Cutty Sark and the Suez Canal

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Cutty Sark and the Suez Canal

On 17 November 1869  – five days before Cutty Sark’s launch – the Suez Canal opened, inaugurated in an elaborate ceremony attended by French Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III. Connecting the Mediterranean and the Red seas, the canal was to have a dramatic effect on trade with the Far East, shortening the journey by 3,000 miles.

Chart of the Suez Canal, 1870-1871 ©National Maritime Museum

Chart of the Suez Canal, 1870-1871 ©National Maritime Museum

The shorter route was only available to steamers however; the unfavourable winds in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean and towage charges made the Canal impractical for sailing ships such as Cutty Sark.

Prior to the opening of the canal, a number of ship-owners in the Eastern trade were unsure whether the Suez Canal would be a success. Some traders believed tea carried in iron ships lost its flavour -sweated’- and, in the early days of steam this may have been the case, but better ventilation was installed in these ships, and the efficient passage offered by the steamers meant that they eventually took precedence in the tea trade.

In 1870, steamers Diomed, Agamemnon and Erl King loaded at Hankou and the Achilles at Foochow; they all reached London via the Suez in less than 60 days and there was a rush to build steamers for the China trade.

Station, Suez Canal, early 1880's ©National Maritime Museum

Station, Suez Canal, early 1880’s
©National Maritime Museum

When it opened, the Suez Canal was only 25 feet deep, 72 feet wide at the bottom, and 200 to 300 feet wide at the surface. Consequently, fewer than 500 ships navigated it in its first full year of operation. Major improvements began in 1876 however and the canal soon grew into the one of the world’s most heavily travelled shipping lanes.

The sailing ships were eventually driven out of the tea trade: on Cutty Sark’s maiden voyage in 1870, 59 British sailing ships were loading tea but by her last voyage in 1877, this number was reduced to just nine.

The canal is still in use today and in August this year Egypt opened an expansion to the Canal which cut transit times for southbound ships by several hours and allows easier passage for larger vessels.

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