It was all hands on deck today as volunteers and workmen put the finishing touches to the newly restored Cutty Sark. The tea clipper, once the fastest in the world will reopen on Thursday. This is the first time the Cutty Sark will be open to the public since 2006, closed for renovation the boat unexpectedly caught fire a year later but after an extensive (and expensive) restoration project it’s now ship shape and ready to welcome visitors.
The last clipper to be built for merchant purposes, her hull endured high seas and heavy weather ferrying Chinese tea and Australian wool before being sold to the Portuguese in 1895 as the newly named ‘Ferreira’. The Cutty Sark’s name and nationality were not restored until 1923 when she was purchased by Wilfred Dowman, a retired windjammer skipper who restored the boat to a close approximation of her appearance as a tea and wool clipper. In it’s first incarnation as a public space, boatmen would row visitors out to sea to tour the vessel but following Dowman’s death in 1936 the Cutty Sark was sold to the Incorporated Thames Nautical Training College. The ship was sent to be moored in the Thames in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain and in December 1954 she was towed into a specially constructed dry dock in Greenwich where she has remained to this day.
Once inside, the original iron frame of the ship spreads out like a skeletal rib cage. The Cutty Sark is one of only three remaining clippers to retain it’s original wooden hull and iron frame construction, and despite the fire a great deal of the structure is authentic. In the hull a series of video installations and photographs are projected and printed onto the sides of old crates detailing the ship’s links with the transportation of what had been one of England’s most sought after commodities: tea. Unfortunately the clipper’s construction came just after the brew’s bubble had burst, and and much of her cargo consisted of wool – equally well detailed in an exhibition below deck.
Meanwhile on deck, the restored fixtures and fittings are wonderfully offset by the natural river breeze; but it wasn’t always smooth sailing on board. In 1880 First Mate Sidney Smith killed seaman John Francis. Captain Wallace’s decision to allow Smith to go free proved disastrous, his crew deserted him and becalmed in the Java Sea surrounded only by apprentices Wallace went overboard (literally) committing suicide by throwing himself into the sea. He was replaced as Master by William Bruce, a drunken incompetent who claimed pay for non-existent crewmen and managed to set sail with inadequate provisions, resulting in the crew starving. But if the Cutty Sark’s grim history doesn’t float your boat head back down to the dry berth for a cup of tea and a glimpse at…
…the largest collection of merchant navy figureheads in the world. Among the brightly coloured carved figurines are famous faces from the 19th century including Gladstone, Disraeli, William Pitt and Florence Nightingale. At the centre of the display is Cutty Sark’s own figurehead Nannie. With the exception of Nannie the collection was assembled by ‘Captain Long John Silver’, an avid collector of all things maritime. Eye patch wearing Captain Silver, born Sydney Cumbers donated his collection to the ship in 1953 and assorted figureheads are dedicated to the merchant seamen of Great Britain and the flotilla of small ships that went to rescue the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk.
Originally patroned by Prince Philip and officially opened by HMH The Queen in 1954, she will be returning today to mark the Cutty Sark’s reopening. Didi Mae Hand