On the good ship Cutty Sark
A rambling by Tom Knapp

It might seem strange, in a time in which we are preoccupied with a fumbled war, a bumbling president and countless murders and other acts of violence -- but I'm really angry at the fate of the Cutty Sark.

I've always had a deep fondness for wooden sailing ships, and Cutty Sark was a beautiful example of the ancient maritime traditions. I have good memories of a trip my father and I took to London in 1991, and we walked the long, damp and claustrophobic pedestrian tunnel under the Thames to see Cutty Sark at its moorings in Greenwich. I can't recall if we arrived too late in the day or if it was closed for repairs, but we didn't get onboard the ship -- but even seeing her there in all her glory was enough. She was the last of her kind. (Later, I also recall with more amusement my father's fruitless efforts to finish a scale model of the ship. The Cutty Sark's extensive rigging did him in, and I believe the model sat for years in our basement before he finally admitted defeat and officially gave up.)

According to Wikipedia, Cutty Sark was built in 1869 in Dumbarton, Scotland, and she was named for "an erotic dancing witch" (Wikipedia's words, not mine) in Robert Burns' 1791 poem "Tam o' Shanter." She was one of the last gasps of the clipper ship era, losing out to the slower but more reliable steamships that followed. Her career, primarily in the China tea and Australian wool trades, was distinguished if not exceptional. She held several names over the years before being purchased, restored and renamed in 1922 and used as a training ship until 1954, when she was drydocked at Greenwich.

Fire broke out on May 21, and early reports indicated suspicion of arson. At the time of the blaze, she was in the midst of a massive, three-year renovation project costing an estimated $50 million.

"The tragedy is you can't remake the fabric of the boat -- these are timbers that were growing during the Battle of Agincourt," Richard Doughty, project director and chief executive of the Cutty Sark Trust, told BBC News. "History itself has been lost." (Agincourt, by the way, was fought in 1415. That's the battle immortalized in Shakespeare's Henry V. If you haven't seen the Kenneth Branagh film version of the play, rent it.)

Fortunately for the treasured clipper, the damage was contained by the fast response of London firefighters. And, while millions more in funding will be necessary to restore it, officials have said it can be repaired. According to reports from the Associated Press, the bow and stern were largely intact after the fire was quelled. Most of the valuable teak wood had been removed before the fire to give restoration workers access to the ship's iron frame -- and the iron held its shape despite the high temperatures of the fire. In the lower decks, the timbers that had not been removed were charred but suffered mostly superficial damage. The masts and most of its wood planks were safely in storage.

As I'm writing this, authorities are still unsure what started the fire. If it was arson, shame on the person (or people) who would do such a thing!!

by Tom Knapp
26 May 2007