Cutty Sark

If you were to visit me this year by means of Google Earth, you would find yourself descending on me through a lofty tangle of masts, spars, and ropes.

Cutty Sark from above

The ropes, or “lines,” don’t show in that simulation.  There are eleven miles of them.

Cutty Sark rigging

This is the rigging of a ship, which after many voyages to the other side of the world was ensconced here in a dry dock.

The ship appears to ride a huge billow, made of glass.

Cutty Sark on its "billow"

The glassy billow is a visitor center, built around and under the ship.  Go in and down a stair and you can be right underneath the massive shiny keel.

Cutty Sark from beneath

The ship is propped by steel tubes to the sides of the dry dock.  At first, she rested on the dock’s floor, supported by many props, so that her shape was becoming distorted.  A five-year renovation project was started.  But six months into it, in 2007, everything went up in flames.


Nobody had been told to check a dehumidifying machine, which ran all night and overheated.  Saving the ship, restoring it with use of most of the original materials, and getting it up to its suspended place must have been a labor of Hercules.

What kind of a name is this that the ship has, “Cutty Sark”?  Is it from Sark, one of the Channel Islands, or Greek sarx, “flesh,” as in “sarcophagus,” or is it a sea monster like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or Lewis Carroll’s Snark?

The name was given by John (“Jock”) Willis, the shipping magnate who had her built in 1869, in Scotland’s shipyards at Dumbarton beside the estuary of the Clyde.  He didn’t explain, but the reference is to the weird narrative poem Robert Burns wrote in 1790, “Tam o’ Shanter.”

Farmer Tam, riding home drunk from one of his nights out in Ayr town, passes a haunted church filled with ghostly light.  Witches are doing a wild striptease dance to a tune played by the Devil on the bagpipes.  Tam spies one of them, Nannie, or Nannie Dee, showing plenty of leg, and rashly shouts “Weel done, cutty sark!” – Scots dialect for “short shirt.”  The witches fly at him, he desperately spurs his horse Meg toward the River Doon – witches can’t cross the midline of running water – and Nannie Dee comes so close to catching him that she grabs Meg’s tail; it comes off in her hand just as Tam and horse are safely across the Brig o’ Doon.  (I won’t insult you by spelling out what “brig” means in Scots, and north-England, dialect.)

So why name a ship for a cutie witch’s skimpy smock?  Well, why not?  (Though I’m not sure you’d get away with calling a ship the Miniskirt.)  Similar ships built around the time were called the Punjaub, Blackadder, Hallowe’en, and Thermopylae.  And Nannie Dee was a swift witch.  Maybe her short topgarment had a relation to the carefully designed proportions, above the waterline and below, that gave the ship her speed.  My guess is that Jock Willis was reading a bit o’ Burns after supper, and called out to his wife: “‘Cutty Saarrk’!  Soonds guid, I’ll call ma ship thaat.”

The figurehead on her prow is bare-bosomed rather than bare-bottomed, but must be witch Nannie because a horse’s tail dangles from her outstretched hand.

Cutty Sark figurehead

“Cutty Sark” is also a Scotch whisky, brewed a few years after and a few miles from the ship’s birthplace; and “tamoshanter” became the name for the Scottish bonnet, as shown in pictures of the sozzled rider.

Cutty Sark was built as a “tea clipper,” one of the last, largest, and fastest.  “Clippers” could move at a faster “clip” than the more capacious merchantmen because of their long slender shape, pointy bow, and relatively shallow draft.  Cutty Sark, designed by Hercules Linton, was famous for the speeds she achieved (up to 17.5 knots, which is over 20 miles an hour) and distances covered in a day (up to 363 nautical miles, which is 418 land miles), beating earlier American champions.  Newspapers reported, and bets were laid, on the “tea races” of those days, such as the 1872 race of the Cutty Sark and the Aberdeen-built Thermopylae from Shanghai to London.  Cutty Sark had a 400-nautical-mile lead when, in the strait between Java and Sumatra, a storm destroyed her rudder.  She somehow got across the whole Indian Ocean and was ordered (by the owner’s brother, who was aboard) to put in at Cape Town for repair; the captain refused, insisting on keeping going while a rudder – an object the size of a tree – was riveted together from scraps and hinged to the stern, in gales that tossed the workmen about and overturned the welding furnace.  All were fêted when they limped home a week after their rival.

But in that same long year of Cutty Sark’s building, 1869, the Suez Canal opened a shorter way to China – for steamships.  So she made only eight tea runs, before having to turn to other kinds of cargo – coal, jute, tallow, castor oil – and then the wool runs to Australia.

She could still outspeed the steamships.  In 1889 the log of a passenger liner recorded that, steaming at full speed, she was overtaken in the night by some sailship going two knots faster.  It proved to have been the Cutty Sark.

But steamships took over these other long-distance trade routes too.  Cutty Sark was sold to Portuguese companies that gave her different names – Ferreira, María do Amparo – though crewmen still called her Pequena Camisola, “little shirt.”  Then she lived several other lives as a naval training vessel. at Falmouth and, after her last voyage (steered  by a 15-year-old cadet), Greenhithe on the lower Thames estuary.  The nautical colleges finally decided she was no longer relevant to the training of cadets; she was exhibited in the 1951 Festival of Britain, repaired after a triple collision in which she became stuck through another ship, and in 1954 was lodged in the dry dock made for her at Greenwich.

I was told the following by our neighbor Joe Szarowicz, who occupies the only house between us and the Cutty Sark; I haven’t yet found documentation for it.  The two short streets which define our block formerly met at a point, near the river bank.  A German bomb destroyed the riverward ends of these two rows.


In my crude sketchmap, the dashed lines show where I suppose the destroyed buildings were.  In the space thus cleared, Cutty Sark’s dry dock was dug.  The broad space, pleasantly paved and contoured, is now virtually Greenwich’s town plaza, thronged by tourists, crisscrossed by cyclists, often enlivened by musicians, food stalls, dramatics, a carrousel.  It’s just one of the areas along the once grimy south bank of the Thames where wartime bombing cleared the way for entertainment wonderland.

The projection at the riverbank is the Greenwich pier, where ferries disgorge visitors.  The circle near it is a cupola over an elevator and spiral stair, descending to a foot tunnel under the Thames.  The neoclassical buildings to the east are the Old Royal Naval College, about which more needs to be said sometime; they are at the riverward end of the long wide park leading up to the Greenwich observatory.  The red patch is us; the black patch is a popular pub called the Gipsy Moth.  The core of Greenwich is the hollow square just south of us, containing the market, and surrounded by a clockwise swirl of traffic (it’s part of a main route from London into Kent).  The London-transport sign, beside an arcade, marks the station of the Dockland Light Railway, deep underground because the line comes under the Thames.  The locality is so dominated by the old ship that this station is called not “Greenwich” but “Cutty Sark” (“Greenwich” station is half a mile inland).

Cutty Sark from our back window

Certainly Cutty Sark is the most striking landmark, looming over the streets as you come through Greenwich from the south; especially at night.

Cutty Sark at night

For some years a smaller vessel was displayed beside her.  This was the ketch Gipsy Moth IV, which Francis Chichester sailed around the world in 1966-67, aiming to outrace the tea and wool clippers of the nineteenth century, whose history he had written.  He didn’t manage that, but broke many records for singlehanded navigation.  He didn’t like his yacht: it was too big and cantankerous for him, should be crewed by “an elephant to move the tiller and a chimpanzee with eight-foot arms to get about below and work the gear.”  After he died in 1972, a dry dock was made for Gipsy Moth alongside Cutty Sark.  Walked on by visitors, the boat deteriorated and had to be closed.  There was a campaign to restore her, at Gosport on the south coast where she had been built, and in 2005-07 she sailed around the world again, this time with a crew of six and with even more mishaps, and now floats at Cowes in the Isle of Wight.

Cutty Sark is a tourist magnet, but you stroll in free if you’re a member of the four Greenwich “museums”, of which this is one.  You enter the ship itself through a hole below what was the waterline.  The difference in her build was that the framework is not wood but iron: lighter. stronger, leaving more room.  To it were bolted the planks of the hull: American rock elm below the waterline, East India teak above.  Then, the hull was sheathed in plates of something called Muntz metal, now replaced with copper-zinc alloy.

You first find yourself in the hold, walking on what appear to be the tops of tea-chests, reading copious informational signs on the sides of stacked tea-chests, amid a scent of tea or teak.  You get a sense of how the hold used to be packed tight.  (Any remaining airspace was filled with stones.)  The stowing and unloading of a clipper must have been weary toil.  On the ‘tween-deck, one of the diversions is a game table where, hectically twiddling handles to steer a little Cutty Sark over a map of the world, you try to beat captain Richard Woodget’s record 41 days from Sydney to Plymouth.  He achieved it by daring to use the storm winds of the far southern Roaring Forties, but going counterclockwise around the North Atlantic, against the current but shorter.  My first time, and second try, I made 39 days, I swear!  Next time I tried to show off my prowess, I kept colliding with New Zealand, Antarctica, or Cape Horn, and never even reached the equator.

On the upper deck, you can peer into the kind of cabins where the crew slept, stand with your back against the wheel as the helmsman did, and climb to the prow.

Cutty Sark prow

The outward route conducts you all the way down to the floor of the dry dock, where there is a tea room, and a collection of figureheads, like an outlandish choir.

Cutty Sark figurehead collection

If you want to see how Cutty Sark looked under full sail, there are pictures, but there’s also, a few hundred yards away in the walkway behind the National Maritime Museum, a gigantic version of the ship-in-a-bottle.

Ship in a bottle


10 thoughts on “Cutty Sark”

  1. Nicely written about one of the best of its kind. Thank you much.
    I’m also wondering how close to the wind these clipper ships could hold a heading. Perhaps the clearest unambiguous manner this could be described would be to provide how many degrees within a 360 degree circle such a ship could could be sailed in without having to tack (tack or come about = zig-zag into the wind during which the momentum of the vessel is used to turn it through the eye of the wind).

    1. I believe sailors divided the circle into 32 “points” and would say things like “She can lay a point closer to the wind than you’d believe.”
      Cutty Sark was said to do better in a heavy wind, Thermopylae in a lighter, which was why Cutty Sark built up an initial lead in their race – the South China Sea must have been stormy at the time. Whether this means she could sail closer to the wind I’m not sure.

      1. On the face of it it’s not enough information to conclude that Cutty Sark could sail closer to the wind than Thermopylae. If we take that they were equal in how close to the wind they could sail, then the ship which could handle stronger winds would prevail in stormy conditions. That’s because the other ship would be sailing in survival mode and greatly reduced sail or almost no sails deployed at all, just enough to have steerage control.

        Interesting that about how the compass or the arcs was divided and also the sweet spot in terms of wind speed for different ships. The question of how close to the wind the clipper ships could sail would still be great to solve.

  2. My dad used to own a liquor store and Cutty Sark was one of the boozes he sold. i think I still have one of the old wooden cases in which it was delivered. I never quite understood it til you just explained it here. Thanks.

  3. Enjoyed reading this. Your photo of all the figureheads was astonishing. To think what they represent: so many beautiful ships, laboriously built by man to sail the newly charted world, now demolished.
    The museum’s site stated that figureheads go back to 3000 BC, ostensibly as a magical figure to “see” the ship safely through its travels.

    1. Ancient Greek warships had sharp rams at the waterline for piercing enemy ships, and “eyes as large as flounders” above them, so that the bow looked like a sharp-nosed face. I managed to use this and quite a lot of other detail about those ships’ efficiency in the accounts in my “Troy Town Tale” of the sailing of the Argo and of the naval battle in the Hellespont just before the capture of Troy by Hercules.

  4. Pan American Airways had the names of Clippers painted on the nose of each aircraft that they operated, thus at least one aeroplane was named Clipper Cutty Sark. I myself had flown many… Clipper America, Clipper Cape Horn, Clipper Wild Hunter, and many more. When making radio calls, a PAA aircraft used the “Clipper” call sign: “Shanwick, Shanwick, Clipper two one, fife one north, two zero west, position on eight eight, go ahead…” Clippers were crossing oceans long after men no longer furled sails.

  5. Thanks for a trip down Memory Lane. I built a plastic model of the Cutty Sark when in High School, a project for my Naval ROTC class. The plastic parts were tedious enough, but the rigging was more than I could accomplish. Only the standing rigging eventually graced her.
    But she infected me with a love of the sea!

Leave a Reply to Yuri Cancel reply