Cutty Sark Voyages 1870-1922: Through high seas and ice

Richard Woodget was Cutty Sark’s most successful captain, making several record-breaking voyages from Australia to England with wool cargoes Based on his logs, this is how he might have described some of the conditions the ship encountered.

 

Captain Richard Woodget, Master of Cutty Sark 1885-1895 © National Maritime Museum, London

Captain Richard Woodget, Master of Cutty Sark 1885-1895
© National Maritime Museum, London

Richard Woodget: My name is Richard Woodget, and I am captain of Cutty Sark. I was the captain of another of Jock Willis’s ships, Coldstream, but in March 1885, Mr Willis took me down to London’s East India Dock, pointed at Cutty Sark and said to me: ‘Captain Woodget, there is your ship. My agents in Sydney are Dangar and Geddes & Co. All you have to do is drive her.’

Cutty Sark’s route to Australia and back to London © Cutty Sark Trust

Cutty Sark’s route to Australia and back to London
© Cutty Sark Trust

She’s a ship that likes a strong wind and plenty of sail on her. And down in the southern seas, there are the strongest winds in the world – the Roaring Forties. I’m well known for keeping as many sails aloft as a ship can bear – that’s why Cutty Sark has made the fastest passages of any clipper ship on the wool run from Australia  – but I remember one evening in June 1891, on our way out to Sydney, when we were south of the Cape of Good Hope. The wind was already blowing so hard that even I daren’t have more sail than just the main topgallant. I was at the stern of the ship, beside the helmsman when I looked behind me and saw an immense sea rolling up just behind us.

The Great Wave by D. Swan © Cutty Sark Trust

The Great Wave by D. Swan
© Cutty Sark Trust

It was towering up so steep that it looked like a cliff. I was sure that it was going to drop right over us and bury the ship. Pretty quickly the helmsman and my son Dick, who was an apprentice on board at the time, lashed themselves to the wheel. If they hadn’t done, I am certain they would have been washed overboard. I myself was hanging to the rail for dear life. But instead of breaking over us, the sea lifted the stern right up.

The next thing I knew, we were running down a wall of water at an angle of about 45 degrees. As the wave began to overtake us, you could hear Cutty Sark’s bow splitting the water with a great roaring hiss. When the highest point reached the middle of the ship, the water just dropped on board on both sides. And it did so with such a tremendous force that the doors of both deckhouses were completely smashed in. Then the water rushed aft, to where I was up on the poop deck. There was so much of it that I was up to my waist and hanging on to the wheel and the rail for my life.

Looking forward, I couldn’t see the deckhouses at all – only the ship’s boats lashed to the top of them. Hundreds of gallons of water must have poured into the saloon. The apprentices’ deckhouse, nearest the stern, was filled right up to the upper bunks, soaking everything in it bed, pillows and bedclothes. The able seamen’s deckhouse, further forward wasn’t quite so bad – it only filled up as high as the lower bunks. But the cargo hold kept dry and watertight – that’s what kept us afloat. In all my years at sea, I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since. Yet what a speed we made – we covered 300 miles in a day: one of our best runs ever!

An advert for Cutty Sark’s passage to Sydney, under Captain Woodget
© Cutty Sark Trust

Coming back from Australia, I set off south east to catch the best winds and head for Cape Horn, but  there’s another danger in being so far south – icebergs. You have to pick your way very carefully past them. On a good day, when we’re inching slowly forward, I get my camera out – I’ve taken dozens of pictures of them; they’re so beautiful. But it’s a different story when it’s foggy. I remember such a day in February, 1893. Early in the morning, the fog lifted and we found ourselves surrounded by icebergs. Down came the fog again and we were sailing almost blind. As soon as we’d inched past one iceberg, the lookouts in the bow of the ship would report another in our path. You could hear the sea roaring through them. The sound of the ice cracking was strange – sometimes it was like thunder, at other times like cannon, but more often than not it was like a rifle being fired. And most of the time the bergs were completely hidden from us by the fog.

An iceberg photographed by Captain Woodget off Cape Horn  © Cutty Sark Trust

An iceberg photographed by Captain Woodget off Cape Horn
© Cutty Sark Trust

Not long after noon that day, the fog lifted again, and I could see the top of one iceberg, although it was difficult to believe it was ice – it looked like a streak of dark cloud. We were about a thousand feet away so my rough calculation was that the berg would have been about a thousand feet high. I could see it had a circular top, but it was so big I couldn’t see its ends.

An iceberg photographed by Captain Woodget  © Cutty Sark Trust

An iceberg photographed by Captain Woodget
© Cutty Sark Trust

Just a few minutes later there was another iceberg – only about a hundred feet high – but it was right under our bow; we only cleared it by a few feet. As we were passing it there was a sharp bang that made everyone jump: I think it was breaking in two.

These icebergs are truly massive – not just in height but also in length. As we cleared a particularly big one, I took bearings on its north end. After sailing eight miles I took other bearings and worked out that the east side was nineteen miles long.

Captain Woodget (top row, third from right) and his crew, with guests on board, 1887  © Cutty Sark Trust

Captain Woodget (top row, third from right) and his crew, with guests on board, 1887
© Cutty Sark Trust

But that wasn’t the worst day of that particular voyage. We were almost home – well, actually we were sailing to Antwerp, because we couldn’t get a cargo for London – we were not far away from entering the English Channel. Two of the seamen, John Doyle and John Clifton, were out on the boom that extends from the bow of the ship, making fast the outer jib sail. They were laughing to see the sprays come over the bows and others getting wet, whilst they were managing to keep dry. But then the helmsman altered the course, putting the ship’s head almost directly in the path of the waves. I shouted to him that he would wash someone overboard. No sooner had I spoken than the ship plunged and her boom went under, and Doyle and Clifton were washed off, just as I’d predicted. I wore the ship around to try and find them – it was too rough to lower a boat – but they were gone. Oh, what a gloom it cast over the ship.

Announcer: This is just one of the many stories of Cutty Sark that you can explore on the ship. She is now permanently docked in Greenwich, just 20 minutes from the centre of London. Come on board and discover why she is one of the most famous ships in the world.

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© National Maritime Museum