The fight to save Cutty Sark

“If funding is not successful and nothing is done to stop the rot,Cutty Sark will close to the public in 2007.”

The warning by Richard Doughty, chief executive of the Cutty Sark Trust, owner of the 280-foot clipper ship, spells out in starkest terms the possible fate of an international icon of maritime history.

Doughty has applied to the U.K. Heritage Lottery Fund for some $18 million to begin the work of saving the ship by designating it as an endangered national monument. Additional money would have to be raised privately to meet the total estimated cost — $22 million — of hull repair and restoration. The decision on Doughty’s appeal is not expected before January. A previous bid for public support was denied.

Cutty Sark, launched in 1869 to haul tea from China, is the last of the stately clippers to survive worldwide — a proud but crumbling relic of the great age of sail. In its heyday, the three-masted full-rigger could be driven at more than 17 knots and was one of the fastest ships ever to move through the water under sail power alone.

The ship today is a top British tourist attraction, with 160,000 visitors a year. Berthed in a dry dock on the River Thames at Greenwich, near London, Cutty Sark is an unmistakable landmark distinguished by towering spars and a long, graceful sheer. Belowdecks, unfortunately, the picture is less attractive.

Late 19th-century clipper design relied on teak planking over iron frames to create a spearlike form that at the same time was roomy enough to speed profitable payloads to global markets. But plank-on-metal “composites” had a fatal flaw. They planted the seeds of rust and decay now destroying Cutty Sark’s hull.

According to Doughty, Cutty Sark’s career as a deepwater merchantman left the hull so impregnated with salt that chloride continues to leach through the wood and contaminate the frames. His cure-or-close deadline announcement reflects the danger of structural collapse. Surveyors have informed the Cutty Sark Trust that the vessel will be unsafe for visitors if no action is taken.

Doughty is considering several techniques to halt the corrosion. One would be a radical departure from conventional methods. An electrolysis experiment being carried out this month in the aft peak &mdash passing an electrical current through water laced with chemicals &mdash is aimed at extracting chloride, the root of the problem.

Cutty Sark’s conservation consultant, a biochemist named George Monger, has reported finding the highest concentrations of chloride in the lower hull. He said electrolysis had the ability to hasten chloride removal and “reduce corrosion to a more stable product, magnetite, which would have some protective effect.”

But Monger also said that while initial test results showed promise, it was still too early to tell whether electrolysis could successfully be applied to the full length of the lower part of the ship. The hull’s upper half &mdash the ‘tween decks &mdash where chloride contamination in any case is less pronounced, would be too large to flood with water and treat by electrolysis, Monger said.

Regardless of the outcome of the aft-peak experiment, plans eventually call for pressure-washing as much loose chloride and corrosion as possible from both the upper and the lower hull to prepare the surface for rust inhibitors.

“We also want to be certain that the deck stays watertight,” Monger said, “and that environmental conditions in the bilges, aft peak, lazarette and fore peak remain at around 50 percent relative humidity. The painting cycle in these areas would be increased.”

In the end, however, the bottom line is what it has always been &mdash money. If the Cutty Sark Trust’s bid for underwriting fails, Doughty told me, “The risk is that the ship could be lost to posterity.”

Despite interior hull damage, Cutty Sark ( continues to welcome visitors. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $8 and is free to the neighboring National Maritime Museum (history of ships and seafaring) and the Royal Observatory (museum of chronometry and navigation, and home of Greenwich Mean Time, longitude 0� 0′ 0″). The website for both is

By Ocean Navigator