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.


Alan Nelson said...

Sounds great. Can't wait to see it.

http://puravida101.wordpress.com said...

Fabulous write up Ms F....I got enthused just reading it!

Peter McGrath said...

There are tales of officers standing at the foot of the mast with loaded pistols threatening to shoot any man who tried to ascend the rigging to reduce sail even in horrendous weather.