Friday, June 08, 2007

Requiem for a Great Ship


Jock Wallis, "Old White Hat", was a grand old Scotsman. And he ruled Wallis and Sons like a Scottish Laird. Every time one of his ships went forth Wallis was there to wave goodbye as they left Liverpool. For ships were not just money to Old White Hat. He loved fine ships the way other rich men love fine racing horses.

In 1868 the rival owner, George Thompson's "Thermopylae" was the first in from the China run(if one was superstitious one might wonder about naming a ship after a battle where everyone was killed-but it didn't bring bad luck apparently). Thompson was hardly humble about that to say the least. Now the first in would get the best rates next year-besides bragging rights. So Old White Hat commenced his search for a world beater. George Thompson wasn't going to hold his head over Old White Hat!

Wallis' star was the "Tweed". The Tweed was something of a windfall. Wallis secured four Indian Ocean paddlewheelers as a package deal. Somehow he managed to sell three for the price he had got all four, and refitted "Tweed" as a Tea Clipper. The clippers are famed as among the most beautiful ships built. They held a delicate niche in the market; they ran express freight and could only survive as long as steam was slower then sail. But while they survived they made legends.

Twead turned out to be a great success on the Tea run. So Jock Wallis ordered from the builder Hercules Scot a ship made with the Twead as a basis. Scot and Wallis arranged the deal in the amiable manner of the time, with much discussing, and "this-ing" and "that-ing" rather then the more modern manner of simply ordering a ship from an exactly designed "class".

Poor Hercules was glad to get such a prestigious contract. It is said he was so eager to please, that he bankrupted himself building it. But at last the good ship was built and named the Cutty Sark.

On her first two trips Thermopylae won - barely. The most dramatic was third. Cutty Sark was riding a hard wind for six days in the Indian Ocean. Suddenly the wind shifted and caught Cutty Sark at it's most vulnerable point and ripped off her rudder. Now aboard Cutty Sark was Jock Wallis' nephew as apprentice. He took it upon himself to "order" Cutty Sark to put in to the nearest port. The Captain, George Moodie, instead rigged a jury rudder which took him to London-a week behind Thermopylae. There was much dispute among clipper fans about the results-and many said Cutty Sark should have been given the credit.

In the midst of the dispute Moodie left in a huff, leaving Jock Wallis to find a new captain. The next few years were hard ones for the Cutty Sark. Steam was edging out sail on the China run. And Old White Hat couldn't find a decent captain. Finally he found one. Richard Woodget, a charismatic man with the eccentric flair a good leader should have. And Cutty Sark found it's true market-the Australia wool run where the weather was perfectly fitted for Cutty
Sark's qualities. At long last Cutty Sark was first in, and on seeing her come into London, Old White Hat shouted "Weel done, Cutty Sark."

Cutty Sark became a museum ship, and three generations saw her as the last of the clippers. However recently there was a fire in which she was destroyed. Which is why I am writing this requiem-

"Weel done, Cutty Sark."

- Sir Jason

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