Historical Wooden Ship Conservation and Restoration

13th, 2011
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The conservation of historic wooden ships throughout the world is a fascinating subject allowing people like myself to delve into history in order to get the facts right before advising others howto bring a particular historic ship back to its original or former condition. There are many pitfalls. First and foremost is how does one determine what constitutes a historic wooden ship? The answer lies in how important a role did the particular ship play in local, national or international maritime history and it should be more than 50 years old, over 35 meters in length and in reasonable condition This brings about great debate since the ship may have played an important role in local maritime history but be unknown nationally and internationally. In which case the burden of future restoration and conservation will fall upon the local community and it is entirely likely that the idea of promoting the local ship to historical status in the first place came from a handful of local enthusiasts. The local project may get started but records show that the majority are doomed to fail.
National recognition is therefore a must. The ship must be significant in terms of a nation’s maritime history but even then the future of the ship will greatly depend upon the support it receives from the local and national community.
International recognition of a historic wooden ship’s status will result in its long term survival but even then it needs a carefully planned and managed support structure.
The official voice of National Historic Ships in the United Kingdom records 1,091 ships on its register; 210 of these comprising the more important and are included as part of the Historic Ships Fleet.
As is always the case in this world of ours it all comes down to money. Restoration and conservation requires big money support and a few recent examples of the cost of historical ship projects in the United Kingdom provides an insight into how important it is to be aware of the cost burden before embarking upon such ambitious works. The period covered by the following figures is 2000-2010.

SS ‘Cutty Sark’ current estimates exceed £45m (TL112m)
‘Mary Rose.’ >£35m (TL88m)
SS ‘Great Britain’ >£15m (TL38m)

The above are, perhaps, extreme examples but an average ordinary project cost is rarely less than £1m (TL2.5m). With so many ships registered the struggle for financial assistance to keep many of the ships in existence in the longer term seems nigh impossible and it is likely that many will not survive.

Waterfront development sites are big business in many parts of the world and often the focal point in many of these developments is a historic ship. London with its SS ‘Cutty Sark’ and the HMS ‘Belfast’, to name but two; Bristol with the SS ‘Great Britain; Hartlipool with ‘Trincomalee’; Glasgow with ‘Glenlee’ and Dundee with the RRS ‘Discovery’ and HMS ‘Unicorn’, are examples of this. It also illustrates that the survival of each historic ship depends upon how much money can be generated for its on-going upkeep and maintenance, and it is well known that this cannot be achieved by revenues generated by the ship alone but depends to a great extent on its support infrastructure. In the current hard financial climate it has become more difficult to fund even small restoration and conservation historic ship projects and this is where people like me and publications like the Aegean Independent Newspaper get together to create awareness of the historic side of our International Maritime Heritagewhich many people throughout the world take forgranted, ignorant of the hard work and dedication that goes into the education and enjoyment that a visit to a grand old ship provides.
Should the Aegean Independent be willing to publish, I would like to tell the story of the RRS ‘Discovery’ over the next few months including a recent restoration project that I had the great fortune to manage. It is a story that begins in the year 1899 and continues to the present day and traces the ship’s working life from the day she was launched in Dundee, Scotland, to the Antarctic and Southern Ocean, to Canada’s Hudson Bay, to Europe and, would you believe, the Black Sea.


The story begins right at the end of the 19th century, 1899 to be exact, when a group of individuals met at the Royal Geographic Society’s offices in London. Discussion turned to Antarctic exploration, or the lack of it, for many years before. It was a fact that knowledge of the Southern Ocean and Antarctica was sparse, with little known about that cold continents inhabitat. Previously, in 1875/76, a converted Dundee Trawler with Sir George Nareson board had made a successful historic research voyage to the Arctic and her name had been ‘Discovery’. Why not plan to build a ship along the same lines as the original but strengthened and modified to cope with Antarctic conditions? Why not indeed! A prestigious Ship Committee was set up specifically and a decision to build was taken on the 26th of April 1899. Discovery proved to be one of the last wooden three-masted sailing ships to be built in Britain, though she had an auxiliary engine; she was the first ship to be constructed entirely for Antarctic research. Research ships previously had been modified versions of old Royal Navy ships and, except for the 1875 ‘Discovery’, quite unfit for the purpose intended.

In drawing up the final design, W.E Smith (Later Sir William Smith), the Naval Architect decided on one major design change from that of the old Discovery. The new-build would be ten feet longer than the old in order to provide that the Captain’s accommodation was located in the mid-ships main block. Traditionally on Royal Naval ships the Captains accommodation would have been separate at the stern of the ship where he enjoyed better living conditions as befitted his rank. In the case of the new Discovery it was recognised that in adverse weather or in snow and ice conditions the Captain could be cut off from the rest of his officers and men, leaving them leaderless. Money was found with some difficulty and the project was put out to tender.


The speed of change in modern technology in recent years is well known but back in the year 1900 when the tender documents for the building of the Discovery were sent out to a number of shipyards around the United Kingdom, the Industrial Revolution that had swept through the Western World during the last 50 years of the 18th century had created changes as never before. Since the 1860s steel and steam had taken over the shipbuilding industry in the UK and elsewhere, and as a result, only two completed tender documents were received by the Ship Committee. Most shipyards had stopped building wooden ships and of the two tenders received, only one satisfied the Committee’s criteria, Dundee Shipbuilders Company, Scotland.
Even then there was a great deal of negotiation and modification in order to get to the original budgeted build cost. However, the Dundee shipbuilder had the capacity to build such a specialist ship due to its long tradition of whaler construction, which required knowledge of the use of wood in Arctic conditions.
The keel was laid in the Panmure Shipyard in Dundee on the 16th of March 1900 and Discovery was completed and launched on the 21st of March 1901 at a cost of £34,050 (TL95,350) plus another £10,322 (TL28,900) for the engines.

Apart from the exceptionally strong wooden construction the ship had other ground breaking features incorporated in her design. 43 officers, scientists and crew had to be accommodated and it had to carry two years supply of food. Provision for scientific research included a laboratory room and a magnetic observatory with no magnetic metals within a 30 feet radius of it in all directions. This latter innovation proved to be problematic for a Mr E. Bate, a retired Inspector of Shipwrights, formally of Portsmouth Dockyard who had been appointed to oversee the construction of the hull of the Discovery. The story goes that as the hull was nearing completion and the furniture fitted in the accommodation, tests showed the presence of magnetic metals within the 30 feet radius of the magnetic laboratory. Checks were carried out without identifying the guilty source. Perplexed, Bate sat down on a leather cushioned bench in the accommodation and, during his deliberations, he absentmindedly turned one of the leather covered studs that held the cushion together. It came away in his fingers to reveal its little steel core. He picked at it without realizing that he had the culprit in the palm of his hand, then it dawned slowly like sunrise in the morning; he looked down at the small button of steeland immediately ordered that all of the leather cushions, wherever they were on the ship, be removed immediately and the steel studs replaced by brass ones. Such was the detail that went into the construction of the RRS ‘Discovery’.
The hull was entirely built of wood except for a full steel bulkhead between the officer’s quarters and the boiler-room, and a partial steel bulkhead between the boiler-room and engineroom. The keel and false keel were of English Oak and measured46 cms wide and 43 cms deep. From this keel rose massive frames of English Oak , 30 cms wide and up to 35 cms thick. The thickness of timber at the waterline of not less than 66 cms.
Outside the frames the lowest part of the hull was planked using English Elm 15 to 18 cms thick and doubling planks, 10cms thick of Greenheart, that magnificent hardwood and near indestructible timber protected her outer hull from the ravages of the ice that she would endure in due course.

Next, preparations and the first voyage down to the Southern Ocean.

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

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