Climbing the masts of the Cutty Sark

Once among the fastest ships afloat, the Cutty Sark has been stationary for almost 70 years, dry-docked beside the Thames in Greenwich. It has become one of London’s classic tourist attractions but I was to get a novel view of its teak decks, soaring masts and finely tapered prow.

After two years of negotiation, Wire and Sky, a company that runs climbing and abseiling adventures on London buildings including the O2 Arena and the ArcelorMittal Orbit, has launched a new experience, inviting visitors to clamber up in to the rigging of the 19th-century clipper. In its heyday, crew members would often be in their early teens, barefoot even in stormy weather, unencumbered by harnesses and safety ropes. I had my own hardships however; I’d injured my foot the previous weekend and the staff looked at me quizzically as I hobbled up to meet them with what I thought was a fittingly nautical limp.

Built in Dumbarton in 1869, the ship was initially intended to ship tea from China to the UK at record speeds. The vessel — whose name comes from a Robert Burns poem about a scantily clad witch — is five days younger than the Suez Canal, an innovation that was a harbinger of her redundancy. The canal radically cut shipping routes and speed quickly gave way to capacity, favouring larger steamships over clippers.

Emerging on deck, I looked up at the masthead — the highest part of the mast — now towering above me. There had been no slip-ups since the experience was launched at the start of this month, the staff assured me, except for one woman who felt nauseous half way up and came close to ruining the afternoon for a group of kids queueing below. Carefully clipped into a harness and fastened to a safety line, my route was pointed out to me. I’d have to climb the “ratlines” (rope ladders in the rigging) on to the platform known as the “tops”, about 68ft up.

Making my way up the side of the ship, taking care not to put too much weight on my injured foot, I watched Greenwich shrink beneath me. Looking north I saw Canary Wharf come into view. All strapped in and climbing leisurely, I could only imagine the howling nightmare of having to traverse this thing in a storm, soaked, exhausted and frozen.

Finally I reached the tops platform, but it didn’t end there. The more expensive “rig climb plus” experience allows visitors to climb even higher, then venture out across the lower topsail. Up there, I was directed to shuffle out along the yard, the wooden spar from which the sails are hung. Holding on to the yard with my arms, I balanced my feet on a thin line of rope, 90ft above the deck. London shimmered in front of me.

In the past, sailors would be lowered down from the mast on a primitive abseil contraption called a “breeches buoy”, basically a life-ring with some fabric and two leg holes in the middle. Instead, at the end of the adventure, I was meticulously clipped-in and lowered at a controlled speed on to the dock beside the hull.

I thanked the staff — I’d had fun, but part of me wanted to go still higher. Out at sea, sailors caught sleeping during their allotted watch were made to ride the “grey mare”, a small wooden saddle on the upper topsail yard. At that height, even the smallest sway would rock the unlucky mariner in great sweeping arcs. The team told me they had decided it would be impractical to take visitors higher, but they are looking for new adventures. Top of their lofty list? The heights of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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