The legendary clipper ships Cutty Sark and Thermopylae held their showdown in June 1872, during the annual race to bring the first of the season's tea back safely to London. On 18 June, both ships left Shanghai bound for London. Cutty Sark was sailing under one of Captain John Jack Willis's most capable and trusted masters, Captain Moodie, and the striking green-hulled Thermopylae was mastered by the equally capable Captain Kemball.
Whilst Cutty Sark was 400 mile out, a storm suddenly erupted round the Cape of Good Hope, and disaster struck. She lost her rudder, and so Captain Moodie instructed the ship's carpenter to make its replacement. The weather was appalling, and the crew, which included Captain Willis' brother, endeavoured to persuade him to dock in South Africa. Moodie held fast and would not be dissuaded, and eventually Cutty Sark arrived in London a mere seven days after Thermopylae. Despite the fact that they had lost, both captain and crew of Cutty Sark were deemed heroic for their efforts against such terrible odds.
The Cutty Sark was one of the most famous clipper ships ever built. Registered at 963 gross tons, she was launched on 23 November 1869 from Scott and Linton's Clyde shipyard at Dumbarton. She measured just over 212 feet and was built for John Willis of London. She was employed chiefly in the China tea trade as well as on the Australian wool run. She was to make many rapid passages from Shanghai, and was notable for her very fast voyages both to and from Australia. She was sold to the Lisbon company of J.A.Ferreira and Co. in July 1895 and renamed Ferreira. Trading between Portugal and her colonies for many years, she was eventually resold to Great Britain in 1922. Cutty Sark now rests in dry dock at Greenwich.
The clipper Thermopylae lay claim to be the fastest sailing ship ever launched. Weighing 948 tons, it was built in 1868 by Aberdeen based Walter Hood for George Thompson's Aberdeen White Star Line. With a length of 210 feet, she was almost the same size as her rival Cutty Sark. Her maiden voyage saw a record breaking run from Lizard to Melbourne in just sixty days.
Between 1868 and 1879 Thermopylae was engaged in the China trade, and between 1882 and 1890 in the Australian wool trade. In 1890 she is recorded as being sold to a Mr. Reford, President of the Rice Milling Company of Montreal, for whom she was to carry cargoes of rice between Rangoon and Vancouver. In 1895 she was sold once again to the Portuguese government, and renamed Pedro Nunes. Until 1907 she was used as a training ship.