THE decade-long battle to save HMS Victory has begun with engineers starting to dismantle her historic masts.
BAE Systems and Bell Rigging got the first stage of the project under way yesterday, removing the yards from one of her three masts and gently lowering them with a crane onto a lorry.
The other two masts will be dismantled in the coming months, leaving Victory without any top masts for the first time since the Second World War.
The Ministry of Defence has set aside £20m to fully restore Nelson’s flagship, which is suffering from internal rot and structural problems at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
The 250-year-old warship, which attracts 350,000 visitors a year, will remain open to the public during the works.
Dr Dominic Tweddle, director-general of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, said: ‘This is the beginning of a major restoration project for Victory, on a par with some of the biggest restorations ever.
‘This is the next stage in the battle to keep the ship alive. What we want to do is preserve her for future generations to enjoy.’
A recent survey of the Battle of Trafalgar warship revealed she is riddled with rot, leaking and being pulled apart under her own weight in the dry dock where she has been since 1922.
Dr Tweddle said: ‘This has been apparent for many, many years. She was never designed to last this long and she was not designed to be out of the water. It would be nonsensical to think she wouldn’t need maintenance and restoration throughout her life.
‘We could have always waited a bit longer to start the work but this was the optimum time to start before costs start to spiral.’
The MoD contract for the entire 10-year project is still out to tender but an announcement is expected soon.
The urgent 18-month maintenance of her masts had to begin before the structural work can start this autumn.
Ian Bell, who runs Bell Rigging, said: ‘It’s really exciting and a privilege to be involved right at the start of the major restoration of the world’s most famous ship.
‘She’s an absolute icon of our maritime history and I’m glad to be playing a part in the effort to keep her going.’