Here is an open letter we wrote to Prince Charles after the Cutty Sark fire. It’s a little out of date; but now that Michael Gove has rightly suggested that Britain needs a new Royal Yacht and the debate moves to what kind, it points in an interesting direction.
Dear Prince Charles
The Cutty Sark was a great ship in her day. She logged speeds of 17 1/2 knots and a day’s run of 363 miles. But now she is hardly a ship at all.
She arrived at Greenwich in the 1950s. Out of the water she came, and into a concrete pit she went. Thereafter she sat and rotted. Her masts went through her bottom. Her rig became a thin parody of the real thing, and some bright spark decided to spray tea-scented air freshener in all directions, and the guides were eager to tell visitors how the sailormen went to the lavatory but had no idea about the reasons for her untypical triangular studdingsails. Her conservators say yes, but she is original. These are museum curators with a fetish for originality. It is news to them that ships are constantly rebuilt and refitted, failing which they become mere sheds. I have my grandfather’s spade. It has had a new handle and a new blade, but it is still his spade, and I dig with it daily.
Ships get their personalities from the fact that they float. The USS Constitution, 100 years older than the Cutty Sark, still staggers around Boston Harbour. In island Britain, however, historic ships sit concreted into the pavement – with the honourable exception of Gypsy Moth IV, released from her tomb at Greenwich and restored to circumnavigate. To talk to a museum curator about Gypsy Moth IV is to talk to a museum curator who has been shocked into palpitations.
Now the Cutty Sark has been jammed into a steel corset. In the space under the hull there will be silver service dinners and sales conferences. These will ‘generate income streams’ (o, that bluff sailorly talk). The restoration will cost well over £35 million, and convert a beautiful ship into a table decoration for corporate junkets.
There is another way.
I rang up T.Nielsen & Co, the great wooden shipbuilders of Gloucester Docks. I asked them if they could build a brand spanking new tea clipper for £35m. ‘Easily,’ said Nielsen’s.
So here it is, Your Royal Highness. I suggest we relight the Cutty Sark. When the embers have cooled, I suggest you provide the seed money for a brand new Royal Yacht, built to the Cutty Sark’s lines from oaks grown in your Herefordshire woods by Prince’s Trust craftsmen assisting Nielsen’s, and crewed by young people sponsored by the Prince’s Trust and elsewhere. She will be clean and green and real. When she comes tearing in from the horizon on her white wings she will have the force of a dream made actual. When she vanishes over the horizon, the dream will linger. And just occasionally she will come up the Thames, and anchor off the Isle of Dogs, and show the corporate hospitaliteers what a real ship is for.
I very much hope that you are as excited by this idea as I am.
your loyal subject