Cutty Sark

The Cutty Sark is a clipper ship. Built in 1869, she served as a merchant vessel (the last clipper to be built for that purpose), and then as a training ship until being put on public display in 1954. She is preserved in dry dock in Greenwich, London.

Cutty Sark is one of only three ships in London on the Core Collection of the National Historic Ships Register (the nautical equivalent of a Grade 1 Listed Building) – alongside HMS Belfast and SS Robin.

Badly damaged by fire on 21 May 2007 while undergoing conservation, the vessel is being restored and is expected to reopen in 2012. The Cutty Sark is one of only three remaining original compound construction (wooden hull on an iron frame) clipper ships from the nineteenth century in part or whole, the others being the City of Adelaide, awaiting transportation to Australia for preservation, and the beached skeleton of Ambassador of 1869 near Punta Arenas, Chile.

Construction and etymology

The Cutty Sark was designed by Hercules Linton and built in 1869 at Dumbarton, Scotland, by the firm of Scott & Linton, for Captain John "Jock" "White Hat" Willis expressly to outsail the clipper Thermopylae. Her planking, deadwoods, stem and sternpost were of American rock elm, secured by brass bolts to an internal iron frame. The original keel was also rock elm and 17 inches (43 cm) thick, but was replaced in the 1920s with one constructed from 15 inches (38 cm) pitch pine. Her length was 212 feet 5 inches (64.74 m) with a draft of 21 feet (6.40 m) and a deadweight of 921 tons.

She was named after Cutty Sark (Scots: a short chemise or undergarment), the nickname of the fictional character Nannie Dee in Robert Burns' 1791 poem Tam o' Shanter. She is also represented as Nannie Dee by the ship's figurehead, a stark white carving of a bare-breasted woman with long black hair holding a gray horse's tail in her hand. In the poem she wore a linen sark that she had been given as a child, which explains why it was cutty, or in other words far too short, for her. The erotic sight of her dancing in such a short undergarment caused Tam to cry out "Weel done, Cutty-sark", which subsequently became a well known catchphrase.


The Cutty Sark was launched on November 22, 1869, and after Scott & Linton was liquidated she was completed by William Denny & Brothers for John Willis & Son.

Cutty Sark was destined for the tea trade, then an intensely competitive race across the globe from China to London, with a substantial bonus to the ship to arrive with the first tea of the year. In the most famous race, against Thermopylae in 1872, both ships left Shanghai together on June 18, but two weeks later Cutty Sark lost her rudder after passing through the Sunda Strait, and arrived in London on October 18, a week after Thermopylae, a total passage of 122 days. Her legendary reputation is supported by the fact that her captain chose to continue this race with an improvised rudder instead of putting into port for a replacement, yet was beaten by only one week.

In 1890, she was taken out of the tea races and cut down to save money for general cargo carrying. The life of a sailor on fast sailing ships was no picnic at the best of times, but the incredible events of her next voyage, 1890–1891, occupy an entire chapter in "The Log of the Cutty Sark" (Basil Lubbock, 1924) and formed the base of Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Sharer" — a mate so brutal the London crew deserted at first port leaving only the bound apprentices; a superb captain who drove his ship just short of 2,000 km in 72 hours, but committed suicide when the crew mutinied after he allowed the mate to escape after killing one of them; a stop in the shadow of Krakatoa only two years before it exploded; a replacement captain and mate who were each worse than the original mate even when sober; four months ashore at Calcutta over Christmas; cholera; a second mutiny in all but name; another murder by the new mate; and running out of provisions.

She recovered her reputation under Captain Richard Woodget, winning the wool race 10 years out of 10 (and beating Thermopylae every time they met). She posted Australia-to-Britain times of as little as 67 days, and in one instance outsailed the fastest steamship there was then, RMS Britannia. Her best run, 360 nmi (670 km) in 24 hours (an average 15 kn (28 km/h)), was said to have been the fastest of any ship of her size.

In the end, of course, clippers lost out to steamships, which could pass through the recently opened Suez Canal and deliver goods more reliably, if not quite so quickly, which proved to be better for business. So, in 1895 Willis sold her to the Portuguese firm Ferreira and she was renamed Ferreira after the firm, although her crews referred to her as Pequena Camisola ("little shirt", a straight translation of the Scots "cutty sark"). In 1916 she was dismasted off the Cape of Good Hope, sold, re-rigged in Cape Town as a barquentine, and renamed Maria do Amparo. In 1922 she was bought by Captain Wilfred Dowman, who restored her to her original appearance and used her as a stationary training ship in Greenhithe, Kent. On 30 January 1952, MV Aqueity was in collision with Cutty Sark in the Thames. The two ships were locked together after the collision and then Cutty Sark collided with HMS Worcester, damaging Worcester, with Cutty Sark's figurehead the Naughty Witch losing an arm in the process. Cutty Sark was anchored and towed to the Shadwell Basin where repairs were carried out by Green & Silley Weir Ltd. The damaged arm was recovered at Grays Thurrock and the figurehead was repaired. In 1954 she was moved to a custom-built dry-dock at Greenwich.

Cutty Sark whisky derives its name from the ship. An image of the clipper appears on the label, and the maker formerly sponsored the Cutty Sark Tall Ships' Race. The ship also inspired the name of the Saunders Roe Cutty Sark flying boat.

Museum ship

The Cutty Sark was preserved as a museum ship, and has since become a popular tourist attraction, and part of the National Historic Fleet, Core Collection. She is located near the centre of Greenwich, in south-east London, close aboard the National Maritime Museum, the former Greenwich Hospital, and Greenwich Park. She is also a prominent landmark on the route of the London Marathon. She usually flies signal flags from her ensign halyard reading "JKWS", which is the code representing Cutty Sark in the International Code of Signals, introduced in 1857.

The ship is in the care of the Cutty Sark Trust, whose president, the Duke of Edinburgh, was instrumental in ensuring her preservation, when he set up the Cutty Sark Society in 1951. The Trust replaced the Society in 2000. She is a Grade I listed monument and is on the Buildings At Risk Register.

Cutty Sark station on the Docklands Light Railway is one minute's walk away, with connections to central London and the London Underground. Greenwich Pier is next to the ship, and is served by scheduled river boats from piers in central London. A tourist information office stands to the east of the ship.

Conservation and fire

On the morning of 21 May 2007, the Cutty Sark, which had been closed and partly dismantled for conservation work, caught fire, and burned for several hours before the London Fire Brigade could bring the fire under control. Initial reports indicated that the damage was extensive, with most of the wooden structure in the centre having been lost.

In an interview the next day, Richard Doughty, the chief executive of the Cutty Sark Trust, revealed that at least half of the "fabric" (timbers, etc.) of the ship had not been on site as it had been removed during the preservation work. Doughty stated that the trust was most worried about the state of iron framework to which the fabric was attached. He did not know how much more the ship would cost to restore, but estimated it at an additional £5–10 million, bringing the total cost of the ship's restoration to £30–35 million.

After initial analysis of the CCTV footage of the area suggested the possibility of arson, further investigation over the following days by the Metropolitan Police failed to find conclusive proof that the fire was set deliberately.

Aerial video footage showed extensive damage, but seemed to indicate that the ship had not been destroyed in its entirety. A fire officer present at the scene said in a BBC interview that when they arrived, there had been "a well-developed fire throughout the ship". The bow section looked to be relatively unscathed and the stern also appeared to have survived without major damage. The fire seemed to have been concentrated in the centre of the ship. The chairman of Cutty Sark Enterprises said after inspecting the site: "The decks are unsalvageable but around 50% of the planking had already been removed; however, the damage is not as bad as originally expected."

As part of the restoration work planned before the fire, it was proposed that the ship be raised three metres, to allow the construction of a state of the art museum space beneath. This would allow visitors to view her from below.

There was criticism of the policies of the Cutty Sark Trust and its stance that the most important thing was to preserve as much as possible of the original fabric. Proponents of making her fit to go to sea advocated that the fire repairs be done in such a manner to enable her to do so. However, the state of the timbers, especially the keel, and the fact that two huge holes were cut through the hull in the 1950s, made this impossible. Also, the Cutty Sark Trust claims that under five percent of the original fabric was lost in the fire, as the decks which were destroyed were non-original additions.

In addition to explaining how and why the ship is being saved, the exhibition features a new film presentation, a re-creation of the master's saloon, and interactive exhibits about the project.

The design for the renovation project by Grimshaw architects with, during concept stage, Youmeheshe architects and Buro Happold engineers involved raising the ship out of her dry berth using a Kevlar web, allowing visitors to pass under the hull to view it. Unfortunately it was discovered that the proposed web would not follow the reverse curves of the ship's hull which would effectively mask the hull's shape from view. An alternate design for the support of the ship has been developed which involves installing a steel belt around the hull tied by diagonal steel members passing through the hold to a new steel reinforced keel. Horizontal tubular steel struts passing through the hold will brace the diagonals apart while many of the corroded original hull frames are being doubled.

A new steelwork lower deck of contemporary design incorporating an amphitheatre feature is being installed in the main hold while a glass encased lift will be installed within the ship terminating in a new glass housing structure on the weather deck. Access to the ship is to be through a new opening which will be cut through the hull below the waterline in the ship's starboard quarter. Maldwin Drummond, Chairman of the Cutty Sark Trust, has explained in Classic Boat magazine's September 2010 issue the need to retain the spirit of the ship and he quotes the ideal that "The visitor should see the ship as though for some unexplained reason the crew had gone ashore". Doubts over the wisdom of Grimshaw's proposals have been raised by many ship conservationists including the Cutty Sark Trust's own engineer Peter Mason.

The project was costed at £25 million when it commenced in 2006 with £11.75 million of this total being provided by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Oscar-winning producer Jerry Bruckheimer aided in the repair and restoration of the Cutty Sark. A collection of photos taken by Bruckheimer went on display in London in November 2007 to help raise money for the Cutty Sark Conservation Project. The exhibition featured more than thirty pictures taken on set during the filming of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

In January 2008, the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded the Cutty Sark Trust another £10 million towards the restoration of the ship, meaning that the Trust had now achieved £30 million of the £35 million needed for the completion of the project.

In June 2008, Israeli shipping magnate Sammy Ofer donated the outstanding £3.3 million needed to fully restore the ship although by January 2009 the Evening Standard reported that the cost had risen further to £40 million creating a new shortfall. In February 2010 the Daily Telegraph reported the project cost had risen to £46 million with public money now being made available to fill the funding gap.

On 30 September 2008, the London Fire Brigade announced the conclusion of the investigation into the fire at a press conference at New Scotland Yard. The painstaking investigation was conducted by the LFB, along with London's Metropolitan Police Service, Forensic Science Services, and electrical examination experts Dr. Burgoyne's & Partners. They said that the most likely cause was the failure of an industrial vacuum cleaner that had inadvertently been left switched on for 48 hours before the fire started.

Physical evidence and CCTV footage of the fire showed that it probably started towards the stern of the ship on the lower deck after the failure of a motor inside the industrial vacuum cleaner, which was being used to remove waste from the ship as part of its renovation programme, and which had been left running throughout the weekend before the fire broke out the following Monday.

On the basis of witness evidence, the joint investigation team considered it unlikely that the fire was caused by the hot work that was being carried out as part of the renovation or by carelessly discarded smokers' materials. The report also revealed no evidence the ship was subjected to arson attack and concluded the fire started accidentally.

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