Why are we asking this question now?
The Cutty Sark - the world's most famous clipper ship - was badly damaged following a fire that broke out on Monday. The fire burned for an hour and a half before it was brought under control. During that time the main deck and the 'tween deck were completely destroyed with some 30 tonnes of timber going up in smoke. Some of the ship's ironwork is thought to have buckled as a result of the intense heat. The site has been designated a crime scene because of suspicions that the fire may have been arson.
What would be the main obstacle to rebuilding the Cutty Sark?
One of the unique features of the Cutty Sark was its composite structure. It was built with a special iron framing sandwiched between the outer and inner timbers of its hull. It was further strengthened by iron cross supports for the timber beams carrying the wooden decks. If the iron "frames" -- the ribs of the ship's hull - have been badly buckled or damaged in the fire then restoration would prove exceptionally difficult and costly.
How much of the Cutty Sark was lost?
Fortunately, at the time the fire broke out more than half of the ship had been removed for a £25 million ($68 million) renovation programme. The masts, rigging, coach and deck houses, the master salon, significant amounts of planking, the jolly boats and other such removable items had all been put into safe storage.
So the damage was largely confined to the ship's hull and its timber decking. A visual inspection clearly shows that the main deck and 'tween deck have been totally destroyed. The loss of weight caused by the destruction of the heavy timbers on the decks may lead to further twisting of the ironwork, which has always supported the many tonnes of wood resting above it.
Can the timbers be replaced?
The Cutty Sark was mostly made out of teak, a tropical hardwood that is now in very short supply, certainly in the sizes and amounts needed for replacement. Another tropical hardwood timber, such as iroko, may have to be considered. If big enough beams or supports cannot be found in teak, it may be possible to glue pieces of timber together as a laminated structure. If all else fails, it may even be possible to use plastic supports under the decks where they cannot be seen.
Would a rebuilt Cutty Sark still be the same ship?
This goes to the heart of a philosophical riddle known as Theseus's paradox: at what point does an object that has had all its components replaced remain the same object? The name comes from the ship which carried Theseus back to ancient Athens. The ship was preserved but had its oars and other parts progressively replaced, causing Greek philosophers to argue about whether it remained the same ship. According to Dr Fred Hocker, director of Vassa Research for the National Maritime Museums in Stockholm, all timber sailing ships would have had many if not most of their parts replaced during the course of their working lives. This is even more true when ships are restored to their "former glory". From his point of view, a restored Cutty Sark with modern timber would still be the Cutty Sark. However, Eric Kentley, curator of the Cutty Sark Trust, emphasised that the trust's philosophy is conservation rather than rebuilding. In other words if a damaged timber can be restored in some way rather than replaced, this is the preferred option even if there is an aesthetic trade-off.
Are there any silver linings to this dark cloud?
The one good thing about an iron-framed ship is that its timbers are mostly straight beams and planks. Other old wooden ships have curved timbers, which have to be specially selected from the curved branches and trunks of growing trees - and these are in far shorter supply than they once were. Another aspect of the fire is that it will reveal parts of the ship's framework and skeleton that have never been seen before so it could provide shipwrights with an unrivalled opportunity to investigate and dissect how the Cutty Sark was put together. A final blessing in disguise is that the tragedy could provide the sort of publicity impetus needed to collect the many millions of pounds now needed to restore the ship fully so that it remains the most famous clipper ship in existence.