OTD: Marco Polo declared ‘fastest ship in the world’

On today’s date in 1852, the Canadian-built clipper ship Marco Polo completed her round-trip voyage between England and Australia in only five months and 21 days.

According to Historica Canada, it was the first time the voyage had been completed in fewer than six months, and the Marco Polo became widely known as the fastest ship in the world.

Built in Saint John, N.B., the ship was named after Italian merchant Marco Polo, who was born in the Republic of Venice and known for his far-reaching travels.

In 2001, the Royal Canadian Mint featured the Marco Polo on a $20 silver hologram coin as part of its Transportation on Land, Sea and Rail collection. The Proof coin has a mintage of 41,828, a diameter of 38 mm and a weight of 31.1 grams.

More recently, the Mint issued a one-ounce pure gold coin with a face value of $200. This 2016 Proof gold coin has a mintage of 275, a diameter of 30 mm and a weight of 31.16 grams.

Designed by Canadian artist Neil Hamelin, the coin features a three-quarter port-side view of the iconic Canadian sailing vessel. The fastest clipper in her day, the Marco Polo is depicted on an oceanic voyage under full sail. With the wind filling her billowing sails, the sight of Marco Polo‘s masts rising up into the sky adds a regal grandeur to this portrait of the wooden vessel as her bow cuts through the water.

A $200 gold coin was also issued by the Mint in 2016.


Once hailed as the “fastest ship in the world,” the Saint John, N.B.-built Marco Polo was one of many to come out of the Maritimes throughout the 19th century. In 1875, about 500 ships were built in Canada. Three years later, Canada had a merchant fleet of more than 7,000 vessels and ranked fourth in the world among ship-owning nations.

Time was a valuable commodity for trans-Atlantic traders, and ship speed was of crucial importance. Launched on April 17, 1851, the Marco Polo was created by James Smith to have the body of a cargo ship above the water line and the configuration of a much-faster clipper ship below. Smith was one of the first builders to meld the two designs. It was, of course, named after the great Italian merchant of the same name.


On May 31, 1851, the Marco Polo left Saint John, N.B., for Liverpool and set a record by making the passage in 15 days. The ship has been the subject of several paintings, and one, by marine artist J. Franklin Wright, was commissioned by Canada Post for this stamp, which shows the Marco Polo under sail and leaving Saint John.

Marco Polo, the man, died on Jan. 8, 1324 at the age of 69.

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