Cutty Sark Voyages 1870-1922: How Cutty Sark was nearly lost
In a career at sea lasting 50 years, Cutty Sark faced many dangers. The closest she came to being wrecked was in May 1916 off South Africa. At the time, she was owned by a Portuguese company and called Ferreira. This is how her captain might have described the incident.
Frederic Vincenzo sa Sousa: Next month it will be 1918 and I will have been in Cape Town for nineteen months, waiting for my ship to be made sea-worthy once more. My name is Frederic Vincenzo da Sousa and I am the captain of the Ferreira. It is the ship the British called Cutty Sark until she was bought by the Ferreira Company of Lisbon in 1895. Indeed, we still call her El Pequina Camisola, the little camisole, the closest we can get to a Portuguese translation of ‘cutty sark’, because she still carried a small metal camisola as her emblem at the top of her main mast.
For the British, she transported tea from China to London and then wool from Australia, but for our company, she has carried anything and everything. We usually load and unload at ports in the Portuguese colonies or in our old colonies like Brazil, but we’ve been to the United States and even to England.
The Great War goes on and every sailor is terrified of submarines. We’re lucky that we’ve never been attacked. But indirectly our ship was nearly a casualty herself.
One of our regular cargoes is coal from Mozambique, and I know the capital of the colony, Laurenço Marques, very well. It is a beautiful town – the City of the Acacias, they call it. But when we tied up there in back in October 1915, it was a more sombre place. I soon learned the reason why – although there had been skirmishes with the Germans for a year, Portugal was about to go formally to war. As soon as we arrived, the authorities informed me that I and all my crew were being conscripted into the Portuguese Navy.
Now, I am a patriot, but if every sailor is put into the Navy, who is left to transport the goods and materials Portugal needs to win this war?
Eventually I managed to persuade them to take nine of my men, leaving me with two non-Portuguese seamen, six apprentices and my cook. I had to find more men, but after six months’ effort, all I had been able to recruit were couple of fishermen and seven Mozambique men who had never been to sea before. Now I had a crew of eighteen: it was too few, but it was all I could muster. So in April 1916, with a hold full of coal to be delivered to Mossamedes in the southwest of Angola, we set sail.
We hugged the coast all the way down to South Africa and by 1st May we were only a couple of days away from rounding the Cape of Good Hope – we were between Port Elizabeth and East London. Then the storm hit us. Every part of the sea that wasn’t white was an enormous crashing wave. The winds were reaching Force 10. Remember: I had seven men on board who had never been to sea before – imagine how terrified they were. They certainly were no use.
Day after day it got worse. The ship rolled back and forth until a moment came when it rolled right over to port, with the lower yard arms in the water…. and she didn’t roll back. She stayed like that, right over.
Some of the coal – only 15 or 20 tons of the thousand tons we had on board – had not been loaded properly and as the ship rolled, this loose coal had all shifted to the port side. So I had to send my apprentices down into the hold. With only a single hurricane lantern to light the space, they spent the whole day down there, shovelling the coal to get the ship back on an even keel. They managed to do it, but by the next morning, all their good work was undone and the ship was listing again.
She was almost unsteerable, so I did not dare to try and steer for Port Elizabeth – we would have almost certainly been wrecked on the rocks. All I could do was sent the apprentices back into the hold again and pray that the weather would improve. But my prayers were not answered. No matter what the apprentices did, the coal shifted again and again. Finally it shifted so much that I knew there was no possibility of ever levelling the ship. My only hope of saving the ship was to reduce the weight of the rigging dragging us over. So over the next few days, we cut away at her masts and rigging and pitched them over the side until all that was left was the foremast and the foretopmast. Even the metal camisola was gone.
Finally, after 10 days, the wind eased up and I knew that, if I could find a ship to give us a tow, we could make Cape Town. But the first ship I made contact with was the SS Kia Ora. bound for Sydney, not Cape Town. Her captain was so worried about German submarines in the area, he wanted to get away as quickly as possible. He told me to scuttle my ship and he would take me and all my men to Australia with him. But I had come through too much to abandon El Pequina Camisola.
For two more days, we drifted helplessly towards Cape Aghulas, and almost certain shipwreck. Then suddenly, another steamer, the Indraghiri, came into view. She saved us: she threw us a line and towed us into Table Bay.
But the ship was in a terrible state. The estimate for her repair, re-masting and re-rigging was £2,250. Unfortunately, she was only insured for £700. Not only that, because of the War, there was a shortage of timber to replace her yards. So I was instructed by the Company re-rig her as a barquentine, which has a smaller number of sails and uses less timber. And it needs fewer men to sail her.
But, despite the changes I am forced to make, every seaman who lands in the Cape is coming to see her – my crew are acting as tourist guides! Yes, it is sad that she is no longer a square-rigged ship, but maybe one day she will look as beautiful again. She is a remarkable vessel: everyone who comes into contact with her has a great affection for her. I often think back to those dreadful days in May 1916 and what might have been. But I know I could never have abandoned her.
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.