News that the Cutty Sark recently caught fire and partially burned likely perplexed many U.S. servicemembers in the United Kingdom unfamiliar with the vessel. What is the Cutty Sark, and why is it a national treasure?

According to, the official Web site for the ship, the Cutty Sark is one of the last and best preserved clipper ships (long, fast, multi-masted cargo vessels) built to run tea from China to the U.K.

Constructed in 1869 in Scotland, the 280-foot boat is named after a seductive witch in the Robert Burns story “Tam O’Shanter,” who is wearing a cutty-sark — a regional name for a petticoat.

The Cutty Sark competed in the intense race waged by tea clippers at the time to China and back for about eight years. It then went on to transport wool from Australia, when it was one of the fastest ships on the seas.

After changing hands several times, it was set in a dry dock in Greenwich and restored as a historical display open to tourists. After more than 50 years as a museum ship in which it hosted some 15 million visitors, the Cutty Sark was closed last November for a three-year, $50 million refurbishment before it caught fire last week.

The extent of the damage from the blaze is still being assessed.

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