25 January 2008

British tall ships get £30 million lottery grant.

Good news for lovers of square riggers and maritime history: the National Lottery has awarded £30 million to help restore Mary Rose and The Cutty Sark. And both need a quid or two (report here and in pics here).

Mary Rose was King Henry VIII's flagship: one fateful day in 1545 she set sail to do battle with the French under the watchful gaze of the King himself. An innovative ship, she was one of the first capable of firing broadsides but on that day she disobeyed one of the fundamental rules of successful sailing - water outside boat. She sank in the Solent and was entombed in its mud. Her wreck lay in what could best be described to landlubbers as the sliproad to one of the busiest ports in Britain, and was in the 20th century a risk to shipping. The Royal Navy would not wish this widely known, but they blew part of her up to remove the risk (this before they knew just what an historic wreck they had on their hands).

Slightly less than 50% of her hull survived the depredations of time and the Naval demolitions team, and she was raised in 1982. The contents of her hull were incredible - skeletons (the archers showed thickened bones and curved spines from repeatedly drawing the heavy bows), the surgeon's instruments (shudder), the carpenters' tools, longbows, arrows, rigging blocks, the ship's artillery. She is on display at Portsmouth, England and her slice of the cash is to finish her preservation and build a dedicated museum.

Cutty Sark was a tea clipper. The British are passionately addicted to tea, and thought nothing of building the fastest sailing ships in the world to cart it half way round the world. Speed mattered, because the first ship to make it to London got by far the best price for its cargo. There are stories of these things tearing through storms with insane amounts of sail set, the decks awash, officers standing at the foot of the masts with loaded pistols threatening to shoot any crewman who went aloft to reduce sail. She was preserved in a drydock at Greenwich, London, and was undergoing restoration when last year a fire broke out in her hull. Fortunately, much of her internal woodwork had been removed, but the damage was pretty extensive. She too has her place in British maritime history.

However, in this country which has so relied on the sea, her trading vessels and Royal Navy to survive, found colonies, trade, explore and chart terra incognita, carry out science and confound dictators, there is no sailing example of a Naval square rigger on which we can take young people and show them what it was all about. We can show them immobile Mary Roses and Cutty Sarksis, but we can't let them feel the heave of a deck under their feet or see the curve of a well-set mainsail against the sky with the satisfaction of one who has had a hand sheeting it home.

The Irish have their sailing famine ships.
The Dutch their rebuilt Indiamen.
The US has innumerable historic square riggers.
The Swedes have Gotheborg.
The Australians have (our) Endeavour.
The British have...er. We have a few square riggers, but none dating from or celebrating our maritime past.

Well, for £3.5 million we can give Britain that boat. Me, I'm on the phone to the Heritage Lottery Fund this afternoon. I remember staring at the Cutty Sark in a rather dull fashion when I was a kid. I remember what happened the first time I stepped on a living boat, left the harbour, helped set the sails and was trusted with the tiller for the first time. I know which experience was more affecting.

If the National Lottery's £30 million is to be truly well-spent, there is another ship which needs raising: the remain of the original HMS Beagle. After all: Mary Rose was a failure and Cutty Sark a tea-wagon. Beagle changed the world. Her rebuild would give the world an icon of British maritime (and scientific) prowess and and is the logical heritage extension of preserving ships in museums.

Update: Joe D in comments puts me right on the Solent. It is indeed the sliproad to two of Britain's busiest ports - Portsmouth and Southampton. I did my yachtmaster training and exam in the Solent (which is also mentioned in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People), and have sailed in and out of both ports, and over the Mary Rose wreck site more often than I'd care to remember or you'd care to read. So I kept it brief, but sit corrected.


Joe D said...


The Solent is the sliproad to two of Britain's busiest ports.

nunatak said...

Standing up. Clapping hands. Wiping away tears.