Cutty Sark needs major donor to rise from ashes

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The Independent Online

When the flames took hold of the Cutty Sark earlier this year temperatures inside the historic vessel soon soared to 1000C. In the grey light of that May dawn it seemed a nautical legend had met a fiery end.

Six months on, and tens of thousands of painstaking man hours later, the job of putting right the damage done in the short but intense blaze is well under way.

A 50-strong team was hard at work in Greenwich yesterday, removing each of the 10,000 original bolts driven into the planks by Victorian shipbuilders on Clydeside.

All the wooden decks were destroyed in the fire and the hull timbers badly scorched. More seriously, the iron frames supporting the woodwork were buckled and bent by the heat.

Images of the fire went around the world, prompting global expressions of concern. But the timing of the blaze, devastating though it was, could not have been more fortunate for the Cutty Sark Trust, the charitable organisation responsible for the conservation of the old tea clipper.

The ship was a quarter of the way through a £25m project designed to provide access for the public and preserve its deteriorating superstructure for another half century including the creation of a glass roof.

As a result of the work, half of the planks, the masts, rigging, coach and deck houses were in storage at Chatham in Kent. But the fire still added an £9m to the cost of the project and delayed its completion date by nine months, pushing back the planned opening date until 2010.

Despite £1m donations in the months after the fire, the failure to secure a corporate sponsor, has left the trust £14m short.

Now the search for the cash is becoming increasingly pressing. Richard Doughty, chief executive of the trust, warned: "We will not be able to complete the work unless we raise significant additional funds very soon and we are looking to corporations and businesses to help us."

According to Ian Bell, the project's technical manager, before the blaze and despite some injudicious additions during the 1950s, the ship was made up of 97 per cent of the original material. By the end of the current work, after the replacement of the timbers with £40,000 worth of antique teak taken from an old floor at an Indian warehouse, that figure will have fallen by just 5 per cent.

Such is the attention to detail that Mr Bell's workers have eschewed quicker and cheaper techniques such as welding the iron frame, preferring to heat and "gently persuade" the original beams back into place.

Meanwhile, the construction site is dotted with wooden boxes used to bend the hull timbers into shape. In the coming weeks the craftsmen will use powerful grit blasters to remove corroded material from the ironwork before patching and rebuilding damaged beams by hand.

But one crucial question remains – how did the fire start? Police investigators, including a member of the Scotland Yard murder squad, spent three months gathering forensic evidence from the ship. Arson remains the most discussed theory though the blaze could have begun as the result of an electrical fault.

The police report is due in three weeks.

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