Captain Richard Woodget engaged as Master of Cutty Sark on 30 March 1885, aged 39, for her 16th voyage. Previously of the Coldstream, he went on to command Cutty Sark for ten years while she was engaged in the Australian wool trade.
Under Woodget, Cutty Sark made her name as the fastest of the clippers, indeed the first passage with Woodget at the helm, she beat all the ships sailing about the same time by at least 25 days. Cutty Sark’s owner John Willis was so delighted by the ship’s performance, he awarded her a gilded vane in the shape of a ‘cutty sark’ – a short shirt – to fit to the top of her main mast. She regularly made the best passage of the season with record voyages back from Sydney and Newcastle NSW.
Woodget really knew how to drive Cutty Sark and Cicely Fox Smith in The Return of the Cutty Sark writes “[Woodget] had the coolness, the seamanship, the iron nerve requisite to bring out the best in such a ship as the Cutty Sark: and she, for her part was just such a staunch, trustworthy little ship as his heart desired”.
Woodget’s success in the wool trade is evidenced in contemporary newspaper reports, for example The Sydney Morning Herald reported on 27 July 1889, “Another smart passage between London and Sydney was recorded yesterday by that excellent ship Cutty Sark. Her name has become so closely identified with “good runs” that it would be regarded as something unusual did she not put in an appearance in the eighties at latest.
Captain Woodget also gives us a unique insight into life on board thanks to his photograpyy. A young apprentice, Toby Mayall who was grandson of a famous portrait photographer, inspired Woodget to tak up amateur photography in 1887. Through his lens we see the crew at work, the ship in full sail and at harbour as well as the huge icebergs encountered between New Zealand and Cape Horn.
A religious man, he ran a tight ship and commanded the confidence and respect of his crew. While the ship was in port awaiting cargo, he also took to riding his bicycle and roller-skating on the ’tween deck. A keen lover of animals, Captain Woodget bred prize-winning collies, some of whom lived on board along with two monkeys he bought in Anjer.
Thanks to Woodget, Cutty Sark earned a sound reputation for being the fastest ship of her day; this fame ultimately secured her preservation into the 20th century.
You can meet Captain Woodget on board Cutty Sark as part of our regular family programme.