Cutty Sark - part of our Maritime Heritage


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Walking under Cutty Sark suspended in her old dry dock is quite stunning, and although the shiny brass sheathing looks a bit too flashy, when new her bottom was originally covered with something similar, ‘Muntz Metal’. Near the bow of the ship a collection of figureheads draws one to the raised viewing platform from where the fineness of her entry is most impressive.

Inside the ship the colour coding of the old frames and new metal structure shows how much of the original has been lost. Most of this may have happened during her later years ashore due to decades of rainwater (and the fire!) and some comments received from friends before our visit as to why ‘they should rebuild her to go sailing again’ were brought to mind as very over-optimistic!

The ‘Tween deck is a wonderful space and we liked the figurehead animation and audio presentations are also well judged. But I wish I had more time to listen to the old boys talking about the ship – these clips should be available to listen to on the internet.

On deck one would hardly know that all this woodwork and brass fittings had been re-assembled so recently. The various deckhouses and the captain’s quarters are a joy and the exposed steering mechanism is a great piece of engineering. Kids were fascinated when it was explained to them, but it seems a pity that only the inquisitive few will find out that it’s 24 turns lock to lock by playing with the mock up downstairs.

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Despite the pleasure this all gave us I have two grumbles, the first being the view of the ship at street level, because her waterline, the visual reference point for judging any ship, is obscured by the new glass structure. When viewed in elevation it has a rising ‘sheerline’ all of its own which seems to conflict with the subtle sheer of the ship.

From a distance, the impression is that Cutty Sark has crash-landed into some huge Buckminster Fuller inspired greenhouse that semi-submerges the proud bow of this beautiful vessel, which is unfortunate because when viewed from the gallery below it all looks very impressive.

My second grumble is the lack of drawings, as the lines of the Cutty Sark appear not to be displayed or published. The raison d’etre of the clipper ships was their sheer speed and the shape of the hulls was their secret. Indeed one of the reasons given for the ship’s renovation was the gradual distortion of this famous hull shape.

Presumably the lines exist or were taken afresh as part of the current restoration, so why are they not published in the guides or available to view on the internet? Go online and one will find the lines of other famous vessels but not, it seems, Cutty Sark.

Of all the information in the exhibition, for me at least, the most stunning was that the ship was so nearly lost when her cargo of coal shifted. The skipper’s decision to cut away her rigging will have been motivated by self interest and survival but in doing so he helped save the Cutty Sark for our nation.

But the greatest debt we owe for rescuing Cutty Sark for posterity is to Captain Wilfred Dowman who, having bought her and having had her towed back to Falmouth, refitted her as a training ship. That’s where my grandfather and two of his sons, John my father and his younger brother Dick, paid to go on board in 1934. The Captain was aboard and according to my uncle the old man himself was busy removing paint to reveal the original teak joinery.

My father was an HMS Worcester cadet by the time Cutty Sark was towed up to her new berth at Greenhithe only four years later. Surviving the blitz of London and her eventual renovation completes a remarkable history. Today she is well worth a visit and once you are aboard it’s all to easy to get lost in the romance of this magnificent vessel.

Jonty Sherwill © 2013

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