London, England: Whether you arrive in Greenwich by train or by boat on the River Thames, what immediately catches your eye is the Cutty Sark. Her graceful rigging and masts dominate the skyline on this section of the river and draw us closer. We are intrigued and even folks like me—who know very little about boats, sailing and the sea—want to find out more about this amazing tea clipper and her history. On the boat are many information boards, displays, video clips etc. that give a pretty good idea of this, so here is a brief summary.
Cutty Sark is a British clipper ship built in late 1869, constructed specifically for the tea
trade with China. The owner was John (Jock) Willis who was very interested in speed for the really competitive tea trade, as there would be a large bonus for the first to arrive with the new consignment of tea. She was one of the last tea clippers to be built and one of the fastest. Her era was just before sailing ships gave way to steam ships.
She spent only a few years in the tea trade (1870-1877), and spent some years tramping for cargoes, before turning to the wool trade in Australia (1883-1895). She had a varied history, as she was sold to a Portuguese company in 1895 and renamed Ferreira. Retired sea captain Wilfred Dowman purchased her in 1922, when she became a training ship. In the course of her working life, she visited every major port in the world. In 1954 Cutty Sark was transferred to permanent dry dock on the River Thames at Greenwich.
After extensive restorations, she was opened to the public by HRH the Queen on June 25, 1957. Between 1957 and 2003 more than 13 million visitors walked her decks, making her one of London’s most successful tourist attractions. But, the ship’s condition was deteriorating badly and she needed major conservation if she was to survive. The aim was to conserve and stabilize as much of the ship’s fabric from her working life (1869-1922) as possible. In November 2006, the ship closed to the public and work began. However, a major fire broke out on May 21st 2007, which delayed the work considerably.
One of the main elements of the conservation project was to relieve the keel of the
weight of the ship, to preserve her unique shape, and to allow visitors to see her beautiful form properly, so she was raised over three meters into the air above her dry dock. She was officially re-opened on 25th April, 2012 by HRM Queen Elizabeth as a museum ship, and as a tribute to all the clipper ships and all the seamen of those times.
Everything below the main deck is now under a glass-roofed visitors’ center, so visitors can go aboard and beneath one of the world’s most famous ships. Walk along the decks in the footsteps of the merchant seamen who sailed her more than a century ago and learn about the seaman’s life. Explore the hold where precious cargo was stored on those epic speedy voyages, and learn more from the different collections and displays—facts and figures about Cutty Sark, the ship’s timeline, the different cargoes, especially tea and wool.
Plan to spend at least a couple of hours wandering the decks, marveling at all the masts and rigging. It’s a beautiful, elegant, lean vessel that was fast and very specialized. Using (replicas of) old tea chests as part of the flooring now is a nice touch. It’s easy to visit and fun for adults and kids as there are a number of interactive features to help reconstruct that era and imagine life on a boat like this. It’s a life long gone and very unlikely to re-appear, a time of romance and mystery in a way: the romance of the high seas, of bringing a new exotic commodity (tea) to the British market. But, there’s always a dark side to romance too: competition and trying to be the fastest in bringing the tea to Europe; the opium trade in China, for example.
Why is the clipper called Cutty Sark?
The ship’s figurehead is Nannie, a beautiful witch in a “cutty sark” or short under-dress, who features in Robert Burns’ poem Tam O’Shanter. Nannie chases Tam one night as he leaves a pub. After a wild ride, he escapes but she pulls out his horse’s tail. No-one is quite sure why the owner, John Willis, chose this name or figurehead. Some think for patriotic reasons as he was also Scots, as was Burns. But, whatever the reason, it is certainly striking!
As you wander under the hull of this vessel you’ll notice a collection of ship figureheads at the prow end, including the Cutty Sark figurehead (a replica is on the ship). This Long John Silver collection is the biggest collection of figureheads in the world and it’s interesting to see the different shapes, sizes and colors— human figures, but we see one golden eagle. (**See next blog post)
Lots more information on the official website: http://www.rmg.co.uk/cuttysark/