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by John Konrad (gCaptain) In two weeks, at the docks of Greenwich London, a new figurehead will be installed on the famous 1860s tea clipper ship, Cutty Sark. The new sculpture, named Nannie, is a new design but will share one feature with the rot-damaged figurehead it replaces: a pair of bare naked breasts.
In the perilous life of a ship at sea, figureheads were seen as lucky charms representing the spirit of the ship, protecting the crew from harsh seas, and serving as a daily reminder of the women waiting for their safe return home… but large figureheads, positioned at the foremost tip of the hull, adversely affected the sailing qualities of the ship, leading to dramatically smaller designs in the 18th century.
Today figureheads are gone from merchant ships and have been replaced in the Royal Navy by ships’ badges, large plaques mounted on the superstructure with a unique design relating to the ship’s name or role. US Navy ships have unique patch designs that are often colorful and, have in the past, included naked women and racially charged designs.
According to a naval historian interviewed for this article, salacious patches were banned from US Navy ships in the wake of the Tailhook Scandal in the early 1990s. Today’s patches must be approved by a commanding officer and “should use symbols to highlight history and mission focus“.
The figurehead Nannie is one of the most recognizable parts of Cutty Sark. The name ‘Nannie’ comes from Tam O’Shanter, a poem by Robert Burns. The poem also was the inspiration for the ship’s name, Cutty Sark, which is also salacious. The poem tells the story of Tam, the farmer, who encounters a group of witches in Alloway Kirk – including the beautiful witch Nannie who is scantily clad, dressed only in a ‘cutty sark’ – an archaic Scottish name for a short nightdress.
The original figurehead, created by the legendary ship’s carver Frederick Hellyer, was damaged in a storm in the late 19th century. A new figurehead was installed in 1957, but this figurehead has suffered from environmental damage and rot.
Last year master carver, Andy Peters was tasked with bringing a new figurehead to life. Inspired to enter his profession after visiting Cutty Sark as a small boy, Andy has since had a fascination with tall ships.
Inspiration for the new figurehead was based on a drawing by the Cutty Sark’s original designer and builder, Hercules Linton, which was for the original design back in the 1860s. Using Linton’s drawing, the aim was to “produce a figure of the period, capturing the spirit of the age in which the ship was built.”
On June 11, the figurehead will be taken to the Cutty Sark and lifted by crane to be fitted to the ship. So far, gCaptain has found no evidence of any woke hipsters planning a protest, but that may change in the coming days.
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