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The Adventure of the Cutty Sark

There's a stiff southerly wind on this early Sunday afternoon as I make all plain sail out of the Marlborough Hotel in central London. My course is set for the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. The hotel concierge (resplendent in gold facings fit for an admiral, though his uniform is a most unseamanlike port-wine color) has informed me that the new Jubilee tube line out to Greenwich is still teething and unreliable on Sundays. He tells me the best way there is still, for all love, by boat from Westminster Pier.

On the way south to the pier my double-decker bus, moving handsomely in the dense London traffic, passes Trafalgar Square. The four bronze lions around Nelson's column look as imperial as ever. Even in this brisk weather the square is alive with people taking the air, but they are as usual greatly outnumbered by the pigeons.

A few blocks later the frowning facade of Westminster Cathedral looms on the right. I inquire of the coachman and discover that I've missed my landfall at the last stop and must tack back towards the pier on foot. It is nearly one and I have been told the boats leave on the half-hour; there is not a moment to be lost. I take my bearings on the giant ferris wheel which, I vaguely recall, lies across the river from here.

As I pass the Houses of Parliament, I hear gulls shrieking. This time it is they who are outnumbered, by the flocks of tourists unaccountably collected about the Westminster Abbey gates. The Abbey is closed for the weekend; the chattering crowd gazes wistfully through the wrought-iron fence as if they've all somehow misplaced a day or two and are vaguely stupified in consequence.

I sail through them serene in the confidence that whatever my manifold other failings may be, I at least do not look like one of these poor lost sheep. My course takes me hard by the very base of Big Ben, the gilt around its clockfaces looking freshly-laid against the age-darkened stonework. It strikes the hour of one behind me as I make my way down to the boats.

Alas, I have just missed the last boarding on the one o'clock boat; perhaps I am a lost sheep after all. It sits mere feet from me, not rocking at all in the Thames swell, but we are sundered by a hateful fence. A waterman in a navy-blue jersey confirms that they are full up. He actually uses the word "guv'nor". I marvel.

Now I have time and to spare, alas. The next boat will leave at one forty. I rig out my laptop and begin making observations. When the one-forty boat docks I seize a prime spot in the open-air seats at the bows. She casts off a few minutes later. Down the river, we are treated to humorous narration which, to my surprise, is actually both humorous and informative.

As I listen, I begin to suspect the narrator may have been selected for his rich Cockney accent, but he tells us later that he is not a professional guide. He is one of the boat crew and they write their own patter, complete with jokes about ex-wives and the Traitor's Gate.

At Blackfriars Bridge, the guide does not mention its most interesting bit of history -- the banker found hung from it by a rope back in the nineteen-eighties, in connection with the Banco Ambrosiano scandal. Though I don't recall it was ever proved, the manner of the murder was ritualistic with details that pointed straight at that most hoary of paranoid cliches, a Masonic conspiracy. Shortly afterward the P1 Lodge in Italy, a Masonic organization which included a number of that country's most prominent politicians and businessmen, was broken up amidst a tremendous furore.

Off to our port the narrator points out the livery hall of the Association of Master Mariners. To be a member, he tells us, one must have held command of a ship at sea. Then he says their president is the Duke of Edinburgh. The man, or the title, I wonder -- and if the latter, has every peer of that line been a sailor? Fittingly, their livery hall is a moored ship.

We hit a bit of chop at the Southwark Road Bridge, just after passing the newly-erected replica of the Globe Theater on the south bank. It gleams almost unnaturally white against the faded gray and drab of the buildings around it. Another replica, of the Sir Francis Drake's Golden Hind, passes our starboard beam a few hundred yards later; with its old-fashioned high forecastle and poop decks it looks like a child's toy boat mysteriously grown large, and a little embarrassed at its own prominence. A little after that we pass very close to the battlecruiser Belfast. This far larger and grimmer-looking hulk is, we are told, a veteran of the Murmansk convoys, D-Day, and the sinking of the Scharnhorst. It looms over the tour boat like a steel cliff.

A mile or so after the Tower Bridge we begin to plough through a more serious chop. The loquacious waterman has finished his spiel; I drop him a a tip when he wanders by, captain's hat in hand. What he'll do with my handful of Irish small coin left over from Dublin, I'm not sure, but it's about all I have in my pockets. It's full ahead now; the engines' barely audible muttering becomes a muted roar.

The boat churns on towards Greenwich. I am writing in real time now, glancing from my laptop screen to the green-grey river. We're out of old London now; the banks are lined not with historic buildings but with ugly flats and warehouses. I'm increasingly glad of the bulky Icelandic sweater my wife gave me before I left; it was made for just this sort of raw day and is serving well. Nevertheless I contemplate going aft for a hot drink. But as I am thinking this, the boat noses into Greenwich pier.

It is a quarter to three, alarmingly late in the day considering the Maritime Museum closes at 5:00; but worse is to come when I discover that the last return boat leaves at 4:20. I would get little more than an hour at the Museum for my seven pounds admission, and I've been there before. I contemplate the thought of sea-battle paintings and ship models with regret, but decide in favor of novelty to divert to the Cutty Sark.

The famous ship reposes majestically in a drydock a few yards from the river. Her hull is black, her masts stark white. Her yards are unhistorically crossed; the brightwork at her bow and stern gleams, and her figurehead is an amusingly archetypical bare-bosomed goddess. I walked around the ship slowly, drinking in the sight of her. Her standing rigging seems to thrum in the afternoon wind; a Red Ensign flutters bravely at her mizzen.

The fastest ship of her day, that Cockney waterman had claimed, and I can believe it. Even at rest in a drydock she looks fast. A few weeks ago I walked the decks of the heavy frigate Constitution on a fine fall day in Boston; that was an impressive ship and by all accounts a good sailer, but obviously a war-dog with nowhere near the speed of this sleek greyhound.

The Cutty Sark was, indeed, one of the prize blooms in the last and loveliest flowering of the age of sail. She was launched in 1869 for the tea trade -- and those ships had to be fast, because in those days before refrigeration and cheap hermetic sealing tea did not travel well. The precious leaves became weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable after too long in hold. The fastest and most beautiful sailing ships ever made were built so Londoners could have a fresh cuppa in the morning.

Indeed, the Cutty Sark probably owes her survival and good condition to the fact that she became obsolete soon after she was built. Fulton's and Brunel's ugly steam kettles soon surpassed her. With her passed the age of sail; the world would not see her like again.

Her grace and keenness puts me in mind of the Gokstad and Oseberg ships, which I saw at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo just last week. They're a thousand years older; longships in the classic clinker-built Norse style, with steering boards and just one square sail. And yet, they breathe the same sense of perfected craft, of design wisdom and exquisite functional fitness that the Cutty Sark does.

And they show it in the same way; with breathtaking beauty. The cruciform white building the Norwegians erected to house these ships has the hush of a temple. And rightly so; the ships seem a living presence as surely as the holiest idol or icon ever carved, and more surely than most. "The men who made and sailed us knew the sea..." they say...and the zoomorphic interlace carving on their prows does not, after all, seem that different in spirit from the brightwork on the Cutty Sark's. Both the products of loving hands, of shipwrights and artisans rightly proud of their skill.

For all that I'm on a promotional tour for a book about software development, the last week could hardly have been better designed to reveal the time-deep history of men going down to the sea in ships. Just four days ago I was in Dublin, an invited lecturer at Trinity College. I made time to go to the National Museum while I was there; and off to one side of all the cases of gorgeous gold jewelry from the Bronze Age, there is a boat almost four thousand years old. It's an immense log dugout canoe, hollowed out by fire and adze, nearly thirty feet long. Crude but serviceable, it and the Cutty Sark neatly bracket the age of muscle- and wind-power at sea.

I'm quite taken aback when I discover at the entrance to the Cutty Sark's interior that I am short five pounds of the admission price. I am not lacking money, but they don't take dollars and the guard doubts I'll find anywhere to change dollars on a Sunday in Greenwich.

Now I am a lost sheep indeed. Not only are my chances of seeing the Cutty Sark's interior looking slim, but the sea wind has done its work on me and I'm getting devilish hungry. Sharp-set, I fare forth into Greenwich in search of anyone who will take my dollars in trade for coin of the realm. Aubrey and Maturin would feel right at home in the cobblestoned, twisting streets of Greenwich town. If you edit out the throngs of tourists and the cars, not much has changed in essence since their day, I suspect. Though my quest appears increasingly futile, I do not fail to enjoy the warren of pubs, little eateries, and hole-in-the-wall shops. The smells from the eateries increasingly tantalize me.

One place where I inquire deals in old books and maps. I imagine the Doctor sniffing about here for books of natural history, and eye a three-hundred-year-old map of the Netherlands offered for sixty pounds. Alas, I cannot linger. My return boat will leave soon, I have not yet given up hope of changing some dollars, and I am very hungry.

I'm also cursing the amiable, potty inefficiency about matters economic that the British have retained along with their cobblestoned streets. Greenwich is clearly a place that lives off the tourist trade; to optimally separate the marks from their money, there ought to be a bureau de change on every other corner. Instead, the locals look vague and puzzled at my frustration, as if they don't understand the issue and can't be bothered to try.

This shouldn't surprise me; I've lived in this country, after all. I'm all too familiar with related phenomena like restaurants only open at hours when, seemingly, nobody actually wants to eat. But it never ceases to amaze me how blind the people once famously described as "a nation of shopkeepers" can be to a potential profit.

A few minutes after the bookshop I pass a pub emitting the surprising (here and now, at any rate) sound of Dixieland jazz. I peer through a window. Sure enough, a trio is playing live -- and not badly, either. But I cannot tarry here either. I make my way through a lively open-air market in a back alley. The streets are packed with cheerful people, but it is time for me to head back towards the pier. If I miss the last boat to Westminster I'll be in real trouble.

On my way I duck into a Middle-Eastern take-out restaurant because it looks inexpensive enough that my couple of pounds might actually buy a meal. Thankfully, it does. I munch my kebab and think of chelengks. It is hot and good.

I catch the last boat with no difficulty. In the queue, I strike up a conversation with a man who turns out to be a Scotsman living in Italy. He trades bits of Italian with his dark-eyed wife. He is in the telecommunications business, intrigued by my handy little Sony VAIO computer (not surprisingly; it is very new and on top of being exceedingly light and powerful it is beautifully designed -- I often get strangers asking about it). We talk of modern technology, but I think of Dr. Maturin and smile; here is a Celt who has found his own Catalonia.

The journey upriver is uneventful. Indeed, we make twenty minutes' better time than downriver; a crewman mentions that we are with the tide. Fashion engines how we will, old mother sea is still more than a match for them, and where rivers like the Thames run her reach is long into the land. All the ships I've seen today are in the nature of propositions to her; but only she can say if she will dance.

(Originally written 29 Nov 1999,
with fans of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin sea stories in mind.)

© 2000 Eric S. Raymond