A Rationale for Replica Ships

Fred. M. Walker
Consulting Naval Architect to the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
He is also Director of Fred M Walker Ltd.

The Grandfather of the Russian Navy

Three hundred and eight years ago, Peter the Great found in a storehouse in Ismailovo the hull of an old open decked sailing vessel. The sixteen year old boy had it dragged from storage, had it outfitted and launched and then commenced to use it as a day boat on the lakes and rivers near Moscow. This early introduction to sailing had profound effects on the young ruler and in part led to his decision to found the great Russian Fleet.

This small vessel can claim another remarkable distinction: it is certainly Russia's first restored and preserved ship, and undoubtedly one of the world's most important preserved ships in historic terms. The origins of the ship are unknown - she was built in the western tradition, possibly in 17th century England, or perhaps by Dutch shipwrights working in Russia. Thirteen years later, Peter having recognized the significance of the ship in his own life ordered that it be preserved and brought to Moscow, and then in 1722 it was taken to St Petersburg. On 30 May 1723, on the Tsar's fifty first birthday it was sailed down the Neva with Peter on board and in the Gulf of Finland it met the Russian Fleet - or its "grandchildren".

For two centuries it remained in a special boathouse in the Fortress of Peter and Paul but now is the one of the prized possessions of the Navy Museum of St Petersburg. Quite unwittingly Peter the Great established ship preservation in Russia, a science that has grown steadily and come of age in the late twentieth century.


Neither the restoration of a ship, nor the building of a replica should be contemplated without the most serious consideration of the cost in financial terms and the effort in intellectual and physical terms. The two most disheartening tasks are first, raising money and sustaining work on the project, and second maintaining interest on what may seem an unending job.

Despite this chilling reminder of the costs of building or of restoring, one can take comfort from the fact that over 1300 ships are in the International Register of Historic Ships. Some are of great significance like the Mary Rose, the Vasa, the Constitution or the Great Britain.

Before embarking on any restoration or replica project, it is essential that a survey of all similar projects world wide is carried out. Much information is available on restored ships in published form, and most projects are willing to disclose technical and commercial information to bona fide groups.

The Role of Restored Ships

The vast bulk of restored ships are owned by Museums and public bodies like Cities, Navies and Universities. Their purposes include:
  1. Museum or art gallery
  2. Classrooms or meeting places for education
  3. Hotel and restaurant facilities
  4. Research institute
  5. Administrative offices
  6. Sail training, operational seamanship classes etc
In cases 1 to 5 the ship can be stationary and at a permanent berth. This avoids the problems of Government and International Statutory Regulations, and the ship is subject only to the local regulations of the community and of the local fire prevention authorities.

Marketing: the Choice of Ship

If there is free choice, then the ship to be preserved should be adequate in size for the envisaged purpose and should add to the overall importance of the preserved fleet of that country. As can be seen from Appendix No 1, there is always a shortage of ships of the 19th century and earlier, while most countries have a superfluous number of steel built merchant ships of the 1930s period or small warships of the 1950s and later!

The material of construction is important and the history of operation. The most durable material is iron which was prevalent throughout the 19th century, and which can be seen to this day on the S.S. Great Britain of 1837 at Bristol in the United Kingdom. Timber, unless of remarkably good quality, has a relatively short life - this is true for ships built of softwood which have had to withstand the ravages of the winters of Russia and the Baltic. Again, there are exceptions, one being the 103 year old paddle ferry Eureka built of North American softwood and currently being restored in San Francisco, and another the Indian, teak built frigate H.M.S. Trincomalee now under reconstruction at Hartlepool in the North East of England.

Official Recognition

More and more countries are setting up official committees to vet the status of preserved ship programmes. There is nothing to stop any person from saving and restoring a ship with a view to displaying it to the public. However should too many of the wrong types be saved then the market will become discredited and all projects will suffer. Most of these committees have the power of offering grants or "official recognition" and thereby ensure some discipline within this field.

Such groups require accurate data bases, and indeed any group starting with a ship would be advised to do their preparation with the greatest of care. To assist in setting up data bases Appendices 2 and 3 show proposed sheets for two cases - Merchant Powered Ships and Merchant Sailing Ships.

Analysis of Historic Ships

To ensure that we take a pragmatic and considered view of ship restoration and the building of replicas, an analysis of 341 historic ships has been made. They include almost all historic ships in Australia, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S.A. These 4 countries are suitable for this as they have extensive and important restored ships eg. the Constitution and the Vasa.

Please note that there must be reservations regarding some of the statistical breakdowns. The most serious is that concerning Composite Ships where the United Kingdom has the three remaining ships (all of great significance; the South Australian Clipper Ship City of Adelaide, the Tea Clipper Cutty Sark and the Royal Navy Sloop H.M.S. Gannet) - but the waters are muddied by several small Australian river steamers built of wood and with some iron frames!

Gosts of Maintenance and Restoration

These are little understood. The public believe that ships can sustain their continued life with charitable and public benefactions - and even worse official ship restoration organizations will not heed the advice of naval architects and shipbuilders regarding costs of maintenance or the safety of members of the public while enjoying a visit aboard. Some years ago a fairly popular visitor attraction in Europe, capsized at her moorings - fortunately with no person aboard.

The Restoration "Market"

This is saturated with vessels, many of which are of little historic, technical or other significance. One must not stifle enthusiasm, nor must one stop the saving of an unexpected "gem" from time to time, but the market is saturated. The number of 20th century (mostly 1920s) triple expansion passenger paddle steamers available for restoration is unbounded. Unless there is the reasonable possibility of these ships being used for the benefit and pleasure of the public, then cash should not be wasted on them.

It is significant that only 2 % of preserved ships are from the period prior to 1800, that only 25 % come from the wonderfully imaginative 19th century, whilst the remainder are 20th century vessels. The 20th century fleet is not "catholic" in that it does not cover all ground, indeed in the U.K. it has far too many representatives of the coastal paddle steamer and of the steam screw tug. (The latter can be excused as it is an easy ship to maintain). In the U.S. there are a large number of submarines, possibly no bad thing when one considers the enormous size of that country.

However there are holes in the net and some kinds of ship are not saved. This is where the replica is of interest.

The Replica Market

This gives the opportunity to build vessels that conform to several outside requirements:
  1. They fill a gap in the historic ship range
  2. They give specialist shipbuilding training opportunities
  3. They can offer specialized seagoing training
  4. They can offer the opportunity for research in construction
etc. etc.

Current Replica Ships

The number is increasing and includes some of particularly high standards of research, construction and of historic authenticity. They include the replica of Captain Cook's Bark - H.M.S. Endeavour recently completed in Western Australia, the Dutch East Indiaman Batavia recently launched on the Isjlemeer in the Netherlands and the replica of the world's first iron ship, the Vulcan completed in Glasgow in 1988.

There are at least 20 "fairly respectable" replicas in the world, and each of them fits into one of the following criteria:

  1. Accurate representation of an historical craft
  2. Representation of a generic type
  3. Reintroduction of a former class for special purposes
  4. A modern ship with an "old time" appearance. However be warned -these are dangerous!
  5. Sail training
etc. etc.

Purpose of having a ship

These are many some good, some bad and others questionable. The local icon , the municipal yacht, research, day sailing for children and so on.

Statutory regulations

The rules of the United States Coastguard, the British Marine Safety Agency and others must be adhered to. Care in selecting the purpose and class of ship under construction can ease the burden of design. Ships that do not sail are usually only under the local public health and safety rules i.e. the fire authority.

The new Consolidated 1992 SOLAS Regulations make for an easier time on the drawing board!


This should be as small as possible. A visitor can learn as much in a shipyard building 20 metre craft as from a yard building 200,000 tonne tankers, or similarly from a turn of the century coaster rather from a 4,000 TEU boxship.


This must be for a purpose - it must lead an organization. Setting up a site, recruiting ill qualified staff and pretending that it will be a centre of marine excellence is a recipe for disaster. For success the building of a replica is an opportunity for discovery that must not be missed, it must be grasped with both hands .

Moral responsibility

This is the stern reminder: The owner, the naval architect, the manager, the researcher have a moral responsibility to ensure that replica craft:
  1. Have historic integrity
  2. Operate safely. The sea keeping, the stability and the ship operation must be proved scientifically before the production costs begin.
  3. Meet statutory obligations
  4. Have planned maintenance
  5. Have long term secure finance
  6. Have contingency planning for public liability, catastrophes and so on.
  7. Are able to meet long term liabilities in law.
Table showing sample Age Distribution of 163 Preserved British Ships
Sample Age Distribution of 163 Preserved British Ships

Table showing percentages of Hull Materials
Percentages of Hull Materials

Chart of Percentages of Hull Usage
Percentages of Hull Usage

Table Percentages Means of Propulsion
Percentages Means of Propulsion

Table showing Percentage Breakdown of Disposition of Ships Between Museums and Charitable Trusts and Commercial and Private Interests
Percentage Breakdown of Disposition of Ships Between Museums & Charitable Trusts and Commercial & Private Interests
Table showing Percentage Breakdown of Berthing Arrangements
Percentage Breakdown of Berthing Arrangements

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Version 1.00, 17 July 1997