The fire that ravaged the Cutty Sark might look devastating, but all is not lost says Thomas Lane
As a long time Greenwich resident the news that Cutty Sark had been engulfed by fire came as a big shock. I thought the helicopters overhead were more intrusive than usual as I ate my breakfast but thought nothing of it. Then the phone rang, it was my father saying the Cutty Sark had been destroyed by fire. We flicked on News 24 and it looked conclusive – the whole ship had been engulfed in huge flames and it surely had been consigned to history. Both my wife and I were shocked, not only does the Cutty Sark define Greenwich as a place but it’s personal as we held our wedding reception on the ship. Ironically at the time one of the main conditions was no naked flames were allowed on board, which caused some head scratching over the catering arrangements.
I had to get down there as soon as possible to see what was happening. After I had dropped my son off at school I went up to the police tape as the town centre had been cordoned off. After presenting my International Building Press card (I knew it would come in useful one day) to the policeman I was inside the cordon. As I approached the ship there was a strong smell of burnt wood, just outside the hoardings was a press conference in progress with hordes of journalists armed with cameras and notepads who wanted to hear all about arsonists and a lack of security on the site. I spotted the architect, Simon Beames a few yards away with some colleagues from the Cutty Sark Trust and decided to find out about the big question; was it all over for the Cutty Sark?
To my surprise Ian Bell, the technical manager for the Trust was quite sanguine. He said fires always look worse than they really are and that the main issue was damage to the wrought iron frame because if this distorts this the whole ship will lose its shape and be almost impossible to repair. He said that there wasn’t much evidence of major distortion and the fact much of the wooden elements had been already taken away was very fortunate. I had visited the ship myself last week and had been struck by how sorry the ship was looking, it looked emasculated without its distinctive masts, the iron frame was eaten away by corrosion, indeed the whole ship looked a mess.
What happens now? If the structural engineer declares the frame is undamaged the fire will turn into a setback rather than a disaster. The main deck was totally destroyed but it was badly rotten and last week Beames was saying how pleased the team were because they had sourced enough 19th century teak decking in India to replace it. The middle or tween deck is probably a write off too but this was only pine and dated from 1920 so is not such a loss. The boarding cladding the iron frame had been taken off the top half of the ship, some of the remaining boarding may be beyond repair but most of this will have suffered only superficial charring. According to the Cutty Sark Trust most famous sailing ships such as the Victory are really replicas as so much of these have been replaced. The Cutty Sark is nearly all original, and the reason is it is costing £25m is because the Cutty Sark Trust wants to keep it that way. Let’s hope they can still do it.