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Fire damages historic British clipper ship Cutty Sark; supporters vow to rebuild

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GREENWICH, England — Technology, rot and now fire have caught up with the Cutty Sark, the graceful clipper ship built in the 19th century to speed fresh tea from China to Britain’s tables.
    After a quick look at the charred hull, custodians of the world’s only surviving tea clipper said Monday it could still be made as good as new — by adding millions more to a restoration project already costing $50 million.
    ‘‘With my naked eye, as far as I have been able to see, the structure of the ship seems to be intact,’’ Cutty Sark Trust Chief Executive Richard Doughty said.
    Firefighters battled the blaze for more than two hours after responding to a 4:45 a.m. alarm at the ship’s dry dock next to the National Maritime Museum. The cause of the blaze was under investigation.
    At midmorning, as firefighters put out the final hot spots, Ian Bell, the restoration’s technical director, climbed into the ship’s bulwark to assess the damage.
    The bow and stern were intact. Most the teak wood had been removed to give restorers access to the ship’s iron frame. The iron held its shape in the fire, and in the lower decks, the few timbers that had not been removed were charred but suffered mostly superficial damage.
    ‘‘A lot of the original material has been saved,’’ Bell told reporters, his cheeks covered in soot. ‘‘The initial investigation suggests it could be a lot worse.’’
    The ship’s masts, saloon and most of its wood planks were safely in storage at the time of the fire.
    Officials responsible for the sailing ship said they were determined to carry on with the four-year restoration project.
    ‘‘We’re going to redouble our efforts to ensure that the ship is open, available, back and running in the future,’’ said Chris Livett, chairman of Cutty Sark Enterprises. ‘‘I think when we finish with this project, she will be better than she was.’’
    Police Inspector Bruce Middlemiss said investigators were treating the fire as suspicious but ‘‘there is no evidence or intelligence to lead us to think this was an arson.’’
    Surveillance cameras showed several people in the area at the time the fire started, but there was no indication that any had been involved in igniting it. Dogs from the police arson investigation unit were taken to the site.
    The Cutty Sark, which inspired a popular brand of Scotch, was the world’s only surviving example of an extreme clipper, regarded as the ultimate merchant sailing vessel.
    The ship is drydocked in Greenwich, where the River Thames widens into an estuary before joining the North Sea. It sits next to the former Royal Navy College — now the National Maritime Museum — and the Royal Observatory on the zero longitude line, where Britain developed the navigational technology that enabled it to rule the waves.
    The tea trade increased dramatically in the 19th century after Britain forced China to open its ports to Western ships through the Opium Wars in 1842 and 1858.
    The demand for tea was voracious, and the ship arriving with the first tea of the year made the highest profits — fueling demand for ever-faster ships, rather than ones with enormous carrying capacity.
    Cutty Sark, launched in 1869, was designed to win those races for profits. It was launched the same month that the opening of the Suez Canal gave steamships the advantage over sail; the faster clipper ships had to travel around Cape Horn to take advantage of the trade winds.
    The Cutty Sark lost its most famous test. It made the journey from China to London in 122 days — a week after its rival clipper ship. Still, the trip marked the birth of the ship’s legendary reputation. Two weeks into the journey, the Cutty Sark’s rudder broke but its captain sailed on.
    Measuring 280 feet long, the ship weighed 979 tons and its main mast soared 152 feet above the main deck.
    The ship was used for training naval cadets during World War II, and in 1951 it was moored in London for the Festival of Britain. Shortly afterward, the ship was acquired by the Cutty Sark Society.
    Cutty Sark had been closed to visitors since last year for the restoration, which had been due to be complete in 2009. Conservationists promised to redouble their efforts to save the ship and raise funds for its preservation.
    ‘‘I’m relieved,’’ said Doughty. ‘‘I came here thinking the ship had gone on her last journey.’’
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