Voyager discovers a souvenir of Cutty Sark

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To the editor:

J. Gregory Dill's recent letter about finding an antique copy of Capt. Sumner's groundbreaking book, A New and Accurate Method of Finding a Ship's Position at Sea ("Antique marine book has curious inscription," Issue 120, March/April 2002), reminded me of a similar experience of my own. Many years ago, I was browsing in a second-hand bookstore on O'Farrell Street in San Francisco. In the marine section, I spotted a rather battered copy of The Log of the Cutty Sark by Basil Lubbock. Although I already had a copy at home, I took it down and flicked through the pages. It was a first edition, published in 1924. Inside the front cover was a number of signatures. To my amazement, I saw that one of them was Capt. Woodget's, master of the great ship from 1885 to 1895.

Woodget was a famous deep-water sailor who achieved fame in Victorian times by his record-breaking passages on Cutty Sark. A yellowing clipping from Lloyd's List and Shipping Gazette for Aug. 1, 1924, was also pasted in the front and provided the explanation. The book had belonged to Felix Riesenberg, a noted American naval historian, merchant service commander and author of a classic work, Standard Seamanship for the Merchant Service. He had arrived in England on the American cadet-training barquentine Newport a little after the book's publication and had been invited to a dinner at Anderton's Hotel in Fleet Street on July 30, 1924. Many other maritime notables were invited, including former Cutty Sark apprentices and, of course, Woodget. At the time, he was 79 years old and had been retired since 1898. The stentorian voice that had bested Cape Horn gales was almost gone; a reply to a toast in his honor was done instead by Capt. Millett, who served the last year of his apprenticeship aboard Cutty Sark in 1885, during Woodget's first year of command. Riesenberg took the opportunity during the dinner to circulate his copy of Lubbock's book among the guests for their signatures.

The dinner preceded, by a few days, the moving of Cutty Sark under tow from Falmouth to Fowey, England, where she would serve as the committee boat for the Royal Yacht Club regatta. Onboard when she sailed was the redoubtable Woodget, making his last voyage on the ship he had known so well. Cutty Sark was launched in 1869 and, at the end of Woodget's tenure, was sold to the Portuguese in 1895. She continued to sail for many years, although her rig was cut down and she was no longer the greyhound she had been. Ultimately, she was bought by a Capt. Dowman in very decrepit condition and restored to some extent at Falmouth.

A long chapter in Lubbock's book describes a famous race in 1872 when the ship was engaged in the China tea trade. There was great competition to bring the first teas of the season to London. The first teas fetched a premium on the market, and it was a point of honor to deliver the first cargo, as well as being financially rewarding. Cutty Sark and her rival, Thermopylae, left Shanghai on the same day in June 1872, with Capt. Moodie in command of Cutty Sark. They sighted each other several times in the first month, the last time being near Keeling Island.

When Cutty Sark was southeast of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, at 34º 26' S, 28º 01' E, on Aug. 1, a heavy sea broke under the stern and tore off the rudder. The crew immediately set about making a jury rudder. Using a spare spar, a false rudderpost was fabricated and several planks cut to form the actual rudder. Deck stanchions were removed and forged to make eye bolts. The forge was set up on deck. As Cutty Sark plunged in the wild seas, the fire was upset, and hot coals permanently scarred an apprentice, who happened to be Moodie's son.

Finally, the whole jury-rudder contraption was sunk beneath the stern using a spare 560-lb kedge anchor, which was carried away and lost. Nevertheless, the crew managed to draw the false rudderpost into the trunk and wedge it at deck level. The rig was secured by tightening chains passed along and under the keel.

North of the equator, the jury-rig failed and had to be brought back onboard. Corrosion between the copper sheathing and the iron of the chains and bolts had eaten away the metal. Wire parceled with canvas was substituted and new bolts made, and the assembly was reattached. In what was a most astonishing example of seamanship, the jury-rig was streamed astern and then the ship tacked into wind so that the square sails were taken aback. As the ship gathered sternway, she sailed backwards into the rudder assembly, the attachment wire guys were tightened, and the rig was snugged into position. Cutty Sark arrived at Gravesend, England, on Oct. 18, 1872, 122 days out from Shanghai. Thermopylae had beaten her by just 7 days. Moodie quit sail at the end of this voyage and went into steam.

When Woodget took command in 1885, his first voyage was to Sydney, Australia, to load wool. And who should be there also loading wool? Cutty Sark cleared on Oct. 16, carrying six ABs, six apprentices and a total complement of only 19. Thermopylae left the same day, so the race was on. Cutty Sark rounded the Horn on Nov. 8, 23 days out from Sydney and, despite headwinds in the Bay of Biscay and calms in the English Channel, picked up a pilot on Dec. 28, 73 days out. Thermopylae arrived a week later, evening the score a bit.

Thanks to Dowman, Cutty Sark has been preserved, and she is now the only surviving British clipper ship of that era. You can visit her at Greenwich, just east of London on the south side of the River Thames. Inevitably, in order to pay the cost of upkeep, the old ship has become a little touristy, with a gift shop in the hold. But you can walk her deck and stand at the wheel and wonder at the skill of men who sailed ships like her across all the oceans of the world, overworked, underpaid and under no illusions about the "romance" of sail, but still very proud of what they did.


Eric Forsyth is the recipient of the Cruising Club of America's Bluewater Medal. He lives in Brookhaven, N.Y., when not voyaging.

By Ocean Navigator