Historic Ship Keeping – The Reality.

22nd, 2012
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I pick up the story of the Discovery again from the year 2000. She had been moved to her new abode, Discovery Point, Dundee, in 1992 under a blaze of publicity. Now she was permanently at home in her custom built dock looking out over the lovely River Tay, the historic railway bridge, built in 1882 upstream, the road bridge built in 1964 downstream. It was and is an idyllic setting. As in many high profile developments, consultant’s forecasts of visitor numbers and therefore revenue had been encouraging, sufficient to justify the building of the dock, visitor and conference centre in the first instance. The first two years were a great success with people coming from all over the World, never mind locally, to see the new attraction. Thereafter visitor numbers started to slide, slowly at first then, year by year, the figures grew less and, as a consequence, revenue grew less. During the years of plenty staff had been increased, not by much, but enough to increase the salary outgoings to a level that became unsustainable. During the year 2000 a complete review of the business took place under the stewardship of a new Chairman. Inevitably, costs were pruned, jobs were lost and maintenance suffered. By 2002 the business gradually recovered and I was commissioned on a voluntary basis to review a Full Structural Survey completed some years earlier. As a result of that review it was concluded that the Survey results were no longer relevant and a new survey had to be done.

Such an operation does not come cheap and financial assistance had to be found. The only body in the United Kingdom that could provide the assistance needed was the National Heritage Lottery Fund. However the process of convincing that body to provide help was long and detailed, resulting in many meetings and form filling. In early 2004 the Lottery Fund agreed to support the Project. Tenders were put out and a Maritime Consultancy company commissioned to do the work at a cost of £52,000 (about TL151,000 in today’s terms). A day and date was set to dry-dockDiscovery and begin the Survey. That day arrived and unforeseen difficulties immediately came to light. The ship had not been dry-docked for more than seven years and during that time silt had accumulated in the dock to a height of more than a metre in places. No survey could be done on her underwater hull before the silt was cleared; the budget was finite and the timescale tight. The material was river-borne silt so it had to be returned to whence it came. Innovations in the form of a high pressure water pump with a high lift, manpower in the dock bottom directing water jets into the silt in order to turn it back into a fluid state, were employed. It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it! What should have taken a day took fourteen, the whole of the period agreed for the physical survey. The survey schedule was rearranged and the internal work done first rather than last. The surveyor, to his eternal credit, donned waist length, watertight wading gear and, bit by bit, as the silt was cleared, surveyed the ship’s bottom. Since the silt was river-borne, it comprised mainly of vegetable matter. This matter compressed from the bottom up as further layers laid on top, with the result that while it had a sandy colour on top, it gradually turned black the deeper it became. Over the years some visitors had thrown coins into the dock for Good Luck. When these coins were recovered they looked freshly minted, they were so clean due to chemical reaction with the silt content. The following picture shows the difficulty experienced.

Nevertheless, the survey was completed and a final report awaited. This was not received and analysed until November 1994 when the scope of the work that needed to be done was finally decided. The repairs, renovation and conservation measures required were substantial and, until an estimate of the cost had been done, no further steps could be taken. As a part of the Lottery Grant Conditions a Conservation Plan had to be delivered before the Survey Project could be deemed completed and this was finished in February 2005. It would form the basis of future work to be achieved over a period of 25 to 30 years. However, first that work had to be prioritised and the first major Project determined. A further 9 months were spent in gathering detail before an accurate determination of the cost was achieved. This revealed that nearly £700,000, or more than TL2m, in funding was needed and the Trust did not have such an amount of money. Without financial support the Project was dead in the water. Again the Heritage Lottery Fund was approached and the long road to a decision as to whether it would agree to help fund the works began. Meantime the Trust was making frantic efforts to gather supporting funds, using every possible avenue; sponsored walks, dances, dinners, local and national businesses, other charitable bodies, the list seemed endless.

Another lesson that must be understood is that, above anything else, one must be meticulous and patient. The Trust’s patience and diligence was rewarded in November 2006 when the Heritage Lottery Fund agreed to support the Project by providing over 70% of the total cost in Grant Aid. Confirmation that the RRS ‘Discovery’ Restoration and Conservation Project 2007 – 2009 could commence in March 2007, after all agreements had been signed, was received. It had taken over four years to get there and now the hard work would start in earnest.


Next, Discovering the real Discovery.


©     Captain John J Watson OBE             January 2012                        Fethiye

Captain John: http://discoveryplus-rrsdiscoveryetc.blogspot.com

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