Swabbing the decks in Portsmouth on world’s second oldest floating warship

HMS Trincomalee at Hartlepool Historic Quay
HMS Trincomalee at Hartlepool Historic Quay
Monty and Melissa Borthwick with their very own Spice Girl, Olivia

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Former News defence correspondent TIM KING recalls his time with an old Portsmouth Harbour landmark

As duty watch, I swabbed her decks and helped caulk her seams with oakum; I learned the basic rules of seamanship, boat handling and how to sling a hammock ‘tween her decks... She was part of Portsmouth for 65 years and a part of my early life before her mast.

The view towards the fo'csle

The view towards the fo'csle

Entering harbour, you couldn’t miss this piece of floating history, a direct link to Nelson’s legacy and the post-Trafalgar fleet – the Training Ship Foudroyant, moored off HMS Dolphin at the entrance to Haslar Creek.

‘Were I to die at this moment, want of frigates would be found stamped on my heart,’ said Admiral Lord Nelson in 1798 when he mistakenly believed himself mortally wounded at the Battle of the Nile. Foudroyant and her 46 sister ships, ‘the eyes of the Fleet’, would have made him happy.

She was a fifth rate frigate when named HMS Trincomalee in 1817. England was short of oak after the Napoleonic Wars so she was built of teak in Bombay and copper-sheathed. This is why 65 per cent of her hull survives today.

She arrived in Portsmouth in 1819 to be refitted with permanent rigging and armaments, but it was not until 1847 that she sailed on her first commission to America and the West Indies.

The gun deck

The gun deck

Her career included action in the Crimean War and finally, in 1897, she was sold for scrap to Reed’s of Portsmouth.

It was sheer good luck that at the same time TS Foudroyant, once Nelson’s flagship and then a private training ship owned by Mr Wheatly Cobb, was wrecked in a storm off Blackpool.

Cobb immediately snapped up Trincomalee to replace his vessel and saved her for the nation.

Amazingly, she spent five years at Milford Haven where the nearly unrecognisable HMS Warrior was being used as a fuel jetty before she was rescued.

Stern port quarter view

Stern port quarter view

The two met again in 1987 when I had the exhilerating experience of accompanying Warrior on her triumphant return to Portsmouth after restoration in Hartlepool. We passed Foudroyant on the way into harbour.

A few weeks later I covered Foudroyant’s sad final departure from Portsmouth bound for Hartlepool’s masters of restoration. However, she did have company as the First World War monitor M33, formerly HMS Minerva, also went north for preservation. She has now returned home and is the Historic Dockyard’s latest attraction.

Foudroyant had been given to to the Society for Nautical Research which relocated her to Portsmouth Harbour in 1932 to carry on her youth training role.

In the early 1950s, as a member of Portsmouth Grammar School’s Combined Cadet Force (RN section), I spent summer camps afloat on board TS Foudroyant.

A few years later, in 1955, I returned – not to work ship this time but as a junior reporter with the Evening News when I’d been sent to write a feature for the Hampshire Telegraph.

‘Strict naval routine is adhered to all the time. Hands are invited to show a leg at 6.30am and are then detailed to cleaning decks and other duties. Breakfast follows after colours at 8am and divisions are held at 9am. The day’s instruction begins immediately afterwards with the normal stand-easy periods... ’ Having learned the ropes, I knew what I was writing about.

In April 2015 and now bearing her original name, HMS Trincomalee, I again trod the decks I’d swabbed in rolled-up bellbottoms 60 years before when I visited her at Hartlepool’s Historic Quay.

The transformation is unbelievable. Immaculate. A tribute to those who brought her back to life.

Masts, yards, rigging, guns, mess decks, galley, capstan, magazine... she could put to sea to defend the realm tomorrow.

And that’s no idle boast.

After 199 years, Trincomalee is the world’s second oldest floating warship after USS Constitution.