One hundred and twenty nine years ago, an uncommonly handsome clipper ship came off the stocks on the River Clyde a few miles downstream from Glasgow, Scotland.
Her owner was the Scottish-born ship owner who ran a sizeable fleet from offices in London. Capt. John "Jock" Willis called his new flyer Cutty Sark, Scots vernacular for the skimpy shirt carved on the ship’s buxom figurehead.
Built to haul tea from China, the 280-foot vesselsmall by modern standardsrode the crest of 19th century clipper design. She could carry more than a million pounds of premium cargo. And, with a top speed of more than 17 knots, she was destined to be one of the swiftest ships that ever moved through the water under sail power alone. Her future seemed assured.
There was one catch. Willis, a canny old sailing shipmaster, had a blind eye for new technology. Sail and steam were competing for dominance. Willis failed to foresee the ascendancy of steam. By caprice of fate, or of progress, Cutty Sark slid down the ways at the end of an era. Only days before her launch, the Suez Canal opened, linking the Red and Mediterranean seas. The engineering miracle at Suez trimmed some 4,000 miles from the voyage to India and the East. By doing so, it made steam cheap and reliable. It also made it fast. With sail tied to the long-haul trade wind routes around the foot of Africa, Suez spelled the doom of windjammers.
Of all the stately clippers that roamed the seas, only Cutty Sark survives. Still, time and weather have taken their toll. With her spars towering above nearby piers, the ship, now a museum, rests permanently on blocks in a graving dock at Greenwich, near Londona proud but crumbling relic of the golden age of sail.
Not long ago I toured the ship with her administrative master, a burly ex-merchant skipper named Simon Waits. From keel to deck the ravages of age are plain to see. Below the waterline the copper sheathing had peeled away, exposing raw wood. In the bilges themselves much of the ironwork had rotted out. Some of the bilge strakes, floors and surrounding wood were in bad condition.
"She’s in poor shape," Waite told me as he led the way across the deck. "Bilges and counter have dropped a bit, though we’ve got them shored up. If we can stop the rainwater getting in, we can stop the rot."
According to officials of Britain’s Maritime Trust, owner of Cutty Sark, plans call for a $5 to $6 million refit of the ship’s hull and main deck. At least $1 million of the cost will have to be raised by the trust itself; the rest would come from a special lottery fund set up to support endangered historical monuments. Right now, visitors bring in about $1 million per year, but most of the money is eaten up by everyday expenses for power, salaries, and basic maintenance.
"Our goal is to keep as much of the original fabric of this ship as we can," Waite told me. "But it is a very, very expensive undertaking. We’ll always have to pump money into her."
Cutty Sark’s "composite" constructioniron frames with teak and American elm plankingcontributed much to her longevity, but the use of iron also means that Cutty Sark’s caretakers have to deal not only with wood rot but also rust and corrosion. By the end of the 19th century, composites were prevalent. They built structural strength onto fewer frames, opening space for revenue freight. The use of timber, meanwhile, reduced sweating. In carriage of Foochow or Shanghai tea, some owners believed (wrongly) that the holds of iron steamships harmed their luxury cargoes.
Cutty Sark was, and remains, a delight to the eye. Loftily rigged with a skysail yard at the main, she carried in her heyday a full press of fore, main, and mizzen courses, topsails, royals, and topgallants. Jibs, staysails, and billowing stuns’ls augmented all this canvas.
From the fo’c’s’le head, the vessel’s deck sweeps back in a long, graceful sheer. A few paces aft the first of a pair of midship houses breaks the line of sight. The forward structure once contained galley, carpenter’s shop, and quarters for apprentices and the so-called "idlers," petty officers who stood no fixed watches: bosun, carpenter, sailmaker, and cook.
Abaft the mizzen a short ladder leads to the poop with its brassbound wooden wheel and squat binnacle cradling a Lilley & Reynolds magnetic compass. Below the poop is officers’ countrycaptain’s cabin, as austerely furnished as a monk’s cell, and a surprisingly opulent saloon paneled in polished teak and bird’s-eye maple. Framed by leather settees, the saloon did double duty as a chartroom and dining room.
Forward of the saloon and giving off a narrow passage lie the steward’s pantry and chief mate’s cabin, to port. The second and third mates shared a double cabin to starboard. For mates as well as master, amenities included not much more than a bunk bed, dry sink, gimballed oil lamp, and a tiny porthole emitting a glimmer of light.
On view in the ‘tween deckslike the lower hold, a cargo space in Cutty Sark’s working daysare chart’s, logs, nautical instruments, and other reminders of the ship’s service in the China tea and Australian wool trades. Also on display is the vessel’s original figurehead, the "cutty sark"-adorned witch of Robert Burns’ epic poem "Tam O’Shanter."
For landlubbers, clippers like Cutty Sark breathed the spirit of romance. But the romance was illusion. The ships’ magic lay in their beauty. Life in these wind machines was generally hard, often brutish. Food, for one thing, was barely edible, a diet of salt beef and "hard tack" (ship’s biscuit) relieved now and then by a chicken or pig slaughtered on board.
Time, of course, was money. Captains were expected to push their ships to the limits, and sailors did the pushing in 12-hour watches under cold, wet, and frequently dangerous conditions. In the tea trade, Cutty Sark ran at breakneck speed. According to maritime historian Frank Carr, she once logged an astounding 2,164 miles in six days, averaging 15 knots.
In her later careerout by Good Hope and back by Cape Horn with Australian woolthe vessel won acclaim for even greater dash. Her most famous captain was Richard Woodget. Known as a "driver," Woodget made record passages in winds that suited him best, the Roaring Forties south of the Horn. His first voyage, in 1885, saw Cutty Sark outrun her archrival Thermopylae from Sydney to the English Channel in 67 days. In 1887 Woodget sent the clipper flying from Sydney to the Lizard (on England’s southwest coast) in 70 days; two years later his time from Sydney to London was 75 days.
A typical log entry gives the flavor of the sailor’s lot under Woodget’s command: "Hard gale with terrific squallstremendous seas washing aboardapprentices’ house filled to top bunksAbs house filling to lower bunks."
A reminiscence by a foremast hand described Woodget as the "strongest and steadiest man I have ever metin fact, he did not know what nerves meant. Men with nerves at all were of no use aboard Cutty Sark."
Besides gaining fame as an ocean greyhound, the ship supplied a curious footnote to literary history. In what historians have dubbed the notorious "hell voyage" of 1880, Cutty Sark’s "bucko" mate struck and killed an insubordinate seaman and fled the vessel with the captain’s aid. Author Joseph Conrad’s celebrated short story "The Secret Sharer" was inspired by the incident.
Very little has been recorded about navigation on Cutty Sark. Officers in the last century rarely troubled to document their methods. What is known is that captains like Moodie and Woodget were shrewd, educated mariners who held their licenses from Britain’s Board of Trade. Examination for master was rigorous. Subjects ranged from rigging and seamanship to navigation and nautical astronomy. At sea, captains provided their own sextants, in some cases their own chronometers. The top London instrument makers of the day included Troughton & Simms for sextants, Mercer, Frodsham, Brockbank, and Sewill for chronometers. A period chronometer on display in Cutty Sark is by Sewill. A sextant reputed to have belonged to Woodget (possibly a Troughton) is on view, but the maker’s name has worn off. Cutty Sark of necessity would have carried one or more copies of the Nautical Almanac and Astronomical Ephemeris. Drawers would have been stocked with Admiralty charts, shelves with pilot books, Burdwood’s or Towson’s azimuth tables, Norie’s Epitome of Practical Navigation, and, from the 1880s, Lecky’s authoritative Wrinkles in Practical Navigation. If Lecky is any guide, the navigator’s daily observations would have focused on the sun: bearings from compass checks; morning and afternoon "time sights" for longitude and the meridian altitude for latitude. Officers took star sights only when closing on land.
With improvement in chronometer reliability, the time sight became the linchpin of 19th century celestial practice. The computations involved were demanding. They employed spherical trigonometry to obtain time at the ship. Once local time had been established, a comparison with the Greenwich-regulated chronometers gave time difference converted to arc, longitude, east or west of the prime meridian.
Reasonably accurate on the whole, the time-sight formula had one main drawback. It was only as good as its key ingredient: dead-reckoning latitude. A small error in latitude could mean a huge and potentially fatal error in longitude. The correctivethe newfangled line of position (a time sight worked from an assumed latitude and plotted at right angles to the sun’s true bearing)would have been known to Cutty Sark’s navigators. It is uncertain whether they actually used it.
Viewing the old ship today, it takes little imagination to see her as she once was. Conrad is a dependable witness. Describing a fleet of clippers, he tells in his memoirs of spars dwarfing "with their loftiness the corrugated iron sheds;" of jib booms jabbing at the rooftops, and of "white-and-gold figureheads, almost dazzling in purity."
Of that crowded harbor scene, Cutty Sark now is all that remains. She has been preserved to "commemorate an era," reads the legend carved in stone on her Greenwich dock. "Earth will not see such ships as these again."