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While in search of the New Year, don't forget the Cutty Sark


With a piteous deprecation of what turned out to be a bust of a New Year last January, the millennial purist is now heading to Greenwich, England to celebrate the real thing. Site of the Prime Meridian, 0000 hours Zulu, and repository to the quest for the most accurate of clocks, Royal Observatory Greenwich is where the first nanosecond of the third millennium begins. Heralded only by the flickering CRT of an atomic clock, time will pass across a gleaming brass rail set at zero degrees longitude and 2001 will officially commence. As bracer for the night air, and the only civilized way to greet the arrival, one should neatly quaff down, with gusto, several fingers worth of Cutty Sark, a Scotch whiskey whose namesake is also an icon of Greenwich tradition. It will cost 6 pounds (about 10 bucks) to stand on the dateline. It’s a true Kodak moment, so smile sweetly and say cheese. If you do it with sincerity you’re bound to win your money back at one of the slots in Tunica. Easily accessible by a subway and light rail journey from central London, Greenwich is the first stop for anyone imbued with a historical yen for naval history. The nearby Maritime Museum, fronted with towering limestone ionic columns is a trove of English nautical exploits. Like an old dame dowager, smartly appearing under a facade of new paint and rigging, the China Tea Clipper, Cutty Sark, beckons you with her tall, elegant three masted siren song of the sea. Built in the hybrid years between wooden and iron ships, she sits dry-docked and moldering. Out of her natural element, the massive, American rock elm planking has shrunk, causing gaping, open seams where rainwater leaches out the salt and washes onto and around her cast iron frame and keel. The inevitable rusting is taking a crushing toll on this once elegant lady who has been rescued from more impending and demeaning fates than even perilous Pauline. If you don’t already know it, Cutty Sark is Scottish in origin. According to a poem by Robert Burns, a farmer named Tam O'Shanter came upon a coven of witches dancing by the fire. One of these witches, named Nannie, was young, lovely and extraordinarily graceful. She wore a 'cutty sark' which means 'short chemise,' or shirt. Startled and angered, the witches chased after Tam as he galloped away for his life. Nannie almost caught him, grasping only the tail of his horse as it crossed over a bridge. As the ship’s original figurehead, Nannie, bare-breasted, her cutty sark askew and holding out the horses tail, greets you as you cross the gangplank and enter between decks. This was an area for the carriage of cargo, which would have been filled completely with crates of tea or later with bales of wool during the ship’s working days. It now houses replica boxes of tea, nautical paintings and ship models, while the lower hold has become home to the world’s largest collection of ships’ figureheads, rescued from oblivion by an eccentric English collector. Her name is world renown and evokes a proud image of one of the true thoroughbreds of the sea. Launched the same year the Suez Canal opened, she vied with an international fleet to bring in the first tea harvest of the year. The age of steam and the Canal doomed her profitability and she took on an up and down career as a Portuguese merchantman. Cast about and almost a derelict, she was rescued from oblivion, restored and used as a naval cadet training ship. A bit long in the tooth, but still buoyant with promise, Cutty Sark was later gifted to the British Government and then to a public service corporation. A prominent staple in British tradition, she is a tour de riguer for most English schoolchildren. One of the Island’s true museum bargains, entrance fees are only 3.50 pounds. Docents in period costume skillfully weave the story of this hearty princess as they guide you from deck to hold, galley to captain’s cabin, explaining such terms as bowsprit, keelson and uses for a marlinespike and belaying pin. Crewed by 18 to 24 men she remains the epitome of a tall ship. There’s a decent pub just across the way and again, another opportunity to savor the other unofficial national drink, besides gin. Cutty Sark whiskey took its name from the ship when it began production in 1923. In deference to its namesake, the firm now sponsors the Tall Ships’ Races; an international sailing regatta dedicated to preserving the days of wooden hulls and iron men. So a toast to the fleet little lady of the sea, and may no one ever shiver her timbers.

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