Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Cutty Sark—Last of the Clipper ships


If this anniversary was brought to the attention of my Dad, W. M. Murfin, it would have brought a smile to his lips and, undoubtedly, a toast.  Cutty Sark was his preferred Scotch whiskey, in the 1950’s a mark of considerable sophistication in Cheyenne, Wyoming where whiskey drinkers preferred Bourbon, or even more communally, Canadian blends.

Cutty Sark is a blended whiskey first marketed by Glasgow distiller Eddington in 1923.  The distiller’s office was just blocks from the shipyards where the ship Cutty Sark was built and launched on this date in 1869.
Cutty Sark was the last of the true clipper ships ever built and one of only two still mostly intact. 

Clippers were built for speed and very long voyages from American and British ports and Asia.  They could cut as much as half the time of a round trip voyage over conventional lumbering cargo ships increasing profits for traders in tea, opium, silks, spices, and the ornamental ceramics and art work that were becoming the rage in sophisticated homes.  They also raced gold mined in California and Australia to banks and mints.  They had long, narrow hulls and were topped by three or four masts carrying square rigging.

The ships were modified from the much smaller Baltimore clippers, small, fast topsail schooners first built on Chesapeake Bay in 1795.  Called clippers because they “clipped” over the crests of waves rather than plowing through them, they got the attention of the sailing world for being highly effective as blockade runners and as lightly armed but effective privateers.  By the 1820’s Scottish ship yards were turning out slightly larger versions for use in the opium trade with China.

The first true modern square rigged clipper, the Ann McKim was built in Baltimore in 1833.  The shipyards at Aberdeen, Scotland developed the improved clipper bow for the Scottish Maid in 1839.  That set off a frenzy of ship building both in Scotland and in American shipyards as faster and larger ships entered the trade.  Races to set the fastest times to Asian ports became big news in both countries.

The clipper era began to fade with the introduction of ever more efficient and reliable steam power.  Such ships could carry much more cargo, but the clippers could still outrace them.  The construction of the Suez Canal, finished in 1869, erased the speed advantage of the clippers and eventually doomed them.

Which is why the Cutty Sark, laid down that year, was the last ever built.  She carried three masts with a compound construction of wood over an iron frame.  She was built to challenge the reigning champion clipper of the day Thermopylae.

Cutty Sark means a kind of short chemise undergarment in Scots.  It was the nickname of Nannie Dee, a character in Robert Burns’ poem Tam O’ ShanterA bare breasted carving of the lass was the ship’s famous figurehead.

The Thermopoylae and Cutty Sark vied for supremacy for years.  In their most famous race the two ships departed Shanghai on the same day bound for London with the first tea shipments of 1872.  Despite losing her rudder in a storm while passing through the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra and having to limp on with an improvised replacement, the Cutty Sark arrived in London only one week after the Thermopoylae’s 122 day passage, a feat that became legendary.

In 1890 she was withdrawn from the China trade and put to less glamorous general cargo usage.  A voyage that year inspired a young Polish sailor, Joseph Conrad, in his short story The Secret Sharer published 12 years later.  On this particular voyage the crew was so terrorized by a brutal, drunken first mate that most of them jumped ship at the first port leaving behind only bound apprentice seamen.  The captain drove the ship over 2,000 kilometers over 72 hours.  The mate murdered a crewman in a storm and the captain committed suicide when the crew rebelled for him allowing the mate to escape.  The trip was concluded under a replacement captain and mate, each even more brutal than the original mate.  A layover in Calcutta brought cholera on board, the crew suffered near starvation when not enough provisions were taken on, the new mate committed another murder, and there was a virtual mutiny.

Despite this ill fated voyage, the Cutty Sark was assigned to the Australian wool trade, where she once again went head to head with the Thermopoylae.  She won the wool race between 10 out of 10 years and even bested the time of the new, fastest British steamer, RMS Britannia. She was still the fastest ship afloat of her size.

But her glory days were passed.  She was sold to a Portuguese firm and renamed Ferreira although her crews referred to her as Pequena Camisola, or “little camisole” a rough translation of the Scots.  She was demasted in a 1916 storm and reconfigured at Cape Town as a barquentine—square rigged on the foremast with latten rigging on the main and mizzen masts, and was renamed Maria do Amparo.

In 1922 she came again into British hands and was restored to her original configuration.  She was brought to port in Greenhithe, Kent where for many years she served as a stationary training ship.

Under tow on the Thames on the way to being restored, the Cutty Sark was involved in a collision with the MV Aqueity and then the HMS Worcester in which the figure head lost her arm.  The arm was recovered and later reattached. 

The restoration was a pet project of Duke of EdinburghPrince Philip—who established the Cutty Sark Society in 1951 and still serves as the president of its successor, the Cutty Sark Trust.

In 1954 she was moved to a custom dry dock at Greenwich were restorations were performed and she was put on display alongside to other historic vessels, HMS Belfast and SS Robin. In 2007 while closed to the public for a major restoration, the Cutty Sark was involved in a catastrophic fire.  The fire burned through all decks, but left the bow and stern relatively intact.  Most of the planking had been removed for the restoration projects, so that her conservators estimated that only 5% of original construction material was lost—the decks were all replacements.  Restoration has taken several years, but the ship is expected to re-open to the public in 2012.

So on this anniversary, I think I’ll look for some Cutty Sark whiskey and lift a glass in memory of Dad and to the gallant ship that lent her name to the drink.

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