Vital weatherproofing repairs have started to secure HMS Caroline in advance of major restorative work to turn the famous World War One fighting ship into a floating museum in Belfast.
It came dangerously close to sinking during the big freeze of 2010 when pipes and radiators burst, but work is well under way to protect it from the ravages of another potential harsh winter.
Deck timbers are being replaced to prevent the risk of more flooding and a major internal inspection of space below the water line is being carried out.
Electrician Billy Hughes, 53, is satisfied everything possible is being done to halt further deterioration before the main multi-million pound restorative project is launched to get the ship ready for the 2016 centenary of the Battle of Jutland, in which it was centrally involved.
Caroline’s future in Belfast was assured by a National Lottery grant last year, dashing hopes that she might instead be housed in Portsmouth.
Parts of the ship, which is moored at Alexandra Dock, are in a sorry state.
“There has been some leakage, but we’re doing everything we can to get it wrapped up before the weather gets really cold and miserable,” said Billy.
An estimated 165,000 visitors a year have been forecast when the light cruiser, launched and commissioned in 1914, opens as a museum.
Captain John Rees, chief of staff at the Portsmouth-based National Museum of the Royal Navy and project director, said the damage of three years ago threatened to sink the ship which was owned at the time by the Ministry of Defence.
He said: “But for the vigilance and quick thinking of Billy Hughes, the flood water was pumped out of the engine rooms just in time. But we are confident that the measures we are taking now will protect the vessel from possible further damage should the temperatures fall below zero.”
Caroline was the last survivor of the Battle of Jutland, the First World War’s longest and most strategically important sea battle and the only time the full German and British navies engaged directly. When the war ended she became a static training ship based in Belfast, but was back in action after the outbreak of World War Two, acting as a key base for operations to protect the North American convoys from U-boat attacks.
She later returned to Belfast to resume a static training role until being decommissioned in 2011, making her the longest ship in commission in the British Navy after HMS Victory. She is now part of Belfast’s maritime history and is set to become a major tourist attraction.
Thomas Weddick, a son the ship’s one time chief gunner - he came from Limerick - was on board earlier this year.
The National Museum of the Royal Navy and the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment have applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for £14m to pay for the repairs and preservation.
Captain Rees said: “We cannot underestimate the historic value and significance of Caroline as a witness and participant in the Battle of Jutland. There are very few artefacts left from the Great War and Belfast should be enormously proud to be providing a home.”