CUTTY SARK ABLAZE

by Gabriel Hershman

The Concorde of the high seas, the last tea clipper in existence, was one of London's most charming crowd-pullers. Now it's burnt-out wreckage

Adevastating fire ripped through the Cutty Sark in the early hours of May 21, saddening tourists as well as residents of Greenwich, southeast London, for whom the ship was part of the landscape.

A Grade One listed monument, the Cutty Sark was undergoing extensive conservation work at the time of the inferno. Experts estimated it could cost £35 million to repair the 280-foot wooden vessel - the world's last, fast, commercial sailing ship - known as a clipper. There was one minor consolation. Fortunately, more than half the ship, including the masts, had been dismantled and moved off site as part of the refurbishment programme and was therefore unaffected by the fire.

Police examined CCTV images around the site for clues as to whether the blaze was accidental or deliberate. It emerged that only one security officer guarded the boat - an oversight that raised eyebrows in the British press in view of the ship's historic and cultural value.

The Cutty Sark was built and officially launched in 1869. She began to ferry tea from China to London at a time when the ship arriving with the year's first tea reaped lucrative profits.

Ironically, in view of her awesome reputation, she lost her most famous race. In 1872 she and another vessel, Thermopylae, both left China on June 18. But only two weeks into her voyage the Cutty Sark lost her rudder when she passed through the Sunda Strait between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. The captain decided to continue sailing with an improvised rudder. In spite of this setback the Cutty Sark took just 122 days to make it to London. And she was bested by her rival by only one week, testament to her resilience and power.

However, clippers were gradually replaced by steamships for the "tea run" because they could be relied upon to pass through the recentlyopened Suez Canal more easily. The Cutty Sark then acquired a new mission, one in which she reached legendary status - transporting wool on the Australian trade route. The ship achieved a recordbreaking, wind-powered 67-day journey from Australia to Britain, an extraordinary feat for those times. Her best ever run, 360 nautical miles, or 666 kilometres - in just 24 hours - was the fastest of any ship of her size.

In 1895 the Portuguese firm Ferreira bought the Cutty Sark. She was also given the new name of Ferreira even though her crews continued to refer to her as Pequena Camisola (little shirt) - a literal translation of the Scots "cutty sark".

In 1916, after she was dismasted off Africa's Cape of Good Hope, she was sold, re-rigged as a barque and renamed Maria Do Amparo. In 1922 she acquired a new owner, Captain Wilfred Dowman, who restored her to her original appearance and used her as a stationary training ship.

Then, in 1954, she was moved to a custom built dry dock in Greenwich where she resided to the present day. Over the last 53 years she attracted an estimated 15 million visitors from all over the world, admirers who came to see the ship that epitomised the golden era of sailing.

In the 1990s, structural problems were identified in her hull and plans set in motion for a full restoration. The attraction was due to be reopened to the public in 2009. The National Lottery donated nearly £12 million towards the project, which would have seen the 137-year-old ship lifted three metres above her usual position. Visitors would have been able to walk straight under the ship's uniquely-shaped hull to access education facilities and a cafe. Sadly, it's now likely to be a long time before tourists retread the ship's hallowed boards. Instead the site will lure morbid sightseers seeking a glimpse of the charred remains of a once great ship.

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