29 April 2012

My other ship’s a clipper: inside the restored Cutty Sark

A tour of the newly restored Cutty Sark by guest blogger Anna Faherty. Anna is a writer, editor and lecturer and a long-term advisor to the HMS Beagle Project. She works with major publishers and national museums and has just completed a mobile learning project for the National Maritime Museum.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I didn't get involved with the HMS Beagle Project because of a love of ships, the Royal Navy or maritime history. What attracted me was a huge amount of admiration for Darwin, and in particular, for his sense of adventure and enquiry.

Of course, in the Britain of the 1800s, an aspiring adventurer needed one thing above all else: a ship. Ships were the only way to escape our small island, and HMS Beagle was the ship that not only carried Darwin around the world, it also sparked an incredible intellectual adventure. The six years Darwin spent travelling as a naturalist companion to Captain Robert FitzRoy set him on a path that ultimately led to the development of the theory of evolution by natural selection. That's why the world came to know the Beagle, and that's why it is still one of our country's best-known ships today.

Ten years after The Origin of Species outlined Darwin's world-changing theory, and just as updates for the fifth edition were being finalised, another legendary ship first set sail. The Cutty Sark wasn't a Royal Navy ship, and she certainly wasn't intended for science, surveying or fighting. Over twice the length of the Beagle, the Cutty Sark was a 'clipper', a term coined for long, narrow ships with tall masts and large sail areas. Powered by 32,000 square feet of canvas, the Cutty Sark's streamlined shape was designed for one thing: speed.

Entering the newly restored Cutty Sark at Greenwich you are left in no doubt about why speed was of the essence. Strolling through a doorway sliced through the American rock elm hull, you find yourself in the midst of tea, tea and more tea. Here in the depths of the lower deck you walk on a floor of tea chests, stoop below a ceiling of tea, and even smell the distinctive leaves around you. Unfortunately, not being a tea-drinker myself, I was unable to identify the specific chosen aroma - and neither could the member of staff I asked.

A ceiling of tea chests in the lower hold
We may be known as a nation of tea drinkers, but it's difficult to imagine just how big the tea business was in the late 19th century. In 1849 Britain imported over 25 million kilograms of Chinese tea. That's enough for 8 billion cups. And with customers keen to drink the freshest brew, using the fastest ships wasn't just important, it made you more money. The first tea to arrive back home commanded a premium price, making 'first to market' everyone's aim. The Cutty Sark didn't disappoint. She may famously have been beaten by the Thermopylae in 1872, after losing her rudder off Indonesia, but she regularly got away from China before her rivals.

Often described as ‘the last surviving tea clipper’, the Cutty Sark wasn't all about the Shanghai to London route, though. When steamships took over the tea trade – they were faster and also more able to navigate the Mediterranean on the shorter Suez Canal route – the Cutty Sark was put to several new uses. She even ended up visiting many of the same ports as the Beagle had done years before.

Clambering up from below, the tween deck reveals the ship's post-tea purpose: carrying wool back from Australia. You also learn a little about the crew and life on board. Despite her size, the Cutty Sark had less than half as many men aboard as the Beagle, with only 19 required once she swapped tea chests for wool bales. Their regular dinner was apparently pea soup and salt pork and they drank coffee and lime. This deck also includes a table-top interactive tool where you can try your hand steering a course back from Australia. If you make the most of the trade winds and avoid the doldrums, you might make it in 70-80 days.

I wasn't quite as quick as ol' Captain Woodget 
In 1895 (26 years after she was launched) the Cutty Sark was sold to a Portuguese company. Renamed Ferreira, she transported various cargoes from Lisbon to Brazil, what was then Portuguese East Africa and the Southern USA. At the ripe old age of 53 – by which time HMS Beagle had been retired, broken up and (probably) half-buried in an Essex marsh – the Cutty Sark was bought by a Captain Dowman of Falmouth, Devon "for sentimental reasons." No longer used for active duty, she became a training vessel for boys joining the Royal Navy and was also opened to the public – therefore becoming an ‘exhibition ship’ before either HMS Victory or the USS Constitution followed suit.

The main mast stands 47m above the deck
Stepping out of the low-ceilinged storage areas onto the main deck is a thrilling experience. You're in the thick of a maritime adventure, surrounded by rigging and ropes and able to hold the ship's wheel below flapping flags. You can explore the crew's quarters, including a compact and bijou Captain's cabin, which can be hired for your own private dining experience.

That 'corporate entertainment' aspect comes into its own at the last port of call on your visit: the other-worldly under-ship space that is the perfect venue to impress clients. Standing under the gleaming barnacle-free copper-clad hull (another reason the ship was so fast) is a slightly surreal, but entirely memorable experience. This isn't a coincidence. Building in opportunities to generate revenue from corporate hire is an integral part of the business plan, where ordinary visitors and school groups aren’t enough to underwrite the attraction’s running costs. The HMS Beagle Project could surely learn some lessons from this in our own development.

The ship is suspended in a dry berth 3m above the floor
If my first sight of the revamped ship is anything to go by, public, corporate and school-age visitors will all be impressed. Although I’d seen and visited the ship before, she’s been under wraps for so long that I was visibly shocked by my first view as I walked out of the Docklands Light Railway station that bears her name. It's not simply her size – though she is big. The elegant masts (the tallest of which reaches over 45m above her deck) and the rigging (all 11 miles of it) designed to hold 32 sails are stunning. She may be stranded in what some have described as a ‘hovercraft’ but she's no less impressive for it.

Even in the gloomy April rain, the masts and rigging are impressive

All in all Cutty Sark is a spectacular sight that conjures up the adventure of the era, and demonstrates the heart-stopping impact of a beautiful ship. A visit should be compulsory for any wavering Beagle sponsors. Even for a non-maritime buff, she made me believe in the impact a rebuilt Beagle could have, and she's already steering others on a course towards celebrating our maritime heritage. So, until we can make Professor Simon Keynes’s wish come true, for now, my other ship’s a clipper…

See more pictures of the restored Cutty Sark at Anna’s Flickr page.

20 April 2012

If your house was on fire...

By American guest blogger John Romano. John is head of science at an independent school in the US where he teaches evolution and comparative anatomy and biology. He channels his overzealous love for the natural world into positive endeavors like sustainable urban gardening and documentary-making, and says the HMS Beagle Project is "one of the most important ventures of our time." Thanks, John!

So, if your house was on fire and you could only grab one thing...

….what would it be? I never had an answer for this.  People and animals aside, the question was always about a material possession. So what was it?  


I realized today that these books would be the one thing I carried out.  Not because of what’s written in them; I can find that information anywhere now.  No, for a very different reason.

I've been trying to organize my life more, so I decided to tackle my basement... There amidst the cardboard boxes was the milk crate containing my “Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau” set.  Peeking out ever so slightly was a very faded scrap of paper diligently holding a place in one of Jacques's books for the last 25 years. I became intrigued: it was put there by an 8-year-old me and had never been removed, indicating something I found to be of great importance.  So I picked up the book and flipped to the marked page…

Curious, now, aren't you? Read more at John's blog...

11 April 2012

Sick and tired in Brazil

Excellent post on a "cousin" blog today by Rob Viens, science teacher and current Dean of the Science Division at Bellevue College in Washington State (and soon-to-be blogger in this forum). Here's an excerpt:

"I felt unwell, with a little shivering & sickness… could eat nothing at one oclock, which was the first time I was able to procure anything. — Travelled on till it was dark, felt miserably faint & exhausted; I often thought I should have fallen off my horse. … All night felt very unwell; it did not require much imagination to paint the horrors of illness in a foreign country, without being able to speak one word or obtain any medical aid.” (Apr 11, from Darwin's journal)

...It is pretty clear that on this night 180 years ago, Darwin was more than a little scared. And really, who could blame him?  He felt terrible all day and had no idea why (did he drink the water?).  He had not doctors in his party, nor did he know how to communicate with the locals (language never seemed to be a strong subject for him – I can relate.) And the reality was that people died of tropical diseases in the 1800′s much more frequently than today.  He knew that there was a chance that he might not survive the trip and I’m sure moments like this made that thought seem a real possibility. I’d be scared, too.

Rob's map of this leg of the voyage

Read more at The Beagle Project

7 April 2012

Questions, Questions

By Australian guest blogger Rachel Slatyer. Rachel is a PhD candidate studying adaptation in alpine grasshoppers. She spends her spare time sailing on tall ships and hopes to combine her science and sailing passions through involvement in the HMS Beagle Project.

When Charles Darwin put forward his theory of evolution by natural selection, could he have imagined the enormous number of questions that would arise from it? 150 years on, the huge volume of research on evolution and how it works still seems to provide more questions than answers.

A little over a month ago, I was sailing into Adelaide on HMB Endeavour, seven weeks after leaving Fremantle. I left the ship to start a 3-year PhD, and during my last days on board I was asked multiple times “So, why are you starting a PhD?” As I sat at my desk, struggling to absorb an overwhelming amount of new information about mountains, physiology, genetics and grasshoppers, I asked myself the same question. Why was I back at university when I could be sailing?

My research is looking into adaptations to life in alpine environments, with a focus on grasshoppers. In Australia, true alpine regions make up a tiny proportion of the country’s land area – 0.15% to be precise. Mountains here aren’t very high either (our highest, Mount Kosciuszko, is 2200m), so there is not a lot of room for animals or plants to shift up-mountain with increasing global warming. 

Feral horses or "Brumbies", one of the region's more robust species / Rachel Slatyer

Here we have a dilemma – species must adapt to cope with warmer temperatures or face extinction. While there is little doubt such adaptation is possible given enough time, whether evolution can occur at a pace equal to global warming is less clear. Finding out exactly what features allow animals to live in the alpine environment (not the easiest of places) is the first step in answering this big question.

The Bogong High Plains, regenerating after 2003 wildfires / Rachel Slatyer

Science can be a lonely road, especially at the beginning of a new project. Everybody is busy on their own work, writing, doing fieldwork, preparing talks. This was a hard change after the camaraderie of the ship. However, I was soon to be reminded how tremendously stimulating and exciting science research can be. 

Last week I was lucky enough to join a group from a different university on a trip to Thredbo, a mountain village in the Australian Alps. At our lodge on the first evening, we pored over a huge book covering every Australian grasshopper species, trying to make sense of cryptic species descriptions (“frontal costa not, or very little sulcate”?!). We studied our specimens under the microscope and had a lengthy discussion about whether a particular part of the body was best described as a “thin transverse plate” or “wedge-shaped”. 

Can she adapt? Chameleon grasshopper / Rachel Slatyer
The next day, we watched tiny males locked in fierce combat, and pondered why grasshoppers near the bottom of the mountain would jump when you disturb them, while those at the top would bury themselves in the grass. This must surely be an evolutionary adaptation, and I’m now curious about what would happen if you took a grasshopper from the top of a mountain and put it near the bottom – would it start jumping?

Questioning, proposing explanations, and weighing up the merits of different arguments is, I think, the essence of science, and what makes it exciting. We didn’t agree on an answer to any of our questions and merely came up with more, but that didn’t really matter.

Like finding a needle in a haystack: a view of Central Ramshead
from a field site / Rachel Slatyer
Hiking for two hours up a mountain to look at something on the top and spending an hour searching for an animal that isn’t there doesn’t feel like work. Studying in an environment that is virtually unchanged from what it would have been a hundred or two hundred years ago, and in which there is still such a huge amount to learn provides a sense of freedom and discovery that is remarkably akin to being out in the open ocean on a sailing ship…

So next time somebody asks me why I’m doing a PhD when I could be sailing, I’ll have an answer for them.