Breakthrough in the painstaking efforts to restore 'Cutty Sark'

When flames engulfed the Cutty Sark last May, it looked initially like a fatal blow had been dealt to the £25m restoration of the historic clipper. But yesterday workers reached a "major milestone" in restoring the vessel.

The ship's counter, a major but fragile part of the stern, was lifted by crane from the wreckage to cheers from construction workers. It will now be subjected to electrolysis treatment and repaired before being reattached to the ship.

"We've successfully moved a 15ft, 8-tonne piece of curved iron which has taken weeks to carefully saw off," said Stephen Archer, of the Cutty Sark Trust. "The consequences of getting it wrong could have been huge, but we got it spot on." Richard Doughty, chief executive of the trust, described it as a "major milestone".

On 21 May last year a fierce blaze swept all three decks of the ship in Greenwich, burning the timber in the hull and causing the iron frames supporting the woodwork to buckle. There were fears that the brief but intense fire had damaged the vessel irreparably.

At the time of the fire, the Cutty Sark Trust was a quarter of the way through a £25m refurbishment intended to improve public access to the ship, including the installation of a glass roof. Fortunately, masts, rigging, cabins and figureheads were being held in storage at nearby Chatham. But the blaze has added £10m to the cost of the refurbishment and will push back its completion date by six months to spring 2010. The trust received a£10m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund in January but it is still £3.7m short of the £35m it needs.

"When we were £15m short of our target, people said that we'd never make it to where we are now," Mr Archer said. "We're still a long way off; but then we've got the most fantastic project under way, something that represents both a precious inheritance and part of our future. I'm convinced that businesses and individuals will come to our aid."

The ship is being restored by a team of 60 specialists. "We're trying to combine conservation with restoration," Mr Archer said. "Every nut, bolt, and plank, charred or otherwise, will be put back into its original place. It's the same with the counter: the cheaper, easier option would be to just replace it with a brand new one. But that wouldn't be the Cutty Sark. We're determined to keep its authenticity." Genuine 19th-century teak is being used to restore the interior.

When the project is completed, the ship will be raised three metres above its current position, allowing visitors to walk beneath the hull for the first time.

Almost a year after the blaze, police investigators, including a member of Scotland Yard's murder squad, are no closer to discovering the cause of the fire, though arson is suspectd. Inquiries continue.

Cutty Sark was built in 1869, intended to be the fastest ship in the annual race to deliver the first tea of the new season from Shanghai to London. After tea clippers were replaced by steamships, which could pass through the newly opened Suez Canal, Cutty Sark was switched to the wool trade, posting a best time for the Australia to Britain route of just 67 days. She was rescued from the scrapyard to become a naval training vessel in 1922, and was restored to herformer glory for the Festival of Britain in 1951.

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