Cutty Sark Voyages 1870-1922: Cutty Sark races Thermopylae
Cutty Sark’s great rival for the title of the fastest of all the clippers was Aberdeen White Star Line’s Thermopylae. But the only time the two ships left the same port on the same day and raced against each other nearly ended in disaster for Cutty Sark. This is how the ship’s carpenter, Henry Henderson, might have remembered it.
Henry Henderson: How d’you do. My name is Henry Henderson and I was the ship’s carpenter on board Cutty Sark for, let me see now, five voyages, from her maiden voyage onward. Our first two voyages to China and back were uneventful enough; just the usual settling in of a new ship, making sure all the gear was working. It was on the third voyage, on the homeward run, that Cutty Sark got into trouble. She might have ended up wrecked off the coast of South Africa, if it hadn’t been for me.
We’d left Shanghai on the 17th of June 1872, with nearly 600 tons of tea in the hold. Everyone was keen to make a fast passage home. It was not that we’d been away that long: we’d left London only four and a half months earlier. On the last voyage we’d been away for more than a year. But the reason why we wanted to make our fastest passage was … the ship right behind us: the Aberdeen White Star Line’s clipper Thermopylae.
There’s no doubt that she was a fine vessel, but many people were saying she was the fastest of all the tea clippers. Naturally enough our captain, old Moodie, and his crew – were not going to stand for that. We knew Cutty Sark was quicker. Now, with Cutty Sark and Thermopylae leaving China at exactly the same time, we had the chance to prove it.
Every captain has their own favourite course, so we lost sight of Thermopylae pretty soon. But we caught another glimpse of her a couple of days later as we slipped past Hong Kong. Then we must have got ahead, because when we stopped at Anjer on the tip of Java to pick up mail, we saw her approach and sail on by.
Once we got into the Indian Ocean, my Lord, we flew! We were making 260 miles a day. I learnt afterwards that by the time we’d passed the southern tip of Madagascar and were heading for the Cape of Good Hope, Cutty Sark was 400 miles ahead of Thermopylae.
But then… on the 7th of August – that would be 54 days after we’d left Shanghai – the wind just died. It was as if it had been cut by a knife. We lay there, a couple of hundred miles off the coast of South Africa, for two days. But if any of us had been praying for a wind, it would have been better if that prayer was left unanswered.
When that wind came, Lord, it was strong, from the west. And with it, a big, big sea. We took in canvas, but the lower topsails on the fore and main masts were blown to shreds. It seemed it would never let up. All the helmsman could do was to try and keep the head to the wind. Then at half past six on the morning of the 15th , the sea rose up under the stern, picked up the rudder and tore it out and away.
So we had a ship we couldn’t steer. I tried putting a spare yard over the stern to see if that would act like a steering oar, like you see on some Chinese boats, but the ship was just too big.
Now… Robert Willis, who had a small share in the ownership of Cutty Sark, he was on board – he had taken the trip for the good of his health – and he tried to tell Captain Moodie to make for the nearest port under sail alone – I suppose it would be Port Elizabeth. Well, Captain Moodie was not the kind of man you tell what to do and Mr Willis was lucky not to have been knocked down. Moodie had made up his mind to repair the rudder at sea.
So I set about making a new rudder – it was a sort of lash-up we call a jury rudder – from spare spars and bits of timber I’d stowed for repairs. Now – and you can hardly credit this – we had a bit of luck. After we’d left Shanghai, we discovered we had two stowaways on board… and one turned out to be a blacksmith. I set this fellow to making eyebolts and he set up a little forge on deck. My idea was to fix five eyebolts into my new rudder and five into the rudderpost, then push a bolt through them all to hold the rudder to the ship but at the same time allow it to swing properly. The bolt was actually one of the metal posts that held up the awning over the poop deck. The whole contraption was to be controlled by chains.
Now, if you can imagine setting up a forge on the deck of a ship at sea, you can picture what was going to happen sooner or later. Yes, the whole thing tipped over. The captain’s son, Alexander, who was an apprentice on board, was helping the smith when a roll took the whole forge across the deck, covering him with red hot cinders. He didn’t make much of a fuss, but I believe he still bears the scars.
Somehow though, we got it all finished and we managed to hang this jury rudder, which was no simple task. But it worked –we were soon underway again, even if progress home was pretty slow.
When we reached finally reached London in mid-October, we found Thermopylae had beaten us by nine days. But you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for Captain Kimball – Thermopylae’s master – because no-one talked about him beating us. All anyone talked about was how I’d saved Cutty Sark with my jury rudder. And the shipowners gave me a handsome gift of £50 as a reward for what I’d done.
Announcer: This is just one of the many stories of Cutty Sark that you can explore on the ship. She is now permanently docked in Greenwich, just 20 minutes from the centre of London. Come on board and discover why she is one of the most famous ships in the world.