HMS Victory

HMS Victory � Restoring Nelson's flagship

Nelson's flagship at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar celebrates its 250th anniversary this year. We take a look at HMS Victory, which now lives permanently in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, and what has been done to regenerate it.

HMS Victory has been in the wars. In the Battle of Trafalgar, where Lord Nelson met his death leading the Royal Navy's victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets, it was so badly damaged that it had to be towed to Gibraltar for repairs. In 1903, while at anchor in Portsmouth Harbour, it was rammed by HMS Neptune. Then in 1941 it suffered bomb damage during an air raid. Repairs have always been made, but the Royal Navy no longer hosts shipwrights skilled in the techniques of wooden ships. In 2011 BAE Systems was awarded a five-year contract to oversee the restoration of the ship.

In 2012 the Ministry of Defence passed custodianship to the HMS Victory Preservation Trust, part of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, to ensure the survival of the ship for future generations. This change was made possible with a donation from the Gosling Foundation of £25 million and a similar sum from the government. The transfer marked a new approach to the ship. Project director Andrew Baines explains that it is no longer just a ship of the Royal Navy (which it remains), but a museum object. "As a piece of archaeology, it is essential to get to know the history of the ship. There are parts of the Victory dating back to every year of its existence."

HMS Victory facts and figures

Victory had a top speed of 15km/h with a crew of 850. At the waterline it is 60cm thick and the height from waterline to main truck mast is 64m.A 104-gun first-rate ship of the line, it was launched in 1765 at Chatham. About 6,000 oak trees were needed for its hull and the keel is about 45m of elm.

Gaps between planks were too wide for the modern way of using synthetic mastic, which could not cope with the expansion and contraction of the timber. Old-style caulking was trialled and then used. The gaps were raked clear, oakum made from old rope, and Jeffreys glue was used to make it watertight. Leaks rot wood, creating a climate suitable for death watch beetle and fungus. Oak and teak appear to be the most appropriate timbers.

Victory carried seven anchors, with two main anchors used for holding the ship in deep water, each weighing four tonnes.

Victory carried 37 canvas sails of 5,400m2. One of these sails still exists – the fore topsail, 16.5m high by 16.5m wide at the top and 24.4m wide at its base, with an area of around 336m2 and weighing about 370kg.

Victory has three masts, a bowsprit and associated spars, made largely from fir or pine. Sometimes seven trees were needed to make each mast.

Over 40km of flax and hemp rope was required to rig the ship, with the largest rope being 48cm in circumference.

The ship displaced 3,600 tonnes, is 56.7m long (on the gun deck), has a 16m beam, and an 8.8m draught.

Even museum ships need contemporary lighting. Around 400 lanthorns and vintage naval lanterns have been upgraded with LED light sources.

The BAE Systems plan to regenerate HMS Victory is based on comprehensive 3D models created by laser scanning.

The integrity and coherence of a ship is maintained by the sea pressing against the hull and keel. When ships are dry docked there is no water around the vessel to support its bottom and sides. In dry dock the weight of HMS Victory has pressed down on its 22 supports and the hull has sagged between them. A new metal cradle is being designed for Victory to rest on 137 supports to counter this.

Researchers found 72 layers of paint in places and believe that the original hull was mostly black, different from the present vivid shade.

In 2011 the three topmasts were taken down by BAE systems as they were hazardous if exposed to prolonged bad weather.

Image credits: Rex features

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