Admiral Nelson's famous flagship is to be 'dismasted' for the first time since the Second World War as HMS Victory undergoes its most comprehensive overhaul for 200 years.
Those involved with the Herculean task say it’s the biggest rebuild carried out on the ship of the line - today a living tribute to Nelson and his age enjoyed by upwards of 400,000 visitors annually - since she was repaired after the battering she took at the Battle of Trafalgar and the subsequent storm in 1805.
The upper sections of all three masts, the bowsprit, booms, yards and spars, 768 wooden blocks - some of them 100 years old - and 26 miles (42km) of rigging (enough to stretch from Portsmouth to Littlehampton) will be carefully removed by experts, and catalogued and documented, assisting future restorers of Victory when she needs work doing again.
The last time the legendary ship was minus her masts was in 1944. Victory received damage to her hull during a Luftwaffe bombing raid on the dockyard in 1941, and the masts were removed to prevent further damage in any subsequent raids.
Fortunately, HMS Victory survived the war and is still a serving Royal Navy vessel. The oldest ship still in commission with any navy in the world, she acts as the flagship of the Second Sea Lord, has a Royal Navy ship’s company and frequently hosts official events from ceremonies to dinners.
A ten-year restoration programme is planned for the ship, with an interactive exhibition soon opening in the neighbouring National Museum of the Royal Navy showing how Victory was built in Chatham 250 years ago, how she has been cared for since during her active career, and, more recently, as one of the nation’s most treasured historical icons.
Professor Dominic Tweddle, Director General of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, said:
Preserving a wooden warship is a battle - a battle against nature, and, just as epic, in its way, as the Battle of Trafalgar. To be able to witness how that battle is fought will be a big draw for visitors.
Both Victory and the museum will remain open to the public throughout the restoration work.
Most of the highly-skilled restoration work will be carried out by master shipwrights and other specialists from BAE Systems who are also currently working on the Royal Navy’s supercarrier HMS Queen Elizabeth at Portsmouth Naval Base.
As well as possessing the cutting-edge skills required to build the 65,000-tonne supercarriers, the workers also maintain the traditional wooden shipbuilding skills required to look after Nelson’s flagship.
They hope to reuse as many wooden blocks in the rigging as possible during the restoration, or if not, recycle them.