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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 November 2007, 08:11 GMT
Cutty Sark rises from the ashes

By James Kelly
BBC News

Six months ago, there were fears a ferocious blaze could have put an end to an ambitious conservation project to return the Cutty Sark to its former glory. Now a 14m funding shortfall is causing concern.

But a look behind the scenes at the famous ship's dry dock in Greenwich, south-east London, reveals work to resurrect the historic tea clipper is continuing apace - and shows no signs of slowing down.

Cutty Sark salvage and repair

In its heyday in the late 19th century, the Cutty Sark was crewed by hardy seamen who guided the craft halfway across the world to collect a lucrative cargo of fresh tea from China.

Now it is men and women in luminous jackets, hard hats and steel toe-capped boots who are responsible for the craft.

They can be seen everywhere inside the scaffolding-and-tarpaulin enclosure that surrounds the vessel.

Building site

As they clamber up and down ladders and along the multiple levels of steel walkways constructed around the hull of the ship, it is clear a determined and tireless team effort is under way.

The noise around the ship is reminiscent of a building site with shouted instructions punctuated by the roar of heavy duty power tools and the throb of a large crane manoeuvring.

The blaze that tore through the Cutty Sark in the early hours of Monday, 21 May 2007, set the project's estimated completion date back a year to 2010 and has caused a multi-million pound funding shortfall.

But the team behind its refurbishment say it could have been much worse.

It's very physical, dirty work.... but it's great fun as well
Ben Delap
Conservation technician

At the time the fire struck, half of the ship's timbers, fixtures and fittings had already been removed and taken to Chatham's historic dockyard in Kent as part of the conservation project.

This meant they escaped the furnace-like blaze, which reached temperatures as high as 1,000C.

And as Stephen Archer, of Cutty Sark Enterprises, explained, the ship's construction - teak timbers mounted on an iron frame - ensured the remainder of the vessel survived relatively unscathed.

He said: "If it had been an entirely iron ship, or made only of timber, we might have lost it. An iron ship would have distorted; timber would have burned.

"Being a composite meant the whole iron frame - the 'birdcage' - expanded and contracted again. It returned to within a couple of millimetres of its original shape."

Mr Archer said three decks were reduced to ashes by the fire but two of them were not made of the original wood and one was rotten and in need of replacement anyway.

"We only lost five percent of original material. And the fire is now going to be part of its future story," he said.

Painstaking process

That story is already unfolding.

To put it at its most simplistic, the conservationists are dismantling the Cutty Sark piece by piece, repairing every last timber, nut, bolt and furnishing, ahead of putting the whole vessel back together again.

Conservation work
A new plank is used to brace one of the hull's timbers before removal

Ben Delap is one of the conservation technicians working on the ship.

His day consists of scraping old tar and felt from the hull's timbers.

He and his colleagues then remove the huge teak planks one by one; a painstaking and tiring process involving the loosening of up to 50 rusty nuts and bolts - and heavy lifting.

Mr Delap said: "It's back-breaking work, pretty much what you would find in a Victorian shipyard but in reverse - we are deconstructing this massive beast.

"I certainly sleep well, there's no doubt about that. It's very physical, dirty work - crawling around in tiny spaces and working with heavy industrial tools - but it's great fun as well."

Braced by new timber, each aging plank is carefully eased into specially-made wooden casings.

Painstaking work
A worker scrapes old tar from the Cutty Sark's hull timbers

They are then lifted by crane into a steel container for transportation to a warehouse in Greenwich.

Once there, reclaimed Teak is used to repair any damage to the original wood and specialist epoxy resin adhesives are used to bind cracks and fissures.

Of a total of 500 hull planks, 250 had already been removed when the fire struck. A further 75 planks have since been taken away.

Eventually they'll be brought back and reattached to the Cutty Sark's iron frame after it has been specially treated for rust.

Once the masts, coach-housing, sails and rigging are back in place, the Cutty Sark will once again look like the majestic ship it was before rust, age and fire took their toll.

Mr Delap said: "The incredible thing is this is the easy part. Putting it back together is going to be the challenge but we have a great team and we are well up to it. "

Clare Durrant is a documentation assistant for the conservation team.

It is her job to make a note of all the pieces of this most complex of jigsaw puzzles.

"It's a job but you stop sometimes and think, 'It's amazing working on something like this, it really is'."


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