THE skyline of Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard changed dramatically yesterday when the tallest masts on HMS Victory were removed.
Nelson’s flagship is undergoing a 10-year restoration project, at a cost of £20m to the MoD, to save it from rotting away.
Visitors watched as a crane removed the central top mast section, known as the main topgallant mast.
The last time HMS Victory was seen without her top masts was in 1944, so this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see it undergoing such thorough maintenance.
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.
The 250-year-old warship, which attracts 350,000 visitors a year, will remain open to the public during the works.
Professor Dominic Tweddle, The National Museum of the Royal Navy’s director general, said: ‘Watching the team painstakingly disassemble the rigging and masts of HMS Victory has been heart-stopping at times.
‘To do this intricate work, while still keeping Victory open to the public, has been a logistical masterpiece.
‘Interestingly, when her topmasts are down, Victory will look much as she did after the Battle of Trafalgar when she had to be towed to Gibraltar for repairs.’
The operation was carried out by Bell Rigging, subcontracted on behalf of BAE Systems which is in charge of the maintenance project.
Project manager John O’Sullivan said: ‘We will remove the upper sections of all three masts and bowsprit, booms, yards and spars, including 26 miles of associated rigging and 768 wooden blocks, some of which are 100 years old.
‘We will then catalogue and document everything for future surveying, design and replacement.
‘When the rigging is replaced a decision will be made as to whether the wooden rope blocks can be reused, recycled or replaced. Our team will carefully manage this major restoration project, keeping disruption to a minimum.’
A time capsule was found in the fore mast cap dating from February 2002 when the masts were last inspected.
Production co-ordinator Lucy Jones found a newspaper and daily orders sheet.
There was also a book on the history of HMS Victory in the Mizzen mast cap with a sheet signed by riggers on August 5, 2003.
Most of the highly-skilled operation is being carried out by master shipwrights and other specialist staff employed by BAE Systems who, while operating on the cutting edge of technology on modern warships, maintain age-old wooden shipbuilding skills. The urgent 18-month maintenance of her masts had to begin before structural work can start this autumn.
The MoD contract for the entire 10-year project is still out to tender but an announcement is expected in the next few months.