London: The ship that rose from ashes

By Pamela Wade

The much-loved tea-carrier Cutty Sark has never looked better, writes Pamela Wade.

The Cutty Sark at Greenwich, beside the Thames. Photo / Supplied
The Cutty Sark at Greenwich, beside the Thames. Photo / Supplied

Re-opened to the public by the Queen at Greenwich, London, on April 25 after a disastrous fire and six years of restoration, Cutty Sark is ship-shape in Bristol fashion and has never looked better - except perhaps under full sail back in the 1880s, powering past the icebergs of the Southern Ocean, as her daring captain Richard Woodget used the Roaring Forties to speed her passage to Sydney.

Built for speed in 1869, the clipper - the last of her type in the world - was originally designed to race back from China with 16,000kg of fresh tea in her hold, to take advantage of the new-season higher prices commanded by this novel and fashionable drink.

Intense rivalry between ships plying the route culminated in a dramatic race in 1872 against Thermopylae, when good tail winds put Cutty Sark 650km ahead; but she then lost her rudder twice in heavy seas and trailed into port in London a week behind the winner, her captain so disheartened by the defeat that he went straight into retirement.

Cutty Sark also spent some years in ignominy, tramping for cargoes across the world's oceans after the Suez Canal was opened, allowing steamships to take the shortcut across the upper Indian Ocean where the winds were too fickle for sailing ships.

Glory days were coming, however. Visitors exploring the ship below deck are dwarfed by the huge bales of merino wool that tell the story of Cutty Sark's golden age, when she was transferred to the Australian wool trade.

In 1886 she set the record for the 24,000km route: a blistering 73 days. She was even once observed overtaking Britannia, a P&O steamship which was doing 16 knots at the time, as she raced back to England to catch the New Year wool sales. It was an especially fine achievement, considering her crew was made up of non-sailors seizing free passage to a new life in Australia.

Passing Britannia was a Pyrrhic victory: steamships once again displaced the clippers, and Cutty Sark spent the next 25 years as a Portuguese cargo tramp, eventually bought by a British enthusiast for a sail training ship and in 1951 exhibited in London as part of the Festival of Britain.

It was then that she was brought to the attention of the Duke of Edinburgh who, as patron of the Cutty Sark Society, enabled her restoration as a memorial to the Merchant Navy, and the ship was opened to the public by the Queen in 1957.

But after 50 years of sitting on her keel in dry dock, her weight was distorting the sleek lines of her hull, an innovative design that had allowed her to reach those record-breaking speeds. An extensive programme of restoration began in 2006, made much more costly by a spectacular fire that broke out the following year.

Fortunately the masts, rigging and much of the decking had already been removed, so what now remains is still largely original, from the top of the 46m-high main mast to the bottom of her hull.

Entering below the main deck, visitors can learn the history of the ship and the tea and wool trades, look at the bare bones of the structure and even try their hand at steering an animated model along the route: doldrums and shipwrecks a constant hazard, the amateur's journey length dispiritingly displayed in a day-tally against the real captain's record. Plaques set into the deck record moments of drama in the ship's history, such as the spot from which one depressed captain stepped overboard in 1880 to commit suicide in the Java Sea.

The galley, bunk rooms and officers' mess are all open to explore, the hanging wine-glass holders a particular novelty above the dining table.

On deck, nearly 18km of rigging through the three masts and sturdy wooden blocks are an impressive sight, but the real stunner is below. Now supported by 24 pillars that hold the keel 3m above the ground, Cutty Sark's elegantly raked hull is visible from all angles, encased in gleaming brass originally intended to discourage barnacle growth and to protect the timbers of teak and elm from worm infestation. It's a splendid sight, strikingly beautiful against the stained-glass window effect of the scaffolding above that seals it from the weather.

It's the perfect place to end a tour of the ship, to study the extensive collection of original figureheads displayed near the bow and to enjoy at the stern a cup of special-blend Cutty Sark tea, in recognition of eight voyages in seven years on the China tea route, with 80,000 tea chests carried 16 times around the Horn.

Only a philistine could think of ordering coffee.

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Further information: The Cutty Sark site at Greenwich is easily reached from London by Light Rail or ferry, and is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm: adults £12, children £6.50, family £20. Other Greenwich attractions are the National Maritime Museum, Royal Observatory Greenwich and Naval College.

Pamela Wade visited Cutty Sark at her own expense.

- NZ Herald

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