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By Lynn Whitney
From the earliest days of seafaring, sailors have used whatever means of protection from the sea they could conjure up. A ship’s figurehead served just that purpose, along with many others, for these religious, highly superstitious and largely illiterate early mariners. Some believed they represented the soul of the ship, a divine presence that could prevent a shipwreck, or in case of sinking, lead the souls of the dead to comfort. The Ancient Egyptians were probably the first to decorate their ships. The graceful curve of the stern was carved into a lotus stem and figures of holy birds were placed on the prow. Phoenicians used horses to represent speed, while the Greeks used a boar’s head to depict sharp vision and ferocity. A carved Centurion on a Roman ship announced battle readiness. Northern Europeans favored serpents, bulls, dolphins and dragons. By the 13th Century, swans had become a favorite figurehead, representing grace and mobility on the water. A variety of animals could be found, with lions being popular among Royalty. Henry VIII’s famous warship sported a Unicorn.
Up until the 16th Century, the figureheads were mounted or carved directly onto the stem of the ship. At this time, ship builders began constructing forecastles above and beyond the stem, forcing the figureheads to be located on the bowsprit. Through the 17th Century, the lion remained a favorite for warships of all nations. Some more important ships had more elaborate figureheads. The British ship Prince Royal (1610) had St. George slaying the dragon. The French favored figureheads that represented fame, victory and glory. The frigate Carmagnole displayed a guillotine. Towards the end of the 18th Century, the lion was replaced by a representation of the ship’s name, usually a classical or mythological figure, of great service to the large number of sailors who could not read. Captain Death’s British privateer, Terrible (1756), carried a carved skeleton. In keeping with the superstitious nature of sailors, bare breasted females became popular. Women on board were deemed to be unlucky, but a naked woman had the power to calm the seas. Even so, clothed women were also popular. British ships often used figures of female royalty, such as Queen Victoria. Shipbuilders commissioned carvings of their wives and daughters, sometimes dressed as goddesses. The Swedish Song-Bird Jenny Lind appeared on at least 35 ships. Oddly, although sailors traditionally considered mermaids to be sirens whose song could lure them to shipwreck, the figure became the most common female figurehead.
The tea-clipper with the familiar name, Cutty Sark (1869), had a figurehead called “Nanny.” Jock Willis, owner of the ship, chose the name inspired by the poem “Tam O’Shanter ,”by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. As the story goes, on a dark and stormy night, after a long day at the market, and a longer evening in his favorite pub, Tam climbed on his old mare Meg and headed off across the rain swept moor towards home. Around midnight he approached an old ruined church, rumored to be haunted by gatherings of witches. Attracted by a strange music, he drew near and noticed the church was full of light. Coming closer, Tam peered through the crumbling window, and was astonished to see a huge bonfire surrounded by a whirling coven of witches, with the Devil himself appearing as a shaggy black dog playing the bagpipes. As Tam gazed upon the ugly old hags leaping about, he noticed that one of them was young and beautiful. Dancing with abandon, she threw off all her clothes, except a short petticoat known as a cutty sark. The young witch was called Nannie, but Tam did not know this. Entranced by her beauty, he watched, transfixed, as her dancing became wilder and wilder. Finally,unable to contain himself, he cried out,“Well done, Cutty Sark!” At once, the bonfire was extinguished and the witches poured out, shrieking for vengeance against the man who had spoiled their party. Tam, fearing for his life, spurred Meg on and raced away, heading for the bridge across the river Doon, with the shrieking witches in hot pursuit. It is well known that witches cannot cross running water and Tam knew if he could reach the bridge he would be safe. As Meg thundered away, Tam glanced over his shoulder and saw Nannie at the head of the pack and gaining on them. As the terrified mare galloped toward the bridge, Nannie flung herself at Tam, reaching out an arm to grab him. Meg made a desperate leap for the bridge and reached safety with her master clinging to her back. Nannie was left standing with a clump of Meg’s tail clutched in her hand.
Perhaps this is why Jock Willis chose to name his ship Cutty Sark, a fitting name for a beautiful, swift, tea clipper. And that is why his figurehead, Nannie always has a horse’s tail in her hand.
Progress marched on, and wooden boats slowly lost popularity, as did their wooden figureheads, and with them went a little of the magic and mystery of the sea.