Five facts about the Cutty Sark

The super-fast tea clipper was once the speediest ship on the high seas.

5 facts about the Cutty Sark © Getty Images

Built in the shipbuilding heartland of the Clyde in 1869, at a cost of £16,150, the Cutty Sark was one of the last wind-powered tea clippers.

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It operated under the British flag, in dedicated service to the tea and wool trades, until being sold to a Portuguese cargo company in 1895, whereupon it was renamed the Ferreira.

These extremely fast clippers were able to cover long distances without the need of getting to port to reload coal. However, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 shortened trade routes and made them lose their advantage over steam ships. In 1922, the Cutty Sark returned to Britain to become a training ship and is today put on public show in dry dock in Greenwich.

Here are five facts about the Cutty Sark

1

WILD IS THE WIND

The Cutty Sark could raise up to 29 sails, covering an area of nearly 3,000 square metres. This allowed the 85.4-metre-long clipper to reach speeds of over 17 knots.

2

EROTIC FIGUREHEAD

The ship’s name comes from Nannie, the witch in the Robert Burns poem Tam O’Shanter, who was dressed in only a “cutty sark” – an old Scottish term for a short nightie. Nannie is the inspiration for the Cutty Sark’s bare-breasted figurehead.

3

TEA ON TIME

The Cutty Sark competed in an annual race against other clippers to be the first to bring the freshest China tea to London.

4

REPLACEMENT RUDDER

After losing the ship’s giant rudder, in 1872, in a storm en route back from China, her captain decided to continue using a hastily improvised replacement, such was the importance of returning to London before rival vessels in order to win the ‘tea race’.

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5

LATER LIFE

In 1895, the ship was bought by the Ferreira company and, until 1922,  it connected Portugal with Brazil and New Orleans. In 1922, retired captain Wilfred Dowman bought the clipper for his personal use before, in 1938, his widow donated it to the training academy at Greenhithe to be used as a school ship by young cadets.

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of History Revealed.