The Cutty Sark was ordered by Captain John Willis with the purpose of beating the Thermopylae, which in that time was considered the fastest clipper in the world. Designed by Hercules Linton, the Cutty Sark had her keel laid down in the early 1869 in Dumbarton (Scotland), in the shipyards Linton & Scott, being finished by the company William Denny & Brothers. Her launching took place in November of the same year. With a hull length of 64.6 meters, a beam of 10.7 meters and a draught of 6.4 meters, the Cutty Sark had a displacement of 2011 tonnes and a net tonnage of 921 tonnes, whereas the Thermopylae had 948 tonnes.

Cutty Sark clipper
The career of the Cutty Sark as tea clipper was relatively short due to the opening, immediately after her launching, of the Suez Canal, which reduced to a third part the distance that the steamships traveling the route of the Far East had to cover, giving so the "coup de grace" to the sailing merchant ships. But the clippers remained operative during some time and among their commanders persisted the indomitable competitive spirit.

The annual tea races

Every year, the British clippers destined to tea trading performed, laden with their cargo, the travel between China and Britain, competing in a true race with the hope of winning the prize awarded to the fastest sailing. In 1870, also the Cutty Sark took part in such competition, however being her first travel carrying a load of tea. In the outgoing travel, she crossed the equator 25 days after having departed from Downs in the English Channel and, 104 days after the departure, she arrived to Shanghai, where she remained for 25 days. Then she undertook the return travel and reached Beachy Head in the English Channel after 109 days.

The Cutty Sark was dedicated during eight years to tea trade, but she never managed to improve the travel times of other clippers. Her fastest travel was effectuated in 1871, when she took 107 days to complete the return travel from Shanghai. However in that time started to be used the first steamships for tea trading, and while in 1870 at least 28 clippers had took part in the annual race, in 1871 they were only nine.

In 1872 fifteen sailing ships took part in the competition, among them the Cutty Sark and the Thermopylae, which for the first and only time departed from Shanghai during the same tide. It was not a coincidence, for the two captains (George Moodie of the Cutty Sark and Kemball of the Thermopylae), moved by a great competitive spirit, were eager to measure themselves, their ships and their crews. However, it would be the weather which would decide the winner: the Cutty Sark faced a storm near Cape of Good Hope and lost her steering.

Cutty Sark clipper

The race with the Thermopylae

The Cutty Sark and the Thermopylae sailed from Shanghai the 18th June 1872 using the same tide. After one month of changing weather in the southern area of the China Sea, both ships met each other, practically matched, in the Strait of Selat, between Sumatra and Java. Entering the Indian Ocean, the Cutty Sark found a favorable wind which granted her a good speed, so at the end of the first week of August she had already moved away from the Thermopylae.

The 11th August both ships faced a series of storms, but the Cutty Sark was still ahead. But at 6:30 AM the 12th August the disaster happened: somewhat farther than 100 kilometers from the southern African coast, cornering the Cape of Good Hope, a particularly violent wave broke the rudder of the Cutty Sark. Captain Moodie prepared a spar on the stern to serve as rudder, but it was not suitable for steering the ship so he was forced to build a proper replacement. The construction and installation required several days and only the 21st August the Cutty Sark could retake the course.

Unfortunately, with speeds over 18 knots the rudder was not effective enough, so Moodie was forced to reduce the maximum speed. Despite of this the ship managed to keep a good march accross the southern Atlantic, but the 20th September the axe of the rudder resulted broken and the whole ensemble had to be hoisted on deck to be repaired. The Cutty Sark managed to sail again almost immediately and, with favorable weather, she obtained day trips of about 483 kilometers. When she reached London the 18th October it was seen that, despite the problems and the days lost in the repairs, the Thermopylae had arrived just one week before.

Winds of change

The largest part of clippers abandoned the tea trade during the following decade, because they could not compete against the steamships, faster and able to follow a shorter course, and the Cutty Sark was not exception to this. In 1883, after several years trading with diverse merchandise (with Captain F. W. Moore), she was rented for transporting the most diverse industrial materials from Britain to Australia, and raw wool in the return travels.

Wool trade was profitable and the loads very consistent. In a single travel to Brisbane, the Cutty Sark managed to accommodate 5304 bales of wool, prepared by means of presses as solid and compact bulks. Between 1885 and 1895 the Cutty Sark remained in the wool trade, commanded by Richard Woodget, and performed very fast travels. In 1895 she was sold, and during the 27 subsequent years she would be sailing with Portuguese flag and the name Ferreira, that of her new owners. In the late part of this period she was rigged as schooner.

During a travel from London - where she had been restored - to Lisbon, the Cutty Sark had to dock at Falmouth after a storm. There she was seen by a retired captain, Wilfred Downman, who bought her and ordered to rig her as she was originally, to be used during many years as a school ship in Falmouth. When Downman died in 1936, his widow donated the ship to the Thames Nautical Training College, and from 1949 the Cutty Sark remained moored at Greenhithe. It is from 1954 that she remains in exposition in a dry dock in the vicinity of the Greenwich Maritime Museum. During a restoration in 2007 she suffered a fire which caused severe damage, but the ship is nowadays in good condition.

The Cutty Sark in detail

The Cutty Sark remains as the most famous clipper, even if she never was the fastest one. Her first owner was Captain John Willis, who never was in command of her but ordered her along with other two ships of similar hull, the Black Adder and the Halloween. The three ships were copycats of the Tweed, a sailing ship formerly owned by Willis. In turn, the hull of that one had been copied from an anonymous French frigate, famous due to her speed and which had been found dismasted in Bombay. The name Cutty Sark and the figurehead of the ship originate from the poem Tam O'Shanter, in which a Scottish landowner was prosecuted by a young sorceress who was dressed only with a piece of cloth known as "cutty sark".

Unlike her two sisters, which were built with integrally metallic hulls, the Cutty Sark had a hull of mixed construction. The ribs were made of iron, the keel and the rest of the underwater hull were made of elm - and coated with copper sheets - and the freeboard was made of teak. Many centuries of construction had rendered the good oak trees hard to find in England, and it was seen as well that the thick wooden ribs occupied a good stowage space. Honoring seafaring tradition, the lounge of the Cutty Sark was sumptuously coated with teak and maple panels, and the dining table was used as well for playing cards.

Cutty Sark clipper hull cutaway
Aft lounge on the clipper Cutty Sark
As in the other fast clippers, her rigging was incredibly complex, requiring more than 16 kilometers of strings and supporting up to 26 regular sails and 20 studdingsails. The topsails, which had been so large in older sailing ships, were divided to ease their operation. There was a royal sail in all the three masts and a top royal sail in the main mast. Many functional elements of the rigging were made of iron but the shrouds were still tensed by traditional deadeyes and lanyards.

This corresponds to the original rigging of the ship, as seen in the illustration above and like she can be seen today in her exposition place. In 1883, with the purpose of using the ship to transport the Australian wool and make the ship more maneuverable, the uppermost sails were removed and masts and spars were shortened. When navigating under Portuguese flag with the name Ferreira, the ship was rigged as schooner, with fore-and-aft sails in the main and mizzen masts and square sails in the fore mast.

Cutty Sark clipper cutaway
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