15 Feb

Like most of us, I imagine, when on a ship, my only serious thought relates to her ability to get me to my destination. It is easy to forget the distinguished histories of many of these vessels and SS Discovery, (now 114 years old and based at Discovery Point in the city of her build, Dundee), is one of these.

Especially designed for Antarctica, she was designed by William E. Smith and built at tremendous expense, £50,000 in 1901. Her massive oak frame was clad stem to stern with inner and outer linings of  Riga Fur, Pitch Pine and Dutch Elm to a thickness of 26 inches.  Her stem was reinforced with oak strips and steel. oak strips and steal. In Antarctica she was encased in ice until early 1904.

But this expedition was the first of many. To me, some of her most interesting and dangerous ventures were in the First World War. At this time she was owned by The Hudson Bay Company and was one of many ships leased to the governments of France and Britain to transport food and raw materials between North America and Europe.

This organisation was the brainchild of Jean Monnet, a French brandy merchant with experience of shipping supplies who was to go on to become architect of the European Common Market, later the European Union. Transportation was hazardous in the extreme. Germany had declared the sea around Great Britain a war zone. 13,000,000 tons of goods were transported through areas riddled with mines to France, Russia, Belgium, Between June and September 1915, ten British, Russian and neutral vessels were lost. For nearly four years virtually all munitions to Russia were via Archangel, a horrendous sail via the Barent Sea and the White Sea.

100s of ships were involved. The contribution of these convoys in World War 1, will, I hope, be recognized this year.

Later Discovery was refitted as a scientific vessel. Important work was done in relation to whale conservation Even in 1915 this problem was recognized  ‘On its present scale and with its present wasteful and indiscriminate methods, whaling is an industry which, by destroying its own resources, must soon expire’. Scientific discoveries were made about the sea and the seabed.

She wasn’t done yet! In World War 2, moored in The Thames as the Sea Scouts training ship, she was Headquarters of the River Emergency Service (it was said that despite the air raids no scout failed to report for his eight hour watch). Then the Parachute Mine Service – Scouts sent a compass bearing of these mines to Royal Naval headquarters.

She is now in honourable ‘retirement’ at Dundee Point. An education centre for thousands of visitors.

What a ship. What a history

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