Friday, November 23, 2007

Cutty Sark

The clipper ship, Cutty Sark, was launched on November 22, 1869.

As a child, I joined the many people who thought this ship was akin to a work of art. When I was about 10 years old, I received a large Revell model of the Cutty Sark as a Christmas present. The model was a challenge to build (especially for a ten-year-old). I remember the lines of that ship as being almost sensuous.

In the summer of 2004, I was able to visit the Cutty Sark at her berth in Greenwich, England. She was even more beautiful than I remembered from my childhood memories. I could feel myself being drawn to her in a way my family didn't much understand.

The Cutty Sark was a ship built to sail the Horn of Africa in the China tea trade. Five days before she was launched, however, the world for which she was built changed forever. The Suez Canal opened on November 17, 1869. The Canal eliminated the need for the fast clippers to take the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope. The Cutty Sark plied the tea trade for only eight years before she was no longer profitable. She found later life in the wool trade between England and Australia. Later still, she sailed under the Portuguese flag.

The Cutty Sark was more or less an aging derelict headed into oblivion when in 1922 she was spotted by and English captain, Wilfred Dowman. Dowman had seen the Cutty Sark under full sail when he was a young seaman and never forgot her beauty. He bought the vessel from her Portuguese owners and completely refitted her back to her original condition as a clipper ship. Dowman used her as a training ship until he died in 1938. The ship eventually found a permanent home in a specially-built drydock at Greenwich in 1954.

But the Cutty Sark continued to make the news. In May of this year a terrible fire broke out on the clipper as she was undergoing extensive renovations. Fortunately, much of her original timbers had been removed for the renovation and hence were not damaged by the fire. The ship will be brought back yet again as the last best example of the extreme clipper.

Extreme clippers like the Cutty Sark are some of the best examples of the intersection of technology and art. The perfection of form meeting function can stir the soul. It certainly stirred mine at a very young age. Perhaps we have lost something when function alone becomes the principle in technology. Technology is built to serve but it can also be beautiful. At least I think so.

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