Cutty Sark's masts have soared up against the London sky for many years, but, in May 2007, the last of the great clipper ships was severely damaged by fire.
It was, at first, widely reported as a tragic end to a historic vessel, but as news came through that the masts, spars, deckhouse and other items had been removed, whilst the vessel was undergoing "restoration", it seemed the news was not quite so bad.
We have put restoration in inverted commas, because not everyone sees what was happening to Cutty Sark in that light and, whilst thousands have visited the ship and been enthralled, there are many who believe that the only place a ship should be is on the water!
This is how BYM's UK Correspondent, Tom Walsh, reported on the fire.
The “Cutty Sark” last of the great Clipper Ships has suffered a serious fire. This morning, 21.05.07 the vessel that was once one of the fastest commercial ships afloat is a charred and blackened hulk, steaming gently as firemen continue “damping down” at the Greenwich town centre dock. Eight fire engines attended the blaze, which appears to have started at 05:00hrs BST. Greenwich town centre has been closed to traffic and the Docklands Light Railway disrupted as a result of the blaze.
Police are treating the blaze as suspicious; they are currently examining CCTV images of the area.
The Cutty Sark is undergoing a £25 million renovation and is, currently, closed to visitors. As a result of the work approximately 50% of the ships timbers, including the masts, have been removed; of the remainder, mainly hull and deck timbers, it is reported that some 80% have been damaged by the fire.
In recent years, visiting the Cutty Sark has become a sad experience for those who love sailing ships. This once mighty and influential ship, starkly entombed in concrete, afloat on litter, with her condition declining at a relentless pace, brought a lump to the throat. To the more whimsical of us, those who have read Monserrat’s “The ship that died of shame,” it might appear that the old lady has taken matters into her own hands.
Andrew Craig-Bennett, an expert on shipping in his professional life and an expert on the restoration and sailing of classic wooden vessels in his private life, was even more critical. This is what he had to say:
Passing lightly over the question of why the sprinkler system had, apparently, been disconnected during repairs, contrary to normal shipping industry practice, and the seeming lack of other normal industry precautions, when carrying out hot work; the damage to the ship, which was undergoing a programme of “conservation”, raises a number of points.
The idea of preserving a famous ship has a longer history than one might imagine.
Queen Elizabeth the First of England ordered the “Golden Hind” that had carried Francis Drake around the world to be preserved for ever, but, as so often with that monarch, who even forgot to pay the seamen that defended her realm against the Armada, she forgot to set any money aside for that purpose. Consequently, the ship lasted a mere thirty-odd years years, into the reign of her successor, but no more. The “Golden Hind” that you see today on the Thames outside the DNV offices in London is a replica, built (and sailed round the world!) in the 1970’s.
Going back much further than that, here’s Plutarch (I’m much obliged to Wikipedia for the quote): “The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned (from Crete) had thirty oars and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same”.
The Golden Hind and the Ship of Theseus nicely illustrate the Scylla and Charybdis of ship preservation. One the one hand, preserving a ship beyond her design life costs a great deal of money, whatever you do. On the other hand, original structure is bound to be lost, over time, and sooner or later the question that preoccupied the philosophers recurs. “Is a preserved ship that has had all its structure renewed still the same ship?”
Until this week, the Cutty Sark Trust has taken the view that the answer to the question is “No”, and have been at great pains to conserve the original fabric. There have been very severe limits to this approach; the decks were laid over a sub-deck of plywood, which rotted. The Muntz metal sheathing trapped the rain water in the elm planking, where it set up a perfect battery with the wrought iron frames, damaging all three materials. The masts were stepped through the keel onto the dock bottom, a door was cut in the side of the ship, and so on.
Now, the loss of a great deal of original structure calls into question the premise on which the Cutty Sark Trust and its predecessor, the Cutty Sark Society, had been operating.
When the Cutty Sark was first shored up in her dock at Greenwich, in 1952, no other option existed; it was “preserve” her ashore, or nothing. There was no money to rebuild her to seagoing condition and, had she been thus rebuilt, she would have been unable, due to her small size, with a deadweight of some six hundred tons, to earn her living, unlike the German nitrate windjammers “Passat” and “Pamir”, which carried cadets and cargo. The loss, with many lives, of the “Pamir”, in 1957, settled that matter. Old sailing ships were safer in dry dock
Little did those who took this approach at the time understand just how damaging a half century and more of exposure to the unrelenting English climate would prove to be. The ship continued to disintegrate and the Cutty Sark Trust resolved to submit an application for Lottery funding in order to better conserve what remained.
The “conservation of original fabric” option as submitted in the Lottery bid assumed that a restored ship would generate increased tourism revenues. A fair part of the planned spending was to go on tourist facilities.
From time to time, those active in the world of ship preservation have questioned the appropriateness of this approach. Other vessels have been rebuilt “as original” and have been taken to sea again and this way of preserving old vessels has come to be more and more popular as time has gone on.
The generally run down atmosphere of the old ship did little to generate enthusiasm; anyone with a professional connection to the sea would find something inappropriate (for instance, as of 2006, the hatch wedges were inserted back to front!) and the nadir of “dumbing down” was perhaps reached on the 21st of May when a London representative of a charity connected with the ship informed the BBC’s “Today” programme that the ship was famous for “breaking records bringing tea from India”. In fact, the tea that she carried was loaded at Shanghai, and she set no records with it.
I would like to suggest that the Cutty Sark Trust are wrong in their reply to the “Ship of Theseus Question” and that Aristotle, the Corporation of Lloyd’s and Joshua Slocum, to name but three, are right when they state that a ship wholly rebuilt and able to go to sea is still the same ship, so long as she is the same shape, the replacement material is of similar scantlings to the original when new and is worked in the same way.
The science of ship preservation has moved on since 1952; we now know that ships do better when they are afloat and in commission, and that to entomb them in concrete, open to the weather, is but to ensure their decay. There is no longer enough of the old ship to be worth “preserving”; wind, weather and now fire have seen to that, but there is more than enough material to guide an accurate rebuild to seagoing condition. A rebuilt Cutty Sark would teach us far more than a “preserved” one – the techniques of handing these ships could be re-learned and we would finally settle the controversy over how fast the clippers actually were.
At this point we have to consider the Scylla of ship preservation – finance. So long as the ship sits ashore in Greenwich she has an assured, though modest, tourist revenue, at the cost of being turned into a funfair. A rebuilt ship would have to do much better to cover her higher running costs, but it seems rather likely that she would indeed do very much better by going to her visitors rather than waiting for them to come to her, and very substantial charter income could be generated as well.
This must surely be the time to consider that rather exciting possibility.
If you believe that the Cutty Sark should be restored to sailing condition, make your opinion known to the Cutty Sark Trust and the Government's Heritage Minister.