Stanley (1957). The story of American sailing ships. New York: Grosset and Dunlap. pp. 98–99.
  4. ^ a b c d McKay, Richard C. (2011). Donald McKay and His Famous Sailing Ships. Dover Publications. ISBN 978-0486288208.
  5. ^ a b "Donald McKay Yard". Retrieved May 4, 2019.
  6. ^ Arthur H. Clark (1910). The Clipper Ship Era: An Epitome of Famous American and British, Clipper Ships, Their Owners, Builders, Commanders, and Crews. New York and London: The Knickerbocker Press.
  7. ^ Laxton, Edward The Famine Ships The Irish Exodus to America 1846–51 London Bloomsbury 1997 pp144–5 ISBN 0-7475-3500-0
  8. ^ Laxton, Edward op cit pp91–8
  9. ^ MacGregor, David R. (David Roy) (1988). Fast sailing ships : their design and construction, 1775–1875. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0870218956. OCLC 17899628.
  10. ^ Census Reports Tenth Census: June 1, 1880, Volume 8, p.72
  11. ^ "Ships built by Donald McKay". Retrieved May 4, 2019.
  12. ^ "United States Packet Ship New World 1404 tons register. Built at Boston, Mass. 1846 by Donald McKay". Europeana Collections. Retrieved May 4, 2019.
  13. ^ "United States Packet Ship New World 1404 tons register. Built at Boston, Mass. 1846 by Donald McKay – National Maritime Museum". Retrieved May 4, 2019.
  14. ^ "Ship Building in East Bsoton". Boston Evening Transcript (published as Daily Evening Transcript) (Boston, Massachusetts). January 1, 1848.
  15. ^ Edson, Merritt A.: Flying Fish Yard Lengths. Nautical Research Journal Vol. 27, Bethesda, 1981. p 43.
  16. ^ "San Francisco Commerce, Past, Present and Future". Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine. April 1888. p. 370. Retrieved December 23, 2016.
  17. ^ LAING, ALEXANDER (1944). Clipper Ship Men. DUELL SLOAN & PEARCE INC. p. 18.
  18. ^ "Star of Empire". Richmond Dispatch. May 27, 1857. p. 1.
  19. ^ ""Star of Empire" Currituck". New-York Tribune. May 9, 1857. p. 8.
  20. ^ McKay, Richard (1928). Some Famous Sailing Ships and Their Builder Donald McKay. New York.
  21. ^ Octavius T. Howe; Frederick G. Matthews (1986). American Clipper Ships 1833–1858. Vol. 1. New York. ISBN 0-486-25115-2.
  22. ^ "The New Packet Ship "Commodore Perry"".
  23. ^ McLean, Duncan: The New Clipper Donald McKay. The Boston Daily Atlas, Vol. XXIV, February 6, 1855
  24. ^ James S. Learmont (1957) Speed Under Sail, The Mariner's Mirror, 43:3, 225-231
  25. ^ Octavius T. Howe; Frederick G. Matthews (1986). American Clipper Ships 1833–1858. Vol. 1. New York. ISBN 0-486-25115-2.
  26. ^ Public Hearing on Donald McKay House. Boston, Massachusetts: Boston Landmarks Commission. 1977.
  27. ^ "Donald McKay, 2019 Inductee". Retrieved April 12, 2020.

Further reading