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On this date in 1869, The Cutty Sark, one of the last sailing clippers ever to be built, was launched at Dumbarton. Clippers were designed for the lucrative tea trade, and would race each other from China back to London for the highest profits. The Cutty Sark is preserved in dry dock in Greenwich, but was ravaged by fire in May of this year. Read the full story at

The Ship Cutty Sark

The tea clipper Cutty Sark may have been the fastest ship of her day, but the wool trade Cutty Sark obviously was. By a wide margin, too - she won the race from Australia to England ten years out of ten under Captain Woodget.

A clipper in the tea trade made her name by her performance in the Doldrums. The greater the sail area that could be carried there without being 'thrown on her beam ends', the better. But for the wool trade, the supreme achievement was the exact opposite - the strength to keep going in the huge swells and high winds of the Southern seas when lesser ships had to 'hove to', to face the wind with 'bare poles'. Small strong sails, high off the water, were the best there. And, it was there that the staunch hull of the Cutty Sark made her unquestionably the 'Queen of the Seas'.

My grandfather joined her at London in May 1880 to complete his apprenticeship, just after she had been 'cut down' for work as a freight carrier. He lived long enough to teach me my knots. He's at right here in the 1940's, accepting yet another print of a sailing ship as he retired from 35 years as a school trustee.

The Cutty Sark inspired much of my childhood learning. Beginning with the places my grandfather sailed to in her, I was drawn into reading of the history and geography of the world, a fascination that has continued throughout my life.

And so it is that I'm making a 1:100 model of her in the rig in which he first saw her, in port almost ready to go.

We know precisely her rigging as a tea clipper, for we still have the work book of her carpenter, detailing the exact sizes of every stick of her. But, there seems to be no document that survives to detail her rig after March 1880. All I have to go on is the work order of March 1880, specifying that her lower masts were to be reduced by 9'6", the lower yards shortened by 7', other spars 'in proportion', and the skysail mast and stunsails removed.

There is, however, a superb photograph of her taken a few years later, by Captain Woodget in Sydney harbour. My grandfather got a copy early this century, either from Sir Basil Lubbock or from Captain Woodget. It is shown at right. The rigging is squared to perfection, and the photo can be scaled (perspective-corrected) to a consistency of a few percent except for the bowsprit and gaffs.

Here are the results of my scaling:

mast heights above deck yard lengths
Tea rig  Sydney    Tea rig  Sydney
foretop 18.8 16.5 fore course 23.8 21.0
 topgallant  29.8 24.3  lowertopsail 20.7 16.8
 royal 39.6 35.4  uppertopsail 19.5 14.6
maintop 19.8 16.9  topgallant 14.6 11.5
 topgallant 31.9 22.8  royal 11.6 9.4
 royal 36.3 main course 23.8 21.6
mizzentop 17.0 14.8  lowertopsail 20.7 18.5
 topgallant 25.7 22.8  uppertopsail 19.5 16.8
 royal 33.2 31.7  topgallant 14.6 14.2
 royal 11.6 10.4
mizzen course  18.3 17.4
 lowertopsail 16.5 14.9
 uppertopsail 14.6 13.4
 topgallant 11.9 11.0
 royal 10.1 8.2
spanker 15.8 14.1

Grandfather insisted for most of his life that the Cutty Sark was only cut down after he left her, and his copy of Lubbock's "The Log of the Cutty Sark", which I now have, contains an indignant correction to this effect. However, it seems that by 1957 that he had accepted Lubbock's thesis, as his recounting of his voyage then to his daughter Ethel Tillenius mentions it. "Cutting down" a ship's rig was done in most cases simply to save money, and was considered an indignity by seamen.

The measurements above show a substantial further reduction in sail plan from that specified in the dock order, specifically a shortening of all the wooden spars and of the bowsprit. Some of this (it would not have required dock facilities) may have been done by Captain Woodget, who brought her to a peak of performance that made her the fastest ship of her time on the Australian run, but it might well have been done in 1881 as grandfather said, as part of the repairs required after the neglect of his voyage. So, I'm following the dock order.

G.F.Campbell made detailed drawings of her 1870 tea rig for the Cutty Sark Preservation Society, which I have. There is no evidence I am aware of for any change in rigging in 1880 other than reductions in length. (After Captain Woodget took command in 1885, he strengthened several things.)

I'm making it in plastic, starting with a Revell kit I got and started many years ago, with full rigging and furled sails. The original model was designed with a simplified rigging, but Revell kindly provided me with an additional tree of the original blocks so everything would match nicely.

The colour scheme of the ship changed over time. The best source I know of for good colour photos of her as she was restored in drydock is "The Cutty Sark", Frank G.G.Carr, Pitkin Pictorials. Copies are available at ABE Books, the world of books on the Internet.


After surviving WW2 bombs, the Cutty Sark was placed in a display dry dock at Greenwich England. There were several terrible decisions made at that time. One was to remove all the special alloy sheathing that had served her so well for so many years and replace it with gleaming new copper, which was soon badly corroded. Another was to cut gaping holes through her fine hull for access and ventilation; she could never sail again. (Would you fasten the Mona Lisa to the wall with thumb tacks?) A third was to not allow for the rot endemic to wood that has been long immersed in salt water and is then deprived of it. As a result, as of Y2K, she was in distressing condition.

And now, she's gone.

I hope the Cutty Sark Trust doesn't rebuild her as a tourist attraction, to pretend that nothing has happened. That would be fake, and the Cutty Sark was genuine. She was a flower of the tea trade, a hard working tramp carrier, the greyhound of the wool trade, once again a general cargo carrier, then a teaching ship, all of it for real. She experienced the ice of the north Atlantic, the searing heat of the Doldrums, and one of the largest waves ever recorded; salt spray all the time.

Instead, I hope the Trust will follow the magnificent example of Coventry Cathedral. After its destruction, there was no pretence made that 1945 was the 14th century. Instead, the ruins were stabilised and left as a monument to the destruction of war. A new cathedral was built, in the spirit of its time, one that has attracted so much pride over the years that in the mid 1960's when I visited, I calculated that if 2s had been paid by each visitor by that time, the amount would already have been sufficient to pay for its entire construction.

Make a year 2007 monument beside the Cutty Sark's remains to the magnificence of all Britain's sail heritage. An honest monument that leaves visitors with unforgetable visual, aural and spiritual memories of that heritage.


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