The Cutty Sark Sails into the 21st Century

In 2008, the world’s only surviving clipper ship, the Cutty Sark, suffered a disastrous fire that came close to destroying the entire hull in its permanent drydock beside the River Thames in Greenwich. This news was especially shocking for me because I grew up less than a mile from the great ship and considered it a permanent part of my English heritage. It seemed highly unlikely that visitors would ever walk the decks of the great ship again, or stare up at the three square-rigged masts towering above the River Thames.

Whatever its fate, I knew I would always have memories of the Cutty Sark from my youth in the 1960’s, when I discovered sailing and made the ship a regular stop on my bike rides along the waterfront. The arrival of Sir Francis Chichester’s round-the-world yacht Gypsy Moth IV in 1967 was an additional attraction, though even then it was a sad sight: entombed in a smaller concrete pit than the Cutty Sark, and also open to the weather.

So I soon I found myself writing an epitaph for the last tea clipper for Northwest Yachting–and watching the salvage project unfold over the next five years…. I remembered taking an evening class on the ship in celestial (sextant) navigation in 1970. The instructor was a ship’s officer and the classroom was a musty ‘tween deck space with old figureheads on the walls.

Too Long in Harbor Rots Ships and Men!

I never did take a real noon sight from the deck of the plywood catamaran I had designed and built in a backyard and I was blissfully unaware of the short life of plywood yachts before the advent of epoxy and glass sheathing. Apparently no one ever suspected that the wooden hull and iron frames of the Cutty Sark were also deteriorating at an even more rapid rate—like  Chichester’s 54′ molded wood yacht.

But I spent the next 40 years in the Pacific North-West, far from unfashionable Greenwich, which slowly moved up the list of historic areas around London until it was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. I built a 20′ plywood trimaran in 1972, and have managed to stave off the rot with the application of gallons of epoxy– and a lot of preventative surgery in the last few years!

Coincidentally, the same thing was happening in Greenwich, to the last clipper ship and the first yacht to follow the clipper route—two craft that were considered national treasures. The Cutty Sark was actually becoming a safety hazard by 2005, when a $40 million restoration finally began.

(Coincidentally, in 2005, the prestigious Camper & Nicholson yard was finishing the total restoration of the Gipsy Moth IV, repairing all the damage caused by rot burrowing deep into the six layers of hardwood that they had laminated by hand when they built the yacht. It did indeed sail around the world again 40 years after its pioneering voyage, but needed another re-build after stoving in the side on a coral reef in the South Pacific.)

The Cutty Sark also needed it share of luck to survive into the 21st century: the ship was totally stripped, and the entire rig, deckhouses and deck gear had all been removed for the re-build, when the fire ignited in a vacuum cleaner left running overnight. The flames were fed mainly by the temporary decks, wooden staging and plastic roof. The ship’s original planking–teak above the waterline and American rock elm below–was only slightly charred and 540 of the original long planks were saved.

Restoration versus Reconstruction

This disaster almost overwhelmed the charity that ran the ship, and vast amounts of money from the Heritage National Lottery Fund were needed to keep the project afloat. On top of that, a heated debate began among historians and traditional sailors about the way the preservation should proceed. There was even a group with the bizarre idea of making it seaworthy enough to become a training ship!

Essentially, the issue was reconstruction versus restoration. Restoration is what we expect of castles, antique cars, and archaeological finds–including Viking burial ships. Reconstruction is what sailors do to keep wooden ships seaworthy–gradually replacing everything that looks suspect, hopefully before it fails. The problem was that the Cutty Sark was there was nothing to replace.

It was one of the last vessels to use the first form of “composite construction,” with wood planking over wrought iron frames. This method gave the narrow clipper hull far more cargo space than would have been possible with large timber frames, and the stiffness to support three huge masts – the tallest 152 feet. But the high salt content retained in the bilges had acted as a catalyst for corrosion of the metal

To make matters worse, the hull was also sheathed in Muntz metal, a type of brass designed primarily as an anti-fouling measure, which also caused electrolytic corrosion. When the aft planking was removed, the frames looked as if they were being held up by the planks, not supporting them. Richard Doughty, director of the project, didn’t mince words: “Even in the mid-1990s, it was known that something had to be done to stop Cutty Sark’s iron framework rusting away. Otherwise we would have ended up with a heap of metal and planks in the bottom of the dock.”

My ambition was not only to preserve as much of the ship as possible but also to turn her back into a ‘must-see’ London destination, as she had been 30 years ago,” he continued. The solution approved by a hand-picked board began with a low-pressure air abrasive to remove corrosion, and then grit-assisted water jetting, again at low pressure, to clean the frames.

The metalwork was painted immediately after cleaning to prevent further corrosion. (The coatings were two-pack epoxy zinc phosphate primers, two-pack epoxy micacious iron oxide intermediate coats, and two-pack acrylic urethane gloss-finish top coats.) Original ironwork was painted white, as it was originally, and new steelwork painted gray. The planks were re-built with new wood spliced in where possible, or with epoxy fillers where they were too far gone.

Tea Chests, Wool Bales and Wheat Sacks

The Cutty Sark was launched in November 1869–the very same month the Suez Canal opened and put many sailing ships out of business. So it only made the tea run eight times, and never won it before the Chinese tea trade was lost to steam ships that went through the canal. But the commercial sailing fleet fortunately found a replacement cargo in the Australian wool trade.

This was where the ship excelled, setting records returning from Australia to England, although its cargo capacity may have been significantly less than the new iron “windjammers” in the trade. In 1885, the ship achieved a record of 77 days outbound to Australia and 73 days homebound with full holds. That commodity too was taken over by steam in the 1890s and the sailing fleet began a slow decline into oblivion.

Under the Portugese flag, the Cutty Sark traded around the Atlantic carrying many different cargoes back to Europe, including coal, jute and castor oil. In 1922, after 40 years with a Portugese crew, Cutty Sark was driven into Falmouth, SW England by a gale, and spotted by a retired sailing ship captain. He vowed to buy the clipper and bring it back to England, which he did the next year, saving it from the breaker’s yard.

He turned the ship into a cadet training vessel, and opened to the public on weekends. After the captain’s death in 1936, the ship was sold to Thames Nautical Training College, where she was again used for training cadets. During WWII, the Cutty Sark’s shortened rig was dismantled to reduce the visibility of the ship as a navigation aid for German bombers.

By 1950, the college was able to obtain modern war surplus vessels for training, and the last clipper ship needed to find new patrons. In another coincidence, Britain’s Labour government was planning the Festival of Britain, to brighten up the dull post-war years, and someone recognized the old ship’s potential as an exhibit. It was towed to Deptford, a mile upstream from Greenwich, and became a festival attraction. (This was not the first famous ship to find a place in Deptford–Francis Drake’s Golden Hinde had been put on show there in the late 1500’s.)

A preservation organization was formed and the Duke of Edinburgh was recruited as the patron. As part of SE London’s post-war re-building, a graving dock was excavated next to the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. The Cutty Sark was floated into its final resting place in 1954, the entrance channel was filled in, and the waterfront re-built. Soon, the ship became as famous a Greenwich landmark as the Royal Observatory–home of Greenwich Mean Time.

Being the last of the clipper ships allowed writers and sailors to start promoting the myth of the Cutty Sark as the most famous and fastest of her kind. This was certainly not the case when the tea races really made headlines, but the clippers actually differed very little in design. As in today’s sail racing, it was the skipper, the crew, and the weather that made the difference!

Time Runs Out in Greenwich

But time had run out in Greenwich by 2008. The trust was leaking money and fighting to stay afloat, as the cost sky-rocketed. First it was millions of pounds more, then tens of millions that were needed to keep the project moving. Doughty and the board had to find a way to not only preserve one of “Britain’s greatest maritime treasures,” but also find some way to finance its upkeep for the indefinite future.

Traditional sailors all over the world watched and worried while the board decided how they would resurrect this nautical icon. Months passed as numerous options were considered, but the trustees still disagreed on the best course to take. The lottery payments were suspended until a proper commercial plan was submitted that would show how the ship would be funded in the future.

The only real asset the trust had was the narrow lot around the crumbling dry dock–until Grimshaw architects suggested a revolutionary idea. Lift the ship off the ground and free the space under the ship’s keel as a unique exhibit hall and a venue for corporate hospitality events.

When this radical new plan was unveiled, it caused a storm of protest from every angle. Trustees resigned and expert consultants were fired if they disagreed. The dye was cast: this faded relic was to be reinforced with 160 tons of internal steel framing, raised into the air, hung on giant steel struts, and surrounded with a geodesic glass roof attached at the waterline!

Doughty put it this way: ”It was clear from the moment we were engaged on the project that we needed a radical idea to present the ship in an exciting way for 21st century audiences. Early on, I went down under the ship and realized that I hadn’t really appreciated how important the hull shape was to the speed of Cutty Sark. It’s very common for sailors to look at their boats from below in a boatyard but it’s not common for most people and it would be the best opportunity for them to appreciate the ship’s shape. This was the beginning of the radical idea, and lifting the ship also took the weight of the ship off her fragile iron framework.”

A Thoroughly Modern Clipper

The Cutty Sark had survived from the 19th century to the new millennium, but could it survive the 21st century? And how would it look next to some of the finest baroque architecture in the world? On the floor of the graving dock, the keel was encased in a steel box and the hull reinforced with numerous steel sister frames and shelves. Then 14 massive compression tubes were maneuvered into place beneath the ‘tween deck, with cables running down to the keel from each end to form rigid triangular trusses inside the hull.

These are invisible except where they pierce the topsides with 14 giant chainplates per side, which are pinned to angled tubular legs running up from the dry dock. With this new skeleton carrying the weight and preventing any sagging, the hull was jacked up 11 feet by a specialist Dutch company, and suspend in mid-air for the foreseeable future. Then the glass dome was erected, and even the most optimistic of observers had to admit that it appeared to be floating on a sea of angled tinted glass panels—or dropped from a great height onto a waterbed, as one critic put it.

That was the state of affairs when I made my first visit to Greenwich in 24 years early in 2012. The spars were being hoisted aloft and landscaping work was still underway to prepare the site for the visit of Queen Elizabeth, who had originally opened the Cutty Sark to the public in 1957. It rained of course, but she cut the ribbon again and refrained from commenting on the design or the final cost of $80 million. (Unlike her son, Prince Charles, who is a harsh critic of modernism.)

To the general public, the result was another British triumph of engineering. Personally, I really didn’t mind the idea of the glass roof, but because the waterline was now high above ground level, the roof curved down to the ground, which looked very non-nautical.

What the Critics Said

However, the final result evoked some witty and ferocious criticism in the papers. The design was derided by both the architectural press and the historic ship fraternity, who compared it to a “Victorian hovercraft, a dockside crash into a greenhouse,” etc. Building Design magazine awarded the project its Carbuncle Cup for the worst new building completed in 2012: “One is left bewildered by the idea that this jewel of British maritime history should have been subjected to such dramatic adjustment in order to equip it for an age of mass tourism.”

An Unsinkable Ship

Another year passed before my second visit in 2013. On the first day, I was content to walk around the ship and continued into the old Royal Naval Hospital—a favorite location for films needing a historic backdrop, from “Pirates of the Caribbean” to “The Iron Lady.” After several days of brief walks around the outside, I finally took the plunge, and entered the dome through the gift shop under the stern counter to buy my ticket.

I was trying to maintain my journalistic neutrality, but finding the only entrance to the ship was via a large aperture cut into the hull below the waterline really shocked me. Once inside, I was glad to see a traditional approach with stacks of tea chests and explanatory signs. The ten-minute video was entertaining and informative for me and a family that was also watching.

The best feature was the large amount of the hull planking that was left visible, with the old and new steel framing and the diagonals visible. And unless you knew where to look, the triangular truss was barely discernible.

The main deck is brand new but still looks authentic, and the chance to touch the rigging, the winches and the giant wheel, and see the captain’s cabin and officers’ mess really takes you back in time.

Unfortunately, the exit is as annoying as the entrance. You descend from the deck via a large glass tower, with an elevator for handicapped access. That eyesore brought me back to the gift shop, and the stairs down to the dry dock. I have walked under many ships in north-west drydocks, but that bears no comparison to the strange sensation of walking under the Cutty Sark.

The metal sheathing gleamed gold and bronze as the sunlight streamed down through the angled glass roof, creating a unique ambiance and a slightly religious atmosphere. The ship seemed to float above my head like a plane in an air museum, and the keel stretched out for 200 feet.

The world’s biggest collection of figureheads, including the ship’s own carving of the Scottish witch in her “cutty sark” (short shirt) filled the head of the dock. All the wooden characters seem to be locked in a permanent gaze toward the central space under the keel where, says the ship’s website, “There are great opportunities to design your event beneath the gleaming copper hull, perfect for gala dinners, awards ceremonies, unique events and receptions.” Cost–$20,000 per night.

After I’d circled the ship, I turned my gaze up to the 14 massive struts that support the hull on each side. It’s the kind of engineering you expect to see in a bridge or giant crane, but not around a historic ship. So, if I had to sum up my impression, I would have to say that it’s well worth a visit, but the world’s last clipper has now been transformed into the world’s first “robo-ship.”

P.S. Cutty Sark (1869) v. Star of India (1863)

By the time the Cutty Sark was launched in 1869, the technology of building ships from iron plates was already in use, and those riveted iron ships have proved to be incredibly durable. Around the USA and northern Europe there are numerous iron sailing ships still afloat. Some are still seaworthy including the 205′ Star of India, based in San Diego, which sails around Mission Bay every two years.

Remarkably, it was built in 1863 on the Isle of Man, one of the British Isles. It is not considered a true clipper, but was nonetheless a fast ship, making 21 passages from England to New Zealand in as little as 100 days, carrying emigrants. It is the oldest iron-hulled merchant ship still floating and the oldest ship still sailing regularly.

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