How Greenwich University is helping to rebuild the Cutty Sark

Nick Jackson
Thursday 18 January 2007 01:00 GMT

The Greenwich skyline is not the same without them. Across the river, Canary Wharf looks a little lost without the visual anchor of the Cutty Sark's 100ft masts, a reminder of where all that wealth came from. But now modern industry is repaying the favour. The masts have gone as part of a £25m conservation project involving Greenwich University that is using the computer modelling of hi-tech industry to serve Britain's heritage.

As wind whips up the Thames and rain peppers the deck, inside the ship a very modern crew labour in the cacophony of sawing and banging as they strip the ship down to its wrought-iron skeleton. Rain oozing through the deck above gives the whole place a nautical air and a clue as to why they are here.

Ten years ago the Cutty Sark Trust realised that the much-loved school-trip destination was in trouble. Without a massive overhaul the ship would deteriorate beyond repair in 2007. One of the world's few remaining composite ships, the Cutty Sark's wood and iron structure has taken a beating over the years. A clipper designed for speed on the tea run from China, she was only supposed to be in service for 20 or 30 years. Last November was her 135th birthday.

She is, in places, looking her age. The hull has been stripped back to reveal the elegant skeleton, a vast upside-down ribcage in iron. Lumps are missing from the diagonal supports. Now she is getting the full celebrity makeover. All 490 original timber planks are being taken out to be treated and the iron frame is being raised and electrolysed bit by bit to suck corrosive chloride from its joints.

The massive conservation effort is being done by Buro Happold, the firm behind the Dome, the British Museum's Great Court roof, and Manchester's Lowry Centre. A worry for the Cutty Sark Trust and funders of the conservation was whether trying to recover the ship could destroy it.

To see how the finer detail of the conservation would work, the Cutty Sark Trust brought in computer modelling experts Professor Chris Bailey and Dr Stoyan Stoyanov at Greenwich University's school of computing and mathematical sciences. In a £134,000 knowledge transfer partnership, funded through the Department of Trade and Industry, they developed a finite element analysis to test the stresses on wood and metal components during the conservation.

It is very different from the kind of computer modelling Professor Bailey and Dr Stoyanov are used to - checking the durability and reliability of components in aeroplane manufacture. Not only did they have to factor in much bigger parts, but on the Cutty Sark project they were dealing with materials that had aged years in the harsh environment and then dry dock.

"These prognostic and diagnostic tools are receiving a lot of funding in hi-tech," says Professor Bailey. "There's a lot of interest in using these predictive computer-based technologies in the heritage sector. It's a massive sector in the UK and there's a lot of benefit to be had."

"They've been very helpful," says Anna Somerset, development executive at the Cutty Sark Trust. "The Greenwich model was invaluable support in papers we submitted. It showed the plans held water."

The initial stress analysis has not been the end of the partnership. Greenwich University and the Cutty Sark Trust now have plans to work together on a hydrodynamic analysis of the ship for the 2008 exhibition, to show visitors how the Cutty Sark gained fame as the fastest tea ship on earth. Earlier this year a Greenwich PhD student started work on a computer model of corrosion and deterioration on the ship over the next half century.

It is, says Yasmine Rosunally, 23, the student working on the project, the first computer model on this scale to be used in the heritage industry, with broad applications beyond the Cutty Sark. "There is a lack of information on old buildings," she says. "I'm sure there are many structures that are in dire need of maintenance plans. This technology can help. It's a good time to harvest the knowledge we have from manufacturing and put it back into heritage."

Buildings and bridges suffer from similar deterioration in similar materials. "Itis cutting edge," says Somerset. "It could have huge implications."

The lack of information is an opportunity, although it has also been a problem. "It's quite a challenge," admits Rosunally. "We have a minimum amount of data." A large part of the work so far has been finding out how iron, teak, and elm have deteriorated in other composite ships, such as the Mary Rose.

Rosunally's PhD project has been funded by the Cutty Sark Trust and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Together with Greenwich's Knowledge Transfer Partnership, the university has received nearly £200,000 funding for its work.

The stress analysis was just one of 47 Knowledge Transfer Partnerships that Greenwich has been approved for. These are one of the ways the DTI is encouraging research in the UK. The projects are majority funded by the DTI to bring academic resources to bear in British industry.

It is easy to see why universities are interested. "As a university and a small- to medium-size enterprise it has been a very good project," says Professor Bailey. The Royal Academy of Engineering included the project in its 2006 report on how university and industry should aim to work together.

And it has been good for the Cutty Sark. "It's marvellous having such qualified neighbours next door," says Somerset. Exactly the kind of relationship that the Government hopes will inspire a renaissance of the marriage of technology and industry that built the Cutty Sark and with it the wealth she brought back.

The conservation project still needs donations. To find out more or make a donation go to

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