What should we do with the Cutty Sark?

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  • At the end of last year, Professor Peter Mason, chief engineer on the £40 million Cutty Sark conservation project, resigned over 'damaging' plans to raise the ship 11ft (3.3m) into the air. The flames of her disastrous fire in 2007 may have died down, but the arguments surrounding the fate of the iconic clipper ship, one of only two of her type left in the world, rage on. A debate as old as Christ has been re-opened.

    In a country so seemingly un-enchanted by its maritime past, the press blitz unleashed on 21 May 2007, when the Cutty Sark went up in flames, came as a surprise. I stood around the next day, with the rest of the press, in a thin drizzle that had come too late and too light to douse the flames. Was it arson? the papers asked. Compressed gas? What about those two men with the silver car? Soon enough though, it was back to Madelaine McCann who’d only recently vanished, and by the time Northern Rock collapsed later that year, everyone had forgotten about a burnt boat. After all, as the trust had told the papers at the time, the real treasure was in storage at Chatham, and the only material lost in the fire was not original anyway. Great: except that it wasn’t entirely accurate. I had been on the boat just the week before, shown around by Richard Doughty, director of the Cutty Sark Trust, who told me that most of the stuff in storage was rigging added in the 1950s when the boat was first moved to her concrete dry dock.

    By the time the Evening Standard discovered the truth behind the fire in 2008, no one seemed to notice. Someone had left the hoover on – and while it got hotter, the nightwatchman, who was supposed to be on duty, was asleep in the local café, his face embedded in the pages of the Bible he’d been reading: Christianity was a faith he’d discovered quite late in life, so perhaps he was making up for lost time.

    At the time, I wrote that the fire was a chance to re-evaluate the ship’s future. Forget these ridiculous plans to raise the ship 11ft (3.3m) in the air and turn it into a concert venue and café. Instead we should rebuild it, like for like, plank for plank, and then set out to sea again. The ship could be moored for most of the year just yards away on the Thames, remaining accessible to her 166,000 visitors a year, and she could also make a grand annual tour, introducing urban east-London kids to the glory of sail and the value of pulling together as a team. How about doing for 2012 as well? The ship represents internationalism, trade and competition; the wool and tea trade of the late nineteenth century was essentially a race between ever-more beautiful and faster clipper ships. How about a sky exploding with fireworks as a newly-built Cutty Sark sailed through an open Tower Bridge to open the Olympic Games? 'I will never lead the trust down that road,' director Richard Doughty told me. For the Cutty Sark to return to sea, it would have to be substantially rebuilt – no one argues with that. She would not, Doughty maintained, be the Cutty Sark any more.

    A lot of us wondered whether a ship/café/concert hall on legs would be the real Cutty Sark either. Materially yes – but ships like this were designed to be rebuilt bit by bit over the years – and the Cutty Sark is no exception: ‘original’ means any material that remains from her days as a trading vessel – in other words from her build in 1869 to 1922. Robert Wyld, the last man to helm the grand clipper under sail, would see her return to her element. Julian Harrap, a man who’s restored and designed buildings and boats, including Brunel’s SS Great Britain and recently, with David Chipperfield, the Neues Museum in Berlin, would see the rebuilding – in steel if necessary, but to the same design. The alternative made little sense. £40 million – to spend on a boat that will continue to sit in a dry dock? And wait to go rotten under London’s acid rain, so the trust would have to return, cap in hand, in a few decades to ask for more money?

    The discussion is one of the oldest known to philosophy. It is 'Theseus’s Ship’ or more colloquially, as ‘Grandad’s Axe’. Put simply, the axe has had 12 new blades and 20 new handles: but it’s still grandad’s axe. The jetliner you’ll take your next flight on might well be a high-tech grandad’s axe. Many older jets have had so many parts replaced that none of the original remains. But you won’t drop from the sky because of it. It is defined by its purpose: to fly through the sky, just as the Cutty Sark is defined by her purpose; to sail through the ocean at great speed (up to 20mph), all sails straining, using nothing but the power of the wind.

    Originality, authenticity and uniqueness present a tricky challenge to our concept of identity. Plutarch described the situation with a story. A man, Theseus, takes his boat to a yard for repair. The yard start work, and the more they do, the more they discover is rotten. They end up replacing the whole ship, plank by plank and when Theseus returns, he’s happy with a job well done, and sails off into the sunset. In the pragmatically-titled 'Continuity and Discontinuity, Change and Duration', Thomas Hobbes refined the argument in the late 1600s, by asking the following question: what if another boat had been built with the material discarded from the first? Which would be the real one? There is an argument to be made for each: but for me there is no argument about which would be the better one, and the one to crystallise the vision of its maker for future generations to behold.

    The argument is, in a nutshell, one between purpose and substance. Which is the more interesting, the more worthwhile to preserve? It seems that almost anyone who goes to sea and values its cultural heritage would favour purpose, and in this sense, boats (and cars for that matter) are different to buildings. It is reasonable to preserve most of a building, as they are not subject to the constant pounding and corrosive salt water. The thinking these days is to preserve the old where reasonable to do so and put in new where it’s needed, clearly differentiated to show the visitor what’s old and what’s now. With furniture, it’s different again: if you buy, say, a Hepplewhite or Chippendale chair, you can rest assured that with the exception of a re-machined screw here and a touch up there, it’s the same thing that was built in the 1700s – or whoever sold it to you has broken the law.

    The trouble on the Cutty Sark didn’t really start with the fire. It started when, sometime in 2004/5, architect Nicholas Grimshaw decided to lift the boat up into the air on metal legs, to enable visitors to admire the ship’s slender mackerel-shaped hull from beneath. And, avoiding the unthinkable idea that the boat might actually float on the ocean, he insisted most of her original timber would remain intact. The next firm of architects on board were similarly far removed from the sea and from the start there has been no naval architect or experienced boatbuilder in any executive position on the project. The boat’s status as a Grade-I listed building seems to have done it more harm than good.

    Late last year, the University of Greenwich concluded, after a long finite element analysis on the ‘boat on legs’ plan, that raising Cutty Sark into the air would place much more stress on the hull than previously imagined. Imagine an elephant on a bed of nails and you can see the problem. It would result in a Cutty Sark that is not original in terms of material construction, shape or purpose.

    It looks more and more likely that the Cutty Sark we will end up with, after the £40 million has been spent, will be not Theseus’s ship, but Hobbes’s ship, a new boat built from old planks. There might still be an argument as to which is the ‘real’ one. But if I were Theseus, and I’d paid for the job to be done – I know which one I’d rather sail off into the sunset in.

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