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Conserving Unique and Historic Ships

John Kearon
Head of Shipkeeping, Industrial and Land Transport Conservation
Merseyside Maritime Museum,
National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside. Liverpool, England.


During the 1950's the last few sail trading schooners in the British Isles, most of which were owned in my home town of Arklow, Ireland, were sailing out their final years. I was one of many local boys fascinated by ships and the sea who spent what spare time we had at the harbour, listening to the yarns of the old sailors or helping to moor the incoming fishing boats. With those pursuits exhausted, we climbed and swung through the rigging of the schooners Harvest King and Invermore, becoming pirates or even Erroll Flynn, depending on our mood. The old schooners were then mouldering by the quaysides, sharing space with the new motor coasters that had eclipsed them.

They and other derelict schooners had become part of the local scenery and raised hardly a murmur when they were scuppered at sea or broken up and cleared as part of a harbour development scheme. Sail trade around the British Isles finished in 1961 when the last working schooner, the De Wadden, ceased trading. In that same year I was one of two local boys to begin an apprenticeship to the remaining few shipwrights who had built and maintained the last wooden trading schooners in the British Isles. They represented an unbroken line of boatbuilders going back to the founding of the town by the invading Vikings. Yet within a decade, two great traditions, of sail trading and the training of young men in the crafts associated with that trade ended.

Arklow was then a microcosm of what had happened over the previous 50 years at both great and small ports around the world - the end of the sail trading ships, be they majestic windjammers or small coastal schooners. It was also a time that saw the demise of many of the crafts associated with their building and maintenance. Apprenticeships dramatically reduced as trades in their traditional forms altered and diminished, victims of changing needs and of new technology, with its compartmented skills supplanting the more rounded traditional crafts.

During the following decades a growth in appreciation of the days of sail, of steam power and of the ships associated with the time increased. Great ships such as Victory and Constitution had long been saved, but more as symbols of national pride than as a commitment to preserve intact key survivors of a vanished era. However, ships and boats across a range of types, were being sought for preservation as icons of local or national heritage, some regardless of their pedigree or condition. Often, little thought was given to the potential consequences of such endeavours, the saving of the ship was paramount and those who urged caution were usually ignored. The sometimes over zealous activity of those years has much to do with us gathering here for our third conference to seek solutions and exchange ideas on how best to preserve the ships we represent.

My particular concern is for the way in which we try to preserve unique and significant ships in the long term. Not just the famous ships, or the less important ones, saved because of nostalgia or as attractions at some 'Heritage' venue, but the representative ones through which we can trace the path of maritime technology and innovation. Methods and aims vary enormously between the many museums and organisations that care for these special ships. Often there is no clear policy, with work progressing much as if the ship were still in service and with little thought given to the retaining of original material. While this is perfectly acceptable with those vessels that have no particular significance, or are simply having their sailing life extended, it is worrying when dealing with vessels portrayed as unique or as paramount examples of a genre.

We all care passionately about our respective maritime cultures and most of us have an eye for a fine ship, special or not. However, that caring should be for authenticity and not for some idealised era that did not exist in reality. The ships that we are involved in preserving, regardless of their current status, were built as functional objects with a limited life in mind. Though many were graceful and represented the peaks of technology in both sail and power, they were, in the main, as ordinary in their day as modern freighters or jumbo jets are now, and like all objects of trade or defence, time and development made them obsolete. While in service they were repaired or altered as need dictated, not always in original form, but more likely in line with contemporary technology. From the owner-captain of the humble coastal trader to the Lords of the Admiralty, there was no particularly interest in historic integrity or in saving what they saw as purely functional objects. Ships were sold, discarded or scrapped once the balance ledger moved into the red, much as happens today. However, and this is the core of our dilemma, the moment a ship is singled out to be saved for posterity, everything changes and historic and structural integrity become paramount. At least that is the way it should be. The reality can be somewhat different.

We can all be victim to the lure of a graceful ship and a bygone time and unwittingly fall into the trap of thinking we can, in some way, recreate a reality that is gone forever. Many of us have learned the hard way that the initial campaign to save a ship is only the beginning. Yet, too often, amongst the earnest efforts to save, we have not considered the commitment that preserving a ship on the long term actually means. We seldom speak of conservation or preservation, the main thrust of our efforts being to treat the ship much as if she were still in service. But our own description of ourselves as ship preservationists means that we must consider what we are actually doing in comparison to what we say we are doing, which is preserving ships that are special.
With sometimes huge and complex ships, to insist on the same care and conservation standards as for small objects can, to say the least, raise the odd quizzical eyebrow. However, we cannot hide the fact that with many of the ships we say we are preserving, what in fact we are doing is slowly creating replicas of them. We also use methods and materials not in keeping with original form or practice. The response to that is usually ' If the builders of old had welders, resorcinol resin and the technology that we have, they would have used them too' followed by, 'ships were continuously repaired and altered during their working lives anyway'. That of course is true. But their builders did not have our technology, did not view the ships as unique and surely, one of the primary reasons for saving these ships in the first instance is because of their uniqueness and to show how they were so magnificently built without our technology.

To change fundamentally how a ship is formed, whether by replacing grown knees with laminated ones, or welding steel plate instead of riveting it, is an approach that is not in keeping with our stated aim of preserving the ship in the truest sense. It can be said that to replace as in original form is too expensive, or that materials and skills are in short supply. That may be true, but we who chose to save and preserve have a duty to do all we can to do just that. I do not make this statement lightly, I am keenly aware of the implications of taking a path to conserve, as against merrily replacing and repairing.

In an article published recently, Roger Knight of the English National Maritime Museum stated that a restored building will last for about 60 years - a restored ship about 12 years. This stark fact represents the root of the problem when preserving ships. Cost. Cost in materials and cost in skilled manpower, not only on a once every 12 year basis, but on a regular and continuing basis over the life of the vessel. Indeed, I felt on reading Roger's article that he was being optimistic! I must ask him how to make it last for 12 years!

We are all constrained by inadequate funding, a dearth of high level skills and materials that cost the earth. Each of us faces dilemmas by which we try to balance historic integrity and structural authenticity with limited budgets and fast shrinking materials sources, while working in an area where skill and time cannot be pruned as on some hi-tech assembly line. Our problems are further compounded by ships being the largest most complex moving objects, formed from the most perishable materials and are forever in the open. But it is the costs, the continuing and escalating costs of materials, of skilled craftsmen and the fact that one is never, ever, finished that is the real problem. I can still see the look of incredulity on the face of my then manager some years ago when I said, "of course you realise the further we progress with the restoration of the ships masting and rigging, the more maintenance we will need to do on the long term"

No ship, regardless of its specification remains as new, even with the most meticulous care. The Royal yacht Britannia, probably the best cared for ship in the world, is to be decommissioned because she is becoming so expensive to maintain. Yet hardly a month goes by without reading of some plan to save a ship or boat. In the UK the National Lottery has become a byword for the prospect of funds for saving virtually anything that may form a Heritage inspired project. However, the euphoria that can follow the allocation of a grant to save a vessel, can soon evaporate when it is realised that grants are not available for maintenance. I do not include here the great historic ships, many of which have secure funding. It is the many other protected vessels, increasing yearly, that vie for funds that are in reality decreasing, while the costs of care and materials escalate.

The situation is not helped by projects that for many reasons do not succeed or meet the optimistic claims originally presented. Recently I surveyed the Emily Barratt, the last surviving example of a Lancashire type schooner. The ship has been through several attempts by different groups to restore her. After a considerable amount of money being spent over the past 15 years, she now lies derelict with little prospect of being saved, simply because of enthusiasm blinding reality among those attempting to save her. Indeed, the reality is that much of what has been done to her has hastened her demise. Perhaps it would be better to concentrate what funds there are, or may be, on the more deserving of the ships already being preserved, many of which desperately need long term financing. I am not saying that we should not continue to save special ships, but we certainly should think very carefully about what we save and why. However, the task is a difficult one as each project to save a vessel will be committed to their ship alone, while we who urge caution are accused of 'having ours and not wanting anyone else to have one'.

Colin White, Head Curator of the Royal Naval Museum, in his excellent paper 'Too many Ships Threaten the Heritage', presented at the Dundee Conference in 1995, hit the nail soundly on the head when he spoke of the continuing rush to save vessels of decreasing relevance. He also spoke more soberly of the shortage of funds and of skilled labour, the latter a direct result of the reducing apprenticeships of the past thirty years. Yet the rush to 'Save our Heritage' whether it be a Mersey ferry or another submarine continues. When trying to dissuade people from what may be a disaster, or pointing out the reality of the situation, one sees the glazed expression, the far away look in the eyes. They are tuned to higher things, billowing sails, the hiss of a steam engine, the rub of holy-stone on whitened decks. The reality of wood like sponge or plating one could stick a finger through, is seldom seen.

We can all smile at the naivety of others and cringe at their apparent lack of foresight. But many of us have been down that same road and have had to question and change our own views and approach. However, we do need to take stock of which ships being preserved are unique or important type specimens and which are not. By categorising we can then begin to set standards of care that reflect the status of each particular vessel. Ships that are unique examples of a type or have a particular significance, historically or structurally (or that combine all these criteria) may be considered as requiring special care and be conserved as close to original form as is possible. Ships of a type already preserved or of little significance could be restored using conventional means and be viewed as being expendable in the long term, much as ships in commercial use. With the former it is a charter to preserve on the long term, with the latter, to protect for as long as practicable.

In the UK there is a genuine move to deal with these and other issues through the Historic Ships Committee, by creating a policy with guidelines on the preservation of vessels from 40' upwards. The committee hope to assess the historic value of ships on a criteria that will include condition, age and status. While the committee will act as a source of authoritative advice within the UK, the reality is that ownership is international, is across a broad spectrum and embraces private individuals, trusts, preservation societies and museums, each with their own particular aim or agenda. However, any effort to bring together the many individuals and groups that save and care for these old ships and boats is welcome.

Having visited many ships being preserved on the long term and from my own involvement with two ships (rather small, one being the Irish trading schooner De Wadden, referred to earlier) at Merseyside Maritime Museum, one thing has become clear to me. We must face up to what we should be doing - preserving ships in line with a criteria similar to that applied to other objects of historic value by, in the dictionary definition of the word preserve, keeping safe, retaining and keeping from decomposition.

There is no single solution to our problem, though an acceptance that we do not always have it right may be a start. We need to learn more from the mistakes of the past - but more importantly - we need to begin to accept that if we are to save more of a vessel we care for, then we may have to fundamentally change our methods and approach. We must accept that the completion of a preservation programme is in fact only the beginning. That the only way to preserve these ships in the long term is to man and maintain them as if they were in service, but with the added consideration and attention to detail of the conservator. This does not mean that we treat a ship as we would a piece of fine art, but rather in a way reflecting the size and nature of the vessel and its structural integrity.

Ship conservation is a relatively new field, but there is no reason why the principles of conservation in a museum context cannot be applied to ships. There will be limitations, of course, particularly where the reversibility of a process is concerned, but equally, processes can be adapted to allow for the size and type of components being dealt with, and innovative solutions can be sought. It is combining the skills of the shipwright and the plater with those of the conservator that will be necessary, if we are to effectively deal with the true preservation of ships.

The way forward lies both in long term planning, in placing the securing of materials on a equal level to the saving of the ship, and in accepting limitations on how we exhibit and interpret the ship. It also means investing in the training of people in the skills associated with the overall care requirements of large ships.

To some degree the situation is less bleak than some years ago. The upsurge in large replica ship building such as the Batavia in the Netherlands, the Endeavour in Australia and the Matthew in Great Britain has begun to provide skilled people trained in the building of wooden ships in a traditional manner. These skills are essential to the continuance of proper ship care and preservation. It is equally essential that these craftsmen find a continuing outlet for their craft, instead of the skills being allowed to dissipate after a replica project is complete. If we do not continue to train craftsmen in the building of ships in the fullest sense, then we will end up with people whose experience has been gained in maintenance and repair only.

It is equally important that able, mature craftsmen are included in the decision making processes that set the agenda for a ship's care and protection. Too often one finds a lack of empathy between those who decide what to do and those required to do it. One must always remember that the person most charged with the structural care and maintenance of the seagoing ship was the ship's carpenter, particularly on wooden vessels. The bo'sun's knowledge of the ship was second only to the carpenter, and between them, they cared for the structure of the ship as a whole. A similar regime of skilled people, who are intimate with and committed to the ship, is required, in preference to the occasional, intensive, and often detached input of contractors. We must care for our preserved ships on a committed day to day basis.

While steel will always be plentiful, wood, and in particular the type of oak from which great knees and futtocks are formed, is not and is diminishing. I will not even discuss teak, other than to say that gold with splinters may not be a bad description. Can you imagine if the people who strove to save the Victory, the Discovery and the Constitution had also given equal commitment to providing a renewable source of materials for the future up-keep of the ships? The great national parks and large estates could have been encouraged to plant oak and pine specifically to provide for the long term care of the great wooden ships of the nation. But that did not happen, though perhaps some thought should be given to it now.

The initial attraction of seemingly lower costing solutions often become irresolvable expensive nightmares. I believe we must move away from the quick solution - the wonder cure - the new method. I sometimes think that the only modern materials we should use are wood preservatives and consolidants and wood and metal coatings. We all know of the often disastrous results of trying to compromise with both methods and materials in the restoration of large ships. The deck 'system' that looked so promising on the drawing board, the wonder synthetic seam paying. Have we not learned yet that deck planks such as those originally laid are best, that pitch is eminently repairable, that rubber compounds require almost laboratory conditions to work right and are a disaster when they go wrong? The former requires the proverbial ha'port of tar, the latter a blank cheque!

The single most relevant problem with all large ship preservation is the ambient weather. Nothing affects the fabric of the vessel more than an uncontrollable environment. Rain, humidity and sun all combine to degrade both organic and in-organic material. The ideal practical solution, though not the aesthetic one, is to construct a building over the ship. This has been done with ships such as the Wasa and Mary Rose. However these are vessels taken from the sea bed that require a controlled environment to ensure their very survival. They are also un-masted and un-rigged. To suggest that the Cutty Sark , for example be under cover would be seen as unacceptable. But can you imagine the dramatic effect such a scenario would have on the fabric of the vessel? Can you imagine the reduction in the bill of care? Whatever the cost of the cover structure, it would pale before the costs of ad infinitum restoration and care. Instantly the environment is controlled and by consequence there is a dramatic reduction in the structural care requirements of the vessel. While the idea of such cover may be fanciful, we should not discount the value of the use of cover in a more reduced and controlled manner. We just have to look at some of the examples of long term cover to realise its benefits, even in the most basic manner.

The Royal Navy frigate Unicorn of 1824 is a good example of a traditionally covered vessel. Placed in the reserve fleet and roofed over from shortly after her launch, she has retained that cover to the present. Because of this, the ship is almost 100% original. Of all the historic ships that I have seen, she is the one which I would most like to re-visit. Because she is original. You can see the scrive marks and carvings of the shipwrights on their handiwork and marvel at the then new technology of wrought iron knees and breasthooks. To look through her lower decks and bilge's is a joy. The single most relevant reason why she has survived so well is that she has been under cover and we must not ignore that fact. Though a fifth rater, she is reminiscent of the ships that must have inspired David Garrick in 1759 to write his patriotic song 'Hearts of Oak'. I wonder, would he have been so inspired had he to consider writing 'Hearts of Laminated Iroko'? I do not wish to appear flippant or to pinpoint things done to the many ships of both wood and metal. However, we must return always to our original aim and ask, what are we trying to save, the ship, or an image of the ship.

In the Falkland Islands a wonderful example of the effects of even the most basic cover is the Jhelum, a barque built in Liverpool in 1849 and abandoned in Port Stanley in 1871. The vessel, used as a store, was roofed over with a corrugated steel cover just above deck level from amidships to transom. The forward portion of the ship was left uncovered. The cover and ship have been virtually un-maintained for some 100 years. The forward uncovered area has degraded badly, with decks and beams gone and the upper hull on the point of collapse. The covered after portion is a stark contrast with decks and beams and iron fittings still largely intact and until recently, fragments of wall-paper, still in place in the master's area.

Another Falklands vessel, the New York packet ship Charles Cooper, which arrived at Stanley in 1866, is roofed completely, in a manner similar to the Jhelum and has an interior that has survived remarkably well. What damage has been done is through sea action on the below water portion of the ship and of wind and rain on the outer unprotected hull. To walk through the main accommodation deck is a joy, with its magnificent run of lodging and hanging knees. The worrying reality is that some vessels with the weight of many years 'preservation' behind them in fact contain far less original material than these two neglected Falkland ships.

Too often a vessel, often in pristine condition following intensive and expensive restoration, is then left virtually uncared for. The wooden trading schooner Kathleen and May, the last surviving Irish Sea wooden schooner, is a good example of what not to do. Extensively restored during the late 1970's, she was then exhibited afloat in enclosed docks in London with only the most cursory maintenance. The result was a slow decline to the point where she is now undergoing a second major restoration that will probably destroy whatever original material survived the first restoration. What happened to the Kathleen & May is, sadly, not unusual. The restore and ignore syndrome is common and is the greatest obstacle to preservation in the long term. However, it is easy to criticise, much more difficult to provide solutions.

If we are to ensure the survival of the many great ships, not necessarily the largest ones, but the unique and representative ones, that are in the main intact, then we must consider altering our approach and try to protect and preserve more than we actually do. Perhaps displaying preserved ships in all their glory is a luxury we can in reality ill afford. If we wish our descendants to see and to marvel at what could be done with wood, iron and steel, using basic tools and technology and with not a microchip in sight, then we must move away from 'the treat as if in use' ethos that is common to many ship preservation projects. We need to reappraise why we save and how we preserve in the long term those ships which are deemed unique or of significant historic importance.

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