The Cutty Sark Curatorial Team Go Sailing

One of the many legacies of the immensely successful and ground-breaking Shipshape Heritage Training Partnership that ended last year and was supported by Heritage Lottery Fund, was the involvement of both static museum ships and operators of traditional vessels. Sea-Change was proud to be teamed with Cutty Sark within the partnership and we were able to send Ben our trainee and Oli our Mate for experience with the T S Rigging maintenance team on the clipper. Efforts to bring people from the museum aboard Blue Mermaid were frustrated by the Covid pandemic so it has only now proved possible to do this.


Ship-keeping Manager Simon Thompson brought his team and others from across the museum having involvement with Cutty Sark, including conservators, learning and engagement services and the library. There was scarcely any aspect of the story of the ship that could not be explained in detail by someone present.


If there were an aspect lacking any measure of experience it was how the ship sailed as none of us have had the opportunity to do that. And this was precisely the reason for the trip aboard Blue Mermaid. While a Thames barge cannot compare with a tea clipper picking its way through the South China Sea or running down its easting, the engineless Blue Mermaid provided a realistic understanding of the work and focus required to make efficient progress in the age of sail. In his debrief skipper Richard Titchener recounted how he believed the tea races were won or lost in the skillful harnessing of each wind-shift and zephyr in the South China Sea and Dutch East Indies archipelago as opposed to the full-throttle 17 knot rushes immortalised in Montagu Dawson’s paintings.


And in truth, the three days aboard was a cornucopia of variety as would have excited Willis and Woodget. The group joined at Heybridge Basin two hours before high water on Sunday evening, the team giving up some of their weekend to facilitate the tidal situation. A hands-on safety brief prepared us for departure shortly before high water and a light easterly meant plenty of windward work down to Osea, passing the Maldon-based sailing barge Hydrogen on an evening trip with lots of happy customers on deck in the sunshine.


The intention was to set the staysail as soon as possible so the crew was briefed about their roles. And this happened by Decoy Point, a mile down river. Two two person teams worked the topmast backstays, two more handled the sheets on the crab winches aft, two more the bowline each time we tacked, leaving one to steer and one more spare to keep heart and soul together with the kettle and look out duties. Taking the helm at Osea, Simon did an excellent job of holding the barge close to the wind fetching Thirslet Spit in one tack in the growing south easterly breeze. It was clear this was a crew taking their responsibilities seriously and all thoughts of dinner or sorting berths for the night were held over until anchorage was found at dusk at Weymarks below Bradwell. Before dinner the bowsprit was dropped and jib rigged ready for the next day.


Monday promised little wind and continuous rain. It was apparent making even the Colne would require hard work and diligence. Mustering on deck after an early breakfast with half the ebb left to play with, there was the faintest air from the west, cancelled out by the tide once under way. Out came the twenty-eight foot sweeps for their first serious outing. It was some six miles to the anchorage off Brightlingsea and barely a breath of wind. Rising to the occasion the RMG stalwarts bent to the task and kept up a steady pull, rotating seamlessly as they tired. This produced 0.8 of a knot through the water which, with the ebb tide, took us to the Bench Head buoy shortly before low water and with the young flood into the Colne. After three hours a southerly breeze filled in at the Colne No 8 buoy and oars were unshipped. The incessant rain showed no sign of relenting as we passed the Pioneer, another SHTP partner, anchored off the beach at Colne Point with a school group aboard.


After a pleasant meal and talk of nautical topics, an early night was had by all ready for a smart start with a good and fair breeze forecast for Tuesday for the passage to Pin Mill. And indeed it was. There was a fast fetch down Brightlingsea Reach, with a few casts of the lead to demonstrate the difference from six fathoms in the channel to two and a half over the Bar. Sun and a steady force four westerly held as far as Walton, but here near calm ensued and fickle conditions persisted into and through Harwich Harbour and into the Orwell. The westerly held nicely after some quiet patches for a fetch along the edge of Shotley Spit with the lead line going fast and furiously to best use the sliver of deep water between the buoyed channel and the shallows. The wind direction meant a turn from Collimer Spit for the last two miles to Pin Mill so the jib was dropped in Sea Reach and the gear wound in as the wind increased to give just a little too much for the topsail as we turned the corner. One of Landbreach’s tugs from Maldon was plough dredging the channel into Levington Marina as we turned past against the last of the ebb. There had been a sweepstake on the arrival time during the navigation exercise the previous evening with 1500 being popular and this was looking likely. Gradually the wind dropped and became fickle eventually backing as we came to anchor requiring a speedy reduction in sail. As the last turn of the gasket went on the topsail, it was 1510.


After putting the barge to bed, there was time to walk through the trees to the Butt and Oyster before dinner and a quick look at the Look Stranger documentary on YouTube featuring Cambria sailing these waters and Gill Roberts’ wedding celebrations in the pub in 1969.


In the debrief before catching the taxi home, there was universal acknowledgement of the value of experiencing a ship under sail. Asked for highlights, there were many, but one that sticks in the mind was how the concentration of steering into Harwich at a good speed cleared the mind of all extraneous matters and brought a sense of clarity.


Thank you to the museum for making this trip possible. It is hoped the relationship can continue and explore areas of mutual benefit. After taking the group ashore the task of cleaning off the area under the barge blocks commenced ready for a scrub the next day.