A few days after BYM News learned of plans to turn the Cutty Sark into what is perhaps best summed up as a disco style restaurant, entertainment centre and promotion venue (see editorial), BYM News received an unsolicited story, about the Cutty Sark and the Pamir, from a retired New Zealand merchant seaman, called Bob Jenkins. Mr Jenkins was unaware of the latest plans when he summed up by saying "it would be downright negligent of us all, from Government to armchair sailors like me, to let the chance of restoring “Cutty Sark” to her former glory slip by."

Sailing ship enthusiasts the world over were saddened by the fire that almost destroyed that famous remaining emblem of tall clipper ships of the past, the barque ‘Cutty Sark’. The tragedy of the blaze that swept through the vessel, as she sat in her Greenwich London dry-dock on the 21st May 2007, was only tempered by the fact that the ship was undergoing an extensive refit at the time and many of her structural parts and fittings had been removed and safely stored elsewhere and so retaining some originality around which to consider and encourage the rebuilding of the hull and a total restoration. In this era of general affluence it would be a marvelous outcome if “Cutty Sark” could be restored and refitted to the extent that she could once more travel down the Thames and beyond to open waters. It can be hoped that the British Government, the trustees, the insurers, the boating fraternity and the public can rally to make this happen, rather than just do a ‘patch up job’ on a burnt out hull, to satisfy ongoing tourist curiosity.

I had the pleasure of going aboard “Cutty Sark” a few years ago and the visit remains a highlight of a visit to England from New Zealand.  The almost total loss of this piece of history occurred almost exactly fifty years after the loss of another square rigged sailing ship, the “Pamir,” which foundered in an Atlantic storm in 1957.

The barque “Pamir” and her history was well known to most New Zealanders, although those of us that can remember seeing her on her last visit to Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour, in 1948, are no doubt well into retirement. I, as a 14 year old, saw her in full sail in the Rangitoto Channel and also had the opportunity to visit the ship while she was berthed at Queens Wharf.

Just to recap for the younger, “Pamir” was originally launched in Hamburg in 1905, she had a steel hull, a tonnage of 3020 gross, an overall length of 375 feet, a beam of 46 feet and a loaded draught of 24 feet. Her three masts stood 168 feet above the deck and the main yard was 92 feet wide. She carried a total of 50,000 square feet of sails and could reach a top speed of 16 knots, while her speed on passage was often better than 10 knots.

Her sailing history was long, spanning 52 years, but her connection with New Zealand began in 1941, when she was sailing under the Finnish Flag on the Europe/Australia grain trade, via Cape Horn, and had the misfortune to be in Wellington Harbour when she was seized as a War Prize. The ship was handed over to the care of Union Steamship Co of NZ, for the duration of the war, and she made ten commercial voyages under the New Zealand Ensign. Eight of these were trans Pacific to San Francisco and Vancouver and, in 1948, after WW2 hostilities had ended she sailed from Wellington to London, via Cape Horn, then to Antwerp and back to Auckland for her final visit. The ship was handed back to the Finnish line Gustaf Erikson in late 1948 and made her final voyage from New Zealand back to Finland via South Australia, in 1949, to become the last commercial sailing ship to round the Horn.

“Pamir” was later saved from the scrap yard along with a similar ship, the ‘Passat,’ by a German consortium and made many more trans-Atlantic voyages, but as they were no longer profitable both ships were to be de-commissioned after their last voyages in 1957. Alas for “Pamir” this never happened. On August 10th 1957 the vessel left Buenos Aires for Hamburg with a crew of 86 including 52 cadets and with a full cargo of loose barley grain. On the morning of 21st September while 600 miles south-west of the Azores “Pamir was caught in the fierce hurricane “Carrie” and foundered with the loss of 80 lives. The ship managed to send out a distress signal and, after several days of searching, 6 crew members were found and rescued from a life raft.

Accounts of this disaster abound on internet websites, but my personal memories of this event are from being an engineer crew member of RMS “Rangitane”, which sailed from Southampton near that day bound for New Zealand, via Panama, and our ship picked up Pamir’s distress call while entering the Bay of Biscay and punching into the fringes of “Carrie”, which carried right up into the Irish Sea before dissipating. Other vessels nearer to the sinking zone entered the search, while we listened intently on marine radio and I can recall the sadness of the occasion, especially after my earlier brief, but enthralling, association with this ship as a boy.

I later sailed on Union Company ships with Master Mariners Desmond Champion and Andrew Keyworth, who had been Master and Chief Officer, respectively, of this magnificent sailing vessel on the final voyage to Europe and back under the NZ flag and enjoyed some of the many sea yarns they later related about their voyages on “Pamir.”  

There are many square rigged sailing ships still serving in various nations including replicas of the likes of William Bligh’s “Bounty” and James Cook’s “Endeavour”. It was the merchantmen though, the work horses or mules of the seas, but with the grace and pace of Grand National winners that were the real heroes and it would be downright negligent of us all, from Government to armchair sailors like me, to let the chance of restoring “Cutty Sark” to her former glory slip by. After all, she represents the British Merchant Navy, from a time when it paralleled the British Royal Navy as a ruler of the seas, and, as a true Clipper Ship, she represents the by-gone vessels that then made Britain the biggest world trading power.
More images, like those illustrating articles, are in the BYM Photo Gallery
It would be downright negligent of us all.
Pamir foundered in an Atlantic storm.
The last commercial sailing ship to round Cape Horn.
Accounts of the disaster abound.
A ruler of the seas.
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