S.O.S. Cutty Sark

On Monday, May 21, 2007, a fire caused heavy damage to the clipper ship Cutty Sark, leaving one of London’s proudest maritime relics a blackened hulk. According to news reports, firefighters responded to an alarm at 4:45 a.m. local time at the 19th-century ship’s dry dock, where it has been undergoing a £25 million renovation since last year. The fire was rapidly contained, and extinguished after about two hours of firefighting effort.

The cause of the fire is under investigation. London Police Inspector Bruce Middlemiss stated, “We are treating this as a suspicious incident,” adding that a number of individuals were known to be in the area at the time the early morning fire started.

Chris Levett, the chairman of Cutty Sark Enterprises, said half of the ship’s planking and many historic artifacts had been removed and stored during the restoration work. He stated that he was confident that the famous vessel could be restored. “It will be the old ship. The ship has been through many things in its lifetime,” Levett told BBC radio, adding, “This is going to make us even more determined to get this ship back up and running and keep her as original as possible.”

The Dancing Witch

The ship is named after the fictional character “Cutty Sark,” an erotic dancing witch in the poem Tam o’ Shanter, written in 1790 by the iconic Scottish poet Robert Burns. In the poem by Burns, a young lad named Tam sees a number of witches dancing in the woods, one of whom is wearing a very revealing “cutty sark,” which is a kind of short shift or chemise. It is not at all uncommon in the history of sailing for builders and owners to attach womanly, if not suggestive, names to ships.

Iron, Elm, and Teak

Cutty Sark was designed by the well-known Scottish shipbuilder Hercules Linton (1836-1900), and constructed in 1869 by the firm of Scott & Linton at Dumbarton, Scotland. The contract price for Cutty Sark was “£17 per ton,” but if the tonnage exceeded 950 tons, there would be no extra payment. Thus, the total cost under the contract was £16,150, but the exacting specifications and labor involved in constructing Cutty Sark bankrupted the Scott & Linton yard. Cutty Sark was completed by the Dennys shipyard.

When Cutty Sark was launched on Nov. 23, 1869, the ship was expected to have a service life of around 30 years. Ships of this type commonly suffered damage to spars, rigging, sails, and topside fittings because of hard sailing in open seas. Thus, they were expensive to maintain, but many clipper ships lasted well past their designed lifetimes. Cutty Sark has survived to the present day, her 138-year history being one of continual repairs, refits, maintenance, and now a major restoration. Until she burned on May 21, Cutty Sark retained in excess of 90% of the original hull fabric that served her during her seagoing career.

Cutty Sark is what is called a “composite-built vessel.” That is, her skeleton is formed by a wrought iron frame to which teak and rock elm planking, called “strakes,” were fastened during construction. The components of the ship are held together with bolts made out of a copper-zinc alloy called “Muntz metal.” To inhibit worms, barnacles, and other marine growth on the wooden strakes, the hull was sheathed below the waterline with Muntz metal plates, giving her hull a copper-colored appearance. The plates were laid over an impermeable layer of felt and bitumen, and fastened down with copper nails driven into the strakes. This was a state-of-the-art technology in 1869.

Sleek, Fast, High Value

Cutty Sark is an advanced version of the clipper ship, measuring 280 feet long, weighing 979 tons, and with her main mast soaring 152 feet above the main deck. The forebears of Cutty Sark, in the same class of clipper ship vessel, were a type of very fast, 19th-century sailing bark with multiple masts, developed and perfected over many decades in the shipyards of the United States and Great Britain (and, to a lesser extent, in Holland and France). The introduction of clipper ships was associated primarily with the need for rapid transit across vast seas, at a time when steam engines were primitive at best and unreliable for use in oceangoing vessels.

Clipper ships were a high point in the development of the art and science of building sailing vessels. Their bows were distinctively narrow and heavily raked forward, which allowed them to rapidly cut, or “clip,” through the waves. The ships were sleek and generally thin for their length. They possessed limited capacity to carry bulk freight. Still, by incorporating a large relative sail area, the ships created value by capturing and harnessing wind power, and using it rapidly to carry passengers and high value goods over long distances. In this respect, clipper ships filled a transportation niche similar to that of long-range airliners and air-freight transport in the international commerce of today. Clipper ships were, in short, a pinnacle of technological development in the days before the use of fossil fuels gained widespread acceptance, and in particular before the Oil Age commenced.

The China Trade, Driving Change Even Then

Trade with China began to grow in the 1840s, after the first Opium War, which lasted from 1839-1842. Previously, trade with China had been restricted to transactions that were rigidly managed by Chinese merchants, in strict accord with rather exclusionary Chinese laws and customs. But the Opium War temporarily broke the back of traditional Chinese custom and power, and led Chinese trade to conform more closely to a “Western” style. Increasing levels of trade with China created demand for ships that could make the trip between China, and Europe, and the U.S. in faster time than was previously the case.

One key export from China was tea, a seasonal product. These types of Chinese tea became a big hit in the West, which in turn placed an emphasis on speed of transport to ensure that teas reached consumers before their flavors faded. So the earliest clipper ships were built to fulfill the need for extremely fast ships catering to the China tea trade. Ships such as the well-regarded Rainbow and the Sea Witch were indeed able to perform this function, breaking many speed records in the process. And although the first designs were developed in U.S. yards, the clipper ship technology spread and was adopted in Britain as well.

Serving the Gold Rush

Within a few years, clipper ships began to be used for domestic transportation in the U.S., after a fashion, as the lure of gold drew many hopeful speculators and prospectors to California. Clipper ships became the preferred means of rapid movement for passengers traveling from the East Coast of the U.S. to California during the gold rush of 1849 and thereafter. Due to the scarcity of locally manufactured goods in California, prices at first soared for many of the goods, tools, and other implements needed to work the gold pits. So the clipper ships were also used to transfer goods and supplies to California ports, at least until local sources developed and prices came down.

Time and Tide

But time and tide wait for no one. The use of clipper ships began to decline during the economic slump following the Panic of 1857, and continued with the gradual evolution of the steam-powered ship as a reliable means of oceanic commerce. With favorable winds, clipper ships could normally travel much faster than the early steamships, but as sailing vessels, they were ultimately dependent on the vagaries of the wind, while steamers offered more reliability in keeping to a schedule.

The growing and widespread use of steamships reduced freight rates, such that only ships capable of carrying large cargoes could be operated profitably. The beginning of the end for the clipper ship came on Nov. 17, 1869 (six days before Cutty Sark was launched), when the Suez Canal opened and thereby offered a significant shortcut for steamships traveling between Europe and Asia. However, the canal was difficult for wind-powered sailing ships to transit. Generally, sailing ships on routes to China had to work the trade winds, sailing out of Europe and home by way of the Cape of Good Hope.

A Historic Race

Like so many others of her kind, Cutty Sark was destined for the tea trade, in particular the highly competitive annual race across the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans from China to London with significant profits going to the ship that arrived with the first loads of tea of the year. Cutty Sark left London on its first voyage on Feb. 16, 1870, proceeding around Cape Hope to Shanghai and arriving 3 1/2 months later. The ship made only eight voyages to China in the tea trade, because steamships began to replace sail on the high seas in the 1870s.

Cutty Sark failed to win her most famous race, against the sailing ship Thermopylae, an extreme composite clipper ship built in 1868 in Scotland. On June 18, 1872, both Thermopylae and Cutty Sark left Shanghai, bound for London. Two weeks later, Cutty Sark lost her rudder in bad weather, after passing through the Sunda Strait. On Oct. 18, 1872, Cutty Sark arrived in London, remarkably only seven days behind Thermopylae and after making total passage in 122 days. Although losing the tea race to Thermopylae,Cutty Sark earned a reputation as a strong competitor when her captain chose to continue the race with an improvised rudder instead of putting into port for a replacement.

Cutty Sark eventually sailed the Australia wool trade between 1883-1895, achieving a record-breaking wind-powered voyage from Australia to England in 1885, lasting 72 days, and sailing via Cape Horn.

Sail, Steam, Technology, and S.O.S.

Cutty Sark was, in her day, a complex mixture of iron and wood, sails, masts, and rope, all made to work by sailors who had to know their stuff in the face of a cruel and mostly unforgiving sea. In her heyday, the ship carried some 11 miles of rigging, and 32,000 square feet of canvas sails (equivalent to the area of 11 tennis courts). But although she was a top-notch example of sail-powered technology, the need for a ship such as Cutty Sark was vanishing while she was still on the builder’s ways. Before her bow had first cut water, Cutty Sark was being overtaken by steam power, which was an entirely different way of doing things.

Cutty Sark, and her eventual economic demise, is an example of an older form of technology being rendered obsolete by an entirely new kind of technology that simply leaps ahead of the existing state of the art. More specifically, the transition from sail to steam was a reflection of the revolution that took place in the mid-1800s in the technology of harnessing energy. Instead of capturing energy from the day-to-day winds, as sailors and sailing ships had done for millennia, steamships propelled themselves using energy in the form of coal, a relic of ancient energy and mass storage, concentrated by geologic forces over geologic time frames, and mined from the geologic column. Steamships are powered, in a sense, by ancient sunshine, and are divorced from many of the vagaries of the present climate.

So the builders of Cutty Sark were not simply competing against other ship designers and other shipyards in a race to build fast and pretty vessels. They were competing against people who worked in other fields of science and engineering, and who were making key advances in the fundamental understanding of thermodynamics, metallurgy, and mechanical engineering. Whether the builders comprehended it or not, their skills as constructors were a vanishing art even as they fabricated their greatest creations.

There is, of course, a lesson in all of this for our own time, as the world reaches the point of Peak Oil. And we discuss that lesson often in Whiskey & Gunpowder. But for now, the good ship Cutty Sark is in distress. Like all good captains and able mariners, we turn our attention to what needs to be done, and set a course toward her SOS.

Cutty Sark Today

Until the recent fire, Cutty Sark has been preserved as a museum ship, and is a popular tourist attraction. She is located near the center of Greenwich town in Southeast London, near the National Maritime Museum, the former Greenwich Hospital, and Greenwich Park. Cutty Sark is a prominent landmark.

Today, Cutty Sark is the world’s only surviving example of an extreme clipper, regarded as the ultimate development of a merchant sail vessel. Cutty Sark has been closed to visitors since November 2006 for a £25 million renovation.

The need for a renovation was because a series of inspections of the Cutty Sark hull and other structures revealed that the wrought iron has been corroding. In places, the iron has corroded away completely and in others it has become very thin, especially around the sides of the Muntz metal bolts, due to bi-metal corrosion. Some of the planking has also rotted. Corrosion and rot was advancing to a point at which the safety of visitors could have been compromised, and there was a risk that certain elements of the ship would disintegrate. Losing this ship would be a great loss to both British and American culture, as well as to maritime history in general.

Now the scope of the work on Cutty Sark has greatly expanded. Instead of the originally planned restoration, the ship will need extensive reconstruction due to the fire damage. So if you wish help, you might consider joining The Friends of The Cutty Sark Trust. Cutty Sark friends and supporters belong to an organization with a newsletter and special members’ events. Click here to learn more.


Thank you for reading Whiskey & Gunpowder.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King

May 23, 2007