Battle to keep Victory in ship-shape condition

HMS Victory
HMS Victory
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When the Royal Navy appoints new commanding officers, it sends them to the stately surroundings of Lord Nelson’s Great Cabin on board HMS Victory.

Here, among artefacts that include Nelson’s original table, they begin the next stage of their careers. The officers gather in the impressive dining area and work space for a course that is designed to inspire them.

‘Victory triggers emotive reactions in people, I think because it’s still used by the Royal Navy as a symbol of leadership and all the things the navy stands for,’ says the ship’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Oscar Whild.

And it isn’t just the officers whose imaginations are fired by the historical warship.

More than 350,000 people from across the world visit Victory each year, experiencing the atmosphere of the shadowy, low-ceilinged decks and the grand admiral’s quarters.

So the battle to save the ship from being pulled apart by her own weight is vital for future generations.

‘She’s an icon in the UK and worldwide. You can see that from the number of visitors that come from all over the world. We recently had a newspaper from Japan here because she’s very popular with the Japanese,’ says Lt Cdr Whild, adding. ‘The fact that she would be here for future generations was never in doubt.’

Up to £20m is to be spent on the ship in a decade-long restoration. The decision comes after a survey discovered she was riddled with rot, leaking and had major structural problems.

The Ministry of Defence-commissioned survey shows Victory is not being adequately supported by the cradle built for her in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

She is in dry dock, which means there is no water around her for support and the weight has caused her to bow out at the sides.

The knee joints – large brackets which hold the sides of the ship to horizontal beams – are loose and in some places the ends of the beams are as much as five inches from the sides of the ship. If this is not addressed she could fall apart.

Some work has left the ship in a worse state, with fewer bolts replaced than have been taken out of some beams.

The project will be one of the largest restorations ever to be carried out on the Battle of Trafalgar ship.

But Lt Cdr Whild says restoration and maintenance is an ongoing process and constantly presents challenges for the team looking after Victory.

As he speaks, he points out an electronic device on the wall which is a sophisticated monitoring system that detects movement in the ship’s structure.

Victory carries several original guns, but some have been replaced with fibre-glass copies to keep the weight off the structure.

In fact, only about 17 per cent of the original Victory, completed in 1765, remains.

‘The rest has been replaced over the long life of the ship,’ says Lt Cdr Whild.

‘Although most of the lower gun deck is original, about 95 per cent is original planking.’

There is a raised area on this deck where some of the planks have been replaced. These oak timbers remain faithful to the original wood and have come from the Old Bailey following a restoration at the London courthouse.

The ship’s refit and repair story is full of interesting details. But the coming restoration is the most ambitious yet.

A contract for the work will be put out to commercial tender next month. The details of the restoration, and the craftspeople and experts required, are subject to this and more detailed studies of the problems.

The contractor – currently BAE Systems – employs experts to look at shipbuilding techniques. But advice and help is also sought from the independent Victory Advisory Technical Committee.

This committee of historians, archaeologists and other experts offers its voluntary services to Victory, which also has links to the international Society for Nautical Research. And of course the National Museum of the Royal Navy advises on historical matters.

Lt Cdr Whild says it isn’t such a surprise the ship needs some major care and attention. When she was built it was envisaged she could last for 80 years at sea. She didn’t go into dry dock until 1922, 163 years after her keel was laid down.

‘The design was based on many other first rate ships of that period. It wasn’t special in any way but Victory was particularly well-built,’ says Lt Cdr Whild.

‘To begin with she was built quickly while we were at war and then the building process slowed down. It took six years and then eight years after that she didn’t do anything because there were no wars to fight. I think the long building process assisted in the longevity of the ship.’

But he believes it’s remarkable that she still serves as the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command and as a living museum of the Georgian navy,

Visitors to this museum are in no doubt of its value when they gaze up in awe at the rigging, historically resplendent against steely grey Portsmouth skies.

On board Victory, schoolchildren learn about the vast quantities of peas and beer kept in the ship’s stores. And they find out that Nelson’s body was taken home from Trafalgar in one of the ship’s barrels filled with French brandy.

Those who attend the on-board ceremonies to commemorate Trafalgar witness the emotive significance of the ship.

From the Great Cabin, modern naval ships and commercial ferries are visible in a busy harbour. The old and the new. With some much-needed care and attention, Victory will hopefully be watching over them for many years to come.