Cutty Sark, SS Pegu (1917) and a guitar

Isn’t it wonderful how interesting things go hand in hand with interesting things and appear to be attracted to each other by some magical magnetic force that some might just pass off as coincidence.

When inanimate things are drawn together by fate and circumstances that fill us with wonder and induce a dream world of romantic nostalgia, that’s not coincidence – that’s magic…

When I was young, about seven or eight years old, my big brother gave me a pencil drawing he had done of a galleon resting on a calm sea. He was a brilliant artist and the intricate detail of the rigging made a huge impression on me. I loved the way it all came together and wanted to climb up the rope netting to the highest crow’s nest. I remember taking it into school to show off to my schoolmates and teachers what my brother had done.

The image has always been with me in my head and I have tried to recreate it myself on many occasions. I remember reflecting on it whilst stood gazing up at the rigging of the Cutty Sark in the early 90’s whilst we were on a visit with our two sons when they were a similar age to that younger me all those years before.

Boats have always been an interest to me and I have spent many happy hours sailing, windsurfing or canoeing on Coniston Water and the rivers and canals of the North West of England.

Jump to December 2016 and whilst I was mulling over an alternative method of construction for the sides of an acoustic guitar I imagined the straight lined decking of a large yacht. I thought how it might look if the sides of the guitar were made up from many small ‘planks’ of wood cut to follow the curved shape of the guitar and put together like a jigsaw. I imagined the side of the guitar reflecting the planked decking of the yacht and tried to imagine just how it might look.

Unfortunately, supply of hardwoods locally is very limited. There are timber merchants who do supply hardwoods but their stock tends to be limited to the most common furniture building woods. Added to that, they only want to sell in lengths they have in stock and are not prepared to cut down. As I only wanted small pieces and something a bit more exotic than Oak or Sapele I started looking at what was available on the internet.

I found lots of people selling suitable bundles of off cuts and spent time imagining how each might look. Then I came across some Burmese Teak off cuts for sale. This was perfect as Teak is the preferred choice for boat decking due to its’ oily nature that makes it so weather proof. When it comes to Teak, Burmese Teak is considered amongst the best but is not the easiest timber to get hold of. Timber harvest in Burma, or Myanmar as it is now called, is very strictly controlled and only trees over 100 years old are allowed to be felled.

The Burmese Teak I discovered on offer was part of the remnants salvaged in 2011 from a WW1 wreck, the SS Pegu. The Pegu was a steam cargo ship of the Henderson Shipping Company that was torpedoed by a German U-boat (U57) under the command of Carl-Siegfried Ritter von Georg on 8th July 1917. Unfortunately, the sinking suffered the loss of one life – that being the 22 year old 4th engineer, Robert Maxwell. The Pegu had been carrying a huge supply of Burmese Teak from Rangoon to Liverpool to be used in the fortification of heavy gun emplacements in France and Belgium.

This was perfect for my project, not only was this a supply of the finest Teak, but it also meant I could have the perfect timber for the effect from a source that doesn’t necessitate the felling of healthy trees. The bonus was the history behind the timber that would inevitably provide a talking point whenever discussing the finished article.

I started to research the SS Pegu and came across 2011 article in the Shetland times describing the refurbishment of the Cutty Sark in November 2006. Unfortunately, in May 2007, just six months into the extensive £25m refurbishment, the ship suffered a terrible fire. The fire destroyed about 30 tonnes of timber including the main deck and added a further £10m to the restoration bill.

The article in the Shetland Times centred on the efforts of a Shetland man, Magnie Mann, who was involved in sourcing replacement timbers for the Cutty Sark’s decking. The teak destroyed on the Cutty Sark was actually Burmese Teak and the restoration project had specified the wood could not be modern timber but had to be as close to the original Cutty Sark construction era as possible.

The company in charge of the restoration had identified the wreck of the SS Pegu lying 7 miles off the South Coast of Ireland with a cargo of Burmese Teak on board.

Magnie Mann was a salvage operator who had been working with a Norwegian company and was approached to look into the possibility of raising the Burmese Teak from the wreck to be used for the restoration of the Cutty Sark. In 2011, around 80 tonnes of teak was lifted from the Pegu – much of it reported to be in perfect condition due to it being submerged in the silt, 80 metres below the surface.

Now, is it a remarkable coincidence that brings the above story to my attention just as I was musing over a ship’s decking effect on a guitar. Is it a coincidence that this all happens in the year that marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Pegu. Is it coincidence that the reason for lifting the Teak from the Pegu was actually to restore the decking of a ship – and not just any ship.

Obviously the temptation was too great to pass so I have managed to obtain a few short lengths of this timber that has such a rich history to it. Although Teak is not considered a traditional guitar making wood, I could not resist the attraction and plan to build an acoustic guitar with the decking effect sides constructed from the recovered Teak.

Teak itself does present construction problems that probably contribute to it being considered unsuitable for guitars. Ironically, the high oil content of the wood that has helped preserve its’ 94 year sleep on the sea bed makes it notoriously difficult to glue. Traditional wood glue tends to be water based and relies on penetrating the wood to bond the sections together but the oil in the Teak prevents it from doing this. Fortunately, glue has come a long way in recent years and there will be something out there that will do the job – all I have to do now is find it.

As the 8th July 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Pegu, I will set that as my goal to finish the product and hopefully time it so the last piece of the guitar will be set on that date.

Watch this space for regular updates… I’m off to work.

 

Sources of information include: –

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