Clipper ships were born in the shipyards of Baltimore around 1820. They had completely new and original naval characteristics, still emulated today by marine designers. These included a long and narrow hull, a sharp, cutting bow, a low freeboard, a streamlined stern, and a deep draft.
22nd November 1869, a beautiful little clipper ship of 963 tons gross was launched at Dumbarton on
the Scottish Clyde. On that day, she was given a name that was to become renowned throughout the
seafaring world, and destined to win a place in the hearts of British seamen, coming second only to
Nelson's own immortal H.M.S. Victory
and that was Cutty Sark
. She was built for John 'Jock' Willis, a
seasoned sailing ship master who had 'swallowed the anchor' and set up as a fleet owner in the Port of
London - where he became better known as "White Hat Willis". His previous vessels had not had the
performance results he wanted and his ambition for the Cutty Sark
was for her to be the fastest ship in
the annual race to bring home the first of the new season's tea from China.
The ship was designed by Hercules Linton, a partner in the Glasgow firm of Scott & Linton. His
achievement was to mould the bowlines of Willis's earlier vessel, 'The Tweed' into the midship
attributes of Firth of Forth fishing boats, creating a beautiful new hull shape that was stronger, could
take more sail, and be driven harder than any other. The company had never built a ship of this size
before and were keen to accommodate their client's every demand. Unfortunately for them, Willis,
being so canny a Scot and wanting the best for the least, drove so hard a bargain that the builders,
together with their brilliant young designer, sank without trace! The final details of the fitting out had
to be completed by another company ~ William Denny & Brothers.
Although her early years under her first master, Captain George Moodie, saw some sterling
performances, fate was to thwart her owner's hopes of glory in the tea trade: in the very same year of
her launching, the Suez Canal was opened, allowing steamers to reach the Far East via the
Mediterranean, a shorter and quicker route not accessible to sailing ships, whose freights eventually
fell so much that the tea trade was no longer profitable. So Cutty Sark's
involvement in the China run
was short lived, her last cargo of tea being carried in 1877.
For the next several years, she was forced to seek cargoes where she could get them, and it was not
until 1885 that she began the second (and more illustrious) stage of her career. The ship's heyday was
in the Australian wool trade, which was overseen by Captain Richard Woodget, from 1885 to 1895.
Here was a virtuoso mariner who 'played' the Cutty Sark
like the responsive 'instrument' she was. He
knew how to get the last quarter-knot from the ship and during his time, she repeatedly made the
fastest passage home from Australia. Yet... by 1895, she was again no longer making money for her
owner and was unceremoniously sold off to the Portuguese as the Ferreira
although her crews
referred to her as Pequina Camisola (little shirt).
She laboured steadfastly for her new masters for almost three more decades, regularly trading between
Oporto, Rio, New Orleans and Lisbon, in the service of Portugal's colonial possessions. Dismasted in a
storm in the Indian Ocean in 1916, she was re-rigged as a barquentine to carry less sail, a decision
necessitated by a wartime shortage of spar timber. In 1920 she was sold again, this time becoming the
Maria do Amparo
In 1922, she underwent a refit at London's Surrey Docks. On her journey home from that refit, she was
driven into Falmouth Harbour by a Channel gale. There she was spotted by Captain Wilfred Dowman, a
Cornish mariner who, as an apprentice seaman back in 1894, had seen her 'slicing by' at full sail and
had never forgotten that breathtaking sight. She was now very much dilapidated and destined to
become a hulk, so Captain Dowman made his move. He approached her Portuguese owners, bought
her for the sum of £3,750 and had her restored, re-rigged and flying the 'Red Duster" once again.
Upon Capt. Dowman's death in 1938, his widow presented the newly restored clipper to the
Incorporated Thames Nautical Training College at Greenhithe on the Thames, where the vessel
remained until after the Second World War, when the college acquired a larger steel-built ship for its
cadets. Once more, Cutty Sark
became 'surplus to requirements'.
Lengthy discussions ensued over her future which ultimately led to her being towed to a mooring off
Greenwich in 1951. Eventually, the Cutty Sark
Society was formed by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh
and the ship was gifted to the society. In December 1954 she was moved into a specially constructed
dry dock at Greenwich.Cutty Sark Links:
Cutty Sark Web Site.