After a long commercial career, the 1869 composite clipper ship Cutty Sark became a museum ship in a drydock in Greenwich in 1954. Then in May 21, 2007, a fire broke out that burned a significant portion of the ship. After a 5 year £50 million restoration, the newly refurbished ship will be opened by the Queen this Wednesday.
Not everyone is pleased with the restoration. Andrew Gilligan, the Telegraph‘s London Editor, recently wrote a scathing review calling the Cutty Sark restoration “a clucking, Grade A, Bernard Matthews-class turkey.” (For non-Britons – Bernard Matthews Farms Ltd specialises in turkey farming.)
Mr. Gilligan has not been happy about the restoration for some time now. In February of 2101, we posted about his concerns. See: Cutty Sark Restoration Turning into a Fiasco?
On reading Gilligan’s review of the restored ship, it occurred to me that his comments are sufficiently inflammatory that I hope that the review is kept away from the wooden sections of the ship. It would be a shame to see her burn twice. That being said, Gilligan complaints may be indeed be on target.
Something looks strange right way in the photos of the restored Cutty Sark. In Gilligan’s words, “One of Britain’s most precious maritime treasures now looks like it has run aground in a giant greenhouse.”
Why was it necessary to hide much of the ship beneath a highly distracting structure of glass and steel – or as Gilligan refers to it, the “greenhouse?” The rationale makes perfect sense. The execution, however, leaves much to be desired.
To understand both why it was done and to appreciate how badly it came out, one only need to look at the restored SS Great Britain in Bristol, which at first glance appears to be floating on her lines in the dry dock. What appears to be water, however, is glass. When the ship was restored, it was discovered that her iron hull was continuing to rust away in the moist air of the drydock. The glass plate at the waterline was installed along with two large dehumidifiers to keep space beneath at 22% relative humidity, low enough to control the corrosion of the hull. The effect of the glass plate, if anything, enhances the SS Great Britain. Visitors walking the dry dock floor have an easier time imagining the ship at sea as they look up from beneath a virtual ocean.
The reason for enclosing the underwater portion of the Cutty Sark beneath glass and steel is the same as installing the glass waterline on the SS Great Britain. The Cutty Sark’s iron framework and wood planking exposed to fluctuating humidity would rust and rot more quickly if left in the open air. By dehumidifying the space under the hull and ventilating the space inside, the Cutty Sark will unquestionably last longer. This does not answer the question of why the “greenhouse” was necessary. Personally, I think the enclosure looks more like the ship has been placed on a cushion similar to a dog’s bed. I suppose a more generous interpretation is that the glass and steel enclosure makes the ship look as if she is riding a surging wave at sea. Unfortunately, that involves a bit more imagination than should be required of the casual visitor.
One reason for the greenhouse structure has to do with an odd and potentially dangerous choice made early on in the current restoration. Rather than allowing the old ship to sit on blocks in the dry dock, as she had done since 1954, a marketing genius of some sort decided that it would be nice to hang the ship in the air, which would provide a prime party and event space. As Gilligan notes: “The new Cutty Sark dangles from the girders, 11 feet off the ground, to create what the Trust calls “a corporate hospitality venue to rival Tate Modern” underneath.”
While it may indeed be a great corporate party space, it is hard to understand how suspending a 143 year old iron and wood ship, recently damaged by a fire, makes any sort of engineering sense. Indeed as Gilligan points out:
…The Cutty Sark’s own former chief engineer, Professor Peter Mason,… resigned from the project in 2009 after computer simulations showed that hanging it from the steel girders would put unacceptable strains on the vessel. “The lifting support system will do damage to the fabric of the ship,” he said. “It will have quite an impact on it. They should not lift up the ship.”
Julian Harrap, the naval architect behind the restoration of Brunel’s SS Great Britain, said: “They are putting the artefact itself at risk, and that’s a fundamental issue.” Martyn Heighton, director of National Historic Ships, the maritime equivalent of English Heritage, said: “This is an extremely delicate object; we did not believe she should be lifted, and you don’t try out something new on the Cutty Sark.”
According to the chairman of the Cutty Sark Trust, Maldwin Drummond, visitors to the newly restored 19th–century tea clipper – to be opened by the Queen next Wednesday – will see the ship as she was in her heyday, “as though for some unexplained reason the crew had gone ashore”.
Odd: I didn’t realise they had shopping–centre–style glass lifts in their ships in 1869. The new Cutty Sark has three. One entire side of the vessel is now dominated by a 30–foot high steel tower to hold two of the lifts, rearing up above the ship’s open main deck like a small block of flats. The tower also contains an air–conditioning plant. In another conspicuous nod to the mall experience, the Cutty Sark will be the first Victorian sailing vessel in the history of the world to be fully air–conditioned. The new “steelwork lower deck, of contemporary design, incorporating an amphitheatre feature” in the main hold might come as a surprise to 19th–century seafarers, too.
And so it goes.
I am looking forward to visiting the Cutty Sark in September when I attend the Historical Novel Society Conference in London. I am looking forward to seeing the “restoration” with my own eyes. It should be interesting.