Cutty Sark was built in Dumbarton in 1869, designed to carry tea from China to England as fast as possible.
On 16 February 1870, Cutty Sark left London bound for Shanghai, via the Cape of Good Hope, on her first voyage. Commanded by Captain George Moodie, his log mentioned that she carried ‘large amounts of wine, spirits and beer’.
The arrival of the ship at Shanghai, with ‘manufactured goods’, is listed in the North China Herald of 2 June 1870. Departing with around 1,305,812 lbs of tea on 25 June, she arrived back in London on 13 October 1870.
This is the first of eight voyages the ship successfully made to China in pursuit of tea. However, Cutty Sark never became the fastest ship on the tea trade.
Dogged by bad winds and misfortune, she never lived up to the high expectations of her owner during these years. The closest the ship came to winning the tea race was in 1872, when she had the opportunity to race rival clipper ship Thermopylae head to head for the first time.
After arriving at Shanghai in late May 1872, she met Thermopylae when loading her tea cargo. With both sailing from Woosung on 17 June 1872, the two ships closely matched each other through the China Sea and into the Indian Ocean.
By 7 August, and with a good tail wind, Cutty Sark found herself a good 400 miles ahead of Thermopylae.
Then, on 15 August, disaster struck – Cutty Sark’s rudder gave way.
After reconstructing the rudder twice in heavy seas, the ship arrived back at London on 19 October, around seven days after her rival. The courage and determination of Captain Moodie and his crew won Cutty Sark great credit, but Moodie retired from his command of the ship due to stress. The ship was never to get this close to winning the tea race again.
Nonetheless, Cutty Sark would go on to become known as the fastest ship of her day, though not until the 1880s when she was in her teens.