Cutty Sark blaze treated as 'suspicious'

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Monday, May 21, 2007

The Cutty Sark in January 2005.

The Cutty Sark, one of the most famous historic sailing ships in the world, was seriously damaged by fire in the early hours of Monday morning, May 21, 2007. The 19th century ship, which is in dry dock in Greenwich, London, England, set a speed record during its working days, and has been a popular tourist attraction for many years.

The fire brigade was first called to the blaze on the tea clipper at 4:45 a.m. BST and reported that the flames had been extinguished by 7:00 a.m., but firefighters were still on the scene damping down at 8.30 a.m. The blaze was so intense that eight fire engines and 40 firefighters were sent to put out the fire. No injuries have been reported.

Cutty Sark Trust chief executive Richard Doughty said he was told the blaze was being treated as suspicious. "We're losing history," he lamented. "It's unbelievable." He went on: "When you lose the original fabric, you lose the touch of the craftsmen; you lose history itself. What is special about Cutty Sark is the timber, the iron frames, that went to the South China Sea. To think that is threatened in any way is unbelievable. It is an unimaginable shock."

The Cutty Sark being restored, one week before the fire.
Image: Frankie Roberto.

However, Doughty also confirmed that half of the ship's planking, and all of the masts and rigging had been removed for renovations prior to the fire. The iron framework of the hull has been twisted and buckled.

The Chairman of Cutty Sark Enterprises, Chris Levitt, speaking later at the scene, said: "We had removed 50% of the planking, so 50% of the planking wasn't on site and that's safe and secure, and from where I stand there is not a huge amount of damage to the planking that was left on. There are pockets of charred planking and some have gone, but it doesn't look as bad as first envisaged."

Cutty Sark Trust curatorial consultant, Dr Eric Kentley was optimistic that the Ship is not completely devastated and can be saved. Speaking about the Cutty Sark, he said: "We will put her back together - but it's going to take much much longer and a lot more money than we originally thought."

The historic ship, one of London's best known tourist attractions, has been in dry-dock in Greenwich since 1954. It is currently undergoing a £25 million renovation scheduled to last until 2009. It was feared that gas canisters used in the reconstruction work might explode in the blaze but the London Fire Brigade later confirmed that none were present, although concerns about the risk of explosion had caused some delay in tackling the fire. It is a Grade I listed monument and is on the Buildings At Risk Register in the UK.

The Cutty Sark under full sail with the reduced rigging, taken by her captain R. Woodget from two joint boats between 1885-1895

Arson being considered

Police believe the fire on board the ship may have begun in suspicious circumstances. They are studying CCTV footage which showed some movement around the ship in the early hours of the morning. They are appealing for witnesses who might have seen anyone near the ship or a silver car that was reported driving away from the scene.

Last survivor

The Cutty Sark was built in 1869 by Scott & Linton, Dumbarton in Scotland and completed by Dennys. It is the world's last surviving tea clipper. Because the clippers were build of wood, but with a framework made of iron, they marked the transition from wood to iron. The windjammers that emerged some 30 years later were build completely of iron or steel.

The clippers were used in long-distance races between China and England, with large profits for the first ship back with the first tea of the year. The Cutty Sark sailed in the China trade between 1870 and 1877/78. She sailed in the Australian wool trade between 1883 and 1895, during which period she achieved the record breaking voyage under wind power between Australia and England via Cape Horn of 72 days in 1885.

The ship takes its name from a character in Burns' poem 'Tam o' Shanter.

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