A bracing westerly is shaking the rigging and I am feeling distinctly wobbly way up high on the yard arm of what was once the fastest ship in the world.
Given that I’m feeling nervous, what on earth must they have been thinking back in the old days?
At least I am strapped to the rigging by a harness and stainless steel shackles which mean there’s no chance of me coming to any harm.
What’s more, the Cutty Sark is sitting bolt upright in her South London dry dock and she has no sails flapping in the breeze.
All I have to do is cling on and admire the view. A century and a half before me, though, this was a place of work.
The original crew would be expected to shin up these rope ladders (‘ratlines’) as fast as possible in all weathers with no safety equipment, sometimes at night, sometimes in a storm.
They then had to climb along ‘yards’ (those wooden spars at right angles to the masts) to haul in or unfurl the sails — there were 32 in total.
Some of the crew were as young as 14. Judging by the size of the bunks, none of them was very big. One slip, and they could crash to their death.
Robert Hardman climbs the riggings of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, a new attraction that opened for visitors on Saturday
Cutty Sark is a British clipper ship built in Dumbarton in 1869 for the Jock Willis Shipping Line, one of the last great tea clippers to be built as well as one of the fastest
‘The original crew would be expected to shin up these rope ladders (‘ratlines’) as fast as possible in all weathers with no safety equipment, sometimes at night, sometimes in a storm’
Little wonder some of them deserted after a single voyage. The last thing they could imagine is that, 150 years later, the public would pay £41 (£26 for children) for the privilege of standing in their shoes.
For, as of this month, visitors to the Cutty Sark can do more than walk around her and marvel at the 19th Century’s answer to Concorde. They can now haul themselves up into what passed for the engine room in the days before engines.
For the fame and commercial success of the Cutty Sark depended on her delivering cargo — first tea, then fine wool — from the other side of the world faster than any other means.
That speed — which could get her from Australia to Britain in a record-breaking 73 days — was down to her design, skipper and, above all, the sail area at his disposal. On a good day, she could shift a cargo of tea from Shanghai — worth more than £18million in today’s money — at 20mph.
Her cargo would be worth even more if it could reach Britain before any other ship, with the result that these voyages became a precursor to today’s round-the-world yachting races.
Standing on deck, preparing to put my first foot on the ratlines, I am reminded of the old saying: ‘I wouldn’t do that for all the tea in China’.
Back in the 1870s, they really were doing this for all the tea in China, hence the need for speed. Today, the priority is health and safety.
‘They then had to climb along ‘yards’ (those wooden spars at right angles to the masts) to haul in or unfurl the sails — there were 32 in total’
‘Some of the crew were as young as 14. Judging by the size of the bunks, none of them was very big. One slip, and they could crash to their death’
‘Little wonder some of the crew deserted after a single voyage. The last thing they could imagine is that, 150 years later, the public would pay £41 (£26 for children) for the privilege of standing in their shoes’
One member of the team double-checks my harness, while another hooks me onto a rope running parallel to the ratlines. That way, if I do fall, I’ll dangle in the wind. The rigging tours are limited to nine, starting every half hour, so there is no need for speed any more.
From the deck, it looks a long way up. I get dizzy craning my neck so decide the best option is to look dead ahead. And then I gradually tread up. Nearly 70ft above the deck, I reach the ‘Tops Platform’ which feels like a relief.
Except it has no guardrails. It’s a ledge which gives access to other areas of the rigging.
Those who have paid an extra tenner for the ‘Rig Climb Experience Plus’, must swap from one safety line to another and keep climbing to the next level, known as the lower topsail yard.
Here, I am clipped on to another rope. This is the point where you climb sideways instead of upwards, side-stepping along a length of rope beneath this mighty beam.
Even with all safety kit, it’s a sobering thought that people would come up here to do important jobs, as opposed to merely clinging for dear life. It feels like the top of the world, although it’s still a long climb to the top.
Thankfully, that is not an option. I look down and see members of the public gawping at me.
However, I have the benefit of a view across the London skyline in one direction and out over the sights of Greenwich in the other.
Behind me is the Royal Observatory, the place from which the world still sets its clocks. There’s a sense of being at a crossroads of history.
I’m holding on to the rigging of a ship that was battling round Cape Horn in the age of Empire, while overlooking City skyscrapers.
‘As of this month, visitors to the Cutty Sark can do more than walk around her and marvel at the 19th Century’s answer to Concorde’
For the first time since arriving in Greenwich in 1954, visitors to Cutty Sark will be able to climb the famous ship’s masts and enjoy views of the Thames and London with urban adventure company Wire and Sky
‘Visitors can now haul themselves up into what passed for the engine room in the days before engines’
There’s no need to clamber down as the final element of the rigging tour involves another sharp intake of breath and a closing of the eyes.
You are attached to a near-vertical zip wire which delivers you to the quayside, albeit with another safety rope to slow you down.
I have no doubt this will be a hit — with everyone from schoolchildren (minimum age: 12) to corporate team-bonding types.
It’s the latest innovation in the history of a ship that has always grabbed the imagination. The story of the Cutty Sark is also a tale of survival.
For the last time I came to see this ship, she was a smouldering wreck after a fire in 2007.
Yet here she is, suspended so the public can appreciate the design of her hull, wreathed in sheets of a copper-based alloy that repelled barnacles and made her even faster.
‘There’s no need to clamber down as the final element of the rigging tour involves another sharp intake of breath and a closing of the eyes’
‘You are attached to a near-vertical zip wire which delivers you to the quayside, albeit with another safety rope to slow you down’
‘It’s the latest innovation in the history of a ship that has always grabbed the imagination. The story of the Cutty Sark is also a tale of survival’
‘Here she is, suspended so the public can appreciate the design of her hull, wreathed in sheets of a copper-based alloy that repelled barnacles and made her even faster’
The Cutty Sark has been cheating the scrapyard all through her life, as I learn from Dr Hannah Stockton of Royal Museums Greenwich, the custodians of this piece of our national heritage.
The ship was built and launched in 1869 at a shipyard in Dumbarton, destined for a career in the tea trade. She was officially named — from the witch in Robbie Burns’s Tam O’ Shanter — by the wife of her first captain.
Capable of carrying 600 tons of tea, with a sail area of 32,000sqft and 11 miles of rigging, the Cutty Sark could outpace almost anything else afloat, including steamships. Yet, within a few years, she was starting to look obsolete.
It wasn’t just the development of steam engines which threatened her but the Suez Canal. This cut weeks off a voyage to the Far East and was designed for motorised vessels.
However, Cutty Sark’s owner, John Willis, found a new role for her, transporting wool from Australia. With a competitive new skipper, Richard Woodget, she was soon beating the competition again.
On one evening in 1889, the captain of a steamship, the SS Britannia, recorded that, while steaming along at full cruising speed, he was overtaken by a sailing ship. Sure enough, it was the Cutty Sark.
As she grew older, Willis sold her to a Portuguese company. She began doing slower, more menial work. Still without an engine, she worked on through World War I and was on her last legs when she pulled into Falmouth for repairs in 1922.
There, she was spotted by a retired sea captain, Wilfred Dowman, who saved her for the nation.
Married to an heiress from the Courtauld family, he bought her for £3,750 and converted her for use as a cadet training ship. She was moved up to the Thames Estuary and remained there through World War II.
By 1952, she was barely seaworthy when she was hit by a passing tanker and the scrapyard loomed once again.
However, thanks to the persistence of a band of admirers, notably the Duke of Edinburgh, the Cutty Sark Preservation Society was formed and built a new dry dock for her on an empty bombsite at Greenwich. And there she has remained ever since.
At the turn of the millennium, with her timbers starting to buckle after decades of sitting on her keel on dry land, someone had the bright idea of suspending her 1,000-ton structure over the dock.
It would require a major overhaul, during which that dreadful fire broke out. By a stroke of luck, all the rigging and much of the ship’s timbers had been removed, with the result that only 10 per cent of the original ship was lost.
Like every tourist attraction, this ship has taken a heavy financial blow during the pandemic but the crowds are returning. The hope is that tours of the rigging will raise revenues to keep her going.
Having survived everything else the fates have thrown at her over the years, I am sure Cutty Sark will just sail serenely on — as she has always done