The Cutty Sark: hoist the main sail! (2023)

We do love our nautical history. Just as it surrounds our isles, so the sea surrounds the myths of who and what made Britain great, from Horatio Nelson to James Cook, from Francis Drake to Charles Darwin – and, most recently, the Titanic. Never mind that this last was a catastrophe: its centenary has been celebrated like a jubilee. Perhaps we need to keep telling ourselves these seafaring stories now that Britain is not so great, and our shipbuilding industry is all but extinct.

But if we can't build new ships any more, we can at least build museums to old ones. And a whole fleet of them has been launched of late. There's Belfast's flashy Titanic visitor attraction, whose design seems a fusion of the vessel and the iceberg; and Southampton's SeaCity Museum, which plays up its own Titanic connection (500 households in the city lost a family member). Now, in their wake, comes the rejuvenated Cutty Sark in Greenwich, which opens to the public on Thursday. Meanwhile, the Mary Rose Museum is due to open in Portsmouth next year; this is dedicated to Henry VIII's flagship, raised from the Solent in 1982, having sunk nearly half a millennium earlier.

(Video) Aboard the Fastest Clipper Ship of the Victorian Era: The Cutty Sark

The Cutty Sark's prolonged overhaul took on a different complexion after the museum caught fire in May 2007. TV images of flames engulfing the clipper prompted a sympathetic bout of public and private wallet-emptying, meeting the restoration's final cost of £50m, twice the original estimate. Pirates of The Caribbean producer Jerry Bruckheimer even chipped in by lending some of his photos for an exhibition to raise funds. Mercifully, there was enough of the Cutty Sark left to restore, most of the ship having been dismantled and taken away at the time of the blaze.

And here it is, back in Greenwich at last, tall masts soaring over the National Maritime Museum, bowsprit pointed across the Thames towards Canary Wharf. Except now the 143-year-old ship appears to be raised up on a skirt of glass, as if floating on its own viscous little ocean. As generations of school-trippers doubtless remember, the tea clipper's rich history was previously told inside the vessel itself; with the ship three metres up in the air, the vessel is now integrated into a larger museum that extends below the glass and underneath its hull.

This strategy has irked some purists – of which, this being British maritime history, there are many, from the Duke of Edinburgh downwards. A ship belongs in water, many say, or at least a ship should be allowed to remain a ship. Others feared raising the craft would damage its structure (among them architect Julian Harrap, who designed a similar set-in-glass home for Isambard Kingdom Brunel's SS Great Britain in Bristol). But there the glass was flat and at street level, giving a suggestion of water. The Cutty Sark's glass bubble doesn't particularly evoke water, nor is ittransparent enough to make the lower half of the hull easily visible to outsiders. If anything, it gives the impression that the ship has been converted into a hovercraft. It's no longer a ship, nor quite a building, but some bizarre hybrid of the two.

(Video) A chance to climb the Cutty Sark rigging (UK) - BBC London News - 31st March 2022

There was little alternative, say Grimshaw Architects, best known for Cornwall's Eden Project. The Cutty Sark was too corroded to be seaworthy; having been out of the water for so long, its hull was out of shape and the structure unsafe. In addition, explains Nicholas Grimshaw, to justify the expensive restoration, the new Cutty Sark needed a viable business plan. "The critical thing, as we learned with Eden, is not so much getting together the capital, it's getting the thing to run. If it can't sustain itself, you've had it. However beautifully we did it up, we had to extend its reach in some way and make a commercial success of it."

School trips weren't going to cover it. In today's climate, you need to host corporate events and the like to keep such an attraction going, so the new space created beneath the ship doubles as a venue for hire. Fears over the ship itself have at least been assuaged. Its 12 pairs of supporting steel arms link with a new steel skeleton on the inside, which takes the load off the original hull.

Once you get inside, the romance and discomfort of 19th-century seafaring are palpable. One is led through the hold, up along the low-ceilinged middle deck and out on to the top, with artefacts and displays telling the ship's story along the way – bringing tea from China and wool from Australia, being sold to a Portuguese company, then rescued and brought home in the 1920s. Ship and building are intertwined, through a joint effortof painstaking traditional craftsmanship and hi-tech modern design; but the old and new are clearly distinguishable. The steel is painted dark grey, while the original, corroded ironwork is white. Other new additions, such as a disabled lift and fire escapes, are expressed in steel and glass, in contrast to the original's warm brass and wood.

(Video) The Sinking of the Cutty Sark

What's been lost at street level has arguably been gained beneath: a dramatic, light-filled hall with stepped sides and a ship poking through its glass roof. It might be just what the corporate-function market is after, but it's also a powerful and memorable space for the visitor. There's something bracing about standing "underwater" and looking up along the ship's copper-lined keel. Suddenly, you can appreciate just how sleek and streamlined a vessel she is. "It was sort of the Concorde of its age," says Grimshaw. "It was an amazingly fast ship."

Grimshaw is no stranger to fusing naval and conventional architecture. The masts and riggings of tall ships – seen as lightweight, economical supports – were key to the 1980s British high-tech movement in which Grimshaw made his name, along with Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. One of Grimshaw's first buildings was Oxford Ice Rink, whose roof was held up by distinctly nautical-looking masts. He remembers using a slide of the Cutty Sark in talks to illustrate the glazing structure of his celebrated Financial Times printworks, whose columns were created by mast-makers; the screens of his British Pavilion forthe 1992 Seville Expo were the workof sail-makers. It's little surprise to learn Grimshaw is akeen sailor.

This crossover is a reminder that Britannia's historic ruling of the waves is also a story of design. The imperative for seafaring supremacy fuelled domestic innovation; it could even have kickstarted the Industrial Revolution. The copper lining of the Cutty Sark's hull, for example, was a military secret that gave Britain the edge: such boats resisted barnacles, making them faster than their rivals. To maintain the secret, though, only British copper could be used, driving the domestic mining industry. "Technical development," says Grimshaw, "was very important for staying on top – for goingfaster, for holding more."

(Video) A New Figurehead For Cutty Sark | The Story of Nannie's Conservation

Ironically, it was a design flaw that immortalised the Mary Rose. The general consensus is that Henry VIII's flagship sank in 1545 after taking in water through her open gun ports: modifications and overloading had made the ship unstable and a strong wind tipped her over. While the Cutty Sark marks the close of Britain's maritime golden age, the Mary Rose represents its beginnings, when Henry VIII first began to build a serious Royal Navy. The 18,000 artefacts retrieved from the ship also represent an unparalleled time capsule of Tudor life, from nit combs to longbows to the skeleton of the ship's dog.

Only half the hull of the Mary Rose survives, so, unlike the Cutty Sark, it has been possible to enclose it in a simple building, even if that building had to be constructed over the dry dock where the vessel has sat since 1982, too fragile to move, its hull being continuously sprayed to prevent it drying out. The new museum is a smooth, low, oval shell that sits unobtrusively in Portsmouth's historic dockyard. Its exterior is clad in long planks of dark, stained timber, much like the Mary Rose herself; but, otherwise, it's not excessively boat-like. "We all felt that what was important about this museum was what was inside," explains Chris Wilkinson, of architects Wilkinson Eyre.

Wilkinson Eyre were also behind Southampton's SeaCity, a conversion of the city's 1930s magistrates' court. But Wilkinson, like Grimshaw, disagrees that Britain is overdoing its seafaring nostalgia. "Maybe it wasn't thought of as important enough in the past," he says. "Technology has also made it easier to discover these boats, bring them up to the surface, and tell the stories that went with them."

(Video) Revell Cutty Sark 1:96 Ship Model Speed Build!

As a measure of the influence of all these ships, one need only look at the cities in which these museums are sited: London, Portsmouth, Southampton, Belfast, Bristol. All have been shaped – literally as well as metaphorically – by their seafaring pasts, nowhere more so than at Greenwich where the Cutty Sark now resides, a stone's throw from Christopher Wren's Old Royal Naval College (and, up on the hill, his observatory, from where the Greenwich Meridian takes off).

It all adds up to a neatly choreographed landscape of British power, though there's more to this story than simply how the nation found its might and then lost it again. The recent installation of Yinka Shonibare's Ship in a Bottle – a replica of Nelson's Victory, with African-patterned cloth for sails – near the Cutty Sark site reminds us that there areless appetising sides to the seafaring story missing from this picture, chiefly the slave trade. Architecture tends to set history in stone; these vessels keep it in motion.


How fast did the Cutty Sark sail? ›

How fast was Cutty Sark? Cutty Sark's top speed was over 17 knots.

What is the meaning of Cutty Sark? ›

What does 'Cutty Sark' mean? 'Cutty Sark' is an archaic Scottish name for a short nightdress. 'Cutty' means short or stumpy, and 'sark' means nightdress or shirt.

Why was the Cutty Sark so fast? ›

Old sailing ships inspire passion like nothing else. But what's so special about this one? Launched in 1869, Cutty Sark was the fastest, sleekest ship of its time. Its cleverly designed hull meant it could be pushed harder than anything before.

What was the Cutty Sark famous for? ›

What is Cutty Sark famous for? Cutty Sark represents the pinnacle of clipper ship design and was one of the fastest ships of its day. Aged 14 years, Cutty Sark started recording remarkably fast passage times, under her Master Richard Woodget, and became the dominant ship in bringing wool from Australia to England.

Does Cutty Sark mean short skirt? ›

This provenance perhaps explains her name 'Cutty Sark' which means 'short skirt' in Scots. Undoubtedly an unusual name for such a massive racing cargo-ship! However, 'Cutty Sark' is famous for being mentioned in Robert Burns' epic poem, Tam-O-Shanter*.

Who sailed in the Cutty Sark? ›

Captain James Smith Wallace was a young man with a very promising career before him. He gained his Second Mate's certificate at 19, his Master's certificate at 24, and at 25 found himself the captain of Cutty Sark. Wallace came from a family of standing, as they might have said in the mid-19th century.

When did the Cutty Sark catch fire? ›

In May 2007, a fire broke out on board Cutty Sark, pictures of which were broadcast around the world. Although the damage initially looked devastating, there was some good fortune in the timing.

Are there any clipper ships left? ›

Of the many clipper ships built during the mid-19th century, only two are known to survive. The only intact survivor is Cutty Sark, which was preserved as a museum ship in 1954 at Greenwich for public display.

Who was the last captain of the Cutty Sark? ›

He was to be the Cutty Sark's last Master under the British flag in the nineteenth century, and it was Woodget who pushed the ship to her limits and achieved the Cutty Sark's fastest voyages. He was fearless but never reckless, and he had more faith in the ship than any who had gone before him.

How many sails does a clipper ship have? ›

The definition of an American clipper ship is a three-masted, full-rigged ship with square sails on each of her three masts that was built for speed rather than capacity. So the designers of the great clipper ships of the 1840s and 1850s sharpened the bow and stern, creating much hollower lines than before.

Where is the Cutty Sark now? ›

Now an award-winning visitor attraction in Greenwich, London.

Is the Cutty Sark a replica? ›

Cutty Sark is a composite-build (wood planked on iron frames) sailing ship and building the replica is a unique way to restore and save traditional skills and knowledge for future generations.

When was the Cutty Sark taken out of water? ›

Cutty Sark
United Kingdom
OwnerCutty Sark Preservation Society
Out of serviceBecame museum December 1954
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How much does it cost to visit the Cutty Sark? ›

Current prices
LocationAdultChild (4-15)
Cutty Sark£16£8
National Maritime MuseumFree entryFree entry
Queen's HouseFree entryFree entry
Day Pass* (Observatory and Cutty Sark)£25£12.50
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What kind of alcohol is Cutty Sark? ›

Cutty Sark Whisky – Blended Scotch Whisky – Born to Mix.

What is in a Cutty and water? ›

Among gangsters, scotch and whiskey were always popular choices, particularly the whiskey brand Cutty Sark. And they had their own way of ordering, as recounted by undercover FBI agent Jack Garcia: “Mobsters always order drinks by a brand. Never just a scotch and water, it would be a Cutty and water.

Is Cutty Sark Whisky still made? ›

Cutty Sark is a range of blended Scotch whisky produced by La Martiniquaise. The whisky was created on 23 March 1923 as a product of Berry Bros. & Rudd, with the home of the blend considered to be at The Glenrothes distillery in the Speyside region of Scotland.
Cutty Sark (whisky)
TypeScotch Whisky
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How long is Cutty Sark aged? ›

This statutory and audacious Whisky straight from Scotland is elaborated with commitment and precision. The expression is matured over 12 years in carefully selected Bourbon and Sherry casks.

How many crew did the Cutty Sark have? ›

Cutty Sark Crew

The number of crew changed for each voyage but it was usually between 18-28 men.

Who was the first captain of the Cutty Sark? ›

Richard Woodget
Captain Richard Woodget
OccupationSea captain
EmployerJock Willis Shipping Line
Known forMaster of the Cutty Sark
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Why Greenwich is famous? ›

Greenwich is notable for its maritime history and for giving its name to the Greenwich Meridian (0° longitude) and Greenwich Mean Time. The town became the site of a royal palace, the Palace of Placentia from the 15th century, and was the birthplace of many Tudors, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

Why were clipper ships so fast? ›

Why were clipper ships so fast? The answer lies in their constructional design. The fastest ships in the 19th century had narrow hulls gliding through the water easily. Most of their area was covered with sailing masts.

How fast was a clipper ship? ›

The introduction of the American clipper ships (the word “clipper” signified speed) with their narrow hulls and large sails enabled sea travel at speeds of up to 30 kilometers an hour, far faster than the average merchant ships.

How did the Cutty Sark catch fire? ›

The 2007 fire was caused by an industrial vacuum cleaner that had been left switched on for two days while a conservation project was being carried out to repair Cutty Sark's iron framework. The ship's masts, saloon and deckhouses had been removed and put into storage in Kent when the fire took hold.

What was the size of the crew on Cutty Sark? ›

Cutty Sark Crew

The number of crew changed for each voyage but it was usually between 18-28 men.

What 1851 clipper ship was the fastest in the world for 130 years? ›

Flying Cloud was a clipper ship that set the world's sailing record for the fastest passage between New York and San Francisco, 89 days 8 hours. The ship held this record for over 130 years, from 1854 to 1989.

What is a 5 masted ship called? ›

Royal Clipper is a steel-hulled five-masted fully rigged tall ship used as a cruise ship.

How many passengers could a clipper ship carry? ›

Royal Clipper Entertainment
Royal Clipper
Capacity227 passengers
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How fast did tea clippers sail? ›

A crack ship such as Ariel could easily set thirty or more sails in the most favorable conditions, and any clipper taking part in the tea race might average 11 or 12 knots in reasonable conditions, at a time when the steam fleet made eight or nine knots and would need to coal four or five times on a passage between ...

What is a 4 masted sailing ship called? ›

9) The Bark (Barque)

They had four masts, each bearing square sails on the fore topmast and fore-and-aft sails on the aft mast. These vessels were commonly used by traders to carry extremely high volumes of cargo from Australia to Europe.

How long does it take a freighter to cross the Atlantic? ›

Typical freighter ships take 10 -20 days to cross the Atlantic and can encounter monstrous weather conditions.

When did the Cutty Sark catch fire? ›

In May 2007, a fire broke out on board Cutty Sark, pictures of which were broadcast around the world. Although the damage initially looked devastating, there was some good fortune in the timing.

Where is the Cutty Sark now? ›

Now an award-winning visitor attraction in Greenwich, London.

Was the Cutty Sark rebuilt after a fire? ›

The 143-year-old ship, the world's last surviving tea clipper, was being restored when it was hit by fire in May 2007 and re-opens on Thursday, following the Queen's visit. (picture on left: National Maritime Museum).

Who was the last captain of the Cutty Sark? ›

He was to be the Cutty Sark's last Master under the British flag in the nineteenth century, and it was Woodget who pushed the ship to her limits and achieved the Cutty Sark's fastest voyages. He was fearless but never reckless, and he had more faith in the ship than any who had gone before him.

Is the Cutty Sark real? ›

Cutty Sark was built in Dumbarton, Scotland in 1869. Its owner John 'Jock' Willis, designer Hercules Linton and many of its crew members over the years were from Scotland. But despite its proud Scottish heritage, London was to be Cutty Sark's home port.

How long does it take to go around the Cutty Sark? ›

Ticket information

The recommended time to fully enjoy a visit to Cutty Sark is between 1 and 1 and a half hours.


1. 'Cutty Sark & The Great Clippers' / Nautical Engineering Documentary
(One Sky Yachting)
2. The Sail of Hope
(Cutty Sark Reborn 2 Sail)
3. Cutty Sark - the Fastest Sailing Ship Ever 🇬🇧
4. The Cutty Sark Conservation Project
(Grimshaw Architects)
5. Cutty Sark Clipper Sailing Ship Greenwich London England - 2018
6. How Cutty Sark got its name
(Royal Museums Greenwich)
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