IT seems like an unlikely project for a company making its name on dry land.
But on a wet morning, Greenwich could have been Belfast, and Byrne Group could have been Harland and Wolff as hammers drummed and drills whined.
This Wednesday, April 25, Cutty Sark will be officially re-launched by Queen Elizabeth II. She won’t be put to sea however. The magnificent tea clipper has been put on support stilts thick as tree trucks, which cradle a hull plated bronze and groaning in bulk.
The ship, which was gutted by fire in 2007, remains a pillar of British maritime history and is set to become a major tourist attraction once again.
It feels somewhat strange that this icon of the high seas has been painstakingly restored to sit in dry dock; it feels strange that an Irish company owned by Patsy Byrne is responsible for getting this very British three-mast-artefact completed in time for the Queen to wave from the bow.
Then there’s the numbers game, like the project cost of £50m, like £100,000 of glue on the decking, or 14km of rope on the rigging, try a 120 person theatre below deck in addition to the 128 people on site.
“Cutty Sark was the space shuttle of its time,” says Associate Director Kevin Linnane from Gort in County Galway. “The clients were under pressure to get the project finished, that’s why Byrnes got called in. We gathered all the sub-contractors on deck and told them the news. Some of them were surprised! But we reminded them they were probably never going to work on another job like this again.”
He added: “We all had to go back to school and learn a new language: bow, stern, port, starboard. A walkway wasn’t a walkway anymore, it became a companionway,” he said.
Kevin was assigned to the job by Byrne Group in October. He works for Elllmer, a subsidiary company. He explains that a dozen or more Irish carpenters crossed the sea to fit the deck, that firms like Coffeys and Fitzpatricks completed the ground work, that rigging workers view the world from 60 metres high – every day.
The Construction manager is Kelly Read. He has Irish links on his father’s side. Kelly has been on the job for five and a half years. Or to put it another way, ever since an industrial hoover overheated and started a fire which gutted a ship originally put into dry dock by McAlpines in 1954.
But despite the fire, Kevin explains that 90 per cent of the original materials have been recovered and restored. The process of restoration has been painstaking and much of the work backbreaking.
Before the hull was lifted clear of the ground, carpenters crouched beneath thousands of tonnes of ship to work beams thick as railway sleepers between a network of scaffold of claustrophobic proportions.
Ellmer and Byrne Group have been responsible for upwards of 120 men at a time on the job. For a ship that built its reputation on coming through dangerous journeys, Kevin Linnane explains the most important thing for the Byrnes is everyone walks off site at the end of the day.
And he explains that the key to getting the Cutty Sark completed on time was “to stop treating it like a ship because it is never going to be put to sea again.”
The illusion is mightily impressive because the ship looks ready to put to sea.
“Down here is the best bit,” marvels Kevin Linnane, looking from port to stern. The Cutty Sark has been raised 11 feet clear of the floor using a process of hydraulic push-ups. The effect leaves the bronze-like hull floating on air instead of water.
It is set to become the star attraction. Visitors will be able to walk underneath the ship and view a design that enabled her to reach the record-breaking speed of 17 ½ knots (20 mph/32kmph) from Sydney to London.
Richard Doughty, Director of the Cutty Sark Trust, said: “We have been privileged to be involved in conserving Cutty Sark and restoring her to her key position in the Greenwich World Heritage Site. Our solution, a world first, will secure Cutty Sark’s future so that she can continue to inspire many new generations of adventurers at the heart of the Royal Borough of Greenwich.”
Launched in 1869 from Dumbarton, Scotland, Cutty Sark visited most major ports around the world.
She was orignally built at a cost of between £12,000 and £15,000.
She carried cargo ranging from the finest teas to gun powder, and from whisky to buffalo horns.
Cutty Sark made her name as the fastest ship of her era during her time in the wool trade. Many of the tea clippers that sailed the China Seas during the nineteenth century lasted for only a few years and only seven saw the twentieth century.
By the mid-1920s Cutty Sark was the only one still afloat and from 1938 became a training ship for the Incorporated Thames Training College at Greenhithe. In December 1954, Cutty Sark came to Greenwich.