Every month, Documentations Officer Claire Denham takes us behind the scenes at Cutty Sark, to give us an insight into the important daily research, documentation and maintenance work that keeps Cutty Sark preserved for many future generations to come.

The restoration of the Cutty Sark hull planks is underway so we now move our attention to the bulwarks. 

The bulwarks are the sides of the ship above the main deck. These consist of the rubbing rail, iron bulwark plates and pin rail. 

Ship Keepers in action on the Cutty Sark Bulwarks
Ship Keepers in action on the Cutty Sark Bulwarks

The rubbing rail sits on top of the hull planks on an iron angle to protect the sides from potential accidents. This white rail runs the circumference of the ship and was once intended to be far more extravagant. The ship’s owner, Jock ‘White Hat’ Willis, was 'so pleased by the wonderful records set up by his ship in the wool trade in the 1880’s, that he wished to put a carved and gilded rope in teak' [1] around the entire ship. But this project was never carried out, probably due to the hefty cost! 

The teak rubbing rail has changed over time due to knocks and scraps at sea. On one occasion in 1877, Cutty Sark was forced to shelter from a raging winter gale in the Downs, off the east Kent coast. The ship, along with other vessels, was battered by the storm and unable to escape. It sustained great damage to her topsides according to The Lloyds register of shipping, which reported that two shifts of the iron bulwark plating were replaced with the moulding (rubbing rail) teak main and topgallant rails and six shifts of teak topside planking were renewed. 

Restoration of the portside 1955
Restoration of the portside 1955

During her time in Greenwich, major replacements have been undertaken. The shape of the rail was altered to shed rainwater better, a problem that didn’t affect the ship when she was seagoing. Large sections, running from fo’c’sle to poop deck, were replaced in Central American pitch pine in 1978/9 and again in the 1995/6 in Opepe. The rail suffered little damage when last restored in 2006-2012, a testament to the skilled craftsmanship of past custodians of the ship.

Restoration of the hull 1957
Restoration of the hull 1957

Inspections are being carried out by the ship keeping team. The rail is sanded and coated in a wood preserve in preparation for re-painting in white. Sanding back revealed some rot on the port side. This section has been copied and renewed in teak at our workshop. We have insured any replacements use material that would be sympathetic to her sailing days.

The large task of restoring the bulwarks will continue into the summer, so come see it for yourself!

[1] Lubbock, B. (1924) The Log of the Cutty Sark. Nautical Press