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Cutty Sark

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Cutty Sark
Cutty Sark in February 2012 with repairs almost complete
Career (UK) UK Civil Ensign
Name: Cutty Sark (1869-95), (1922-date)
Namesake: Cutty-sark
Owner: John Willis (40/64 share)
Robert Dunbar Willis (24/64 share)
Ordered: 1 February 1869
Builder: Scott & Linton
Cost: £16,500
Laid down: 1869
Launched: 22 November 1869
Sponsored by: Mrs. Moodie
Commissioned: 16 February 1870
Out of service: December 1954
Homeport: London (1870-1895)
Falmouth (1923-38)
London (1938-date)
Identification: UK Official Number: 63557
Motto: "Where there's a will is a way"
Status: Museum ship
Career (Portugal) Flag Portugal sea (1830).svg Flag of Portugal.svg
Name: Ferreira
Namesake: Joaquim Antunes Ferreira
Owner: Joaquim Antunes Ferreira & Co.
Acquired: 22 July 1895
Homeport: Lisbon, Portugal
Nickname: Pequena Camisola ("Little shirt")
Fate: Refitted
Career (Portugal) Flag of Portugal.svg
Name: Maria do Amparo
Owner: Companhia Nacional de Navegação
Acquired: 1922
Homeport: Lisbon, Portugal
Fate: Sold
General characteristics
Class & type: Clipper
Tonnage: 975  GRT
Displacement: 2,100 tons (2,133.7 tonnes) at 20 ft (6.1 m) draught
Length: Hull: 212 ft 5 in (64.74 m)
LOA: 280 ft (85.34 m)
Beam: 36 ft (10.97 m)
Draught: 21 ft
Propulsion: 32,000 sq ft sail (3000 hp)
Sail plan: 1870 ship rig, 1916 barqentine rig
Speed: 17.15 kn (31.76 km/h)
Capacity: 1,700 tons (1542 tonnes)
Complement: 28-35

The Cutty Sark is a British clipper ship. Built on the Clyde in 1869 for the Jock Willis shipping line, she was one of the last tea clippers to be built and one of the fastest, coming at the end of a long period of design development which halted as sailing ships gave way to steam propulsion.

The opening of the Suez Canal (also in 1869) meant that steam ships now had a much shorter route to China, so Cutty Sark spent only a few years on the tea trade before turning to the trade in wool from Australia, where she held the record time to Britain for ten years. Improvements in steam technology meant that gradually steamships also came to dominate the longer sailing route to Australia and the ship was sold to the Portuguese company Ferreira and Co. in 1895, and renamed Ferreira. She continued as a cargo ship until purchased by retired sea captain Wilfred Dowman in 1922, who used her as a training ship operating from Falmouth, Cornwall. After his death she was transferred to the Thames Nautical Training College, Greenhithe in 1938 where she became an auxiliary cadet training ship alongside HMS Worcester. By 1954 she had ceased to be useful as a cadet ship and was transferred to permanent dry dock at Greenwich, London on public display.

Cutty Sark is one of three ships in London on the Core Collection of the National Historic Ships Register (the nautical equivalent of a Grade 1 Listed Building) – alongside HMS Belfast and SS Robin. She is one of only three remaining original composite construction (wooden hull on an iron frame) clipper ships from the nineteenth century in part or whole, the others being the City of Adelaide, awaiting transportation to Australia for preservation, and the beached skeleton of Ambassador of 1869 near Punta Arenas, Chile.

The ship was badly damaged by fire on 21 May 2007 while undergoing conservation. The vessel has been restored and was reopened to the public on 25 April 2012.

Construction and etymology

Cutty Sark with sails set. Photograph taken at sea by Captain Woodget with a camera balanced on two of the ship's boats lashed together.

The Cutty Sark was ordered by John "Jock" "White Hat" Willis who operated a shipping company founded by his father. The company had a fleet of clippers and regularly took part in the tea trade from China to Britain. Speed is a clear advantage to a merchant ship, but it also created prestige for the owners: the tea race was widely reported in newspapers and had become a national sporting event with money bet on the winning ship. In earlier years Willis had commanded his father's ships at a time American designed ships were the fastest on the tea trade, and then had owned British designed ships amongst the best available in the world, but had never won the tea race. In 1868 the brand new Aberdeen built clipper Thermopylae set a record time of 61 days port to port on her maiden voyage from London to Melbourne and it was this design which Willis set out to better.

There is uncertainty as to how the exact choice of hull shape was arrived at. Willis chose Hercules Linton to design and build the ship but Willis already possessed another ship, The Tweed which he considered to have exceptional performance. The Tweed (originally Punjaub) was a frigate designed by Oliver Lang based on the lines of an old French frigate, built in Bombay for the East India company as a combination sail/paddle steamer. She and a sister ship were purchased by Willis, who promptly sold the second ship plus engines from The Tweed for more than he paid for both. The Tweed was now lengthened and operated as a fast sailing vessel, but was considered too big for the tea runs. Willis also commissioned two all iron clippers with designs based upon Tweed, Hallowe'en and Blackadder. Linton was taken to view the ship in dry dock.

In particular, Willis considered that the bow shape of The Tweed was responsible for its notable performance, and this seems to have been adopted for Cutty Sark. Linton, however, felt that the stern was too barrell shaped and gave Cutty Sark a squarer stern with less tumblehome. The broader stern increased the buoyancy of the rear of the ship, making it lift more in heavy seas so it was less likely waves would break over the stern, and over the helmsman at the wheel. The square bilge was carried forward through the centre of the ship. In the matter of masts Cutty sark also followed the design of The Tweed, with similar good rake and with the foremast on both ships being placed further back than was usual.

A contract for Cutty Sark's construction was signed 1 February 1869 with the firm of Scott & Linton, which had only been formed in May 1868. Their shipyard was at Dumbarton on the River Leven on a site previously occupied by shipbuilders William Denny & Brothers. The contract required the ship to be completed within six months at a contracted price of £17 per ton and maximum weight of 950 tons. This was a very competitive price for an experimental, state of the art ship, for a customer requiring the highest standards. Payment would be made in seven installments as the ship progressed, but with a penalty of £5 for every day the ship was late. The ship was to be built to Lloyd's A1 standard and her construction was supervised on behalf of Willis by captain George Moodie, who would command her when completed. Construction delays occurred when the Lloyd's inspectors required additional strengthening in the ship.

Work on the ship was suspended when Scott and Linton ran out of money to pay for further work. Rather than simply liquidate the company, an arrangement was made for Denny's to take over the contract and complete the ship, which was finally launched on 22 November 1869 by Captain Moody's wife. The ship was moved to Denny's yard to have her masts fitted, and then on 20 December towed downriver to Greenock to have her running rigging installed. In the event, completing the ship meant the company's creditors were owed even more money than when work had first been halted.

Broadly, the parts of the ship visible above the waterline were constructed from East India teak, while American rock elm was used for the ships bottom. The keel (16.5x15 inches) had on either side a garboard strake (11x12 inches) and then 6 inch planking reducing to 4.75 inches at 1/5 the depth of the hold. Teak planking began at approximately the level of the bilge stringer. All the external timbers were secured by Muntz metal (brass) bolts to the internal iron frame and the hull covered by Muntz sheeting up to the 18 foot depth mark. The stem (15x15 inches) and sternpost (16.5x15 inches) were of teak while the rudder was English Oak. The keel was replaced in the 1920s with one constructed from 15 inches (38 cm) pitch pine. The deck was made of 3.5 inch thick teak while the 'tween deck was 3 inch yellow pine. Her length was 212 feet 5 inches (64.74 m) with a draft of 21 feet (6.40 m) and a deadweight of 921 tons.

A speck on the horizon

One day we sighted a vessel, a mere speck on the horizon, astern of us, and the way she came into view it was evident she was travelling much faster than ourselves. ' Bringing the wind up with her ' was remarked on board, and that seemed the only feasible conclusion to arrive at and account for the manner in which she overhauled us. In a few hours she was alongside us, and proved to be the famous British clipper Cutty Sark, one of the fastest ships afloat. She passed us going two feet to our one, and in a short time was hull down ahead of us."

Wool clipper crewman, 1879

The maximum logged speed for Cutty sark was 17.5 knots. The speed of a sailing ship is not so straightforward as a steam ship, as winds vary and a ship must tack when heading into the wind, both requiring the crew to make constant adjustments to sails, so her speed also depended on the skill of her captain and crew. Her greatest recorded distance in 24 hours was 363 nautical miles (NM) (averaging 15 knots), although she recorded 2163 miles in six days, which given the weather over the whole period implied she had achieved over 370 NM some days. By comparison, Thermopylae's best recorded 24 hour distance was 358 NM. Cutty Sark was considered to have the edge in a heavier wind, and Thermopylae in a lighter one.

The ship was named after Cutty Sark, the nickname of the witch Nannie Dee in Robert Burns' 1791 poem Tam o' Shanter. The ship's figurehead, the original carved by Robert Hellyer of Blackwall, shows Nannie Dee in a stark white carving of a bare-breasted woman with long black hair holding a grey horse's tail in her hand. In the poem she wore a linen sark ( Scots: a short chemise or undergarment), that she had been given as a child, which explains why it was cutty, or in other words far too short. The erotic sight of her dancing in such a short undergarment caused Tam to cry out "Weel done, Cutty-sark", which subsequently became a well known catchphrase. Originally carvings by Hellyer of the other scantily clad witches followed behind the figurehead along the bow, but these were removed by Willis in deference to 'good taste'. Tam O'Shanter riding Meg was to be seen along the ship's quarter. The motto, Where there's a Willis away, was inscribed along the taffrail. The Tweed, which acted as a model for much of the ship which followed her, had a figurehead depicting Tam o'Shanter.


Cutty Sark in Sydney Harbour awaiting a cargo of new season's wool, c.1890

Cutty Sark was destined for the tea trade, then an intensely competitive race across the globe from China to London, with a substantial bonus to the ship that arrived with the first tea of the year. Her first round trip voyage under captain George Moodie began 16 February 1870 from London with a cargo of wine, spirits and beer bound for Shanghai. The return journey with 1450 tons of tea from Shanghai began 25 June, arriving 13 October in London via the Cape of Good Hope. The ship completed eight round trip annual journeys, but the Suez Canal had opened to shipping in 1869 just as Cutty Sark was being launched. In the end, of course, clippers lost out to steamships, which could use the shorter route through the Canal and deliver goods more reliably, if not quite so quickly, which proved to be better business. Clippers were designed to make best use of the strong trade winds around the African coast route and could not use the shorter route through the canal and Red Sea.

The most famous race against Thermopylae occurred in 1872, the two ships leaving Shanghai together on 18 June. Two weeks later Cutty Sark had built up a lead of some 400 miles, but then lost her rudder in a heavy gale after passing through the Sunda Strait. John Willis' brother was on board the ship and ordered Moodie to put in to Cape Town for repairs. Moodie refused, and instead the ship's carpenter Henry Henderson constructed a new rudder from spare timbers and iron. This took six days, working in gales and heavy seas which meant the men were tossed about as they worked and the brazier used to heat the metal for working was spilled out, burning the captain's son. The ship finally arrived in London on 18 October a week after Thermopylae, a total passage of 122 days. The captain and crew were commended for their performance and Henderson received a £50 bonus for his work. This was the closest Cutty Sark came to being first ship home but it was Moodie's last trip as her captain and he transferred to steamships, being replaced by Captain F. W. Moore.

Life at Sea

A little east of the longitude of the Cape we were favoured by a great fair wind blow, that tested all the resources of ship and crew. At the first spurt, heavy squalls came up from S.W., that threatened to take toll of our masts, but later it steadied down to a hurricane straight from the west.

Captain wallace was sure in his element now. It was 'Stand by!' the whole time, not knowing whether the sticks would go, but the splendid rigging and equipment of sails in the Cutty Sark stood the strain. We lost two brand new topgallant sails and one lower fore topsail.

A tremendous sea was running and needs must we carry on or be pooped. The partial becalming of the lower sails by the stern seas was a great danger, as they filled again with a bang that threatened to burst them into tatters. It was some trick rebending sails. I had a time on the fore topsail yard for two hours. The ship took a green sea over the stern, and it appeared as if there were just three sticks set in the ocean, as it swept the length of the deck.

a crew member writing of life on board

Moore remained captain only for one round trip to China, taking 117 days for the return trip. This was 14 days longer than Thermopylae and 27 days longer than achieved by the iron ship Hallowe'en a few months later. Captain W. E. Tiptaft assumed command in 1873 achieving 118 days on his first return trip, but after the ship had to travel 600 miles up the Yangtze River in search of a cargo. Steamships were now taking most of the tea. The following year the return journey took 122 days, but on the outward journey Cutty Sark set a record time of 73 days from London to Sydney. In November 1877 the ship was anchored off Deal in the English Channel along with 60 other ships, waiting out a great storm. The anchor failed to hold and Cutty Sark was blown through the ships damaging two others before grounding on a mud bank. Fortunately she was pulled clear by the tug Macgregor before too much damage was caused and she was towed to the Thames for repairs.

In December 1877 the ship sailed from London to Sydney, where she took on coal for Shanghai, arriving there in April. However, the ship was unable to find any cargo of tea for a return trip to London; the days of the tea race were over. The master, Captain Tiptaft died in October while still in Shanghai and was replaced by the first mate, James Wallace. The ship now had to take different cargoes around the world, including coal, jute, castor oil and tea to Australia.

In 1880 an incident occurred on board during which the First Mate Sidney Smith killed seaman John Francis. Smith was allowed to leave the ship at Anjer by captain Wallace, causing the crew to cease work in protest. Wallace continued the voyage with six apprentices and four tradesmen but became becalmed in the Java Sea for three days. In desperation as matters moved from bad to worse, he committed suicide by jumping overboard and disappeared. He was replaced as Master by William Bruce, who proved to be a drunken incompetent who claimed pay for non-existent crewmen and managed to set sail with inadequate provisions, resulting in the crew starving. An inquiry in New York in April 1882 resulted in the Captain and Mate being suspended and replaced By Captain Moore, previously of the Blackadder.

The wool trade

Cutty Sark in harbour, possibly Sydney. Another clipper can be seen in the background

In December 1883, Cutty Sark departed Newcastle, New South Wales with 4,289 bales of wool and 12 casks of tallow, arriving back in London in just 83 days. This was 25 days faster than her nearest rival that year and heralded the start of a new career taking Australian wool to Britain in time to catch the January wool sales. In 1885 Richard Woodget was appointed Captain on a salary of £186 per year and continued to improve on the fastest trip record, achieving 77 days on his first outward trip and 73 days returning to Britain from Australia. He achieved this by taking a more southerly route than previously, to catch the strongest winds in the Roaring Forties despite having to face icebergs, gales and storms whipped up by the winds he sought. Cutty Sark was the fastest ship on the wool trade for ten years. In July 1889 the log of the modern passenger steam ship RMS Britannia recorded that when steaming at 15-16 knots she was overtaken in the night by a sailing ship doing 17 knots, which proved to be Cutty Sark.

Ships stern before renovation in 1994. The original dock arrangement can also be seen.

Eventually steamships began to dominate the wool trade too and it ceased to be profitable for a sailing ship. In 1895 Jock Willis sold Cutty Sark to the Portuguese firm Ferreira for £2,100 and she was renamed Ferreira after the firm. Her crews referred to her as Pequena Camisola ("little shirt", a straight translation of the Scots "cutty sark"). The ship traded various cargoes between Portugal, Rio, New Orleans, Mozambique, Angola, and Britain. In May 1916 she was dismasted off the Cape of Good Hope because of the rolling of the ship in bad weather and had to be towed into Table Bay off Cape Town. The war meant that it was impossible to obtain suitable materials to replace the masts so she was re-rigged over 18 months to a barquentine sail arrangement.

In 1922 Ferreira was the last clipper operating anywhere in the world. Caught in a storm in the English channel she put into Falmouth harbour where she was spotted by retired windjammer captain Wilfred Dowman, of Trevissome House, Flushing, Cornwall, who was then operating the training ship Lady of Avenel. The ship returned to Lisbon, where she was sold to new owners and renamed Maria do Amparo. However, Dowman persevered in his determination to buy the ship, which he did for £3,750 and she was returned to Falmouth harbour. The rigging was restored to an approximation of the original arrangement and the ship was used as a cadet training ship. As a historic survivor, the ship was opened to the public and visitors would be rowed out to inspect her. Dowman died in 1936 and the ship was sold to the Incorporated Thames Nautical Training College, HMS Worcester at Greenhithe, leaving Falmouth for her last journey under sail in 1938. The ship was crewed by cadets, 15-year-old Robert Wyld steering the ship during the voyage. Ian Bryce, DSC, the last surviving crew member on the historic tow from Falmouth to the Thames died, aged 89, on 11 December 2011.

The ships figurehead shows Cutty-sark, the nickname of the witch Nannie Dee who chases Tam O'Shanter, snatching his horse's tail before he escapes by crossing water.

At Greenhithe Cutty Sark acted as an auxiliary vessel to HMS Worcester for sail training drill, but by 1950 she had become surplus to requirements. From February to October 1951 she was temporarily moved first for a refit and then to take part in the Festival of Britain at Deptford. On 30 January 1952, the 800-ton tanker MV Aqueity collided with Cutty Sark's bow in the Thames. The two ships were locked together after the collision which forced Cutty Sark's jib boom into Worcester's fo'cs'le rails, snapping the boom before scraping along Worcester's starboard side. Cutty Sark's figurehead the Naughty Witch lost an arm in the process. Cutty Sark was anchored and towed to the Shadwell Basin where repairs were carried out by Green & Silley Weir Ltd. The damaged arm was recovered at Grays Thurrock and the figurehead was repaired.

In 1954 she was moved to a custom-built dry-dock at Greenwich. She was stripped of upper masts, yards, deck-houses and ballast to lighten her before being towed from East India Import Dock to the special dry dock at Greenwich. The skipper on this occasion was 83-year-old Captain C.E. Irving, who had sailed the world three times in her before he was 17. The river pilot was Ernest Coe. Thereafter the entrance tunnel to the dry dock was filled in, the river wall rebuilt and the work of re-rigging began. The foundation stone of the dry dock was laid by The Duke of Edinburgh, patron of the Cutty Sark Preservation Society, in June 1953. The restoration, re-rigging and preparation for public exhibition was estimated to cost £250,000.

Cutty Sark 8 October 1987

Cutty Sark whisky derives its name from the ship. An image of the clipper appears on the label, and the maker formerly sponsored the Cutty Sark Tall Ships' Race. The ship also inspired the name of the Saunders Roe Cutty Sark flying boat.

Museum ship

Cutty Sark in Greenwich, October 2003

The Cutty Sark was preserved as a museum ship, and has since become a popular tourist attraction, and part of the National Historic Fleet, Core Collection. She is located near the centre of Greenwich, in south-east London, close aboard the National Maritime Museum, the former Greenwich Hospital, and Greenwich Park. She is also a prominent landmark on the route of the London Marathon. She usually flies signal flags from her ensign halyard reading "JKWS", which is the code representing Cutty Sark in the International Code of Signals, introduced in 1857.

The ship is in the care of the Cutty Sark Trust, whose president, the Duke of Edinburgh, was instrumental in ensuring her preservation, when he set up the Cutty Sark Society in 1951. The Trust replaced the Society in 2000. She is a Grade I listed monument and is on the Buildings At Risk Register. The gallery beneath the ship holds the world's largest collection of ships' figureheads, donated to the Society by Sydney Cumbers in 1953.

Cutty Sark station on the Docklands Light Railway is one minute's walk away, with connections to central London and the London Underground. Greenwich Pier is next to the ship, and is served by scheduled river boats from piers in central London. A tourist information office stands to the east of the ship.

Cutty Sark in Greenwich, 1977

Conservation and fire

The ship one week before the fire. Most of the upper works had already been dismantled for renovation.

On the morning of 21 May 2007, the Cutty Sark, which had been closed and partly dismantled for conservation work, caught fire, and burned for several hours before the London Fire Brigade could bring the fire under control. Initial reports indicated that the damage was extensive, with most of the wooden structure in the centre having been lost.

In an interview the next day, Richard Doughty, the chief executive of the Cutty Sark Trust, revealed that at least half of the "fabric" (timbers, etc.) of the ship had not been on site as it had been removed during the preservation work. Doughty stated that the trust was most worried about the state of iron framework to which the fabric was attached. He did not know how much more the ship would cost to restore, but estimated it at an additional £5–10 million, bringing the total cost of the ship's restoration to £30–35 million.

After initial analysis of the CCTV footage of the area suggested the possibility of arson, further investigation over the following days by the Metropolitan Police failed to find conclusive proof that the fire was set deliberately.


The day after the fire, 21 May 2007

Aerial video footage showed extensive damage, but seemed to indicate that the ship had not been destroyed in its entirety. A fire officer present at the scene said in a BBC interview that when they arrived, there had been "a well-developed fire throughout the ship". The bow section looked to be relatively unscathed and the stern also appeared to have survived without major damage. The fire seemed to have been concentrated in the centre of the ship. The chairman of Cutty Sark Enterprises said after inspecting the site: "The decks are unsalvageable but around 50% of the planking had already been removed; however, the damage is not as bad as originally expected."

As part of the restoration work planned before the fire, it was proposed that the ship be raised three metres, to allow the construction of a state of the art museum space beneath. This would allow visitors to view her from below.

There was criticism of the policies of the Cutty Sark Trust and its stance that the most important thing was to preserve as much as possible of the original fabric. Proponents of making her fit to go to sea advocated that the fire repairs be done in such a manner to enable her to do so. However, the state of the timbers, especially the keel, and the fact that a hole had been cut through the hull in the 1950s for an access door, made this difficult. Also, the Cutty Sark Trust claimed that under five percent of the original fabric was lost in the fire, as the decks which were destroyed were non-original additions. The restoration work was criticised by The Victorian Society saying that the needs of the corporate hospitality market were put ahead of the preservation of the historic fabric of the ship. Building Design magazine awarded the project its Carbuncle Cup for the worst new building completed in 2012 saying 'The scheme’s myriad failings stem from one calamitous choice: the decision to hoick the 154-year-old clipper close to three metres into the air on canted steel props.'


In addition to explaining how and why the ship is being saved, the exhibition features a new film presentation, a re-creation of the master's saloon, and interactive exhibits about the project.

Cutty Sark during repairs after the fire

The design for the renovation project by Grimshaw architects with, during design development stage, newly established Youmeheshe architects and Buro Happold engineers involved raising the ship out of her dry berth using a Kevlar web, allowing visitors to pass under the hull to view it. Unfortunately it was discovered that the proposed web would not follow the reverse curves of the ship's hull which would effectively mask the hull's shape from view. An alternate design for the support of the ship had to be developed; this involved installing a deep steel belt around the hull tied by diagonal steel members passing through the hold to a new steel reinforced keel. Horizontal tubular steel struts passing through the hold brace the diagonals apart while many of the corroded original hull frames have been doubled.

A new steelwork lower deck of contemporary design incorporating an amphitheatre feature was installed in the main hold while a glass encased lift installed within the ship terminates in a new steel and glass housing structure on the weather deck. A second new steel and glass box has been installed above the fore hold to enclose a new staircase. Access to the ship is through a new opening cut through the hull below the waterline in the ship's starboard quarter. The new access hole has required the addition of additional new steel framing. Visitors arriving on board the ship now do so via this entrance which leads to the lower hold. Maldwin Drummond, Chairman of the Cutty Sark Trust, has explained in Classic Boat magazine's September 2010 issue the need to retain the spirit of the ship and he quotes the ideal that "The visitor should see the ship as though for some unexplained reason the crew had gone ashore". Doubts over the wisdom of Grimshaw's proposals have been raised by many ship conservationists including the Cutty Sark Trust's own engineer Peter Mason.

Cutty Sark in February 2012, repairs nearing completion. The temporary cover which surrounded the ship during repair has been removed although workmen can still be seen on deck and in the rigging where not all yards have been replaced. Work was underway around the dock to lay new paving.

The project was costed at £25 million when it commenced in 2006 with £11.75 million of this total being provided by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Oscar-winning producer Jerry Bruckheimer aided in the repair and restoration of the Cutty Sark. A collection of photos taken by Bruckheimer went on display in London in November 2007 to help raise money for the Cutty Sark Conservation Project. The exhibition featured more than thirty pictures taken on set during the filming of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

In January 2008, the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded the Cutty Sark Trust another £10 million towards the restoration of the ship, meaning that the Trust had now achieved £30 million of the £35 million needed for the completion of the project.

In June 2008, Israeli shipping magnate Sammy Ofer donated the outstanding £3.3 million needed to fully restore the ship although by January 2009 the Evening Standard reported that the cost had risen further to £40 million creating a new shortfall. In February 2010 the Daily Telegraph reported the project cost had risen to £46 million with public money now being made available by London Borough of Greenwich to fill the funding gap.

Investigation conclusion

On 30 September 2008, the London Fire Brigade announced the conclusion of the investigation into the fire at a press conference at New Scotland Yard. The painstaking investigation was conducted by the Fire Brigade, along with London's Metropolitan Police Service, Forensic Science Services, and electrical examination experts Dr. Burgoyne's & Partners. They said that the most likely cause was the failure of an industrial vacuum cleaner that may have been left switched on over the weekend before the fire started. The report revealed no evidence the ship was subjected to arson attack and concluded the fire started accidentally.

Physical evidence and CCTV footage of the fire showed that it probably started towards the stern of the ship on the lower deck. All electrical equipment on board was examined and it was determined that an industrial vacuum cleaner in this area was normally running continuously to suck up dust and particles from work going on to break up concrete within the ship. No one working on the ship had responsibility to ensure all equipment was turned off at the end of a day, and no one recalled switching off the equipment on the Friday in question. The vacuum cleaner has three motors inside and after the fire one was found to be burned out in a manner which suggested it had failed while operating. This was not conclusive evidence, however, because the motor might previously have failed in service without causing a fire, and gone unnoticed because the other two motors had continued to function. Tests on similar cleaners showed they had no thermal cutout devices and while they could run safely indefinitely if filters inside were clear, if the air flow through the cleaner was blocked then it would eventually overheat and could catch fire. This might occur if the cleaner was full of dust and debris. The cleaner had failed previously and two motors had been replaced.


On the basis of witness evidence, the joint investigation team considered it unlikely that the fire was caused by the hot work (welding) that was being carried out as part of the renovation or by carelessly discarded smokers' materials. No one visited this part of the ship since work stopped on Friday evening, and it was considered unlikely that a fire could have smouldered all weekend before finally breaking out Monday morning. However, it was discovered that although all hot work was supposed to be recorded and someone was supposed to check afterwards to ensure no fires, there was no record that such checks had ever been made, and on at least one occasion hot work had been conducted with no records made.

The ship was patrolled by two security guards, both of whom were supposed to patrol independently at least once an hour, or once every two hours later in the night, one being primarily responsible for the visitor pavilion and one the dock. The guards were required to keep a log of their patrols, but after the fire the relevant page was found to be missing from the book. It was later found, already filled in reporting uneventful patrols of the site up to 7 am in the morning when the guards would have gone off duty. The alarm was raised when one of the guards called the fire brigade; before this the two reported that they had smelled burning plastic and had been investigating to try to determine its source.

A carpenter had visited the site on Sunday to collect some tools, but after 20 minutes attempting to contact a security guard to let him in, had climbed the fence, collected his tools and climbed out again. The carpenter reported that he had heard machinery operating towards the stern of the ship, but it was not clear whether this might have been the site diesel generator which ran at all times.

The ship was fitted with a temporary fire alarm system but it was unclear whether this had operated. A separate alarm within the pavilion did sound when smoke and heat reached that area, but the guards reported no ringing alarm before the fire was seen. Investigation afterwards discovered a faulty relay in the alarm panel which failed to switch power to the siren circuits when an alarm was triggered. However, the panel also contained a failed fuse in one siren circuit which suggested that the siren had activated but the fire shorted it out, and this might have also caused the relay to fail. The failed relay would have shut off power to the second siren circuit. Statements from workers suggested that weekly tests of the alarm system had not been carried out.

Mast specifications

The original mast specifications as laid down by the ships designer still exist and are listed below as "tea rig". This arrangement was used during the ship's time on the tea trade route, where it was necessary to maximise the area of sail to get the greatest possible propulsion when the ship might be becalmed in the doldrums. For the route to Australia it was not necessary to carry such a large area of sail and the masts and yards were reduced. The trade winds required great strength in masts, but the wind could best be captured by relatively small, high sails. A smaller rig also represented a saving in maintenance costs. Each of the three masts (fore, main and mizzen) is in three overlapping sections

The restored stern (with stern draft and rudder) elevated 3 metres above its dry-dock under its glass-roofed visitors' centre in June 2012.
Mast heights above deck in metres
Tea rig Sydney
Foretop 18.8 16.5
Topgallant  29.8 24.3
Royal 39.6 35.4
Maintop 19.8 16.9
Topgallant 31.9 22.8
Royal 36.3
Skysail 44.5
Mizzentop 17.0 14.8
Topgallant 25.7 22.8
Royal 33.2 31.7
Yard lengths in metres
Tea rig Sydney
Fore course 23.8 21.0
Lowertopsail 20.7 16.8
Uppertopsail 19.5 14.6
Topgallant 14.6 11.5
Royal 11.6 9.4
Main course 23.8 21.6
Lowertopsail 20.7 18.5
Uppertopsail 19.5 16.8
Topgallant 14.6 14.2
Royal 11.6 10.4
Skysail 10.4
Mizzen course  18.3 17.4
Lowertopsail 16.5 14.9
Uppertopsail 14.6 13.4
Topgallant 11.9 11.0
Royal 10.1 8.2
Spanker 15.8 14.1
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