The Clipper, Cutty Sark
Launched in 1869, the Cutty Sark was designed to win the annual race to be the first to bring the seasonal tea harvest in China to the London market and thus secure the highest price. The voyage covered about 6,000 miles and took 90 days or more. The Cutty Sark never succeeded in beating the record held by the champion of the the fleet, the Thermopylae, and in the year she was launched, the Suez Canal was opened, giving steamships a shortcut and immense time advantage.
The Cutty Sark was laid up in 1954 in her present dry dock for public display. She was gutted by fire in 2007 and reconstructed with the aim of re-opening in 2012. She sits alongside the south shaft of the Greenwich foot tunnel, completed in 1902. At high tide, the surface of the River is 53 feet (16 metres) above the lowest point of the Tunnel: when large vessels pass above, you can clearly hear the loud thump of the propellers.
“I never sailed a finer ship. At 10-12 knots she did not disturb the water at all. She was the fastest ship of her day, a grand ship, and a ship that will last for ever.” Captain George Moodie, First Master of the Cutty Sark
Greenwich Ward Map Photo Gallery
A poster for the reopening of the Cutty Sark.
Inspection of Naval cadets at the entrance to the ship. Why Cutty Sark was so named
Cutty Sark was one of the fastest tea-clippers of her day and well-known for sailing both in light airs and rough weather like “a witch”.
The name comes from a poem by Robert Burns titled Tam O’Shanter. It tells the tale of a drunken farmer riding home and spotting a coven of witches beside a church on fire. Among these wrinkled hags danced a very beautiful young girl named Nannie, wearing nothing but a “cutty sark”, a short linen shirt.
“Weel done, Cutty Sark!” shouted Tam.
“In an instant a’ was dark,” and the young girl, transformed into a mature and determined woman, turned to pursue him.
Tam knew that the only way to escape a witch was to pass over running water. He set off at full gallop. Just as he reached the nearest stream and jumped, the witch seized hold of the horse’s tail and it came off in her hands. Look at the ship’s figurehead (below) if you are in any doubt. This is no young girl and she has an expression of grim and murderous intent. In her outstretched hand, the horse’s tail is still left there, blowing in the breeze.
The main mast of the Cutty Sark. being topped out in March 2012. The truck of the mast towers 152 feet above the main deck; The Cutty Sark figurehead, “Nannie”.