The Thermopylae is certainly less known than the Cutty Sark, but it is nonetheless one of the legends impossible to circumvent of the time of the Clippers; It is actually she who detains the palm of the fastest tea clipper worldwide, winning the golden cock, breaking all established records, and motivating the rival company owner of the Cutty Sark to built another clipper. These two ships made the headlines, as their fierce regattas were popular.
The Thermopylae was born in 1868 at Walter Hood & Co. of Aberdeen, for the shipowner Georges Thompson who wanted nothing less than to hold the monopoly of the tea trade thanks to the fastest clippers... 65 m (hull alone) in lenght, 22 inches wide and 6.40 m of draft, entirely constructed of oak wood on a steel frame, typical of the British merchant shipbuilding, with a pine deck (the Cutty Sark Teak), it had the lower hull covered with brass tiles, to counteract the action of marine pests. This clipper was an elegant three-masted ship with a very long bowsprit, bearing the whole at about 78 m, but her bow was not cut clean but rounded, which was relatively unusual for the time. She wore three square rigged masts with 27 sails, not counting bonnettes.
Her name was less esoteric than that of his future rival, for it was that of the most brilliant feat of arms of ancient times, the famous battle which was waged in 480 BC. Jc. Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans at the "hot gates" to prevent the armies of Xerxes from entering Greece. Victorian England was at that time fond of Greek culture and admired the Athenian thallassocracy. Queen Victoria was often depicted in Athena (Britannia), which naturally adorned the Clipper's stem. Athena was also a prominent figurehead for British navy ships, such as the first iron battleship, the HMS Warrior.
On her first voyage, under the orders of Captain Robert Kinball, the clipper pulverized the record of the Gravesend-Melbourne crossing in 63 days. She then made a direct link from Melbourne to Hong Kong, setting another record, the beginning of a long series that made her construction fully profitable. This was at this time that the Cutty Sark was launched. At the time of their first awaited confrontation on the Shanghai-London line, the Thermopylae was already beaten when the Cutty Sark broke its rudder, which allowed her rival to catch up and arrive 7 days before him. Never did the Cutty Sark succeed in beating the Thermopylae in later races, and she won the title of fastest clipper in the world, with speeds equaled only by yachts.
But progress was unrelentless, and with the opening of the Suez Canal, tea clippers became less profitable. The last "tea race" took place in almost general indifference in 1877, and it was the swan song for the Thermopylae. It was sold to the Ross & Co., remained partially inactive, then moved to Reford in Montreal in 1890, being converted into a precious woods cargo for five years before being again inactive and being bought back 1895 by the Portuguese government, which made her a school-ship for its navy, under the name of Pedro Nunes.
We do not really know how the glorious clipper ended. The most common official version was that it was converted into a target ship and torpedoed during an exercise in 1906. For others, she ended as a target at a party given in honor of a King, and according to others, she ran aground on the reefs of the lighthouse of Green Point off the Cape of Good Hope. This simple statement contrasts with the saving of the Cutty Sark, which passed to posterity as sole survivor of this epic tale, rejecting in the shadow all the others clippers.