Diminshing Shipyard Resources

Jon Wenzel MA
Director HMS Belfast


Although the problems (and opportunities) identified in this paper are largely and inevitably based upon my personal experience as Director of HMS Belfast, I am sure that there will be many in the audience today for whom it will be a familiar tale and, given current trends, an equally large number who will be faced by similar circumstances at some future date.

To begin with, we should recognize that our business, the preservation of historic vessels, is not a natural one. Ships have never been built for posterity but only for the furtherance of specific economic, military or purely hedonistic ends. They are large, complex tools with a limited life-span and, although they have often inspired affection and sometimes wonderment, it is only quite recently that they have come to be seen as potentially significant icons of a lost or vanishing heritage, to be preserved (depending upon their perceived importance) in perpetuity. While we can all applaud such sentiments in the abstract, experience teaches us that perpetual preservation is likely to be a chimera.

Even in ideal circumstances, with a healthy financial base and plenty of enthusiasm, preservation can only be undertaken successfully if there is a sufficient well of practical experience and skills to draw upon, as well as reasonable access to essential raw materials and specialised facilities such as dry docks. On the whole, HMS Belfast is in the fortunate position that, as part of the Imperial War Museum, she is supported by an influential body of Trustees who are in receipt of significant (albeit declining) sums of public money, which can be used to buttress earned income from admissions, catering and shop sales. The ship can afford to employ a permanent on-board staff of thirty, including nine full-time technicians, and annual expenditure on preservation, although not lavish, is sufficient to keep nicely ahead of the game as far as regular maintenance is concerned. This happy state of affairs can, however, only be expected to continue if the ship's hull underwater is maintained in good condition and it is here that HMS Belfast comes up against an historical and geographical problem arising from her, in all other respects, very excellent, permanent mooring in the heart of London.

The Impact of Maritime Decline

While cosmetic refurbishment and recoating of the ship's steelwork well above the deep-load waterline can be undertaken in situ, the extreme tidal conditions and poor visibility in the Pool of London rule out any possibility of regular underwater maintenance. At the same time, stringent environmental regulations make it difficult, if not impossible, to carry out effective maintenance in the vital area just above the waterline - 'twixt wind and water'. In consequence, if HMS Belfast is to be preserved in perpetuity, the Museum has no option but to dry dock the ship on a periodic basis.

Unfortunately, since her last two dry dockings in 1971 and 1982, all of the major dry docks on the Thames have closed as a result of the inexorable decline of London as a major commercial port. In addition, the decision to close down the historic Royal Naval dockyard at Chatham has further eroded the region's ability to provide the facilities and expertise necessary for the maintenance and repair of historic ships. Where once, almost every family living along the banks of the Thames and in the Medway towns could boast at least one member with `blue water' or dockyard connections; today, the number of individuals who, to use Mahan's expression, `follow the sea', is much diminished. And despite the Port of London Authority's best efforts to increase the volume of container goods landed at Tilbury and to revive commercial traffic coming into London itself by promoting tourism on the river, this trend is unlikely to be reversed. In recent years, HMS Belfast has found it increasingly difficult to recruit former naval or merchant marine personnel living within the Greater London area and most of the ship's specialist advisers and contractors are now drawn from companies operating along the south coast, close to the Royal Navy's main bases at Portsmouth and Plymouth Devonport.

This decline in the availability of local expertise is not, on its own, a critical problem, as old dogs do not always like to learn new tricks. Indeed on balance, the ship has found that the vast majority of regular maintenance tasks can be performed perfectly well by non-specialist contractors, who frequently bring new ideas and techniques to bear on previously insoluble problems, as well as offering superior financial efficiency and cost control. Nevertheless, there are still rather too many tasks which do demand highly specialised expertise for us to be entirely comfortable with a diminshing pool of local, skilled labour and the loss of the last big, Thameside dry docks has severely complicated the Museum's approach to long-term preservation and maintenance.

Current Condition of the Hull

Ever since her arrival in the Pool of London in 1971, following a brief inspection and some cosmetic repairs performed in the King George V dry dock in Docklands, HMS Belfast's hull underwater has been protected by a combination of coating and the chemical action of the ship's Impressed Current Cathodic Protection (ICCP) system. In 1982, the ship was dry docked again, this time at Tilbury, and her hull underwater was coated with a state-of-the-art epoxy tar resin. The ICCP system is checked on a regular basis; sacrificial anodes on the river bed being replaced whenever necessary, and in 1995, the system was significantly up-graded to improve the level of protection afforded. Together, these measures have guaranteed almost 100% protection to the steelwork underwater; ultra sonic readings having failed to detect any significant variations in hull thickness at selected points since the last docking.

Immediately above the waterline the ICCP system ceases to have any effect and protection is afforded by coating alone. For the great majority of her length, however, HMS Belfast is protected by her main vertical, armoured belt; a continuous barrier of face-hardened, Cemented armour, up to 4.5 inches (115 mm) thick. Cemented armour (also known by its US designation as `Class A' armour) is, by its very nature, almost impervious to natural decay and the thickness of the mild steel plates at waterline level, ahead and astern of the belt, is deliberately increased to protect against minor collision hazards. Provided the coatings are maintained regularly, there should be no cause for anxiety over the state of the hull in this potentially vulnerable area.

All underwater openings were blanked either before 1971 or during the last dry docking in 1982. While there is no evidence that the blanking plates have been disturbed, they do require periodic checking, which can only be done effectively in dock.

Although all available evidence suggests that the ship's hull is currently in excellent condition, the estimated life of the epoxy tar resin coating applied in 1982 is limited to twenty years. In addition, the environmental restrictions relating to red lead arisings, which preclude the stripping down to bare metal of the hull above water, have led to a gradual build-up of paint layers in the area `twixt wind and water' which will inevitably `un-key' future cosmetic applications. The Museum has, therefore, been advised that a dry docking should be undertaken within the expected life span of the existing underwater coating and has settled upon June 1999 as the most likely date; concluding an ambitious programme of redevelopment commenced in 1993/94 and ensuring that HMS Belfast is in the best possible condition for the start of the new millenium.

As it is not thought likely that the hull will require any significant repairs, the work to be undertaken whilst in dry dock will be limited to:

Cleaning and blasting of the entire hull, both above and below the waterline

Checking of all hull blanking plates, bilge keels and packing in propeller and rudder shafts

A comprehensive ultra-sonic survey of hull plating thicknesses

Remedial work, if necessary

Application of epoxy coatings, concluding with the reinstatement of the ship's Admiralty Disruptive Camouflage above the waterline.

The ship's maintenance staff will also take the opportunity to replace an area of teak planking on the Quarterdeck which lies beneath the terminal, moving structure of the visitor gangway and is, therefore, inaccessible when the ship is open to visitors.

The above works are not expected to require a stay in dock exceeding 20 days and it is hoped that HMS Belfast will be absent from her berth and closed to visitors for no more than three weeks.

Project Management and Choice of Contractors

Had there still been a Thameside dry dock available to take the ship, the above programme of works would have presented few problems. Unfortunately, the need to tow the ship in the open sea has not only increased the overall cost of the project, forcing the Museum to seek outside financial assistance, but has also introduced a number of additional complications with regard to project management and certification. Broadly speaking, these can be identified as follows:
The need to action a programme of preparatory works to ensure the ship's watertight integrity for towage. A recent survey by the London Salvage Association has recommended a lengthy programme of minor works by ship's staff. Fortunately, no major works have been identified; eg. it will not be necessary to reactivate the hull expansion joints.

The appointment of an experienced team of specialist consultants to advise on the technicalities of dry docking away from the Thames.

At an early stage in their preparatory investigations, the project management team discovered that the majority of ship repair yards (including several European yards) within comfortable and safe towing radius of London either could not or would not provide meaningful quotations so far in advance of 1999. This has caused untold difficulty in terms of devising a business plan which satisfies strict government accounting regulations on commercial tendering.

Obtaining adequate commercial insurance cover to protect the Museum from salvage and third party claims, as well as gaining the necessary Lloyds certification to tow HMS Belfast in the congested waters of the English Channel.

Although the Museum now believes that it has satisfactorily resolved all of these problems in principle, the cost has been considerable. At a conservative estimate, the ready availability of a dry dock on the Thames would probably have reduced the overall cost of the project by at least a third and the Museum will only be able to proceed if it is successful in gaining additional funds from central government or, if this application fails, from the National Lottery.

The lack of a suitable dry dock on the Thames is particularly frustrating because current practice on the part of the major European ship repairers, who now treat their docks as mere `holes in the ground', is almost ideally suited to the needs of historic ships. Instead of having to rely upon the inflexible, heavily unionized, direct labour forces of ten or twenty years ago, we can, within reason, appoint our own specialist advisers and contractors to work on site and can be much more confident that work will be done to exact specifications and in the most cost effective and efficient manner. Any such advantage is, however, immediately canceled out if the nearest operational `hole in the ground' is several hundred miles away!

The Way Ahead

For HMS Belfast, the immediate future is clear. If all goes according to plan, she will be dry docked in June 1999 under a fixed price contract with a consortium of commercial companies, led by a large UK defence facilities manager. The dry docking, which the prime contractor sees as a prestige project, will take place either in Southampton or, if the consortium is successful in its bid to take over the management of the Royal Navy's repair facilities, in Portsmouth. Given the increased effectiveness and longevity of modern underwater coatings, allied to the reduced salinity and much improved levels of pollution in the Pool of London, there is every possibility that the ship will not need to be dry docked again for several decades. After that......will there still be dry docks along the south coast of England? Who can tell.

Clearly, the problems which I have described in relation to HMS Belfast will not afflict all preserved historic vessels. Smaller craft and wooden hulls which are already permanently docked, such as HMS Victory, are unlikely to suffer through lack of a suitable `hole in the ground', but very large steel hulls will always be at risk in the event of unforeseen dock closures. One obvious defence is to moor such vessels permanently in a suitable hole and to take on the responsibility of maintaining both ship and dock together, in a single package. The main problem with this, is that the location of the dock may be well off the beaten track as far as tourists are concerned or entirely unsuitable for visitor access, in which case ship and dock will die together of financial starvation.

Another alternative is underwater maintenance. Although this is a much more expensive option in terms of repair and recoating on a per square metre basis, it does provide a heaven sent opportunity to avoid the additional costs of towage, insurance, dock charges etc., associated with traditional dry docking. As such, it might well prove advantageous in circumstances where the financial profile of the vessel in question is better placed to meet a rolling programme of underwater maintenance (say, 10% of the hull inspected and repaired every two or three years, over a period of twenty to thirty years) than very large capital sums at lengthy intervals. Unfortunately, underwater maintenance is only practical if the vessel is already in a fair state of repair and is berthed at a mooring blessed with good visibility and modest currents. Even then, pollution regulations may result in local authority insistence that the vessel is relocated for the duration of the maintenance operation, in which case the whole exercise is likely to be rendered pointless.

Finally, there is the possibility that a number of historic ship owners may wish to enter into a partnership agreement (possibly with government or local authority backing) to help in the preservation of a conveniently located but under-used dry dock. Although this is not uncommon in the case of small to medium-sized vessels, I am not aware that it has ever been tried with large ships over 10,000 tons, and up to, or more than, 700 feet in length. The number of docks able to accommodate ships of this size is relatively small and there are even fewer concentrations of large vessels to make such partnerships worthwhile. Nevertheless, I suspect that in the future, arrangements of this sort may become essential if we are to have any chance of preserving a diminishing resource so necessary to the long term survival of the vessels in our charge.

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