Join us behind the scenes at Cutty Sark. Today we catch up with Visitor Assistant Emma.

By Emma Withington

My fourteen year old self first visited the Maritime Museum and Cutty Sark in pursuit of adventure that went by the name of ‘Tintin’, a character who has a lot to answer for when it comes to my maritime interests! Ten years later I became a ‘Visitor Assistant’ at Cutty Sark, which encompasses a range of jobs from patrolling the ship to manning the front of house. Not only is it exciting to work on such a tangible piece of history, we also have the opportunity to partake in Audio Described Tours, Toddler Time, and family events such as Pirate Takeover (a personal favourite!)*

*Disclaimer: The Cutty Sark was not a pirate ship and was never captured or attacked by pirates. Unless you count the current staff…

Emma on board Cutty Sark on Pirate Takeover Day

The most common feature of our day to day involves answering questions from you guys, the visitors! Not all as rudimentary as ‘where are the toilets?’, but hey, when nature calls… In regard to Cutty Sark herself, the most frequently asked questions have been in relation to the fire of 2007. The lasting impression given from the fire is that of the ship engulfed in flames, so naturally it poses the question: how much of the ship can consist of genuine, authentic material? The answer to that is 90%. Fortunately the bulk of her original structure was undergoing restoration at Chatham Dockyard, the fire occurring one year into a major conservation project. 

So, what else is interesting about Cutty Sark? A merchant ship? I see… Renowned for being the fastest Tea Clipper? Interesting... But where is her heart? For me, one of the most interesting things about the ship is exactly that: her heart. Her story is incredibly human and full of life; as human as the people who sailed her. Ships are not merely vessels; they have distinct characteristics and idiosyncrasies. If these are left undiscovered then a ship may never reach its true potential. Not hugely dissimilar to you or I!

Emma on board Cutty Sark

For these reasons, she wasn’t an overnight success. Jock Willis, her owner, expected technical success from launch, but this commercial mind-set neglected her heart. For fifteen years she was dogged by unfortunate luck, entering the tea trade as the steamships were taking over and sailing ships like Cutty Sark were just unable to compete.  In 1880, she embarked on a voyage now referred to as ‘The Hell Ship Voyage’, which doesn’t conjure up images of tranquillity! This, however, was to be the darkness before the dawn.  Just when it was believed she was past her prime, the ship entered the Australian wool trade and salvation came with Captain Woodget, her longest serving Master. They had perfect synergy; he exploited her capabilities and gave her wings in this trade, gaining renown as the fastest Clipper of her time in the 1880’s and 1890s!

Through all of this, and much more, she became known as a true survivor; through the undulations of her formative years to the most recent fire. She has continued to survive through ingenuity and a little bit of luck. She is one of us.