One of the last tea clippers to be built, the Cutty Sark was the fastest of her time. She was one of the last tea clippers to be built, coming just before the advent of the steam ship. Today she is one of London’s top sights, attracting thousands of visitors each year. The following was first published in the February 1955 issue of Sea Breezes and is the fascinating account of her final passage to where she remains berthed today – a permanent dry dock in Greenwich.
At 12:45pm, on 10 December 1954, the Cutty Sark completed her final passage and berthed in the new permanent dry dock at Greenwich. An historic occasion and, almost certainly, the last time a Clipper ship will be seen under way – if only in tow – in this country. She had been lying in the East India Import Dock since 18 February and, while there, her upper masts, yards, deckhouses, and some 250 tons of sand ballast were removed to enable her to pass over the sill of the drydock. Elaborate calculations were necessary to decide the depth to which the dock must be excavated to ensure that, given a reasonably high tide, the ship could enter with just enough water under her keel.
It had been intended to berth her in October, but as the strike of London shipyard workers was not then settled, this attempt and another in mid-November had to be abandoned. The final decision for the move was taken early on 10 December, after tidal forecasts had been received. The gales of earlier in the week had moderated rapidly, and the weather on the day was good, with a light breeze and occasional sun. At low water, 8am, the temporary gate of the drydock was opened and it filled with the flood tide.
For the passage from East India Dock, the Cutty Sark was towed by the tugs Gondia (Capt C Pratt), and Java (Capt F L Smith); also in attendance was the Kenia (Capt W H Simmons). All three were made freely available by the owners, William Watkins, Ltd. The Java, 128 gross tons, was built at Selby in 1905. The Gondia and Kenia, 200 gross tons, were built at Selby in 1927.
“Honorary Pilot” for the occasion was Mr Tom How of Ditchling, Sussex, who has been in the pilot service for 30 years and was responsible for pilotage during recent moves of HMS President, RRS Discovery, and the Wellington. Among the “crew” on board the Cutty Sark were Mr Frank G G Carr, CBE, Chairman of the Technical Committee of the Preservation Society, responsible for much of the preliminary planning, and Capt C E Irving, CB, RD, RNR, who first joined the ship in 1885 when he was 13, as an apprentice under Capt Richard Woodget. Before he was 17, Capt Irving had made three world voyages in the Cutty Sark.
The “last passage” started at 10.15am, when the clipper was towed from her berth in the East India Dock, through the basin, and locked out into the Thames opposite Blackwall Point. In the river, the Gondia towed ahead, and the Java alongside on the port side. During the short passage, the ship and tugs crossed the Meridian four times.
Before noon, the Cutty Sark was in position in the specially excavated channel leading to the dry dock at Greenwich. Berthing carried out exactly as planned, apart from a slight bump as rudder touched the wall at dock entrance, the Clipper moved into position smoothly. The shore lines were made fast and the tugs cast off. The ship was then hauled into the berth stern first by a stern rope passed through a block at the inshore end of the cock and thence to a crane. Forty-five minutes after she arrived off the entrance, she reached her final position over the keel block, and was greeted by three cheers from a contingent of officers from the Royal Naval College.
Timber shores were rigged and as the tide ebbed, the ship settled on to the keel block. The temporary gate was then placed in position at the entrance to prevent flooding on the next tide, and the water remaining in the dock was pumped out. The whole difficult operation was carried out quietly and efficiently and was, in itself, a fine display of seamanship and organisation.