The sailing ship that was one of the fastest in the world in her day is being restored to her former glory with input from a Shetlander.
The historic tea clipper Cutty Sark used to race to and from China in the Victorian era to satisfy the British desire for tea. A fast commercial ship from the great days of sail (clippers were so-called because of their speed), she is claimed to be the only tea clipper still in existence and has been a tourist attraction in a dry berth in Greenwich for more than 50 years.
She is now undergoing a multi-million pound restoration.
Cunningsburgh man Magnie Mann became involved in the project in an unlikely way. The salvage work he had been doing with his boat Constructor (formerly Whalsay ferry Fylga) with a Norwegian firm west of Foula came to the attention of the logistics company which had been tasked with finding timber for the restoration. The company, O’Leary International, got in touch and Magnie became responsible for helping to recover a valuable cargo to be incorporated in the Cutty Sark.
The £25 million restoration of the iron-framed 212-ft vessel, which was built in 1869, started in November 2006. But only six months later, in May 2007, she was seriously damaged by fire. Arson was suspected, although later it was thought an industrial vacuum cleaner had been left on and overheated. Half her wooden hull was destroyed, including all her main deck – in all 30 tonnes of timber went up in smoke in the blaze, which lasted an hour-and-a-half with flames shooting 100ft into the air.
But the restoration project continued, albeit with £10 million added to the bill. Much of the three-masted ship’s timber was Burmese teak, now in notoriously short supply, and the hunt was on for teak to replace that lost in the fire. It could not be modern, however – the project specified it should be teak from the same era.
The tropical hardwood had been extensively used on the Cutty Sark’s outside planking, decks, rails and hatches, as well as the hen coops and pig houses incorporated into the ship.
O’Leary International had identified a World War I wreck lying off the south coast of Ireland with teak on board, and Magnie, in a joint venture with the Norwegian company Ocean Tech AS with whom he had been working, agreed to attempt salvage. Magnie sailed the Constructor, with one Norwegian from the salvage company, one engineer and one crew member on board, to the site in March.
The wrecked British cargo steamship Pegu was torpedoed in 1917 en route from Rangoon to Liverpool and was sitting upright in 86 metres of water off the coast of Kinsale, with an intact cargo of Burmese teak on board. The work to lift the timber was done with a remotely operated salvage grab attached to a crane and was viewed on two screens. Once grabbed, the timbers, which were between 20 and 30ft long and roughly 18 inches square and weighing up to three tonnes, were slung and lifted in over the stern of the boat and stowed on deck.
The timber was in “brand new” condition, said Magnie, as it had been buried in silt, and was accessed by removing ship’s timbers from the vessel. Magnie said: “It had never been disturbed since 1917. We could see the whole engine room, and derricks that had broken off, and cups and boots. It was amazing to see these things.”
In all the Constructor got 80 tonnes of Burmese teak on board by crane and winch in a two month period, all of which had later to be washed and air-dried, then slowly kiln-dried. When recovered it had not been able to float due to water ingress, and was a third heavier than when it was dried. It was a valuable cargo worth $3,000 per cubic metre dry weight, although
Magnie said: “It was never [financially] worthwhile [for me] but I’m glad I did it. We were working in lovely weather and with really good people.”
The operation was not problem-free, however – the equipment broke down during the job, which took place in a busy shipping channel. And the men had constant visits from the Irish navy and coastguard – the Pegu lies close to the wreck of the Lusitania, a protected war grave which they were forbidden to approach.
The Cutty Sark was built in Dumbarton by the firm of Scott & Linton and was named after Nannie Dee, a witch in Robert Burns’ poem Tam o’ Shanter, who is represented by the ship’s figurehead. In the poem she wore a linen sark (shirt) that she had been given as a child, which is why it was “cutty” (too short) for her.
One of the last clippers to be built before steamships and the opening of the Suez Canal made them redundant, she was manufactured expressly to outsail the clipper Thermopylae in the fiercely competitive tea trade – great profits were made by bringing back the first tea of the year. With around 26 crew on board, the Cutty Sark made her first tea voyage to China in 1870 and brought her last consignment to London in 1877.
The Thermopylae had set a speed record of 63 days on its maiden voyage to Melbourne, and on 18th June 1872, these two vessels raced from Shanghai to London. Although the Cutty Sark initially led, she lost her rudder and the Thermoplyae eventually beat her by seven days. The achievement of arriving safely in London with an improvised rudder sealed her legendary reputation.
From 1882 both the Cutty Sark and Thermopylae took part in the Australian wool trade, and in 1895 the Cutty Sark was sold to Portuguese owners.
She is one of only three remaining original compound construction (wooden hull on an iron frame) clipper ships from the 19th century that exist in the world and the only one currently undergoing restoration.