In Greenwich, London, the Cutty Sark is a popular tourist attraction. A British merchant ship, she’s a rare survivor from a vanished, glamorous age of commerce by sail.
Exceptionally sleek and skilfully constructed, it’s a shame to have to report that this beautiful ship was just about obsolete from the outset: she was launched in November 1869… the same month that the Suez Canal was completed, changing the geography of global trade forever.
As a clipper, Cutty Sark was designed for the tea trade, then a highly competitive annual race (with cargo) from China to London. The journey involved sailing around the southern tip of Africa and steering a route that would make the most of the prevailing winds. Cutty Sark employed composite construction (wooden planking over an iron frame, all sheathed in Muntz metal) to produce an elegant, streamlined hull that made her one of the fastest ships of her time. It’s worth noting that she isn’t just a vehicle that used to be a part of the global supply network, but also a product of it: British wrought iron frames and metal sheeting, American rock elm, East India teak… all assembled on the Clyde.
Fast sailing over long distances (up to 363 nautical miles or 672 km in a day) was no longer confined to clippers, sadly. The SS Agamemnon had already been in use for three years, demonstrating the advantages of a high-pressure boiler and a compound steam engine – and when the Suez Canal opened it offered a 6,100 km shortcut that was largely unsuited to sailing vessels. The days of the tea clipper were numbered.
Eight times Cutty Sark sailed in the tea season, one of a dwindling number of tea clippers. In December 1877 nobody in Shanghai was prepared to entrust their cargo of tea to a mere sailing ship (insurance premiums for steamships were a lot lower) and this marked the end of sail in the tea trade. Cutty Sark and the other clippers had to change with the times: they were modified to carry a simpler, smaller arrangement of sails that reduced crewing requirements and maintenance costs, and they carried new cargoes on new routes.
Reducing manning levels in an effort to cut costs… a reaction to hard times that shipping lines still employ today. Another tactic that we see employed almost universally today is slow steaming: reducing speed in order to save fuel. It’s a good response to industry overcapacity and the high price of fuel because reducing speed by about a third can save thousands of tonnes of fuel oil… but it’s amusing to note that this has reduced modern commerce to a speed that Cutty Sark could have bettered on a good day – without spending a penny on fuel, and without producing any emissions!
When the tea trade changed to exclude clippers, Cutty Sark began to carry wool from Australia. In the 1883–1884 season, she made a journey from Australia to London in 83 days, 25 days ahead of any other vessel. In 1885 Captain Richard Woodget managed to get the time down to 73 days. Cutty Sark dominated the wool trade for a decade… until the steamships moved in on that commodity as well. In 1895 she was sold to the Portuguese firm Joaquim Antunes Ferreira, and renamed Ferreira as a result. She traded general cargoes here and there, and by 1922 she was the last clipper still operating. A spell as a cadet training ship followed, and when she was no longer needed in that role she was installed in a purpose-built dry dock in Greenwich, becoming a museum ship in the 1950s.
After decades of sitting on her keel – an unnatural position that caused a certain amount of sagging – came an extensive conservation project, beginning in 2006. It was a textbook case of poor project management, featuring cost over-runs, poor record-keeping and questionable security arrangements… punctuated by a terrible fire in May 2007 that might have destroyed the whole ship.
In April 2012, Cutty Sark reopened after years of hard work. The most noticeable change is to the dry dock. In my childhood it was a simple pit where wind-blown crisp packets would tend to gather, but now it’s a glazed space, the roof appearing to be an ocean swell that the ship is riding. In the new scheme, Cutty Sark ‘sails’ some three metres above, allowing visitors a good look at her most important feature: that beautiful, streamlined hull.
The end result of Cutty Sark’s renovation is controversial. The Victorian Society described it as a misguided attempt to fit the corporate hospitality market, and Building Design magazine named it the worst new building in 2012. (The ‘anti’ camp were hoping for a restoration that would have left Cutty Sark seaworthy.) Yachting World were more appreciative, though, describing the end result as sensational.
Cutty Sark will never again be able to return to the sea, but she still formed a focus for the ceremonies that preceded the Tall Ships race of 2017. At the Sailors’ Ball on Good Friday, dancers were dressed in their best vintage sailor chic, and after champagne and fireworks on deck, I enjoyed the opportunity to explore Cutty Sark without crowds, before we went below to dance. As the band played ‘Somewhere Beyond the Sea’, I felt as if I’d become one of the denizens of Rapture, the doomed city beneath the waves in the BioShock games: even so, count me among the people who approve of the Cutty Sark in her new role. For a ship that never quite worked out as planned, she has a surprising amount to teach us.