Cutty Sark was built in 1869 to serve the China tea trade and owner John Willis had aspirations for his ship to be the fastest in this trade. He also wanted Cutty Sark to beat rival ship Thermopylae, launched the previous year by Walter Hood for the Aberdeen White Star Line.

On Thermopylae’s maiden voyage, she sailed to Melbourne in just 60 days breaking the record for this journey - only steamers had previously matched such speeds – and she was said to be the fastest ship of the day. Cutty Sark and Thermopylae in fact raced back from China on only one occasion, in 1872. The two vessels loaded alongside each other in Shanghai, then, on 26 June set off in the race to be the first ship back to London. They raced neck and neck through the South China seas before Cutty Sark managed to forge ahead. However, at 6am on 15 August, seven weeks into the race, Cutty Sark lost her rudder off the coast of South Africa so was forced to pull up for repairs. Her carpenter Henry Henderson made a temporary rudder to see them home, and the ship eventually arrived back on 19 October, nine days after Thermopylae. Although Cutty Sark didn’t win the race, the ingenuity and seamanship displayed by the crew was celebrated and owner John Willis awarded carpenter Henderson £50 for saving the ship. Due to competition from steamships, both Cutty Sark and Thermopylae were driven out of the tea trade and were forced to seek other cargoes, but they would later compete in the wool run back from Australia.

'Cutty Sark' and 'Thermopylae' before the Great Race, 1872 by D S Swan, 1969 © Cutty Sark Trust

 

The painting above, by Donald Sinclair Swan, depicts the meeting of the rival ships at the start of the race in 1872.  It was painted in 1969 as part of an exhibition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Cutty Sark’s launch.