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“CUTTY SARK” – the great survivor

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The Cutty Sark during conversion

Rhys Clift, Partner at Hill Dickinson on “CUTTY SARK” – the great survivor

Captain Moodie, the first captain of “CUTTY SARK”, claimed she would “last forever”; and so far, even in the face of the ravages of time and misfortune, he seems to have been proved right.

“CUTTY SARK” is one of only three remaining ships built with a composite hull; a cast iron frame overlaid with a wooden hull; something of a hybrid before the era of all metal hulls. Built for a working life of just 30 years she was launched in November 1869, nearly 30 years before the inception of the modern Olympic Games. 143 years later it is simply amazing that she is still with us. She has lost masts, had her rudder ripped off twice, suffered the corrosive effects of sea salt and most recently survived a fire which raged through her from stem to stern reaching temperatures in excess of 1000°C.

Having completed a gruelling five year conservation programme, “CUTTY SARK” will shortly begin a new chapter in her extraordinary career, retaking pride of place in the Royal Borough of Greenwich as one of the nation’s greatest maritime treasures, in close proximity to the main facilities for the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Bearing the nickname of the witch, Nannie Dee, in Robbie Burns’ famous poem Tam o’ Shanter, she was originally built for the China tea trade. She carried over 1.3 million lbs. of tea (enough to make more than 200 million cups) on each of her voyages back from China. However, her career as a tea clipper was remarkably brief: just eight years.

Later, under a new, brilliant and audacious master, Richard Woodget, she had another spectacularly successful career transporting bales of wool from Australia and made a number of record passages for which she is widely remembered, back through the Roaring Forties in close proximity to icebergs around Cape Horn; a remarkable testament to her physical strength.

But she was designed to withstand the hydrostatic forces on the hull by the sea and the loads of her cargo, not to be sitting in a dry dock for long periods of time. Her cast iron framework was simply too fragile to support both itself and the weight of her planks on land; sustained by props and shores for over fifty years at her dry berth, her lower keel had begun to sag and belly threatening the overall integrity of her hull.

She has now been lifted quite literally into the 21st Century. Project engineers have designed a new steel intervention, which raises the three-masted sailing ship three metres above the berth. This new structure transfers the load down through twelve pairs of struts and ties into the ground which means the original fabric does not have to work so hard to support its own weight. This creates a completely new and unique experience for visitors who will now be able to venture both on board and underneath the vessel, to view the elegant lines of the hull which enabled her to cut so beautifully through the water at high speed.

If there was anything positive that came out of the fire in May 2007, it was that “CUTTY SARK” was not just a local or national story; the fire caused something of an international sensation. This begs the question: just why is a merchant ship so highly regarded? “CUTTY SARK” is not remembered simply because of the speed with which she carried tea back from China, nor because she was the most successful wool clipper in the world. She is a tangible reminder of another world, a way of life just beyond grasp of human memory; of a technology which has served us well for thousands of years, of the carriage of goods by the force of nature; that even today, out of sight and out of mind, ships remain as vital as ever, the only viable means for efficiently transporting high volumes of goods around the globe; a simple, yet iconic, reminder of the importance of the sea in all our lives and of the contribution that the many aspects of the maritime trade and industry have made, and continue to make, to the prosperity of modern Britain.

The £50 million conservation project has not been simply about treating rust, consolidating decaying timbers and providing adequate physical support. A key element of the new display is to give Maurice Lambert’s Star of India far greater prominence, making the merchant memorial role of the ship much more obvious. Inspired by the tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, the monument has been repositioned under the keel. And in the Sammy Ofer Gallery visitors will also be able to see the trust’s collection of 83 figureheads assembled by Sidney Cumbers and dedicated to the Little Ships of Dunkirk.

It is more than 70 years since the end of commercial sail yet we are still enthralled by this unique survivor of a bygone age; by the image of the sailing ship, a mass of white canvas ploughing over the seas at 17 knots; by the excitement, the adventure, the sheer danger, by the bravery and romance of sail. But above all “CUTTY SARK” is special because she is truly emblematic, intrinsically inspiring and quite simply the most beautiful of all sailing ships. “CUTTY SARK” has been conserved to survive not merely as a tourist attraction, but as an icon of London, as a flagship for enterprise, entrepreneurial activity, and quality.

Her Majesty The Queen reopens “CUTTY SARK”  tomorrow the 25th of April 2012.

for further information viewers can contact Rhys Clift on rhys.clift@hilldickinson.com

(With many thanks to Richard Doughty, “CUTTY SARK” Trust; see www.cuttysark.org.uk )

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1 comment

elena kritikou April 24, 2012 - 10:13 PM

It is always very impessive and romantic to combine the past with the present even if it is for naval engineering! Great article!


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