Friday Fact: Cutty Sark has the most memorable motto
When you cross the Thames on a foggy morning via the foot tunnel at Greenwich, you are greeted by the sleek figure of Cutty Sark flowing towards you on a sea of mist.
The Great Tea Race of 1866, the most exciting of these informal tea races between China and the United Kingdom was an event closely followed by the press, and the winner was usually awarded by a premium on their cargo. No wonder it was the centre of attention for all shipping companies.
When John “Old White Hat” Willis has commissioned the construction of Cutty Sark, he had a specific idea in mind: to build the fastest tea clipper, an elegant boat to dominate the tea race. The ship was launched on 22 November 1869. The name Cutty Sark is derived from the Robert Bruns poem Tam o`Shanter where it is the nickname of the witch Nannie Dee. The ship`s figurehead is the stark white carving of witch in a shirt so short she would most certainly catch a cold.
Ironically enough the ship itself has been burnt twice in the last ten years. She has a very memorable motto: “Where there is a Willis away”. Quite wonderful, no?
It was a time when significant competition began to rise: steamships. They were not considered part of the tea race, but they were there, carrying the same cargo. When the SS Erl King arrived two weeks before the tea clippers did, it has marked the end of an era.
The tradition of paying bonus for the first ship to arrive from China was abandoned after the 1866 tea race. Winning the tea race was still considered a precious prestige to the owners; and Cutty Sark was an awe-inspiring beauty, and with a 17.5 knots maximum logged speed, one of the fastest ships afloat.
The intriguing history of Cutty Sark could fill a book, or a whole bookshelf, possibly. She was part of the late tea trade, saw a murder followed by borderline mutiny, then moved on to the wool trade with Australia. Cutty Sark got sold to the Portuguese in 1895 who renamed her Ferreira, though her crew still referred to her as pequela camisola (little shirt). Which is the exact translation of Scots “Cutty Sark”.
By 1922 it was the last operating clipper on the globe. In the same year retired windjammer captain Wilfred Dowman purchased it back from the Portuguese. Cutty Sark has found her way home. She quickly became a cadet training ship.
During a training exercise with the HMS Worcester in 1952, the 890-tons coastal tanker ship MV Aqueity collided with Cutty Sark, forcing the latter to get a little too close and intimate with the Worcester. The figurehead depicting Nannie Dee has lost one arm in the incident which made it all the way down to Grays Thurrock.
In 1954, the year Vanguard started business, Cutty Sark was moved to a purpose-built dry dock in Greenwich where she rests to this very day. It was not the end of the ship’s adventures though. Having a witch as your figurehead must have its dangers; the ship has caught fire twice since being dry docked.
Vanguard served an important role in the preservation and restoration project of Cutty Sark. On the first visit in 1992, Vanguard removed the last of the ship`s three original masts remaining. On the second, we attended at Greenwich with two cranes, over five miles of rigging and a new, 85 feet long lower foremast weighing 8 tons, waiting to be lifted in place. Once completed, the top mast stands 125 feet over the ship’s deck.
No matter her great ordeals, Cutty Sark is still standing there, a proud reminder of the great tea races. There are plans under way for an actual sailing replica to be built.
Keep an eye out for the lady.