I I’m clinging to a rope ladder 20 meters above the ground in a howling storm. “Now imagine that you have no shoes on, let alone a harness and a helm – and the ship rocks and rolls,” calls my instructor. Impressive. It’s a miracle that a 19th-century sailor made it home alive. (Many don’t.)
The Cutty Sark, one of the last surviving tea clippers in the world, is launching a new rig climbing experience on Saturday and I had a preview. Royal Museums Greenwich has teamed up with Wire & Sky, the adventure company behind the O2 Rooftop Climb and London Abseil. Its mission is to give visitors a taste of life at sea and a unique view of London – and no doubt to help offset losses incurred during the pandemic.
After settling under the almost entirely original 1869 hull, we were ushered through the ship onto the main deck. We were treated to tales from the ship’s heyday, including the legendary race against a rival clipper, Thermopylae, in 1872, when Captain George Moodie refused to stop for repairs, even when the rudder was lost.
History lesson over, time to climb. I tried to imagine the poor 14-year-old trainees being ordered to polish the rat lines no matter what the weather – there’s a reason most of the 653 men who served on the Cutty Sark only did it once. Even with modern safety equipment, it was a nerve-wracking climb over the rigging to the top platform at 21 meters. The minimum height is 1.14 meters (3 ft 9 in), but even at a comparatively tall 1.57 meters (5 ft 2 in), I struggled to reach some of the rungs with my feet.
The standard ascent ends here, but I accidentally signed up for the “Rig Ascent Plus”. My harness was unfastened at the front and refastened at the back (crew handles all safety aspects) which allowed me more freedom of movement. Steeling myself, I climbed higher, holding on to the shrouds as the wind whipped me. Then I left the relative comfort of the main rigging and made my way sideways across the lower topsail yard, with only one rope to stand on and one to cling to for life. It was intimidating, but worth it for the views from the Crow’s Nest: the Royal Naval College to starboard, the River Thames and Canary Wharf to the front, and the central London skyline to the port side.
The writer boards the Curry Sark
To descend I rode the rat ropes down to the top platform where there is a street level zipline. You simply sit in your harness and dismount – again not for the faint of heart. The zip line itself is more of a slow, gentle, controlled descent than a heart-pounding free fall; one last chance to enjoy the view.
Those expecting to climb all the way to the top of the main pylon, 150 feet (46.6 meters) tall, might be disappointed — the highest point of the climb is about half that. But all but the most die-hard adrenaline junkies will get a thrill; I found it much more challenging than similar attractions like the O2 climb. Plus, it’s a privilege to get so close to a historic London landmark. Just keep your fingers crossed for calm weather – and be thankful you’re not walking barefoot.
From £41 adults, £26 children, including general admission to the ship (minimum age 12), rmg.co.uk